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 With its looming scale superseded only by the gorge it crosses, it is the man-made sight to be seen in West Virginia.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