Western North Carolina, it’s not surprising when you stay
Ambassador Spotlight with Drew Mercer
Once you’ve had a taste of Western North Carolina, it’s not surprising when you stay. An accessible gateway for getting into outdoor adventures, the communities and the natural playgrounds of Western NC make learning easy and progressing inevitable. Recover climber and photographer Drew Mercer is one of those who stayed. We caught up with him about climbing, photography, and being invested in taking care of the places we all enjoy, especially those in your own backyard.
So, where is your backyard?
I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina, but I moved to Boone, NC for college. From there, I got into rock climbing and also into photography as a hobby. I merged the two passions together there, and I’m still in Boone climbing and taking pictures.
Why Boone and Western North Carolina?
I like the proximity to the outdoor recreation in the mountains. Boone is a relatively small town, but the climbing is the biggest reason that’s kept me here. There’s so much of it, and the quality of it is really good compared to the other places I’ve been. The climbing community is also a huge asset. Everyone is so fun to hang out with and be around. It’s really tight knit, but welcoming at the same time.
When did you start climbing and what’s the climbing like around Boone?
I started climbing in 2014. The opportunities in this area allow you to climb often and progress quickly if you want to. There’s bouldering, traditional climbing and sport climbing. Those are the three main disciplines of climbing, and Boone has it all. Bouldering is when you just climb a boulder and don’t use ropes; you’re not climbing high off the ground, and you can think of it like a sprint. Other types of climbing are more like a long distance run. Sport climbing is kind of like traditional or trad climbing, using ropes to ascend the rock, but with trad climbing you have to place your own protection in cracks rather than having bolts and anchors pre-placed on the rock, which you have in sport climbing. In Boone, there’s simply a ton of climbing. My favorite spot is Buckeye Knob. It’s really exciting to climb there because recently the Carolina Climbers’ Coalition purchased the side of mountain, which was being threatened.
The Carolina Climbers’ Coalition is a group that uses its membership fees and donations to purchase land in North and South Carolina to ensure climbing access to the community forever. They also work to promote safe climbing practices and to save the natural places that we all enjoy. Buckeye Knob is just west of Boone and has some of the best bouldering out there, but the area has always been privately owned. It was recently purchased by a timber company, but the Carolina Climbers’ Coalition took out a loan to purchase the area and secure easements around it. They’re still raising money to pay back the loan and it’s amazing because it’s not just climbing access that’s now protected, it’s also the trails, water systems, and forests that are so important to this area.
Any other favorite climbing spots?
Hueco, Texas. It’s so wild. It’s in the desert and there’s these giant rocky mountains in the middle of nowhere with endless amounts of rock to climb. Everything is really fun, and it’s awesome because the rock has all of these holes. “Hueco” is actually Spanish for “hole” and all the huecos collect water, making the area an oasis in the desert.
It’s also hard to beat Linville Gorge in North Carolina and Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Linville Gorge has really tall and long multi-pitch trad climbs, and bouldering down on the river. The New River Gorge in West Virginia and Red River are famous for being sport climbing areas, but they also have a lot of trad climbing and bouldering as well.
How did you start as a photographer?
I just started. I always appreciated photography growing up and got inspired by a friend who had taught himself how to do it. I thought, ‘Why not me?’ purchased a camera, and just started trying to do it at the beginning of college. When I started climbing, it inspired me to take even more pictures. I found myself really excited to bring a camera along because I really enjoy capturing friends climbing. Being able to capture the energy and joy of being out there in the woods and on the rock is so incredible. Once I got psyched to photograph rock climbing, I started to hone in my craft finally.
What makes a good photo?
When it comes down to it, it’s the human element. Capturing someone in this position that’s really pretty or that evokes a lot of emotion, high up on a cliff, or a single person on a giant boulder climbing up a stunning feature. If you’re just starting off in photography, try to find a subject you’re interested in. I had years I just thought, ‘I’m a photographer, I should be able to take a picture of anything,’ but I couldn’t just walk around the street and take pictures of anything and have them be good. Over time, my pictures became better, but there’s so many different genres of photography and what really works is to find a subject that really interests you- those will be the best photos.
Recover is lucky enough to have worked with you and featured your photography. What do you like about working with Recover?
What I like about them is their vision. The world we live in is a throw-away culture. It’s in the news, it’s everywhere and it’s easy to see, but Recover is making their apparel with recycled plastics. It’s something that’s nice and easy to get behind. Instead of going in one direction of society, I really appreciate Recover standing out as different and moving towards a better world. They also really promote outdoor activity and adventure, which is really awesome.
How do you climb with a camera?
It’s easy when we go bouldering. I just bring it with me and it’s non-committing. When people are on ropes, I either climb that day or take pictures. I’ll hike to the top of the cliff and repel down or something, sometimes hanging there for while. There’s definitely a balance between being a climber and a photographer at the same time, and sometimes, it’s hard balancing that. I wake up some mornings and have to think, ‘Am I more psyched to take a picture today, or climb today?’ And sometimes when I choose to climb all day, I realized I missed some really cool photo opportunities, and of course sometimes when I take photos, I realize I could have done some cool climb. Once in a while, I think it’s worth it to just leave the camera at home and go have a day outside with your friends. For me when I go for photography, it’s doing it for the art, so it takes my whole focus.
What’s one of the most rewarding photos you’ve ever taken?
One of my favorite photos is from this day at Red River Gorge. I was going to climb all day, and brought my camera with me not thinking about taking photos. I was exploring a cliff line I’d never been on before and I saw this golden rock with blue streaks coming down it- it was the most gorgeous rock I’ve ever seen. Then I see this guy tying in and can’t believe he’s about to climb it. It’s a really hard climb- it was definitely his project. I approached him after to let him know I had taken some photos and could send them to him, and it was so cool because he was super grateful, and I ended up hanging out with him. I got this incredible picture, and it fostered a relationship with a total stranger. He’s from Mexico and was living in a van with his wife and climbing. I asked how long they planned to stay in Red River Gorge, and he just said, “We’ll leave when it gets cold.” It’s cool to meet people living that kind of lifestyle.
What do you love about climbing?
It’s just fun. It’s easy to get into with all the climbing gyms and guide services around, and it gets you outdoors. It takes you to these really incredible and beautiful places in the mountains on these big, giant boulders or cliff faces. Ultimately, the true beauty of it is that climbing puts you in position that most people don’t get to be in.
Gaining a new perspective is always a good thing, and in this case, so is being between a rock and a hard place. You just never know where you’ll find yourself on a backyard adventure, especially in Western North Carolina.
Check out more of Drew’s photography here...