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Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Short and Obviously Incomplete Personal Take on the History of Climbing In and Around Smoke Hole Canyon

While editing the manuscript for my guidebook project, I was forced to trim this brief synopsis, taken from journal notes and conversations with old partners; a necessarily incomplete view of what has come before, who we were, and what we did, where and when.

Mike Fisher gets cowboy on Buckaroo, Reed's Creek

Humans climb before they walk; it's hardwired right into the system. The Dagon, the Anasazi, and countless other aboriginal people have scaled formations of impressive size and difficulty as a matter of religious ritual and daily existence.

No doubt, the natives who traveled the Seneca Trail and hunted through Smoke Hole Canyon ascended many of the prominent spires and outcrops long before the first European set foot on this continent. 

According to local folklore, the first known climber in the canyon made his ascent shortly after the Revolutionary War.

His name was William Eagle, a local who ran away in his teens to join the Virginia Regiment of the Continental Armies, and served with distinction before returning to Smoke Hole to raise sheep and start a family. The story claims that one day an eagle swooped down and snatched up one of William's lambs, carrying it to an eyrie on the summit of Eagle Rock. 

Annoyed by this, as any hardworking veteran farmer would be, William went to retrieve his lamb.

In much the same way as the Federal government reaches out to farmers and small communities today, William was attacked by the eagle, which tore a huge chunk of flesh from the Revolutionary War veteran’s side.  By the time William reached the bottom and re-crossed the river, the story claims that his hair, long and coal black, was completely white.  It was in honor of this event that William named the formation and surrounding ridge Eagle Rocks.  He is buried across the road from the entrance to Eagle Rocks Campground, where there is a historical plaque recounting his life.

As with nearby Seneca Rocks, modern climbing came to Smoke Hole with World War Two and was probably practiced by returning veterans and traveling Europeans in the following decades, although the canyon was, in those years, a wild and woolly place, with a dirt and gravel road prone to wash out and rock fall. Many of the inhabitants were less than receptive to outsiders trampling their land in search of rocks to climb.  

As a result, climbers spoke only to close friends of their discoveries and rarely returned to even great crags, with so much more rock to explore. Who knows how far afield Don Hubbard, The Conns or any other member of that early pantheon of venerable hard persons wandered on unrecorded trips?  

Information is sparse, and jealously guarded where it exists, but many inhabitants of the canyon remember people climbing on Eagle Rock and the Entrance Walls.  Old rope burns on the older trees atop many of the prominent cliffs, rusting piton belay and rappel stations and faded remains of webbing slung round stumps and chockstones attest to a rich history of exploration at which we can only guess.

When the Monongahela National Forest finally yielded to years of climber and tourist requests and complaints and installed the first swinging bridge at Seneca Rocks in 1978, one of the unforeseen but inevitable side effects was the influx of large numbers of people for whom the solitude and natural beauty afforded by the crag meant nothing.  

The August ’78 issue of “Off Belay” magazine reported that, following at least one day of mayhem and trundling by a group of teenage tourons and their handlers below the popular East Face, “locals… (had begun) climbing at some of the more remote crags in the Smoke Hole Gorge.”  At that time, “locals” included Howard Doyle, Eric Janoscrat, Hunt Protho, Ray Snead and John Stannard, all explorers and pioneers. 

Seneca Rocks icon Mike Goff and comrades climbed so extensively around the area that it is impossible to say that they didn’t climb anything… so we’ll say they likely climbed it all… no doubt in tricouni nailed boots and EBs, with slung machine nuts, without placing any stinking bolts, on milspec surplus nylon ropes and salvaged US Ames pins, long before most of us were a gleam in our father’s eye.  

Local guide and avid fisherman Darrel Hensley explored and climbed extensively in the canyon years before most folks.  Sport climbing seems to have reached the canyon late, sometime in the 90s when Darrel and friend Nanette, Ed Begoon and Tracy Ramm crossed the frigid river to bolt a line on Eagle Rock’s steep SW Face; just right of the notch that breaks the formation.  Apparently conditions were so heinous that Eddie was considering turning back, but by then Tracy was already wet and he knew that nothing could be worse than telling her she had done all that for nothing. 

But it was close…

This is how it began for me.

In the fall of 1992, a group of climbers sprawled on the shaded boulders below the sport crag of Franklin, West Virginia; Ed Begoon and Darrel Hensley, Troy Johnson and your humble author. 

