Thursday, June 16, 2016

Getting Sporty in the New River Gorge

(Photo: Andy on Call 9-1-1 (5.13a), at the Endless Wall.)

I am sorry. It has been almost two months since my four-day trip to the New River Gorge in West Virginia

I have been slow to post about it.

I really, REALLY liked the New. I will definitely go again. I enjoyed the climbing we did and I'd love to find a way to do more of this style of sport climbing. And though we did some trad, we didn't really get a representative sample of what is available, so I'd like to go back to try some of the crack climbing in the gorge.

Andy and I planned our trip for mid-April, thinking it would be warm enough by then, but not too warm. The weather looked iffy as the trip approached. But Andy and I kept hope alive, and on the eve of our trip a new forecast materialized, and it was a thing of beauty. We were looking at four straight days of sunshine and temperatures in the sixties and seventies.

As I prepared to go to the New, I tried to get myself into the proper mindset. I'd always been a trad chauvinist. I'd never really given sport climbing a fair chance. It's not that I hadn't been sport climbing before. No, I'd had some exposure to sport climbing at several climbing areas, including Red Rocks, Rumney, the Red River Gorge, and Boulder Canyon. I'd enjoyed these areas.

But I'd always been cautious when sport climbing. I'd never truly embraced it, pushing my limits and climbing until I fell. I had been a sport tourist. This time I wanted it to be different. I wanted to go to the New and find out what I could do. I wanted to try hard climbs and maybe even work a route.

Crazy talk, right?

Also hanging like a specter over our trip were Batman and Superman. 

The movie had just come out.

And somehow it had come up in conversation that Andy was the proud owner of both a Batman and a Superman onesie. 

I know this raises some important questions.

Such as:

Why does Andy own superhero onesies?

And why were we talking about them?

I don't know. I can't explain it. Ask Andy.

But at some point in our conversation I suggested that we should climb in the onesies. It would be Batman vs. Superman, come to life! Pure awesomeness. Andy agreed.

I thought we were just kidding around. But as far as Andy was concerned the matter was deadly serious. He took me up on my offer and brought the onesies to West Virginia. Being no stranger to climbing in stupid outfits, I wasn't about to back out of our deal. At some point we would have to put them on.


But not right away.

On our first day, a Friday, Andy and I went to the Endless Wall, the New's most impressive crag. The cliff here goes on for miles, and Andy and I got to see a lot of it when we started out in the wrong direction and went down a random ladder to find ourselves nowhere near our intended destination.

After a bit of a hike along the base of the wall we finally located the climbs we wanted, in the Snake Buttress area.

I started our trip off with a bang by leading Discombobulated (5.11b). I quickly discovered a couple of things:

(1) Ratings at the New are stiff!


(2) Sport climbing at the New requires rather more commitment than I am used to. The first bolts are often high and the spacing between bolts can be wide.

(Photo: I'm starting up Discombobulated (5.11b), crimping nervously to the first bolt. Photo by Andy.)

Discombobluated was a tough initiation into the ways of the New. It starts with a technical thin face past a high first bolt. I nervously made it past this test but then peeled off shortly after clipping, on the very next move up the thin face. From the start of the route I was sweating it out and climbing scared. My head was not together. I was surprised to feel so shaky. I had expected to be a little more relaxed, as I am indoors at the gym.

And of course I regularly climb above trad gear in the Gunks, which ought to be more mentally challenging than clipping bolts, right?

I shouldn't have been surprised. I hadn't climbed a sport pitch outside since I was in the Red River Gorge back in October 2014. And I'd never before chosen to warm up with a mid-range 5.11.

After getting this first fall out of the way I resumed climbing Discombobulated and tried to remain calm-- combobulated, if you will-- as I worked my way up to the actual crux, a roof with some slippery holds just before the anchor. I was shaking (for no apparent reason) as I struggled to commit to the moves, but after a few false starts and some self-exhortation I made it through the crux to the finishing notch without falling or hanging.

My partner Andy, aka Mr. Sport Climber, sent the route without hesitation, of course. He was in his element here. 

