Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It was early morning in Fort Payne, Alabama, and the three of us crowded around a Walmart display case. I held up a black package that read USHER for Men. Disheveled and smelling of woodsmoke, the other two guys just shrugged their shoulders. We wanted something to mask our own stench.
Paul Morley swooped in. “No, no, no. That’s not going to work.” He replaced the black box with a tan one. The one-time president of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition schooled us on the proper scent of a man, and on time-honored Canyon traditions. “Old Spice!” he said. “Now, let’s go climb.” The Canyon Man’s affinity for Old Spice is just one of the many quirks we would learn about.
The modern day Canyon Man is a peculiar sort who seeks a mix of hard climbing and rich history, in a setting that is still wild enough for real adventure and a possible first ascent. He finds it in Alabama’s Little River Canyon. Here, squashed between ancient parallel valleys that run south from the Cumberland Plateau like stacked shinbones, two forks of the Little River meet in the northeast corner of the state. From there, massive sandstone walls steer the river on both sides, gathering up cataracts that scour the canyon for more than 23 miles to Weiss Lake. The result is one of the deepest, narrowest gashes east of the Rockies, overflowing with high-quality sandstone.
A well-maintained highway that winds along the rim of the canyon puts all of this tantalizingly close and fairly easy to access, but you’d be surprised at what happens only a few yards off the Alabama pavement. For an episode of the now-defunct survival show “Man vs. Wild,” Bear Grylls once dropped into the canyon by helicopter, stripped naked, shot the rapids in a Styrofoam junk-raft, and killed a wild boar in handto- hand combat. These antics are ludicrous to the Canyon Man, but they also illustrate a deep truth about the canyon—it is indeed wild.
Getting to the base of the 100-foot cliffs usually involves scrambling or rope work—if not a chopper. There are few established hiking trails in here, save for what climbers and paddlers have worked out over the decades. Below the rim, you’ll find snakes, feral goats, the occasional wrecked car, and maybe an arrowhead if you’re lucky. It’s isolated, and many climbers will tell you it has “a weird vibe.” It’s also mostly untrammeled and truly sublime. Being so close to the cities of Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga (just 2 hours from the former two and 1.5 from the latter), the canyon is the perfect place for the weekend warrior to cut loose and do something drastic. But Bear was right to choose the canyon for his nude, boar-slaying escapades, for this place also conceals everything that happens here so easily. It has been a hideout for vagabonds, a strategic safe zone for soldiers, a source of respite for lost souls, and— starting a few decades ago—a place for the region’s hardest climbers to quietly test themselves at one of the most overlooked climbing meccas east of the Mississippi.
In 1799, Gov. John Sevier of Tennessee wrote of the discovery of six skeletons in brass armor bearing the Welsh coat of arms, along with a series of caves and mortared stone walls built into the bluffs 325 feet above Little River. Local Native Americans in fact told Sevier that a mysterious tribe of men calling themselves “Welsh” built these long ago. These Welsh, they said, were later driven out of Alabama by the Cherokee and traveled north. There is a pervading local theory—half historical, half legend—that a Welsh Prince named Madog ab Owain Gwynedd sailed to America in 1170, landing in Mobile Bay. Prince Madog (or “Mad Dog,” as the locals are fond of calling him) and his crew then traveled up the river systems into northern Alabama, encountering rugged canyons and hostile natives. Perhaps these early Canyon Men fortified themselves here above Little River until, decimated, they traveled north, connecting the dots between a series of pre-Colombian building sites in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. What remained of them, as the story goes, was absorbed into native tribes, so illustrated in colorful 17th century accounts of fair-skinned, “mooneyed Indians” deep in the American frontier who spoke a peculiar European-like language.
Today the Welsh Caves are off-limits, but most of the good stuff has been stolen or kicked in over the years, and there’s better rock downriver, as climbers have known for years.
Technical climbing in the canyon dates back to the 1960s and ’70s, including a few forays by the influential John Gill and Henry Barber, but the rock—stacks of blocky sandstone in various stages of decay—did not lend itself to traditional protection. It wasn’t until the sport climbing revolution hit the south in the ’80s that climbers understood the potential of the miles of steep rock above Little River.