Ed and Darrel were both relaxing between attempts at their serious new line, “Mostly Harmless”, Troy and I were finishing a day of chasing bolts and endurance on franklin’s juggy faces, and the four of us were rapping about falls, leading, the weather, and the surge of routing activity at Franklin.  There had been a spate of good lines and bad, a few of which had been mine, on both sides of the coin.  Franklin wasn’t “tapped out” by any means, as later decades would show, but crowds were increasing and the luxury of leaving a line equipped for a week had become the gamble of losing a dozen quick draws and fixed gear, as well as the first ascent, after weeks of work.

We weren’t whining, well, not too much... mostly, though, we were thinking aloud, looking for an out from the corner into which we had literally bolted ourselves.  It had been a fairly productive climbing day and was nearing dusk.  Beer was calling, along with thoughts of hot food and a shower, distracting me from most of the conversation, when Darrel looked at me with a wicked grin, and said “You guys should come down to the Smoke Holes and help us develop lines there.” 

Smoke Holes?  Where in Creation was Smoke Holes?

Turned out it was actually called Smoke Hole, singular, as in Smoke Hole Canyon.


Just the word registered in my pre-occupied and climb-frazzled consciousness.  Canyons are not common in the Eastern portions of West Virginia.  Gorges aplenty, but canyons?  Not so much.

When asked for details, Darrel gave us a quick sketch of the short, easy drive from Franklin.  As we begged for more beta, the Seneca hardman wiggled his eyebrows and looked to Ed, who in turn nodded with a rapid intensity that said “Check it out.”

The Honemaster had spoken.

A week later, Troy Johnson and I drove into the canyon.  We must have walked fifteen miles that day, to drive a total of eight; sprinting up to the Entrance Walls hanging gardens of ferns and the Mystery Pin that was fixed even then; staring down into the gorge at the canyon’s base as we wound above the cliffs and swimming holes full of bass and trout.  I still remember the instant shock of déjà vu, seeing Eagle Rocks and suddenly remembering a lost backcountry climb with a friend as a relative novice, a decade before.  We stopped at Shreve’s Store, bought sodas and snacks and asked about the weather, petted the dogs and were on our way.  Beyond, we found the Long Branch and Sunshine Walls, just two miles from the store.

In search of shade from the summer heat as well as sunny winter climbing, Troy and I ruled against another southeast-facing crag and hiked up to Long Branch, which we dubbed The Darkside for its shady cliffs and the looming, overhanging north buttress.  We started cleaning and putting in lines a week later, with the mixed 5.8 Through the Looking Glass and the much stiffer Local Hospitality.  We were pushing our envelope, each exploring the boundaries of their own comfort level; sometimes progressing rapidly, cleaning and drilling a line in a single day on rappel, sometimes forging ground-up, often solo, in fits and starts. 

We told two friends, and they told two friends, and word spread, as it does in a small community of climbers.  Within a month or two, the hardpersons of Seneca Rocks, New River Gorge and insane North Carolina crags showed up to see what we had been up to.  

They crossed the Branch and established the lines on the Sunshine Wall in a siege of creation and sending, pretty much doubling the amount of available climbing in a month.  Darrel, Tom Cecil and Tony Barnes wandered over to the Long Branch Wall to find a long-remembered beauty, and Tom bolted Beautiful Loser ground up, creating one of the most beautiful lines in the canyon.  Tony established a mixed line next to it that became known as Barnes’ Mixed Bag, which is currently without anchors since the tree used for the purpose died.  

Meanwhile, it seemed as though almost every climber in the Harrisonburg community spent time top-roping and on belay, working the varied, gymnastic moves of Shattered Illusions, which would eventually go at a bouldery 10 on the first ascent by Troy Johnson and myself.

Ed Begoon and Troy were avid paddlers at the time, and they dropped into what is now known as Copperhead Cove to find mystery bolts on a riverside wall.  Troy later put up a handful of burly lines on either side of these, filling in the shady riverside sweep of stone they found above a jumble of huge boulders and a perfect swimming hole.

Mike Fisher pushed into several back corners and bolted the first mixed route on Cave Mountain.

I was working a construction job that had very little to offer the soul, and took the toll of a Titan on the body; pouring and finishing concrete three to five days a week, ten to twelve hours each day of wading shin-deep in material with the consistency of thick oatmeal, kneeling and trowelling for hours around some architect’s insane idea of a retaining wall; running jackhammer and building forms, tying rebar and then turning around to take it all apart again.  The mountains were my only haven of sanity and balance.  My small cadre of climbing partners was my family.

