Monday, January 20, 2014

west virginia's water woes and why they matter to climbers

I've kept the ropetrip a lighthearted foray into the adventures and life lessons of rock climbing. I never intended for this to become my soap box. However, it's time we band together and call for action. Environmental issues related to the sports in which we partake are numerous and should be addressed as areas of concern.

With the recent 7,500 gallon spill of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River that left 300,000 citizens from Charleston and nine surrounding counties without potable water for several days, many questions are left unanswered. Most notable is the facepalming location of the guilty tanks a mile upstream from the largest public water intake in the state. The sketchy business dealings related to Freedom Industries and the development of CDC safety measures arbitrarily based on improper chemical composition and material safety data sheets (MSDS) with no safety data available are also severely conspicuous activities.

This is a multi-faceted issue that deals with problems in industry, economy, and regulatory frameworks. I won't delve further into the details as any interested folks can venture down the rabbit hole on their own time. What I want to do is inform all the climbers, paddlers, backpackers and mountain lovers that this issue belongs to you, too.  In-state, out-of-state, West Coast, international. In our case, we who take to ropes tend to focus on access over actual ecological health. It's time we look at land management from a holistic point of view and promote watershed health from source to sea. It doesn't matter who you are. Young, old, gumby, top roper, 5.14 leader. If you make it down once a week or once a year. You're a New River climber, and this is your land. In fact, it's everyone's land, because we publicly own large tracts of it as taxpayers. Have your love and passion for the region go beyond practicing Leave No Trace ethics and throwing a couple bucks to NRAC for hardware replacement.

Because, guess what? Once the mountain tops are chopped and the water supply is poisoned, nothing remains. Your weekend getaways to the AAC campground and cheerful meals at Pies N' Pints mean nothing if you don't stand up to fight tooth and nail for what remains. Simply frequenting West Virginia as an out-of-stater doesn't absolve you from the responsibility to collectively build coercive force to fight corporate corruption.

Call and write to West Virginia's representatives. And don't think your call doesn't matter because you're not a voting constituent. You contribute to the state's tourism economy by spending your dollars at West Virginia businesses. Considering how much money talks on the steps of Charleston's gilded capitol, you have as much a voice as any native Mountaineer.

Don't fall pray to the idea that there are enough regulations on the books and the only problem is their lack of enforcement. This issue was the inevitable result of an industry with ZERO regulations. These tanks faced not one line of century code dealing with inspection because they were only used for storage purposes. And, you know, storage containers don't deteriorate over time. So go and demand effective regulatory structures. Demand that those regulations be enforced by properly funded agencies with compassionate employees. Demand an end to a destructive system that has long harmed the disenfranchised folk who shorten their lives and poison their land to provide your surrounding states with electricity.

Enough lofty rhetoric on my part. It's time we organize and produce tangible material. When it comes to environmental policy, we fall under the gift and curse of the policy window. This phenomenon is engaged by unpredictable events that point the spotlight on particular areas of concern. While these issues are illuminated, action may be taken out of urgent need or public support. However, these windows are often short-lived. As soon as some other story takes the spotlight, concern is lowered and the window closes.

With the Bridgegate scandal stealing the airwaves from an involuntary public health experiment being waged on 300,000 tax payers, the window is already closing. I ask that you take one source of action from the following avenues listed below. Call, write, donate, curse, scream. Do it for me. Do it for West Virginia. Do it for the New. Because when we've processed the last chunk of coal and the lights go off...when we've deemed the last stream dead, it'll be too late.

Don't just send bolt money (well, do that too) but find out what you can do to increase climbers' presence in recreational and environmental policy issues at the grassroots, local, and state levels.

Charleston Headquarters: 601 57th Street, S.E. Charleston, WV 25304

Room 203E, Building 1
State Capitol Complex
Charleston, WV 25305

1900 Kanawha Boulevard, East
Charleston, WV 25305
Office Phone: 304.558.2200
Governor's Mansion: 304.558.3588

One of the state's oldest environmental conservation advocates.

A great resource for all legislative contacts in West Virginia.

