Thursday, January 16, 2020

Unsung Heroes; Melissa Wine

Writing about Melissa Wine is always a challenge.  Melissa was, like most of us, a riddle wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a mystery. She loved quiet mountains and riversides, heavy metal and loud bars, had a temper like a thunderstorm and a heart as fragile as spun glass. She was my best friend in a time when that meant much more than it does in the Facebook age. 

Melissa will forever be the amazing woman with whom I discovered so much of myself, the Shenandoah Valley, country life, and climbing, and with whom I fell deeply in and never quite out of love with, so many years ago. If I often wish things had gone differently, it is not for myself or what-could-have been, but because I wish her life had gone down a different road, to a place of happiness and realization of her amazing potential, surrounded by friends. 

Before we were bolting lines at any crag, Melissa and I 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. 

Melissa at the base of Snakeskin Cowboys, Riven Rock Park, Rawley Springs, VA

We were humbled and challenged by the bulletproof sandstone of New River and the granite of Old Rag. 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 outdoors loving men and women. 


One absolutely frigid winter morning, as Melissa and I faced the prospect of another cold day at Hidden Rocks, store manager and NRG hard person Tracy Ramm 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 County, and to Franklin, where our lives changed, forever.

Working into the crux of Potential Energy, Contact Zone, Franklin Gorge
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; Burcham, Tracy and her future husband Eddie Begoon, George Powell, Howard and Amy Clark, Darrell Hensley, Angie McGinnis, Mike Artz, Tony Barnes, Tom Cecil, and Harrison Shull. These folks had created a climbing community which became 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.

It was here that George Powell and I completed the first ascent of Anchor's Away, and shortly thereafter Melissa and I put up our first sport route together, Belly of the Whale.  

Over the next four years, we put up Aloha and Hard Thang, and assisted Darrell and John with their routes Edge-U-Cation, Walk the Plank, and Rock Your World. Melissa spent countless hours in freezing conditions working with me trying to carve a working line out of the face just left of Belly before admitting that it just wasn't going to go. We climbed every line below 5.12 at Franklin and fell off several of the 12s with determined laughter.

Melissa on the first ascent of Aloha, Franklin Gorge, Franklin, WV

Setting up for another day on the route that just wouldn't go, Franklin Gorge

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.
Leading Batteries Not Included, Long Branch, Smoke Hole Canyon

After Troy Johnson and I had broken ground, so to speak, Melissa Wine and Rachel Levinson joined us in a wave of stoke, and between the four of us routes began falling like dominoes.

The lady crushers ran up the FAs of routes like Hummingbird and Hippo's Head, bouldered in the Rawley Maze, on Second Mountain and Dictum, redpointed classics like Four Sheets to the Wind, Triple S, Rico Suave, and The Entertainer and kept coming back for more.

Cleaning gear and crushing moves on Four Sheets to the Wind, NRG

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. 

Leaving the Endless Wall after a full day of sending.

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.

L to R: Troy Johnson, Melissa, Tom Bunk and Owen Gartland, Ninja Walls, Smoke Hole Canyon

And Melissa was the star by which I steered, the sun that shone on my world, my enthusiastic partner in every hare-brained misadventure and exploration.

Gunsight to South Peak top-out, Seneca Rocks, WV. Melissa led this as her first gear lead a week later, and went on to put up a dozen trad routes in the next year.

Time passed, friends moved on or moved away, life changed, and the distance between two friends who fell in love with each other and climbing began to tell.

Melissa and Caspian, North Peak of Seneca

When I decided to quit my hellish construction job and spend the fall and winter exploring the West, Melissa told me that she couldn't just walk away from her family and her life in the Valley, and moved out of our cabin in Rawley Springs.

The rest is history; I went west and had many trials, epics and misadventures in Yosemite, Red Rocks, the Sierra, Joshua Tree, Owens River Gorge, and Flagstaff, the beginning of a life that has taken me to 47 of 50 states, putting up 200 routes and dozens of new boulder problems along the way, and finding the woman who has weathered every storm, shared every victory, and stood by me through thick and thin, famine and plenty, sunshine and storm, despite all my rough edges, extreme opinions, and un-PC judgements, the amazing Cindy Bender, who honored me by taking the last name of Gray. 

