Climbing Trip to West Virginia – New River Gorge 2009
Buddies Nolan, Avik, and I took a couple of days off 19-Nov thru 22-Nov to drive 8 hours to one of sport-climbing’s popular Mecca’s – The New River Gorge (and Summersville Lake) in West Virginia. We left from Tewksbury at 3:30AM Thursday morning to drive through the night and get cragging as soon as possible.
Friday before the trip, a crack in my exhaust put my truck out of commission for a week so I had to borrow my mom’s Ford Escape. It had just enough room for all our climbing and camping equipment…and the dual cigarette lighters came in handy for us techno-addicts and our cell phones, BlackBerries, and laptops.
Probably the main attendance factor for the trip, since we did start out with as many as 8 climbers originally wanting to go. But as the weeks drew nearer and the weather turned colder, the prospect of camping in possible rain and climbing on cold, damp, wet rock made most of the crew jump ship.
We signed up for a spot at Ray’s Campground in Hico, WV – only 20 minutes in either direction of the main climbing areas. It was a nice place, very simple and kindly managed by local folk. We were apparently the only guests in the whole campground yet they still turned on the hot water for our showers! $8 per night per person and $6 for two milk crates of dry firewood was a bargain.
We checked the weather daily during the weeks prior. It flip-flopped from rain to sun to cold to mild with every click of the mouse. As the days grew nearer it looked slightly bleak – rain on Thursday and 30% chance for Friday and 10% on Saturday. Were we willing to gamble away the vacation days? Then the final word came from Avik: “We should go, forecast or no forecast.” That was it…even if we’d spend 3 days hanging out by the campfire in a downpour left over by Hurricane Ida coming up the Midwest…we were West Virginia bound dagnabbit!!
It turned out much better than forecasted though (shocker). Friday thru Sunday was perfect but during our drive down it did pour thru Pennsylvania and Maryland and when we got to Ray’s around Thursday noon it was heavily misting. After setting up the tent and having a quickly heated canned-soup meal we decided Thursday would be a bust, but that wouldn’t stop us from driving around hunting down the parking spots near the climbing areas. We’d use the time to make the coming days as efficient as possible…and also to grab a few beers and grub.
Avik had volunteered to pick up our supplies for the trip. He would stop at Campmor and buy just-add-boiling-water meals along with some soups, instant coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and stove fuel. The laughter generated by his wife, Kamala, at the thought of us putting Avik in charge of this was reportedly hysterical. So amusing that she actually told other people about our “choice” of food-gatherer. Well, we decided we’d put our trust in him anyways since he had to eat too, right?
During our busted Thursday we had dinner at a recommended place called “Pies & Pints”. It had a fair selection of pies, but the “Rogue Dead Guy Ale” was the brew of choice. Nolan had the laptop up on a “hijacked” wireless connection checking e-mail and news while Avik and I browsed through the climbing guidebooks planning our precious few days left. We hung out for almost 3 hours before deciding to head back, hit the sack, and begin the trip with a new day.
Climbing – Day 1…er, 2
A new day that wouldn’t start until we rose from our sleeping bags at 8:30AM and wouldn’t begin until after a steak-and-eggs-and-oatmeal breakfast at Fran’s Family Restaurant in Summersville. Knowing well enough it had rained a lot the last 24 hours, we wanted the sun to bake the rock a little before we set out. We looked for an area with good climbs that faced directly SOUTH figuring we’d get the most coverage during the 50ish degree day. Orange Oswald Wall would be the place at Summersville Lake.
The parking lot was easy to find (I had been there before) and the beginning of the approach was at an obvious trail head. But during what should have been a 20 minute hike in…we somehow lost track of the true route and instead of heading southeast, we went directly southward to the Pirate’s Cove area…not a bad place to be if we could climb the difficult 5.10 Trad(itional) routes around there. But since the lake was drained and at least 15-20 ft. lower than normal, we were able to hike along the talus and scree covered shoreline a half-mile past Coliseum Wall, D.C. Memorial Boulder, and the Long Wall to the Orange Oswald area. We weren’t quite sure where it was but luckily we spotted some climbers carrying a bright yellow stick-clip on their way in the same direction. It was now about 1:30PM and we realized we were losing daylight fast.
The rock was still cold when Nolan started up Chunko Goes Bowling (5.9) with Avik belaying. We had struck up a conversation with the other climbers, both Asian, one male and one female. They were from Vancouver…but we weren’t sure if they were “together.” Nolan took almost a 20 ft. fall on the crux of Chunko some three quarters of the way up. It didn’t rattle him too much, but he was visibly spent from a) not warming up and b) not coming to the rock gym often enough to train in the last several months. After several valiant attempts he lowered down and Avik went up, only to hang at about the same place (for the same reasons as Nolan) but he did finish the climb. Me? not so daring. Personally I still like to warm up on the easys first.