Because we had history, not just exchanged numbers on a bulletin board or time in a gym, posts on a website or spray sessions on the Front Porch, but hours and days of shared laughter and tears, in cold and heat, rain and snow, hard lines and bad falls, rope drag and poor gear, bogus beta and ghetto bivvies.

Before we were bolting lines at any crag, we were devouring climbing; we top roped and learned to place and fall on gear and set-up simple lines on the short cliffs of the Shenandoah Valley: Hidden Rocks, Hone Quarry, Lover’s Leap, Goshen Pass, honing our skills for the challenging sandbagged classics of Seneca Rocks.  We climbed the tiny, hard to reach corners of Shenandoah National Park.  We visited and were humbled and challenged by New River, and the granite of Old Rag, Looking Glass, and the White Mountains. We bouldered almost every stone over the height of ten feet in Gum Run and Rawley Springs, on Dictum Ridge and Second Mountain.  We spent a lot of time in a little shop called Wilderness Voyagers, with a great crew of hard-climbing outdoorsmen and women. 

John Burcham was one of the pioneers of Franklin, a thin, caustic clown prince; shredding lines and boulder problems as if there was no tomorrow, spending summers in Alaska working and climbing, exploring America with his camera in hand, and driving a new generation of Shenandoah Valley climbers to push the limits. 

Todd Shenk was the quiet, handsome local lad who actually made a mullet look good.  He knew the nuts and bolts of every piece of gear in the place and was a solid climber who could be counted on for a great belay and a laugh on a hard day. 

Tracy Ramm was the third axis of the group, a hard climber in her own right with first ascents on gear and bolts; an incredibly friendly and laid-back lass with long brown hair and calloused fingers, she guided us towards more than one good gear purchase and offered the lessons of her years in the mountains without a trace of ego. 

One absolutely frigid winter morning, as Melissa Wine and I faced the prospect of another cold day at Hidden Rocks, Tracy handed us a set of topos to a place called Franklin, a sunny little river gorge which was only thirty minutes further from Harrisonburg. 

We found our way to Pendleton, and to Franklin.  One run up the juggy faces, and we were hooked.  Weeks were spent plotting, and our climbing days were spent learning at light speed around a core group whose names could be found in any guidebook to Eastern United States climbing; Begoon, Powell, Clark, Hensley, McGinnis, Artz, Barnes, Cecil, and Shull. These folks had created an area which had become a nursery for young climbers, a place for testing personal limits, pushing the grade and learning about the basics of bolting and the ethics of sport versus traditional climbing.  

We met some amazing climbers from across the nation and learned some hard lessons about impact when the area was included in several publications and traffic increased exponentially overnight. We watched and read as the problems plaguing our secret garden were debated and dissected in the national climbing press and, in some cases, the global climbing community.

And, eventually, with a nudge from the previous generation, we found Smoke Hole.

Now it is my turn, and this is your nudge.

Some of those issues we faced and tracked have found consensus and are seeing management through unified effort.  Some, like the issue of dogs at the crags and fixed draws, or the truth of who stole whose line/girlfriend/campsite/clients will likely be with us the day earth falls into the sun.

After several decades of exploration, discovery and development with an amazing, ever-evolving assortment of great climbers, and after long debate over impact and the loss of historical climbing information, I can only hope that knowledge is power; the power to control our impact, to be good stewards, and to have the most fun humanly possibly while ensuring that the opportunity to do so is preserved for all time.

In the end, we are all on the same team.  A good friend reminded me of that, not too long ago. Nothing about those issues changes the beauty of the stone and the routes we climb, and the turmoil we find down here, on level ground, pales in the pure joy of remembering those great ascents, wonderful days with friends, the glow of accomplishment and the rush of discovery and adventure. 

There are other stories of climbing and climbers in Smoke Hole and the surrounding region that have not found their way into the light.  I hope that someday, those who know those tales and who have the much more complete records will make them a part of the national archive of climbing history.   We are a part of the cornerstone, and I would love to hear from anyone with climbing tales of Smoke Hole, Germany Valley, North Fork Mountain, or any of the crags of Grant, Pendleton and Hardy Counties; wvmgray@gmail.com or in the comments section of this post.

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