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New River Gorge Climbing History

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Beginning in the 1870’s, the New River Gorge was a bustling coal mining hub, integral to the Industrial Revolution and the boom in United States manufacturing. Following World War II, the mines in the New River Gorge began to close, with the final mine, Kaymoor, closing in the 1950’s. Ruins of homes, company stores, and coal cars remain in what is now land protected by the National Park Service. These remnants of days past serve as a reminder of the early days of West Virginia’s history. Two decades later, in the 1970’s, adventurous pioneers discovered that the New River Gorge held more than just coal, it also held miles of some of the hardest sandstone on earth, perfect for climbing.

Using top rope to climb the hard sandstone walls of the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

The earliest climbers in the New River Gorge explored the areas at Bridge Buttress and Beauty Mountain, just two of the dozens of climbing areas that the New River Gorge would produce in years to come. These early climbers free-climbed and aided their way up the Sandstone, seeking out lines in the rock that could be climbed. In these days, the New River Gorge Region was largely a hidden gem, with climbers flocking to other more developed places in the east.

NRG Climbing Grows

That all began to change in the 1980’s, when the New’s reputation as a climbing destination began to spread. Doug Reed climbed the New River Gorge’s first 5.11-grade climb in 1983, as many more routes (including more 5.11s) were being established. In 1984, the cover of Climbing Magazine featured Tom Howard on the picturesque and aptly named 5.9 climb, Photo Finish. The popularity of the New River Gorge only went up (pun intended) from there. With new climbing areas being “discovered” regularly, new climbs were being established all around the New River Gorge. Adventurous climbers built trails and journeyed up and down the New River in search of more rock worthy of being climbed. Junkyard, literally the former site of a Junkyard, was developed and numerous classic routes were established, like Rapscallion’s Blues (5.10c) and The Entertainer (5.10a).

Climbing hard sandstone walls in the New River Gorge, West Virginia.

The mid-1980’s also brought in Cal Swoager, a climber and Vietnam Vet from Pennsylvania, who made it his mission to climb as many cracks in the New River Gorge. He took this challenge on in earnest. Swoager established and gained the first ascents on some of the most notable, classic climbs in the New River Gorge, climbs such as Chasin’ the Wind (5.11b), Sons of Thunder (5.11c and d), and his final route in the region, Leave it to Jesus (5.11c).

Face Climbs & New Guidebooks

The late 80’s brought more development in face climbs, as the majority of the cracks in the New River Gorge had been climbed. More technical and difficult climbs began to be put up, with 5.12 routes being established and becoming more prevalent. This era also saw the first guidebook release, with 465 routes listed. The release of the guidebook brought in swaths of climbers, eager to climb on the New River Gorge’s sandstone. In 1987, with new development occurring at Bubba City and sport climbs being bolted, the New River Gorge saw its first ascent of a 5.13 climb, Diamond Life.

Lynn Hill

1988 brought Lynn Hill to the region, and the strong traditional climber was able to walk away with the first ascent of The Greatest Show on Earth (5.13.a), a route at the Lower Meadow area. This 5’2” powerhouse would defy the odds to beat out others vying for the first ascent of The Greatest Show in a predominantly male sport. Hill would go on to become the first climber to free climb The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

New River Gorge climbing history has evolved over decades in West Virginia.

The 1990’s would continue to see the development of sport routes in the New River Gorge, and the further development of the Meadow, Kaymoor, Beauty Mountain, and Summersville Lake. Areas which had primarily consisted of traditional climbs began to be filled in with sport routes in between, making the area an all-around destination for both traditional and sport climbers. 1991 brought the first ascent of the New River Gorge’s first 14a, Super Whiny Bugs.

In the mid-90’s, extensive development at the portion of Endless Wall known as The Cirque would begin, with Brian McCray bolting some of the hardest climbs at the New River Gorge. With climbs like Proper Soul (5.14a), Ride the Lightning (5.13b), and Lord Voltemort (5.14a), this area is probably home to the highest concentration of hard climbs in the New River Gorge. In the late 90’s, development would slow in the New River Gorge proper, due to regulations put in place by the National Park Service. Climbers and developers set their sights on the crags to the north, focusing on The Meadow and Summersville Lake instead.

Climbing in the Gorge Today

The new millennium ushered in further development at nearly every crag in the area. The New River Gorge has also become a destination for boulderers, with the release of a bouldering guidebook in 2015. With over 2,000 routes in the New River Gorge and more climbs being established regularly, it’s no wonder that The New River Gorge is a climbing destination for thousands of people every year. With incredible views and even more incredible rock, The New River Gorge has Experience a piece of this history with a climbing trip with ACE. The perfect adventure for grops and individuals alike. ACE offers full day trips into the heart of the New River Gorge, where climbers can experience some of the classic routes that make the New River Gorge famous. Or, dip your toes into climbing with a half day trip on ACE’s private, on-site cliffs. Learn to climb clinics are also available for those who want to transition from gym climbing to outdoor climbing, learn to tie knots, trad climb, lead climb and more! Step out of your comfort zone and into one of the best adventures you can have in West Virginia–climbing in the New River Gorge. something for everyone.

Experience a piece of this history with a climbing trip with ACE. The perfect adventure for groups and individuals alike. ACE offers full day trips into the heart of the New River Gorge, where climbers can experience some of the classic routes that make the New River Gorge famous. Or, dip your toes into climbing with a half day trip on ACE’s private, on-site cliffs. Learn to climb clinics are also available for those who want to transition from gym climbing to outdoor climbing, learn to tie knots, trad climb, lead climb and more! Step out of your comfort zone and into one of the best adventures you can have in West Virginia–climbing in the New River Gorge.

Rappelling in the lower New River Gorge with ACE Adventure Resort guides in West Virginia.