Between a Rock and a Hard Case

When employment law litigation gets a little rocky, Cherie Blackburn goes for a climb

Published in 2021 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine

Cherie Blackburn didn’t mind being a beach girl. It was just easy: lie on towel, soak in sunshine, take a dip, repeat. 

“That was pretty much my only outdoor thing,” says the Nexsen Pruet employment litigator. “But I was at a place where my children were older, I had been working a lot, and I got it in my head that I wanted to go off and find adventure.”

In 2002, she found an Outward Bound program that offered a nine-day, women’s-only crash course in rock climbing. “I just completely loved every second of it—particularly the rock-climbing, but even the sleeping on the ground and not showering for nine days,” she says. 

That experience segued into related adventures, like mountaineering and hiking. It took only a few short years before she was ready to hike the Grand Tetons. She’s also crossed 22 of Colorado’s 58 14ers off her list. “They were mostly the easier ones, though,” she’s quick to add of the 14,000-foot peaks.

At times, the learning curve was as steep as the rockface. “I’ve gotten very frustrated on climbs, where I basically fall all the way to the top,” she says. “In those moments of frustration, I always say, ‘I should be able to do that,’ at which point my climbing partner will say, ‘Cherie, that’s not the point.’ I have since learned the point, for me, is to appreciate the moment and let myself be carried away by the adventure.

“If I could impress one thing upon my colleagues, it is how fun—but also how important—it is to do something so physically exhausting that it takes your mind off of everything else, particularly our work, which can be so difficult,” she says.

Blackburn enjoys both trad and sport climbing, but prefers trad—the difference being that trad requires climbers to carry their gear and place it up into the rock versus a sport route, which has bolts drilled into the rockface. 

She has climbed all over the country. “The Red River Gorge in Kentucky is fantastic for sport climbing,” Blackburn says. She and climbing partner and boyfriend, Ken, have an Australian Labradoodle named Moab, in honor of another beloved spot, but she says there’s nothing like Joshua Tree. “It’s not only beautiful, but there’s just something about being out climbing and camping in the desert,” she says.

Climbing in the sweltering desert is one thing. Ice climbing is a different beast. She talked Ken into giving it a try in Ouray, Colorado. But one of her scariest climbs was a tough trad route in El Dorado Canyon in Colorado. “I was frustrated as I joined Ken at the top of the first pitch. Ken started the second pitch and was about 30 to 40 feet up when I realized I had not clipped into the anchor. All it would have taken me was one slight lean and I’d have fallen a heck of a lot farther than I could have likely survived. I always think about that moment now and use it as a lesson learned, because that’s how accidents happen—you’re distracted by whatever and didn’t do what you needed to do to keep yourself safe.”

The life-or-death element does play a part in her love for the sport. “Look, of course I never want to get hurt,” she says. “But a certain excitement does come with pushing yourself to do something both physical and challenging, and succeeding.”

So what does she think about as she grunts her way to the top? “I’m in the moment. I’m thinking about: Where is my last point of protection? How long before I can place my next piece of gear? Am I climbing smoothly?” she says. “That’s all I can think about.” Hiking a 14er is a little different than rock climbing, she notes. “I will say, starting up a 14er at 3 a.m. to make it to the top by noon … sometimes on the way down, I do find myself fantasizing about the burger and beer at the bottom.”

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