Melissa doesn't climb, now. She manages a Dollar General store in a quiet little town just over the mountain from my home, and occasionally we run into each other in the grocery store or around town. She has weathered the years far better than I have, and thinks back on those days with a wistful nostalgia, those times "when my life was so much more exciting and interesting".

Soloing up into the Gunsight Notch of Seneca Rocks

I've been trying to write this for seven or eight months, and it has been a challenge, for all the reasons above and because I lost my Dad in June and things with my family and that of my wife have just taken precedence.

Today I sat down and decided to finish this part, at least, to share with you, gentle reader, a glimpse, a snapshot, and my memories of an incredible woman who shared the journey and was a cornerstone of Smoke Hole climbing.

We all know heroes; friends and strangers who go out of their way for no better reason than to to pay it forward from a place of plenty, to hold themselves accountable, if only for a while, to a standard that we can be better, all of us. 

To fail is to be human, to overcome defeat, to try to be more is inspiring and to succeed, divine. To spend as much time and love lifting up others as we do in pursuit of our own dreams is the highest path we can aspire to walk.

It is important to acknowledge and remember; we stand on the shoulders of giants.

These are the unsung heroes of Smoke Hole Canyon; I'm just the guy who was lucky enough to climb with them and call them my friends.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Walk it Like You Talk It

Good old Matt Samet.

A month or two ago, he was throwing away the foundation stone climbing ethic of respecting red-tagged projects, giving away the hard work of dozens if not hundreds of route creators across the country and globe, just because he became proprietary while working on a line he didn't even bolt, decades ago.

Now he writes a trite little piece to open the Travel issue of Climbing, a magazine that has bemoaned climate change on quite a few pages and in column inches which translate into more than a few kilowatt hours of coal and fracked-gas generated electricity (no matter how many solar panels you use).

Matt first talks about the venerable history of climbing travel (back when there were still glaciers in Glacier Bay), and how "it's almost impossible to extricate getting vertical from globe-trotting"

He then goes on to acknowledge the hypocrisy of publishing a Travel issue considering the plight of our planet.

But Matt has never been deterred from earning a paycheck by contradicting himself; he quickly recovers by telling us that his employers have a nifty keen building in which they are just SO environmentally correct that they are more energy efficient than 75% of a country in which 10% of the houses were built at the turn of the last century or before, and many second homes, like Bernie's, sit idling and empty until their owners deign to occupy them for ski season, beach season, or a break from the campaign trail.

Picking up speed, he goes on to explain how climbers can make up for their carbon footprint by purchasing offsets, carpooling to the cliffs, making the most of local climbing, driving a high MPG vehicle, and eating meat sparingly.

Let me address these in reverse order.

First, Matt, the most efficient way to reduce carbon output is to stop having kids. Not zero population growth, but maybe entertaining the idea that you don't need to create your own baseball team from scratch.

That was the leading recommendation from climate change scientists, and the least favorably received from the PC police who cry "white privilege" about anything not catering to changing nothing in third world nations while altering every facet of life here in the U.S.

Eating meat has next to no impact on global climate change. Without meat eaters and the commercial farms they patronize, the only way vegetarian/vegans can fertilize their food is using petroleum products. 

Holy contradictions, Batman! 

Sorry kids, but truth hurts; you can kill Wilbur and Bambi, or you can enjoy another great movie about the next Deep Water Horizon.

While we are passing by petroleum, I have one word: nuclear. Less waste and impact than solar or wind farms, long lasting and efficient in ways none of the "100% clean renewable sources" (which aren't) can never be.

But I digress...

High mileage vehicles are still manufactured in massive car plants powered for the most part by coal and gas, and they don't just melt away like spun sugar at the end of their lives. So the benefits are more than offset by the cradle-to-grave impacts.

