New River Gorge: Discovering One of America’s East Coast Climbing Capitols

The town of Fayetteville, West Virginia is like any other small town in America. It has one main street, a couple small cafes, a local art gallery for the cultural type, and it sits in the picturesque New River Gorge, spanned by the 2nd highest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere. However this town has its secrets. Every year hundreds of thrill seekers, from rock climbers, to those finding adventure on the raging New River, come upon this town, which proclaims itself to be “The Coolest Small Town in America”.

New River Gorge offers some of the best climbing on the East Coast. It’s a mecca for beginners and experienced climbers alike. While the west coast has its soaring snow capped peaks, blazing red deserts, and one of a kind classic routes, the east features towering granite cliffs surrounded by the lush Virginia hills spread far into the distance. It was a pleasure when last month I joined a group of friends to explore this valley and treat ourselves to some of the most challenging routes any of us had ever faced.

This is our trip.

After driving through the night from Miami, we arrived in the sleepy town of Fayetteville around seven in the morning. Before our campsite was ready we headed to the Cathedral Cafe, a small restaurant built inside the remains of a former church, where the coffee and breakfasts are cheap and the conversation revolves around the many adventures that New River Gorge has to offer. The first thing I noticed about this place was there there wasn’t a single person over thirty years old. Every other patron in this place was a guide, wether on the cliffs or on the river, and the over steaming cups, they discussed plans, routes, and traded adventure stories. This town was simply made for exploration. Of the few shops that were on Main Street, two of them were climbing and adventure shops, separated only by the road. In the afternoon we set up our tents and decide to drive out to see the surrounding area.

The New River seen from Endless Wall

New River Gorge is truly spectacular. The span of the bridge is 800 ft above the consistently raging New River, and driving past the granite cliffs, we could already spot our routes. The gorge is famous for its crack climbing, thin pockets running up the face that would only allow space for a few fingers, or in some instances sliding the body inside and climbing it like a chimney. I had a little experience with chimneys climbing out in Utah, but nothing as thin or as exhausting as we were anticipating with these. This trip would test our creativity as climbers. None of these routes were straightforward, each required us to use new skills and unconventional methods to make the top.

After sleeping excitedly the first night, we awoke early to head out to our first climb. As a great introduction to the kind of ascents we’d be doing here, our first route would be “Easily Flakey” a 5.6 with an interesting problem: An infamous three running right through the center of the crack. The first section of the climb runs across a small ledge before diving into the crack. The crack is only a few inches wide and ends just before the limbs jut out of the cliff. There’s two ways to circumnavigate the tree: Climb the tree itself, or wedge between the tree and the crack and swing back into position. Using the branch for leverage, I pulled myself in and slid an inch of my finger onto the face while pulling myself up clear of the tree and on to the ledge. The second half of the climb involves sliding along a thin ledge using only the body for balance and then pulling up onto the flaked out rock (a section of the climb where rock fell away in layers) providing an excellent push to the top.

Pulling up the flake on “Easily Flakey” (5.9)

The rain washed out the rest of our climb day but we were still able to get some practice rappelling down the granite face. The next morning we headed out farther down the wall to an interesting route called “Zag” a 5.9 crack with barely a hold, and a face as smooth and featureless as marble. After moving up about halfway up the face, the crack widens just enough to loosely hold a jammed foot or a fist. The crux, or the most difficult part of the climb, came when we had only enough space to slide a couple of fingers vertically, and then push ourselves up to reach the ledge above. A lonely lost camming device, jammed hopelessly deep into the crevasse, was a subtle reminder of how complex this route truly was. The struggle on this route was keeping one hand in front of the other, jamming a foot in as we climbed, and then finding the strength to pull ourselves through a series of barely there holds.

Although Zag was a worthy adversary, the two most challenging routes of our trip would come on day three. The first, a 5.8 called “Jumping Jack Flash” confounds the climber right from the beginning, as the start of the route meanders through a thin chimney, forcing the climber to contort and push their legs into odd directions to pull up above. Wedging my body in the three foot wide space, I kicked my legs out against the thin wall in front of me, and holding my arms back, I slowly lifted myself until I could grab the comforting ledge up above.

Inside the Chimney of “Jumping Jack Flash” (5.8)

The true test of our trip, after having navigated Jumping Jack Flash, and two other routes, one being the inside of a cave, was taking a chance on Toxic Jesus, a 5.10 (similarly comparable to a 5.12 in a gym) with a face as smooth and featureless as marble. There was a single crack running only a quarter way up the face and then nothing except a “letterbox”, a small horizontal crack that was wide enough for a single finger, and a comforting ledge almost a full body length above. Using our legs we have to stand up on a small ledge, jam a single digit into the letter box with our right hand and sitting on all the weight of a fingernail, pull ourselves to grab the ledge with our left. For thirty minutes my chalked hands pushed and pulled at the letterbox, always falling out mere inches before the ledge. Through the frustrations, a can do spirit prevailed, and seemingly like magic, my finger contorted into the hole and held lifting my body with a groan and a yell and comfortingly pulling up. In any climb, a positive attitude can make up for exhaustion.

Having completed our routes, we took in the rest of our time to practice trad climbing for the first time. Climbing with the aid of camming devices, spring loaded holds used for keeping a rope in place on a bare wall. On our last day, we attempted our first sport lead climb. On a peculiar 5.10 with on overhanging roof, it tested both energy and creativity in pulling ourselves through the crux. Unfortunately it got the best of all of us and none of us made it past the third clip and above the roof. Although we were faced with new challenges and pushed out abilities, it was these skills and these routes that reminded me once again why I fell in love with the sport. When we weren’t climbing, we went whitewater rafting on the New River, hiked the Endless Wall trail culminating in climbing down a 100 ft steel ladder, and enjoyed our week in the West Virginia Hills.

It’s impossible to climb every route in New River Gorge. One small section called Endless Wall holds over 1,100 individual routes. What makes the gorge so appealing is its accessibility for novice climbers and advanced thrill seekers. From a nice slopey 5.3 to a suicidal 5.14 this little pocket of crag heaven, and the little cool town that goes with it is the kind of trip that every climber dreams about.

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