Roughly reversing the path of Mad Dog and his men, Little River Canyon is potentially the southernmost terminus for migrating sport climbing tribes traveling south in the fall, following warmer temperatures. As Birmingham climber Adam Henry puts it, “These tribes get pissed off at the New, and then it’s too cold to climb at the Red, and then they get tired of the Obed and end up here.” But by then, the numbers usually dwindle to a diehard few. This limited canyon development to the locals, with climbers exploring at their own pace and occasionally absorbing itinerant visitors.
“There was definitely kind of a locals-only thing down there in the early days,” says longtime canyon climber Dave Wilson. “The [National Park Service] rangers had a good relationship with climbers, but climbing was mostly off the radar, [because the park] was busy dealing with bigger issues. I remember being down at the Jungle Gym in the ’90s, one of the last places developed. There must have been eight or 10 people hanging up on ropes with drills. There was going to be a moratorium on motorized drills so there was a getit- while-you-can attitude. Anyway, I remember a ranger coming around the corner all sweaty about to have a heart attack, and rock dust was everywhere. I thought we were going to be in big trouble, but all he said was, ‘Hey, boys, can y’all come down here? Somebody pushed a car off the top of the canyon, and I’m too fat to go down in them woods! Can one of y’all walk down there and tell me the VIN number?’ The rangers were just good ol’ boys. You know, they’d see the drills and gear and be like, ‘Cool! Let me see that!’ So you just kind of kept your mouth shut, not asking any questions.”
In the early 1980s, a nearby popular sport climbing outpost called Yellow Bluff was closed to climbing by the landowner, a move many people rightly or wrongly attributed to a magazine article about the area. After that, the drive to explore and develop new routes in the canyon became more intense. Most of the walls here are slightly overhanging, and most of the grades start at 5.12. Forget bomber stances or three-points-on—here the climbing is balls out, cut your feet, and gun for the anchors. That style set the tone. “What you tried to do was simply climb hard because then you’d get a little bit of respect,” says Wilson. “When you roped up, you were all-in. You didn’t take. You went. And you went hard.”
Intense scenes attract intense characters. Stories from those days seem to be more about high-speed car wrecks, hard liquor, and nude free solos than first ascents. Maurice Reed, one of the main canyon developers, was one such character. A photo taken by fellow canyon heavy Mark Cole in the late ’80s shows Maurice with a rattlesnake around his neck, one he caught with his bare hands. “He was one of those guys you’d look at and you just knew he was crazy,” says Henry. “He had a bushy fireman’s moustache and tights. He always wanted to have his feet above him. He was a wild climber. The early developers were larger than life.”
Doug Reed was Maurice’s quieter brother, but every bit as prolific a climber. Many of his routes he bolted and never named, and routes by the name ADR— “Another Doug Reed” route—litter most crags all the way down the Southeast. All of them are classics. “The Reeds had mostly moved on by the time I came on the scene but they were on a different level than everyone else, at least in my eyes,” says Wilson. “Doug in terms of climbing difficulty; Maurice in terms of boldness and, well, meanness. Whether it was deserved, Maurice had a reputation where you stayed out of his way. You see some dude with a rattler around his neck, you tend to back off!”
The canyon’s Unshackled Wall was one area where locals pushed the envelope of what was possible—and acceptable—on Southern sandstone. Named after a popular religious radio program that the Birmingham climbers would listen to on the drive over, the colorful Unshackled walls have some of the most compact and beautiful rock here. The prolific East Coast route developer Porter Jarrard first found the crag in the late ’80s, subsequently putting up its first route Exploding Boy (5.11b).