We then did Hippie Dreams (5.7), Fabulous Groupies (5.9) and then Sniff the Drill (5.8). As the afternoon wore on the cold rock became manageable. The three of us and the Canadian Asians were the only people around…although it may have been her yelping, screaming, and loud grunting on Orange Oswald (5.10a) that kept anyone approaching too scared to join us. They both must have been good…the guy did a few climbs BAREFOOT. We were just about to try to squeeze in one more climb when we decided, at 4:45PM, it was time to pack it up and go. The sun had fallen beneath the bridge on the horizon and since we had walked the shoreline in, we were uncertain of the trail path out. The Canadians were hiking back already so we thought it best to tag along.
Packing it up quickly and departing at 5:07PM we managed to stay behind them on the trail. It should have led us back to a ladder next to a waterfall, then over a small bridge and back to the point where we ended up heading to Pirate’s Cove instead of turning. The Canadians were just ahead of us while we climbed the ladder, but before we reached the bridge, we lost them…and lost the bridge. We must have veered right and headed northeast in the darkness. The guys got ahead of me and kept walking but I had a distinct feeling the bridge was behind us…somewhere. “We’re not going in the right direction guys.” “It must be this way…let’s keep walking” I heard. Famous last words.
We followed what seemed to be a narrow trodden trail which led to an obvious wider one, and made a right turn…headed even more so in the wrong direction. We just kept walking and walking but the sound of the highway near the parking lot was getting more and more faint. It was almost totally dark (and only two of us had headlamps) when we ran into a clearing…houses! Great? Yeah, not so much. I knew there were no houses near the parking lot, and unless Yellow Cab Co. was a phone call away…we were a long way from the car.
Finally I remembered having my little Bluetooth GPS device along with my cell phone in my pack. It was only useful on streets but did have a directional arrow, so would it tell us actually where we were? I had one (Verizon!) bar which was lucky because it used Bing.com which needed an Internet connection. We were about a half mile in the wrong direction…putting us about a mile away from the car “at least the way the crow flies” and if we took the roads around the houses back to the highway and down to the parking lot we were looking at THREE miles of road walking in the dark. So which would it be? Walk the long road, or walk (blindly) the shorter way by trail?
Trail it was. We kept only my headlamp on for conservation and I hiked in the middle. About every 5 minutes or at an intersection of trails I turned on the GPS and cell phone so we could try to get a bearing. The whole time I’m looking at an arrow in the middle of a solid green blob because we were no where marked. North-South-East-West was the best I could do. We kept walking, listening to the highway getting closer and closer again, all the while presuming it was the right direction. A few times we were unsure at an intersection because none of the trails seemed to go towards the highway sounds. We reached another small clearing with various trail choices when Avik just HAD to say out loud, “Maybe these aren’t trails at all but just dried up riverbeds.” Thanks man. Thanks.
Just then while checking the Bing.com maps again I decided to switch to “aerial view” (satellite). I didn’t before because the maps were black-and-white, not colored, so I knew they were old. But this time, even though they were monochrome, our arrow was sitting right at the very edge of a white line between the trees…the line of the trail headed to the parking lot! Finally we knew exactly where we were going…and 20 minutes later…at 6:55PM, almost two hours of being lost in a half-mile square area we were back at the Escape.
After a quick trip to Wal-Mart for two six packs for camp we stopped at an Applebee’s to review the day over nachos and a beer. How much more lost would we have been if we climbed one more climb? Would we have arrived any faster walking the three miles by road? Would we have just slept out in the open if we couldn’t find our way out? Eh, whatever…we headed back to camp.
Camping 2nd Night
While we had entertained the idea of a Hampton Inn or even a rustic cabin to protect us from the elements, some of us intended all along to camp during the trip. How often do people get to sleep outside and appreciate the great outdoors? How often do people get to sit by a fire pit so raging they don’t notice its 35 degrees out? These are the things that totally make camping trips fun.
Nolan started the campfire while I lit the stove and boiled water for the meals. The food was actually really good. Avik had bought clam chowder and gumbo soup which we had earlier, and Mountain House Chicken Stew/Spicy Oriental Vegetable with Chicken. The only thing he forgot was the coffee, tea, and hot chocolate (which we picked up at Wal-Mart.) Dinner went down nicely – which we promised to tell Kamala – and along with the beers I had myself a cigar. We stayed up so late chatting, debating, and constellation observing it was past 2AM when we hit the sack again. The lowest temperature I read all night was 31 degrees and the zero-degree sleeping bag was doing just fine.