Last but not least, share this blog post. Share your ideas. Ask your friends if they know the travesty that's unfolding down here. Do your research and understand not only why the issues are the way they are, but what is endemically wrong with West Virginia's all-too-lax regulatory system. If you're out-of-state, make sure people are aware that we provide the power they use on a daily basis. And finally, keep climbing at the New. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

bridging the gap

In Fayette County, a symbolic structure spans a great chasm. The New River Gorge Bridge is proudly boasted in magazines, postcards and tourism pamphlets across West Virginia. This marvel of human ingenuity does more than connect the two rims of an impassable gorge – it connects two very different cultures in a polarized part of rural West Virginia. The New River is one of superlatives: the third-oldest river on the planet; one that dissects the oldest continuous mountain range on the continent; the only non-tidal river to cut through those mountains. The bridge is no different: the longest single-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere; the fifth-highest vehicular bridge in the world. The iconic connector is even immortalized on the West Virginia state quarter. Accolades aside, the bridge is an awe-inspiring structure. With its looming scale superseded only by the gorge it crosses, it is the man-made sight to be seen in West Virginia. Gold domes be damned, the gilded capitol in Charleston can only dream of overtaking the bridge as our state symbol. The bridge can be seen in a variety of ways – driving across 19, from the visitor center overlook, from Longpoint Trail, or from a raft on the New’s world-class whitewater. You can even hang your head over the edge of its 980-foot deck when the state honors the span every autumn on Bridge Day. However you choose to view it, it has the power to quell words and captivate minds more so than anything else in the region. Throughout my many climbing pilgrimages to the New, the bridge has inspired reflection. The size of the structure doubles as a mental arch to span cognitive distances and ponder the big issues we all face. I've driven across it a hundred times, and when the trees break and the gorge opens up, conversation ceases as my eyes drop to the ancient river below.

Mountain mist rolls under the NRG Bridge at dusk
Fayette County is the adventure hub of West Virginia. Sure, you can tackle the multi-pitch difficult routes at Seneca or trod unnoticed for days in Dolly Sods, but the sheer amount of adrenaline delivered by neurotransmitters daily at the New rivals that of the X Games. One of my favorite early climbing memories was being high on an exposed route above the tree line on Bridge Day. As I was at the anchors, I could see other climbers pushing their limits, BASE jumpers pushing their mortality, and river rats pushing their lung capacity. The energy was palpable – I knew I was in a special place that I would forever hold dear to my heart.

NRG Bridge from the Longpoint Trail
Fast forward three years and I was stationed in Fayette County, dealing with socio-economic issues and observing first-hand the poverty epidemic so steadily consuming our beloved Mountain State. Being stationed here was an eye-opening experience. I know we all have experienced the unexpected, but Fayette County has been familiar to me for years. The Fayette County I knew in the past, however, was an insular one. I saw only the gorge – its pristine Nuttall Sandstone crags, its beautiful rainforest, its thrashing chocolate-brown rapids. I saw only its adventurers – climbers old and new, often well-situated in life and emitting positive energy through their lack of daily struggle. I frequented its establishments that cater to my crowd – Cathedral CafĂ©, Pies and Pints, Waterstone Outdoors – the places that portray Fayetteville as a wonderful nook for adrenaline junkies to call a comfortable home. The Fayette County I know now is drastically different. I lived in Mount Hope – a cast-off mining town with little remaining. Working for Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), a community building non-profit, took me to corners of the county I never would have even considered exploring for their lack of cage-free eggs and fair trade coffee.

It’s taught me to reflect on who I am and how I view the crowds I associate with. It’s shown me that there are, in fact, two very different Fayette Counties. Which one you choose to see is only limited to the opaqueness of the veil you pull over your eyes. If one desires to avoid poverty and see only the happening areas, it is easy to do so. Route 19 has guaranteed that one need not lay eyes upon West Virginia’s disenfranchised folk.

My tribute to the span - sketched from Longpoint
This schism of cultures has been difficult to connect. The folks at SALS are aware of my crowd – the granola chomping, knit cap-wearing bearded folks with Subarus. But my crowd, even those who call Fayetteville home, are completely unaware of SALS. They know nothing of its mission to keep Fayette County from sinking further into the shadows. This has been a mission of mine – to inform folks of what’s happening outside of the New’s bolted cliffs and hip eateries. Climbers are quick to ask each other what we do for a living – the base of a crag is a social whirlwind. When asked, I am quick to posit my passions and raise awareness of the underlying issues so many miss in Fayette County.

It is this disconnect that the New River Gorge Bridge represents in my experience. We each assign our own meaning to the span – some say it proves the power of man’s dominion over the land, some see it as a work of industrial art. I view the bridge as a tool to connect two sides that are very distanced. Enough sometimes to seem as though they could never be connected. But I believe the outdoor adventurers and the community builders can coexist if we can find a way to bridge the gap. I feel the frame is currently under construction – the proverbial girders have been hoisted and are ready to accept the superstructure that could improve Fayette County for years to come. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

the night before climbing

'Twas the night before climbing, and all through the house, the sound of metal clanging against metal was damn satisfying. The first climbing pilgrimage to the New River Gorge of 2013 is about to begin, and I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I won't be waking up to a decorative spruce tree flanked with presents. I will, however, be waking up to a weekend of 50 + degree temps and a fresh rope that has yet to see a whipper.