Aforementioned Canyon Man Adam Henry spent a lot of time at Unshackled around this crowd in his early climbing days. From the names of the routes down there you can see that he was raised a true Southern climber. “Hot Taaka (5.11b) was Maurice’s favorite ‘value brand’ vodka,” says Henry. “They would go down there and get shitfaced all the time. It was just part of the game with those guys. They had a good time with it. There used to be a bottle of Old Spice underneath Movie Star (5.12b). Every time Maurice would try that route he would splash some on him. Even after it was empty, we would act like we were splashing cologne on us. It became part of the route. Doug Reed had eventually left a route called Unshackled as a project. Jake Slaney, one of my climbing partners, and I asked him if maybe he would sell the project to us for $20, and Doug said dryly, ‘I don’t know, maybe $250 would be sufficient.’ Neither of us had any money so we left the route alone. That was back in the day when we used to respect each other’s routes and such.”
Unshackled Wall held other mysteries for a young kid that left a strong impression. “Crystals. You go out into the woods there and find these big crystals,” says Wilson. “Everybody takes them now but we always resisted that urge. They look like kryptonite. Adam Henry is superstitious about it. Come to think of it, he’s superstitious about everything. I’ve been climbing with him where he’ll put his rope bag down and a big spider will jump out or the wind will blow a weird way, and he’ll just pack up and leave.” For his part, Henry says he steers clear of Unshackled Wall these days.
With no rules and enough steep rock for everyone, the Canyon was the perfect place to seek more creative paths to hard free climbing. Jeff Gruenberg contributed the powerful testpiece Area of Doubt (5.13a), a line of slots and pockets on a steep, white wall at Unshackled. The route was fabricated with a drill-enhanced slot at the crux. “There was not that much thought at the time,” says Gruenberg. “The line needed [to be] climbed.” Ironically, the name reflects both the certainty of that era and the mixed emotions of hindsight. “Area of Doubt was fabricated,” he says. “The route was void of holds. At the time it was an ‘area of no doubt’ [for drilling]. The route was inconceivable, [but] I do think I crossed the line on this one. Who knows what the future might be?” Despite all the handwringing, Area of Doubt is overwhelmingly hailed as a clasic; a must-do route for the aspiring Canyon Man.
This creative experimentation finally culminated in the Teflon Route incident. In 1992, upstream at The Crazy House, Cole developed a new hard route with the intent of installing a bolt-on modular hold in a blank roof. Maurice Reed was adamantly against it.
Henry remembers the standoff: “Maurice said enough was enough and that he would kill Mark if he did it. Mark was then pissed off that Maurice had taken such a hard stand. That was the only time anyone ever heard Mark Cole say a curse word. He was a good Christian. It was maybe a year or two later that Mark took the hold off and chiseled it instead. I always thought that was kind of funny, personally. At the time that was the thing they were doing at Smith Rock, and in Squamish where those guys had made an outdoor gym of sorts. [Route manipulation] was kind of the way it was going, but at the Canyon it just stopped after Teflon. It’s been 20 years since that.”
Teflon Route remains an unfinished project, abandoned due to a (naturally) broken hold. Like much of the history and folklore here, the evolution of the Canyon Man is open to interpretation. “I give Mark Cole 100 percent credit for making sport climbing what it is today in the Deep South,” says Henry. “Were his tactics always the best? No, but it was a time and a way of doing things that I think has to be appreciated, even though it’s something that I would never want to see happen again in the canyon.”
Rather than relying on others to draw the boundaries of what was acceptable, climbers here decided among themselves what was best, and the tradition was passed on accordingly. It seems to have worked out. Cole in particular was a mentor to many of the younger climbers then. “Mark had a whole group of youngsters that he would bring to the canyon,” says Dave Wilson. “He taught ’em how to climb, and he taught ’em well. Mark wanted to have a positive influence in these kids’ lives. In that sense, maybe not all of them turned out the way he probably wanted them to. [Laughs] But they all ended up being good climbers.”