Making the most of local climbing: do I even need to point out that you wrote this at the beginning of a Travel Issue dedicated to anything but making the most of local climbing?

Here again, he avoided an obvious answer or three; if the Access Fund, the AAC, and their valuable partner gyms and guide services slowed the rate at which new climbers are recruited and thrust out into the world, and instead dedicated some of their million dollar budgets to free gym-to-crag classes for their members, the crags would be less crowded and in better shape, and fewer climbers would flee to the airport to go find adventure.

If the Access Fund hadn't pushed many land managers and agencies into suspending all new routing while they go through the process of reviewing or developing climbing management plans, regulations for a sport which few employees of many if not most of those agencies have any experience with, new crags would be coming into existence to accommodate the overflow.

If the Fund and AAC spent less time and effort pushing special privileges for their members and Conservation Teams, and more supporting the stewardship efforts of the 95% of climbers who don't belong to their cliques, we'd be well on our way to making all the crags of the world more enjoyable and attractive, encouraging more people to stay home and enjoy them.

Carpooling sounds like a surefire solution to crowding and pollution, but after 26 years of trying to encourage and enable climbers to do so, I can attest that few if any climbers make any effort to do so. Not everyone likes the same bistros/music/bloggers, or likes to smoke weed, or hates Trump/Bernie/Liz/Biden, or can endure a three hour ride with your crag dogs. 

And most just don't want to, so they don't.

Purchasing offsets is sadly ironic. How many offsets and carbon points does it take to replace a mountain leveled for coal, or cleanse a river poisoned for fracking, or remove even one-tenth of one-tenth of one percent of the pollution from our air?

Full disclosure: have I climbed in other states than the one in which I resided?

Yes: when I was working and volunteering on Public Lands in Colorado as an active steward, I often returned to Arizona to rebuild trails, pick up trash, and put up new routes in my old stomping grounds in Northern Gaan (Devils) Canyon in the Tonto National Forest. I camped rough, made my own meals, and when I didn't, I patronized local restaurants and small businesses all along the way.

When I lived in Phoenix, I carpooled whenever I had a climbing partner and drove one of the most fuel efficient cars on the road at that time. For better or worse, I was as honest and irascible then as I am now, so I did a lot of solo aid climbing. I tried to do so with as little impact as possible, something I rarely see today.

I also took advantage of job-related travel when I was a stagehand and theatrical rigger to explore places like Leavenworth and Independence Pass. I did so in the most fuel efficient rentals the company provided, stayed in primitive campgrounds instead of hotels even when my per diem would have covered it, and did everything else I could to tread gently upon the earth.

Globe-trotting sounds so much better than "posting Greta memes before helping to burn 10,000 gallons of jet fuel so you can climb in (insert latest destination crag name here)", doesn't it? I see a lot of "woke" folks practicing this kind of double standard thinking these days.

But again, Matt, it just ain't necessarily so.

I lived in Phoenix during the heyday of Potrero Chico development. And I watched long distance as Kurt Smith and Magic Ed Wright decimated the ecosystems in place to create their crag.

I chose to walk it like I talked it and not go climb across the border, despite having more than enough air miles and income to have flown around the world on my way to Monterey State.

I have tried to live my life as free of contradictions and double standards as possible.

Because there are already plenty of Matt Samets in the world.
Above: Making the most of local climbing, with literally hundreds more new lines just half an hour's hike away.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Paradox of Our Times

The Paradox, by Dr. Bob Moorehead

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. 

We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. 

We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. 

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. 

We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. 

We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. 

We've added years to life not life to years. 

We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. 

We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.

We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. 

We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. 

We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. 

We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big en and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. 

These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, over-weight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. 

It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete.

Remember, spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever. 

Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side. 

Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn't cost a cent.

Remember, to say, "I love you" to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you. Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak, and give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Truth?

A local wit recently said we should stop listening to the media and look around to see the truth of Trump.

Okay, I'll play:

In 2016, the Franklin area had 6 functioning restaurants: Fireside, Fox's, Star Hotel, Korner Shop, the Antler Room and Moe Fatz.