Next Andy wanted to check out a 5.12 so we moved over to Bullet the New Sky (5.12a). Here Andy struggled through hard moves moving around and through the overhanging arete not far off the ground. But he eventually got it done.

(Photo: Andy heading up Bullet the New Sky (5.12a).)

As hard as it was for Andy, the route was harder for me. I struggled in several places and got completely shut down at one hard move. In the New, I was discovering, 5.12 is the real thing.

These first routes set a pattern that would be repeated through the rest of our trip. 5.11 in the New would be challenging for me. I would on-sight some 5.11's, and I would have to work at others. I found 5.12's to be very hard and generally would be frustrated, even mystified, by at least one move. Sometimes I could fight my way to the top with some falling and hanging but during our short trip I never got to where I could put together a send on a 5.12. Andy, by contrast, generally cruised all of the 5.11's and had to work a bit on the 5.12's. He sent a couple of them.

(Photo: Look close and you'll find me up there near the finish of Legacy (5.11a). Photo by Andy.)

Over the rest of our first day my lead head improved as I got used to the climbing style in the New. Leading Legacy (5.11a), I was able to keep the irrational sport climbing jitters at bay and I got the on-sight. I really loved this pitch. It has a great roof problem and then a beautiful shallow dihedral with technical moves up to another overhang at the finish.

(Photo: We were alone for the whole morning of our first day in the New, and then who should appear but our NYC gym friends Iwen and Gautam! We had no idea they were coming.)

Andy attacked another 5.12 called New World Order (5.12a), and even took an abortive go at a 5.13a called Call 9-1-1. I worked at the 5.12 for a while and didn't even attempt the 5.13. It appeared absolutely blank to me. 

But the ratings and my abilities aside, I loved the climbing we were doing. I found the routes to be so much more interesting than the sport climbs I'd done elsewhere. While sport climbing in the Red (for example) often feels gym-like, with its overhanging jug hauls, in the New I was delighted to find thin faces, long reaches to crimps, bulges, roofs, and technical corners and aretes. I'd always found sport climbing unmemorable, but not at the New.

We ended our day on an outstanding 5.10b called Strike a Scowl. Along with Legacy, this route was a candidate for my favorite climb of the trip. It features fun moves up a thin, textured face. The rock is gorgeous to look at and through the upper part of the pitch you cling to an improbable stacked flake system. The climbing is reasonable but I sure wouldn't call it easy for 5.10.

(Photo: Andy working out the thin moves on Strike a Scowl (5.10b).)

Around midday we were joined at the Endless Wall by some gym friends of ours from NYC named Iwen and Gautam. We had no idea they were coming, but we were excited to run into them and spent the next few days hanging out near them and sharing some meals together. Over pizza and beer on Friday evening Iwen and Gautam told us they were heading to the crag called Kaymoor in the morning. This sounded good to us so we decided to go there too for our second day.

When Andy and I hiked down to the Butcher's Branch section of Kaymoor the next morning, we found it packed with people. We decided to walk a bit more and found less of a crowd at the nearby Seven Eleven Wall, so we set up there for the day.

This area is known for its collection of 5.11 routes. It seems like 5.11 is the entry-level sport grade at most of the crags in the New. 

(Photo: Andy at the first overhang on Tony the Tiger (5.11c) at the Seven Eleven Wall. To the right of Andy a climber is visible on Scenic Adult (5.11c).)

I was really happy with our day here. Almost all of the routes were fun and they were all quite different from one another. We started with the forgettable (and somewhat dirty) short route Butcher Man (5.11a), but things got better from there. I had to take a few falls to work out the crux on the one I liked the best, a climb called Scenic Adult (5.11c). The route has good moves up and around an arĂȘte, followed by a very exposed and pumpy traverse to the lip of a roof. I thought that Tit Speed (5.11c), on the left end of the wall, was also very tough, with a steep and technical starting sequence, which led to more big moves in overhanging territory. This was the only eleven that Andy had any trouble with, as I recall.

(Photo: I'm climbing Bimbo Shrine (5.11b). Photo by Andy.)