The unorthodox apprenticeship—all but vanished in today’s gym scene—left a legacy of strong climbers with a deep respect and awe for local traditions. “After I’d been climbing a year or two,” says Jake Slaney, one of Henry’s young climbing partners, “and as sport climbing was really taking hold, I skipped school on a rainy day. We had heard about this place called Lizard Wall where you could climb in the rain! I remember walking up to the crag and seeing Jeff Gruenberg, Robyn Erbesfield, Doug and Maurice Reed, and Paul Piana. This blew my mind because these were all people I had been reading about in the magazines. Paul had just done the first free ascent of the Salathé Wall with [Todd] Skinner, and Robyn was doing World Cups. They were all wearing crazy-colored tights. They were falling and hanging, working moves, yelling beta, and getting back on. I knew this was where I wanted to be. Doug and Maurice were drilling a route, and I was mesmerized. I started climbing with them every weekend; they would drive up from Jackson, Mississippi. I would belay Maurice, as he would cast off on hooks up some big, sandy, dead blocks and flakes, drilling as he was hanging on sometimes, half-aiding, half-free. He would put up a route or two in a day, then break out the vodka. I was 17 or so, doing this every weekend. People were coming from all over to climb there. There would be 20 or 30 regulars there on the weekend climbing at different crags, putting up routes, exploring for new cliffs.” It was the crag’s golden age of development.
Occasionally an outsider on the prowl for an area testpiece would leave with a mouthful of humble pie. One of these was Jeff Gruenberg’s powerful route Masquerade, another of his new-wave creations thought to be 5.14 at the time. In 1992, French climber Alain Gherson, fresh from speed solos in the Alps, had just ripped up the New River Gorge, sending Doug Reed’s benchmark 5.13 Quinsana Plus and a bunch of other 5.13s, and made his way down to the canyon. Gherson had his sights on Masquerade.
“He drove down from the New, and everybody was down at the Jungle Gym,” says Henry. “This guy comes walking around the corner, and everyone’s head turned. You could tell he was the outsider for sure. It was like a scene from a surf movie.”
Wilson was there, too. “I didn’t know who he was. I remember he was with a hot French girl, and walking around asking, ‘ouere ees le Masquerade?’ and we all thought, ‘Oh, right, you’re just going to go hop on Masquerade.’ Nobody ever climbed it! It was one of the hardest routes around, kind of by itself over there.”
Henry smiles about what happened next. “Gherson’s bail biner is still on it. He spent maybe a day and a half there. After he bailed on that route he left town. If you ask Gruenberg about that, he’ll get a wry look on his face and tell you it was ‘an adventure.’” At press time, Masquerade is being re-bolted, part of a nonprofit effort by Alabama climbers to clean up old, unsafe bolts—and abandoned gear.
Adam Henry is an imposing figure, tall and fierce-looking. He’s still at it today. He’s “the Mayor,” as locals say, and he watches over the canyon, works with the rangers on re-bolting efforts and cleanups, and pulls down hard, lest the youngsters forget their place. Among other things, Henry is credited for developing the Concave. He pulled the name from a Fugazi song in his head one day, and it turns out to be a perfect description. Jutting horizontally from the rim like a warhead, the Concave is home to some of the hardest climbs in the canyon, including the benchmark 5.14 Southern Comfort. “Turning that corner and crawling through the rhododendron and coming up to the Concave was an amazing thing,” says Henry. “You can still get that sense of discovery throughout the canyon. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation finds another cave like that.”
The canyon’s hardest lines were quietly polished off by the new generation in the ’90s and beyond. Development is slower now, but the energy of the last generation still reverberates. When I first climbed here in 1996, my partner and I wandered off from the dozens of excellent routes at the Lizard Wall to some climbs that looked good and seemed to have a few bolts on them, some marginal. We had to trust our skills and each other more than the protection. It felt pretty rowdy for a sport climbing area. With every subsequent visit, solo exploration, and tale-telling session, the canyon seemed to only grow bigger and wilder.
As for the climbing itself, it’s perfectly in line with the kind of relentlessly steep terrain you might find in any world-class climbing gym. There is a bolting moratorium in the park, but with hundreds of established routes, a moderately fit climber seeking challenging rock won’t be disappointed. On the higher end, with re-bolting efforts underway, abandoned projects and neglected testpieces can be dusted off and safely puzzled out. And maybe someday those walls across the canyon will be open for development.