The night before climbing is always filled with intensity. Whether it's mentally preparing for a single big climb, sending a project, or just a day of fighting through moderates after a climbless winter, the feeling is electrifying. We all experience it. Pros, hardmen, weekend warriors. It's in our blood. It's the reason we get out there and do this seemingly pointless sport. We are 'conquerors of the useless.' Yvon Chouinard proclaimed, "It's kind of like the quest for the holy grail. Who give's a shit about what the holy grail is, it's the quest that's important. The transformation is within yourself, that's what's important."

This transformation, however, comes with a wide range of emotions. The night before climbing is often accompanied by a feeling of invincibility; staunch optimism that makes you twice as strong as you are. You picture the moves. This crimp, that undercling, the final reach to clip the chains. It all goes down so seamlessly in your mind's eye. But motion pictures are often deceiving. The following morning is, no pun intended, rock bottom. You wake up and realize that it's here. It's time to perform, regardless of the quality of performance. Anxiety. Fear. Failure. These feelings flood your veins from the second you creep out of your tent to the moment you rope up and grab the first hold. We've all experienced it. And it keeps us grounded. Going into a climb with reckless abandon carries no style points. Cockiness holds no place between bolts. The route doesn't respect an ego and will drop you in an instant.

One of my climbing heroes, Royal Robbins, portrays this feeling quite eloquently in the first volume of his My Life autobiography series, To Be Brave. While Robbins is preparing to do the first solo ascent of the Leaning Tower in Yosemite, an incredible feat even by today's standards, he confidently ponders the climb over wine the evening before. One could attribute his confidence to his demeanor, or perhaps the wine. When he wakes up, however, the Valley is a different world. It's snowing, it's cold, it's desolate. The realization that he has to complete each pitch three times (one to free it and set anchors, two to pull his haul bag, and three to clean it) makes the climb a monumental effort. This hits him when he crawls out of his tent. While I've never done anything remotely close to this epic climb, it's comforting to know that our heroes, the ones who seem completely fearless, experience the same range of emotions and self doubt that we mortals do.

In the end, the climb is what you make it. Failure is defeating, but it comes with love from friends. The climbing community is forgiving and supportive. Success, however, can be accompanied by sadness from the immediate realization that everything you had built up for that ultimate moment can be boiled down to one second when the carabiner gate snaps the rope in securely. Click. It's over. That big wall, that project, that road trip. Everything comes to an end. When you're up there about to rap down, you have to pause and reflect. Did the end justify the means? Did the means justify the end? That's why we do this useless sport. Because if you can answer 'yes' to both of those questions, you have transformed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

multi(pitch) media

With some free time after the trip, Eric decided to crush out some videos with the footage we had amassed. Using his inherent video skillz, Eric is proud to present these Oscar-worthy performances to you, the ropetrip faithful.

And, of course, a stills montage. Crunchy. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

southern hospitality

It's been a while. Since my last post, I've started grad school and Eric has embarked on yet another road trip to the Southwest. Right after the start of the new year, which we ushered in with style at a ski chalet in the Western Maryland mountains, Eric and I hopped in the van and headed south for some southern fried fun.

The plan was a two-week trip focused on Rock Town in Georgia's Southern Appalachian mountains. Rock Town is a world-class bouldering destination with a large variety of climbing on some beautiful rock. The first stop was in Birmingham, Alabama, to kick it with our friend Bob, a Forest Service wildfire fighter whom I had lived with in California. Bob showed us a helluva time; a Birmingham experience that no one else could have provided. We hit the local rock gym to get a warm up in and met up with an old friend from high school as well. Then we stocked up and headed to Georgia, sweet Georgia.

Others are overhung as hell, testing your pump before one of Rock Town's difficult top outs. One boulder is featureless save an intricate network of inch-thick iron rails that protrude from the sandstone. Painful crimps on the sharp-edged iron characterize this gem. One this is for sure, whatever style of bouldering you find aesthetic, Rock Town has it in spades. 

Others are overhung as hell, testing your pump before one of Rock Town's difficult top outs. One boulder is featureless save an intricate network of inch-thick iron rails that protrude from the sandstone. Painful crimps on the sharp-edged iron characterize this gem. One this is for sure, whatever style of bouldering you find aesthetic, Rock Town has it in spades.

