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Between the Earth and the Sky

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016.

High school student Kai Lightner at Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina, where he learns traditional climbing from Yosemite pioneer Doug Robinson. [Photo] Flatlander Films

I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, hemmed in by city streets, apartment complexes and construction projects. Mountains and large national parks seemed far away. Hiking, camping and climbing were foreign concepts to most of my neighbors. But one day when I was six, after I got scolded for climbing a tall flagpole, someone told me about a downtown gym. The next week, I joined its climbing team; within months, I started competing in the USA Climbing circuit, and I’ve continued ever since.

Two years later, our team traveled three hours away to Pilot Mountain State Park–my first outdoor climbing trip. I remember hiking down the narrow rocky trail, with a steep drop-off on one side. If you stood on the edge, you could see the town hundreds of feet below: the houses now looked like small dots, and streets were mere lines between treetops. As I peered over the edge, I felt my mom’s hand clinched around the neck of my shirt, directing me to continue along the path, and preventing me from running off.

From the base, the mountain seemed as high as a skyscraper–definitely much taller than the eighteen-foot walls at the gym. There were so many overwhelming elements: a small black snake slithered on the ground near the start of my first climb; insects flew (and crawled) around me; the quartzite felt rough and sometimes sharp. Without the purple tape of the gym, I didn’t know where to place my hands and feet. When I realized I’d have to leap to reach the next hold, I froze: I was afraid that if I missed, I’d fall and slam into the rock formations that protruded from the wall below me.

Afterward, however, one of my competition buddies, Drew Ruana, and his parents kept trying to convince me to spend more time climbing outside. Eventually I gave in. At age eleven, I started going to the New River Gorge on the weekends, a five-hour drive from town. Whenever my friends and I weren’t climbing, we ventured into the surrounding forest. We played games trying to identify different types of lizards based upon the color patterns on their skin, imitating some of the animal sounds in nature (which resulted in some nasty looks from surrounding climbers), and looking at the intricate rock formations along the ground.

Gradually, I adapted, and I began to enjoy the feeling of finding my way in a world that was new to me. On the rock, my instincts became sharper, and I started climbing harder sport routes. Yet I was still resistant to the idea of traditional and multipitch climbing; I was scared by the concept of trusting my life to my ability to place gear correctly–and by the thought of being so high up in the air.

In the spring of 2016, my junior year in high school, Doug Robinson let me know he was planning to visit Fayetteville, and he invited me to climb with him. I was excited at the prospect of meeting one of the pioneering climbers of the Sixties. I agreed to accompany Doug to Stone Mountain, a 600-foot granite dome, but I warned him that I wasn’t comfortable with traditional, multipitch routes, and I might change my mind about actually climbing there.

Stone Mountain State Park. [Photo] Flatlander Films

During the drive, I asked Doug about how he and his partners stayed safe before the invention of modern equipment. He explained that he started climbing in the late 1950s, shortly after climbers switched from hemp ropes (which sometimes broke if a leader fell) to more reliable nylon ones. Wearing light mountain boots, they pushed grades into the 5.10 range. By the 1970s, he became one of the leaders of the “clean-climbing revolution,” urging others to use removable hexes and nuts to protect big falls, instead of hammering pitons that damaged the rock. The more he talked, the more I questioned my own nerve. But Doug also asked me about the overhanging sport routes I preferred, and he told me that he’d once believed those kinds of climbs were impossible. Before this trip, I’d never really thought about–or appreciated–the evolution of our pursuit from the traditional techniques of his generation to the sport I first encountered as a child.

After we hiked a short way up a narrow gravel road framed by tall trees, the trail opened to a wide field. The immense, dome-shaped mountain loomed beyond the edge of the grass. The rock looked completely polished, and the angle of the mountain’s surface made it resemble a perfect giant slide. To me, the summit seemed as high as the clouds, separating the blue skies. At six-foot-two, I’m the tallest person in my high school class, and in everyday life, I’m used to towering over others. Standing here, I realized how small I was in comparison to the rock that we planned to climb. When I looked at Doug, however, I saw the excitement in his eyes, and I knew that I had to try.

We decided to warm up on some of the boulders at the base, so that I could get a good feel for the rock and become more comfortable with tomorrow’s climb. The nearby forest and the overhead mountain cast a cool shadow. As we bouldered, I watched Doug flow over the stone with the accumulated knowledge of nearly six decades of experience. The ease of his movements and his familiarity with our environment put me at ease. I knew I could trust him. When dusk began to settle in and we prepared to leave, I glanced across the park: a herd of deer stood in the middle of the field. I’d never shared a crag with a fleet of such graceful, wild creatures. Slowly, the serenity of the place seeped into my mind, and my nervousness transformed into anticipation.

The next morning, the sight of Stone Mountain in the early light was breathtaking. The sun reflected off the greyish rock, and the meadows shone bright green. Doug gave me a quick lesson in placing and removing gear, and then he started leading me up an easy slab climb. The first pitch brought back memories of playing King of the Hill in elementary school on mounds of grey pebble rocks, using my palms to press against the stone as I relied on my feet to keep me stable.

While Doug headed up the second pitch, I perched on a narrow ledge, attached to the anchors. I felt as though I were belaying in midair. The curvature of the dome only allowed me to glimpse a few feet of rock above before the mountain disappeared from view into the sky. When I looked down, all I could see were the tops of trees and the open field shimmering far below. To my left, a dihedral and a short wall limited my view. On my right, the vast, glossy granite mirrored the light. In that moment, I felt completely isolated from the rest of the world–just me, the rock, and Doug on belay (but out of my sight) above.

Lightner following Robinson on the Great Arch, Stone Mountain. [Photo] Flatlander Films

Undoubtedly, Doug and I came from entirely different worlds; nonetheless, like the rope that connected us, our shared passion for climbing overshadowed those contrasts. Even though we had met for the first time fewer than forty-eight hours before, our interactions felt completely familiar and secure. I felt that we had bonded in a unique and lasting way.

Soon, I followed him to a huge ledge where we could untie and gaze down over the forest. It was the first time I’d ever been that high up, yet free to walk around and fully appreciate the view below. Above, there was only an endless sweep of smooth rock. My excitement grew with each pitch. When we approached the summit, the rock became bright white and indented like the craters of the moon. It was a surreal sensation to stare down at the birds as they flew by. I realized how fortunate I was to be there, and how much climbing had shaped my life. At the same time, I also felt a moment of sadness when I thought about how few of my friends back home might ever get to see the beauty of nature through a lens that pure–a view that can open your eyes, making you aware that the world is so much bigger than the small communities where we reside.

A few months later, I got invited by the White House to go to Yosemite National Park and hear President Obama speak. As he talked about the importance of making outdoor experiences accessible to children who wouldn’t ordinarily venture outside or who couldn’t afford to travel to wild places, his words brought me back to Stone Mountain and to the thoughts that flowed through my mind that day. When I stood on that summit, the entire park was at my feet, and I felt a rush of awe and joy–an indescribable experience, one that more kids from cities should be able to enjoy. There is still so much left for all of us to explore between the earth and the sky.

–Kai Lightner, North Carolina

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016. Issue 55 is available on newsstands, by subscription or direct through our online store.

Scenes from the climb, as featured by Flatlander Films. For more on their documentary projects, see