Despite a new guidebook, the experience of being here erases any doubt that the wild days are over. As I walk along the miles of steep sandstone walls near sunset, I look downstream. With 12 miles of canyon below me, I know that right around the corner another crag is just waiting to be found. Restless climbers are discovering new and seemingly endless bouldering potential on the slopes below the main cliffs.
Someday at the end of a fall season, you may find yourself here, doused in Old Spice and halfway up a route with no name, pumped out of your mind. You’ll crawl into a man-sized hueco and find an empty vodka bottle. You’ll think back to old Mad Dog and his men, a thousand miles deep into a dark continent, clawing their way down into Little River Canyon for salvation and getting more adventure than they could handle. And you’ll realize that you are part of a long tradition.
Guidebook: Dixie Cragger’s Atlas Guide to Georgia and Alabama, by Chris Watford (dixiecragger.com, $35)
Get there: Little River Canyon National Preserve is located near the town of Fort Payne, in the northeast corner of Alabama. It is about two hours from either Atlanta and Birmingham and 1.5 hours from Chattanooga. There are two main entrances to the canyon. The northern entrance is off AL-35. The southern entrance, at the Canyon Mouth Park, is off AL-273. Most climbers use the northern entrance. From Fort Payne, follow AL-35 for 14 miles to Little River Canyon National Preserve. Note: There is a parking area on the left, just before the bridge, for accessing Little River Falls and swimming hole. Just past the falls and the bridge, turn left onto AL-176. This is the Canyon Rim Drive.
Stay there: Camping isn’t allowed in the canyon itself. Try True Adventure Sports, the closest and most convenient for climbers with tent sites and lodging for rent along the canyon rim road between Unshackled Wall and Ninja Wall; 256-997-9577; trueadventuresports.com.
Amenities: Head to Fort Payne to hit Ralph’s Lil River Canyon Grocery and The Canyon Grill. Located on AL-35, just west of the bridge and Falls parking area, and across from the new Little River Canyon Park Center, they have snacks and a grill serving hamburgers and country cooking.
Season: Climbing is possible year-round, though summers are typically brutal. The saving grace might be the ability to take a dip in the river at the end of the day. In recent years, bouldering in and along the riverbed has been a popular summer pastime. Many of the walls in the canyon are steep or capped by high roofs, making climbing possible during rainstorms. Having said that, quite often after an extended rainy spell, almost all of the rock begins to seep. There’s also a strange inversion phenomenon that occurs, where the cool damp night air collects on the sun-warmed rock and causes things to get a bit moist. Most of the walls in the canyon have a roughly east/southeast aspect, getting sun for all or part of the day, which makes winter climbing particularly enjoyable. Optimal months are late September through the end of May.
Note: There is a moratorium on bolting in the park.
—Vogue (5.10a) One of the canyon’s easiest, at Toomsuba. Start in a hand crack.
—Lemonade (5.11a) The classic 5-bolt warmup at Lizard Wall, which stays dry in a downpour.
—Obsession (5.11a) Great warmup line on the left side of the Gray Wall.
—Bitless (5.11b) Long and pumpy, at the Crazy House.
—Rocktoberfest (5.11b) A Little River must-do line at the Rocktoberfest Wall, the closest to the north Canyon entrance.
—Iron Mike (5.12a) Killer line on unique, blocky rock at Unshackled.
—The Lion (5.12c) Very popular steep climb at the right end of the Jungle Gym cave.
—The Flex (5.13a) So many classic lines at this grade in the canyon, but this line at Toomsuba gets my vote for its aesthetics—a beautiful orange face—and roofs.
—Area of Doubt (5.13a/b) Undisputed classic at the Unshackled Wall despite the drilled pocket at the crux. Flawless rock in a beautiful setting. Jeff Gruenberg’s masterpiece.
—Southern Comfort (5.14a) This monstrously proud line goes straight out along the prow of the Concave. Some folks escape right at the first V10 crux, but this avoids a significant piece of business, cutting the grade to 5.13c or so. Visiting climber Joe Kinder put up a slightly different finish to Southern Comfort at 5.14b that breaks right up high at the ninth bolt. —Chris Watford