Dispersed camping is up for grabs right outside the Rock Town area, with pleasing car sites surrounded by mid-growth hardwood forest. The nights were cold but daytime temps in the 50's provided the perfect climbing atmosphere. Unfortunately, after our fourth night at our side, the rain moved in. All night. All morning. Soaked tents, bags and gear. The forecast showed no sign of relief, so we admitted defeat and decided to cruise to Asheville, North Carolina.

Asheville is a trendy mountain city in the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachians. It boasts the highest number of breweries per capita of any city in the States. We crashed with friends, Nick and Tiffany, and enjoyed some culture for a few days. With temps in the 70's our last day in town, we had to get outside. 45 minutes along a scenic highway and some gnarly twisties gets you to Chimney Rock State Park. Home to some multi-pitch trad lines and some quality granite bouldering, Rumbling Bald is opposite the water gap from Chimney Rock. Both sides are massive granite temples; the guts of the cross-cut mountain range.

The rain started the second we dropped our crash pads. Another blown chance at new climbing. Oh well, put it on the hit list for next time, we said. We attempted to make up for it by hitting Asheville's downtown rock gym. The effort was lackluster at best; we wanted to be on real rock.

One thing you learn about outdoor sports if you can't plan for the weather. You have to plan around the weather. That's why spontaneity is such a beautiful thing to have in your life. Being able to drop everything and catch a streak of sunny days to get away is a luxury. Even with the rain, the trip was a blast and served a much-needed role.

southern fried photos

Add caption

moving through a sequence

super mario boulder

super mario V3

the warm up boulder

nothing but crimpy iron rails

jump start to climb this face

lil' cave

steep routes


golden harvest boulder

some shine drankin' dude grabbing a V5

best V2 i've ever been on

appalachian sunset

rock town

massive hueco


the ey

wild features

eric about to crush el bano direct V4

the gnar monster came down this road

ingles - home of 'make your own 6 pak'

some rando sending a V5 on rumbling bald's massive granite boulders

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

recent ASC posts

Since becoming an official contributing writer for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, I've been speaking to some pretty incredible people. I regularly am in contact with Gregg Treinish, the founder / director of ASC and 2008 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for his first-ever through hike of the Andes mountain range. Most recently, I wrote a blog post advocating for ASC and the American Alpine Club, which can be found here at the ASC Blog.
Gregg has set me up to interview several fascinating adventurers and scientists, with many more on next year's slate as ASC continues to pick up steam.

Dave and Amy Freeman-
Dave and Amy run Wilderness Classroom, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching young students about the importance of ecosystems around the planet. Dave and Amy are currently finishing up a three year, 11,700 mile trek by paddling from the Great Lakes to Key West by way of the Atlantic Ocean. They are participating in several ASC studies, and my story detailing their expedition can be found at the ASC Blog.

Lonnie Dupre-
Lonnie is a world-renowned mountaineer who attempted the first-ever winter solo summit of Denali in Alaska last year. Lonnie had to bivouac in an emergency snowcave for seven days at 14,000 feet before even being able to retreat. While in the cave and on his descent, he fought 96 mph winds and temps that, with windchill factored in, hit -75 degrees Fahrenheit. Lonnie has his own adventure blog with detailed accounts and audio clips of his harrowing attempt. Beginning Dec. 29th, he will attempt to summit Denali again while collecting microbial samples for the ASC Microbe Study.

Dragos Zaharescu-
Dragos is a climatologist at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, and heads a fascinating study about nutrient cycling via microbial breakdown of bedrock in alpine environments. Dragos is working with Lonnie Dupre to collect samples from high on Denali's apline ecosystem, and through ASC advocates the link between the effectiveness of science and public awareness. He is excited about the future of ASC and has said wonderful things of his involvement with the organization thus far. Stay tuned for my next story that will explain the relationship between Dragos, Lonnie and their study.

Monday, November 26, 2012

we're on the trip

After road trippin' in the Caravan (it was the Sport model, so it was legit) came to a close, I had been searching for closure. I spent many hours processing the trip through memories, photos and my journals I kept along the way, thinking that I would develop some new paradigm on how I see the world. But I've discovered that closure isn't what I needed. I have come to realize I require transition and inspiration, which I recently stepped into knee-deep.

Eric and I had a phrase that we exclaimed profoundly, a brief and obvious statement that always got a rise out of the other person. I've learned that people actively pursuing something they've worked hard for often have one of these, something to keep themselves grounded and lifted simultaneously. For us, it was "We're on the trip!" This phrase represented the continuing culmination of something over a year in the making, and it always provided a kick during a long, stale drive or a tedious hike through hot, dry country.
I guess for us it was akin to "It's really happening!" and we loved it. There's nothing that provides the palpable taste of accomplishment like truly living in the moment, as the present is all we truly ever experience. When you can enjoy the current moment above everything past and future, you feel pure elation and time ceases to exist.

