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Two Short Films Profile Some of North Carolina’s Legendary Locals

"The South is full of these quiet figures in the climbing community—people who have put up some hard, scary, beautiful, hard-to-find routes and problems. I think there is something special about recognizing these folks."

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Every local area has its legendary figures—and there are many different kinds. You’ve got the chain-smoking crusher who takes breaks from his roofing job to establish half the area’s hardest climbs and then disappears to parts unknown. You’ve got the youth phenom who blew through the whole zone before her 12th birthday but who still occasionally takes a break from comps and final exams to run a few laps on the testpieces. And you’ve got the wise old moss-scrubber who first found the damn area in 1983 and—”arthritis ain’t got nothing on me”—still spends every spare moment roaming the hills looking for new boulders to clean, new routes to bolt.

Recently, a pair of quietly stunning films, each profiling a legendary figure from the high country around Boone, North Carolina, have recently been released by Whitewater—a Nonprofit dedicated to furthering land access and preservation.

The “Inner Mounting Flame,” directed by Andrew Kornylak, was released several weeks ago and profiles strongman developer Mike Stam, who established some of the biggest and hardest boulder problems in the North Carolina high country. The film also follows Taylor McNeil (of Moonlight Sonata fame) and Nate Draughn as they work on some of Stams proudest lines, including the eponymous The Inner Mounting Flame—a morpho problem that begins with a heinous run-and-jump start, ends with an all-points-off dyno several miles off the deck, and is rumored to go at V14.

“Climbers of that era and from the more isolated scenes like Boone tend to live on the fringe, physically and metaphorically, and that is attractive to me. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them, beyond just their athletic accomplishments.” Andrew Kornylak

“The Inner Mounting Flame” is a sequel of sorts to “The Mapmaker,” which was co-directed by Andrew Kornylak and Carlo Nasisse and released in 2019. “The Mapmaker” profiles Joey Henson, a longtime Watauga County local who lives in a barn in the woods, has been crucial to the region’s development and access for decades, and was profiled in John Sherman’s 1996 book on bouldering, “Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in North America.”

Climbing spoke briefly over email with Kornylak and Nasisse about these projects (the interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity).

You can find both films below.

Mike Stam in his “crazy little shack.” (Photo: Andrew Kornylak)

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Climbing: Why these climbers in this place?

Andrew Kornylak: I first came to the South in ’96 and I met Joey Henson in passing at one of the first Hound Ears Bouldering Competitions in Boone, NC, which he had a hand in organizing. He was already a larger-than-life, legendary figure back then, living in a barn in the woods where climbers from all over the world would come for a season or two to absorb the kind of off-the-radar ethic that Boone is still known for. He was also known for his detailed hand-drawn maps of climbing areas and for his efforts to open Hound Ears and save nearby Howards Knob from development. A lot of this history is in another short of mine called “The Flaming Crimp

Mike Stam’s name is synonymous with the kind of mythically hard and dangerous climbing that the North Carolina high country is known for. He used to live at Joey’s barn but now has his own outpost in the woods. I had never met Mike [before working on the film], but hearing about him through our interviews with John made me want to seek him out, especially after seeing his creativity on full display in an old video of him attempting his route The Inner Mounting Flame, which he did a decade ago and which was considered unrepeatable. I had been filming with my friends Nate Draughn and Taylor McNeill, both top-end boulderers and students of Mike’s, and it turned out Taylor was on the path to a repeat of the route, so just as the pandemic started I dove into a film project centered on that, supported by Whitewater.

Of course it turned out more a multidimensional portrait than just a story about a climb. … I guess I’m more interested in the climber than the climbs. Climbers of that era and from the more isolated scenes like Boone tend to live on the fringe, physically and metaphorically, and that is attractive to me. I feel like we have a lot to learn from them, beyond just their athletic accomplishments.

An envelope on which Stam tracked some of the names of the boulders he and his friends first ascended. (Photo: Andrew Kornylak)

Carlo Nasisse: My parents were North Carolina trad climbers and so I really grew up with the rock, landscape, and energy of NC as a part of my life. I didn’t think much of it until I left the South and saw what other climbing communities were like. While I have lived in many places with a better climbing scene in terms of the industry, work, access to the hills, etc., I have never felt as happy and fulfilled as a climber as I did growing up in the South. When Andrew asked me if I wanted to direct “The Mapmaker” with him it felt like an opportunity to pay tribute to this quality of the Southern climbing community that I value so much.

The South is full of these quiet figures in the climbing community—people who have put up some hard, scary, beautiful, hard-to-find routes and problems. I think there is something special about recognizing these folks, honoring their approach to climbing at a time when there is a great deal of importance placed on instant gratification of first ascents through social media. That’s totally fine, but I think there is something special about the way Mike and Joey have approached climbing, something that I personally don’t want to forget.

 For more information about Henson’s access work in the Boone area, see Kornylak’s short film, “The Flaming Crimp.”

For more information about Whitewater—a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose goal is to “facilitat[e] and promot[e] access to the outdoors for everyone”—visit their website.