I had better luck with Tony the Tiger (5.11c), a roof climb which seemed easy for the grade, and Bimbo Shrine (5.11b), a face climb that passes a few bulges with steep, crimpy cruxes. 

We decided to treat our third day as a sort of rest day, doing some easy trad in the Meadow River Gorge. I knew that this was not the very best trad area in the New, but I thought it would be nice to see a different part of the region. Most of the routes we did, at the Sunkist Wall at the far end of the gorge, were nothing to write home about, though one 5.9 corner climb called Arachnophobia was pretty nice. It would be worth making a special trip for this climb, if only it were longer.

(Photo: I'm leading Arachnophobia (5.9) at the Sunkist Wall in the Meadow River Gorge. Photo by Andy.)

Andy couldn't make himself take it easy for the whole day. He ticked a 5.12 send on a short, steep sport route called Fresh Boy (5.12a).

(Photo: Andy on Fresh Boy (5.12a).)

It was so pleasant to be in the Meadow River Gorge. The river was always close by. Its clear, cool waters were a soothing presence. I thought the rock in the gorge was pretty to look at, too, with its fiery orange shades. 

The most pleasant thing of all: we were all by ourselves on a beautiful Sunday. 

As we walked back to the road we stopped to look at a couple of the prime attractions of the area, like Mango Tango (sport 5.14a) and The Greatest Show On Earth (trad 5.13a). They seemed far beyond us (or me, anyway) but were impressive to behold.

We ended our day with a beautiful, sandbagged sport 5.10c called Winter Harvest, which ascends a juggy roof and a steep arĂȘte. 

(Photo: Andy on Winter Harvest (5.10c).)

Our fourth and final day was a short one. We had to hit the road at midday for the eight-hour drive back to NYC. We elected to spend our final morning checking out Summersville Lake. We'd heard good things about the area. Gautam said it was his favorite place to climb in the New. It is known for having more entry-level sport climbs than many of the other areas of the New. And judging by my Facebook feed, Summersville Lake is home to everyone's favorite 5.13a, a climb called Apollo Reed.

We got to the parking lot early. We needed to cram in some good climbing before leaving town.

We also had to put on our onesies.

It was now or never.

We hiked down to the Long Wall and found a group of 5.11 sport climbs in a perfect setting right next to the lake. What a beautiful place!

Getting into costume, we assumed our battle positions.

(Photos: Getting into character at Summersville Lake.)

We were dressed to kill. But we hadn't really considered the weather. It had grown hotter each day since we arrived in the New. Even though it was still early morning, it was already approaching 80 degrees. The Long Wall was baking in direct sunlight. And we were wearing long-sleeve flannel pajamas. 

We climbed a couple of the 5.11's, but all I really remember is that I was hot.

(Photo: That's me climbing something. Photo by Andy.)

Wearing the black outfit, I felt like I was in a greenhouse. And the cape kept getting in my way as I reached for draws. 

Oh, the dark side of being a superhero! Who knew?

(Photo: Andy in the spirit of things as Superman.)

It wasn't long before we shed the costumes and moved around the corner to the shady side of the wall, where we found a fun collection of steep 5.10 routes. Grateful for the shade, we camped out here for the remainder of our time. We knocked off all of the tens and then it was time to head out.

Our trip was over. I'm not sure we found the best of Summersville Lake, but we had fun. 

(Photo: That's me, finishing our trip with Flight Path (5.10b).)

I left feeling I'd gotten a great introduction to the New River Gorge. 

I loved it there, and I could see how being a regular at the New would make me a much stronger climber. Just in the course of our short trip, once I got used to the sport mentality, it became very clear exactly where my level was. If I could climb at the New all the time, I would have a virtually endless supply of climbs with which to push my level, one letter grade at a time. Without all the mental nonsense of trad climbing, my work could be focused on the moves alone. And since I liked the style of climbing so much, I wouldn't get immediately bored with such an enterprise.

Would I prefer the New to my beloved home crag, the Gunks? I wouldn't go that far. I still cherish the mental nonsense of trad climbing. Most of the time I still think that's what it's all about, for me.

But there's no doubt that if I had a place like the New closer to NYC, it would make me better.

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