We also kept things in perspective with the axiom "everything is temporary." Usually this phrase was uttered during a trial or something that could cause some negativity, but we came to learn that its meaning extended to the good things as well. Mental reconciliation became a huge part of our lives. When any chill-inducing, this-is-life moment was happening, I'd try to really soak it up as I knew it would eventually come to a close, and that a low moment lurked somewhere in the darkness beyond.

One of my most memorable moments was towards the end of our return trip, which was a straight shot from the beach in Arcata, California to our point of origin in Morgantown, West Virginia. We were passing by Pittsburgh and we realized that we had to keep the phrase "Were on the trip!" alive. To us, this represented continuing life with the mindset that the adventure never ends, it only takes different forms. While the road trip that we had invested so much into and had pulled off, quite successfully, was coming to a close, a new phoenix would rise from the ropetrip's ashes and carry us off to a new thrill. I wasn't sure what the hell it was going to be as I was close to broke and in need of employment, but I knew I'd reinvent myself one way or another.

I had always joked that being destitute was the source of financial adventure, as you never really know what you're made of until you're forced to produce. It's not as primal or adrenal as true physical survival, but in today's global society, I feel it creates waves just as big. Necessity is the mother of invention, and it was time to hit the drawing board. But I discovered the inspiration was a struggle to sustain. It's hard to produce mental positivity when you're in a lull. Attainable goals are often placed on the backburner, simmering for far too long and steaming away into delusions of grandeur. The endorphin-flooded thoughts that are supposed to push us to strive for a better life slip away into sleep and become pipe dreams.

The silver lining of hitting a low means the only way to go is up. My resting was done, and I wanted to be on the trip again. So I looked into graduate school for a morale boost, discovering a feasible career through studying environmental policy. I also took a shot in the dark and emailed Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation director Gregg Treinish (we had participated in the pika study during the roadtrip through Montana) and asked for advice on building a career based around writing and conservation. I would have been happy with any response from Gregg, but what I was offered was a major step in the right direction. Gregg and ASC invited me to become a contributing writer, actually getting paid for my words and effectively shocking my dead journalism career back to life. He also encouraged me to apply for an incredible travelling job through ASC which I am anxious to hear back about. The same evening, I received my acceptance letter for grad school at West Virginia University.

All of it goes to show that the trip never ends. Things begin and things come to a close. Adventures start and finish, and the most important lesson of all is to enjoy the journey. Because when it's over and you ponder everything that happened, all you're left with is the aching wonder of what's next. It is this downtime, the lull between major chapters of our lives, that produces the peaks we aim to summit. And it is during this time that we must remember - we're all on the trip.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

backyard crag

While Eric is back on the road and doing sweet things like climbing Devil's Tower in Wyoming and living at The Red in Kentucky, I'm back in a chair at a desk. Fortunately, I've taken full advantage of autumn in the Appalachians by biking, hiking and climbing through this most perfect of seasons. The air is cool and dry, the leaves absolutely explode with color and energy is in the air. One of the best parts has been the discovery of my own personal outdoor training gym. My neighbor, a very cool man by the name of George, has a set of boulders in his backyard that possess a number of pretty fun boulder problems. They don't sport the classic quality of routes up at Coopers Rock, but for being 100 feet from my door it's surprisingly good. George is a traveler and a doctor. He's been all over working with Doctors Without Borders as well as other NGOs. Currently, he's in Syria doing medical work - I can't imagine leaving the tranquil fall in West Virginia for war-torn Syria, but I have great respect for him. He's also a climber - he drilled a bolt into the top of a large boulder right off his back deck so he can self-belay and top rope it. He's really enjoyed my eye for spotting boulder problems that he never would have contemplated.

my backyard - fall in wv
Currently, I've sent eight fun routes and have eyed up a few more that are way above my ability - but it's something to work towards. My best accomplishment was finally topping out a highball problem that took me three weeks to figure out. I'll consider it my greatest and only true first ascent - I was extremely stoked to send it clean. It's definitely made me stronger and has improved my technique quite well. Now that the leaves are off the trees, the relentless overcast and grim forests look like they are ready to succumb to the cold grip of winter. With a few great weekends remaining, climbing season will come to a close, save the occasional 60 degree winter day we always have in the Mid-Atlantic. With one last big trip to the Red planned for mid November, I'm crushing as much as I can at my backyard crag to stay strong for next spring.

Here's the sequence for the highball that took my several weeks to get beta dialed in:

Mike McDonald on a nice face climb: