PISGAH NATIONAL FOREST, N.C. (AP) -- Like a giant granite gumdrop, Looking Glass Rock juts out of the surrounding forest, sort of a beacon summoning climbers from across the Southeast.
Since the 1960s, rock climbers have been attempting various routes on this natural rock formation in a game of technical skill and wit against nature and gravity.
Looking Glass Rock's size, its location in Pisgah National Forest close to Asheville, Brevard and the Blue Ridge Parkway and its year-round accessibility are some of the reasons it has become so popular, local rock climbers say.
''This is one of the premier climbing destinations on the East Coast,'' said Brandon Calloway, a local rock climber and outdoor educator with North Carolina Outward Bound School. ''Seventy-five percent of visitors are from Florida to Ohio and east of there. It's very unique climbing.''
Looking Glass, the large, bald-faced, domelike rock visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Mount Pisgah, has four different climbing areas, providing options for beginner to advanced climbers. One of the most popular routes is ''The Nose,'' which has short, horizontal cracks in the rock that offer good anchoring positions as well as good footholds and handholds, Calloway said.
Those unique features are also some of the reasons the rock is being loved to death. While the rock itself is experiencing some erosion, the more immediate concerns are the trails leading to the rock, as well as the soil and vegetation surrounding the base of Looking Glass, which have become severely eroded.
''There is soil compaction and no vegetation left because it's been trampled by feet,'' said Diane Bolt, recreation and fire program manager with the U.S. Forest Service Pisgah District.
The base of the rock serves as a staging area where climbers get their gear ready for the ascent, and the constant use by individuals and large groups have caused the deterioration. So has water streaming off the rock during rainfall.
But Bolt said the Forest Service is now assessing the problem and will tackle the restoration project next year. For now, the focus is on restoring the Sun Wall Trail, the half-mile path that leads to the rock from U.S. 276 near Sliding Rock.
Without a Forest Service trail crew, Bolt said, the work on the more than 400 miles of trail in the forest, including trails for horseback riding, mountain biking and hiking, has fallen to volunteers.
''The only way we can have that many trails is to have volunteers,'' Bolt said. ''We have over 100 volunteers we work with, a mountain biking group, horseback riding and three hiking groups.''
The newest volunteer group is the Pisgah Climbers Association, a group of local commercial and noncommercial climbers who use the Pisgah District's trails. The organization is concerned about the state of the trails and climbing areas and is working with the Forest Service to lessen users' impact on those areas. Calloway has been heading the group, which got together in February to work on the Sun Wall Trail (also known as The Nose Trail) on the North Face of Looking Glass. The association will hold its second trail maintenance day on Saturday.
''The trail isn't so bad that it's impassable, but we're trying to help out the area before it gets too bad,'' Calloway said. ''We're also trying to help out the Forest Service and service the area that we, more than anybody else, use.''
Grant Bullard, owner and director of Gwynn Valley Camp in Brevard, takes his campers on climbing trips to Looking Glass during the summer and has seen firsthand the damage occurring on the trails and at the rock's base. One of the ways to minimize that is to limit the number of people in climbing groups.
''We keep our limit to 10 campers and three to four staff members,'' Bullard said. ''We all in the climbing community would like to see that number smaller, but we have to be realistic.''
Bullard has joined the Pisgah Climbers and plans to work with the trail crew. ''I think the group is doing well. There's been a lot of people who have done a great amount of work,'' Bullard said.
Bolt and her ranger staff have been training the Pisgah Climbers on trail maintenance work, how to use tools and create water bars to help divert water off the trail and how to install steps and gravel. The object is to make the Climbers self-sufficient in their trail maintenance efforts.
''We are understaffed and underfunded,'' Bolt said. ''What they're doing is what needs to happen - taking care of the trails they use. They're taking the initiative and doing that.''
Calloway said the Access Fund, a national nonprofit that works to preserve climbing areas across the country, has awarded the Pisgah Climbers a grant to buy the group its own tools. The fund will also be used to purchase an information kiosk at the entrance to the trail that will give people safety information and leave-no-trace principles.
People interested in helping with trail work should bring their own boots, work gloves, lunch and climbing gear. But they must call Calloway first to register because he can use only a limited number of people helping at a time.
''I've lived in the area almost 30 years and been climbing over half my life,'' said Calloway, who is 29. ''It (Looking Glass Rock) holds a special place for me. I don't want to see the place get so impacted that regulations are imposed and we can't climb there anymore.''
On the Net
Pisgah Climbers Association: http://www.pisgahclimbers.com
National Forests in North Carolina: http://www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc/
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