Climbing – Day 2…er, 3
Motivation didn’t begin until 8:30, or at least until one of us said, “So when are we getting up??” After another diner-type breakfast at Mabel’s off Rt. 19 we headed straight to Bubba City for some easy yet nicely long (~100 ft.) routes. This area, recommended to us by our gym climbing friends Theresa and Matt, was actually IN the New River Gorge. We had already hiked the approach a bit on Thursday while it was wet out, so at least we knew where to park. This day we’d not be solo though, as it was sunny, warmer, and also Saturday. At the parking lot about 8 people pulled out of 3 cars next to us and headed in first. The hike was even easier this time…only about 10 minutes of easy approach with a fairly steep decline down to Tattoo Wall in the Sandstonia section of the gorge.
I had taken my brand spanking new MSR Reactor jet-boiler and some of the hot chocolate with me anticipating another cold-rock day…but Bubba City was facing south-west, so right around noon time the whole face was bathed in sunlight. Guess there was no need for any warm drinks, dang it…
This day we climbed Geisha Girl (95 ft. 5.8-), Assman (5.8), Celtic Sun (5.9+) – which Avik led easily but Nolan felt mortal on. More epic banter ensued when Avik chose to tell us he unhooked himself for a quick second while hanging at the top chains taking pictures. Me? I top roped Celtic. No need to explain to the family why I decided to come home in a cast or something. It was just as fun. Our last climb was Mrs. Field’s Follies (95 ft. 5.8). Totally enjoyable, roof ending, and had a great view of the river gorge from the top.
The climbers that came in with us were locals. Most of them seemed to be associated with a rafting company on the National River. Some were guides (including “jefe”) and some worked in the office or in their marketing department. They had brought in some climbing newbies who were all having a great time. One of the girls recommended a place to us called DiOGi’s. They said it had a Mexican atmosphere and was even better than Pies & Pints. Not sure if they were just diverting us because when they all left (before us) they talked about all meeting up at P&P. Ah well, it was some place new to have a beer…which we did after hiking out again in the dark (and not getting lost.)
Camping 3rd Night
Dinner our last night consisted of more Mountain House chicken, chowder, and gumbo…and more beer. Nolan had the fire so raging we had to move the picnic table a few feet away. We got so used to the fire heat we didn’t realize it was dipping below 32 degrees by around midnight. I boiled some water for us to keep in the Nalgene bottles inside our sleeping bags. Ah, what warmth!
For the next day we were originally thinking of running back to Orange Oswald since it was technically “on the way home” but after our mini-epic Lost event we decided it best to try out Whipperwill Wall which was only a five minute hike right off the highway south of Summersville Lake.
Climbing Last Day and Return Home
Up again at 8:30 (seems we just couldn’t rise until the sun actually hit the tent) and we packed the site up for travel. Folding the tent was a challenge in the wind but at least it was sunny and not raining. The hot chocolate hit the spot but wasn’t quite enough to energize so we stopped back at Mabel’s for a biscuit-and-egg and coffee-to-go breakfast. Whipperwill Wall was truly easy to get to, and with the lake as drained as it was, climbing from the lakebed to the top was a good 80 ft. – nicely fun. We only did one climb, Gimme A Clown (5.8) which was enough satisfaction for us before hitting the road home around 1:30PM.
Avik took first shift. After driving a couple of hours we wondered if I could bare to return mom’s Escape in the muddy condition it was in. At the next gas stop I asked the cashier if there was a car wash around and she directed me to one of those mini-washes that could fit in your garage. You had to pay $7 in a credit-card machine before going through. Avik tried his card but got declined. We tried another and it worked. While being washed he checked in with Kamala who found out their fraud-protection had kicked in. Guess there aren’t too many Ghosh’s travelling through West Virginia this time of year, eh?
We drove four hours and stopped for dinner – the sign off the highway gave us two choices – McDonald’s or “Windy Hill”. We chose Windy Hill, where Nolan and I had steaks and Avik had a burger. It was a nice little restaurant with country music playing in the background. Must’ve been so relaxing because we stayed there for over an hour and a half. Final trip leg, Nolan drove through to almost Jersey when I took over and got us home just after 8:30PM. June had actually made beef minestrone soup for us which I think ended a trip of ever different meals and climbs just dandy…y’all!