Today we have FOUR, and only three of those currently open.

(And that's making the huge assumption that one of those will reopen next spring after suddenly, inexplicably closing just before Treasure Mountain Festival.)

We had one new business start-up, by the same old money, which runs a bar that employs less than a dozen people, none full time, out of a county population of 7,000.

The Chamber of Commerce is rapidly approaching the point where it will have as many out-of-state members as local businesses. And every year they present awards to the same folks that have owned 90% of the businesses, made 90% of the money, and vetoed 90% of new opportunities for the last 50 yrs.

Entrepreneurs have to go out-of-state for funding.

More homes than ever are for sale.

More people than ever are either driving over to Virginia or moving away to find work.

The old Sugar Grove Navy base is still standing empty.

The old Pendleton Industrial Park is rotting away, with only DHHR, DMV, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau renting, which is just the county pouring money into a hole.

The new Pendleton Industrial Park is hundreds of thousands of construction and maintenance dollars in the hole. Most of its structures have been rented for less than five out of the last 21 year's since its construction.

At present, it is occupied by (as mentioned) a kid-and-dog-friendly bar (and how does that even work?) that puts most of its profits in the pockets of one family's members, 80% of whom do not live in this county or state.

So, please, anyone, tell me again: where's all this prosperity the truth of Trump is bringing to Pendleton County?

Sorry, my partisan friends, but the proof is in the pudding, and fact is, the Emperor has no clothes.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Invisible Warriors


Most people see Cindy smiling and laughing in pictures out at the crag, or on the trail, and think 'Wow! She looks great. How can she have a disability?" 

They don't see the incision scars from two reconstructive surgeries to her lumbar vertebrae, the silver dollar sized lesion on her brain stem, the titanium stents inside her skull.

They don't have any concept of the determination it took for her to regain use of one side of her body following a stroke, or the incredible effort it takes for her to walk on a repaired patella and meniscus while coping with a sense of balance that can feel like she's on the deck of a ship in a storm.

Few comprehend the hours and days of pain; when Cindy hurts so bad that this former athlete and firefighter weeps in agony and frustration.

They don't see that every hike or climb requires two or three days of recovery, or the days that we set out for an adventure, but an unpredictable flare-up of Multiple Sclerosis ends everything before we set foot on the trail or approach.

Not every disease or disability waves a red flag; not every sick or disabled person behaves in a way that announces their condition.

Ironically, many who campaign  for diversity, inclusion and awareness treat those battling MS and other chronic but invisible diseases with a lack of sensitivity and awareness that manifests as impatience and borders on downright rudeness.

Too often, I've turned around on a steep, narrow crag trail that Cindy helped to build, to find a party of climbers who've never done a minute of trail work crowding her heels and mumbling, not quite under their breath, about this person impeding their blind rush to pose for selfies on a route Cindy helped to bring into existence.

Take a minute to understand that, as well as those with obvious disabilities, this world is filled with people who don't LOOK sick but who overcome more challenges getting to the trail or crag than most of us will ever know in a lifetime.

Take another to repair the trails you walk, to replace dislodged steps and stones in the trail, even if you didn't create the damage. 

Make a conscious effort to keep walkways clear of ropes, packs, dogs and hammocks. What you consider a minor inconvenience is a major obstacle to those with mobility issues from neurological diseases or reconstructive surgery.

Remember that "those people" never asked for their lot in life; many were once as healthy as you.

The kindness you show today may someday be the kindness you need from others.

Edit to illustrate the capricious nature of her disability: since this original post on Facebook, Cindy suffered a compressed L3-4 disc when the prosthesis in her back broke loose from her spine and hip while walking across the kitchen floor. 

No warning, out of the blue after three days of casual hiking and climbing.

At present she is walking with a cane and living with extreme pain, awaiting treatment sometime in early December.

Spiritual support and love can be sent to her via her Instagram account @grayowlfeather

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Queens of Denial

Some of you may by now have heard of's predatory lawsuits over use of the term "backcountry", which they somehow managed to trademark.

In an effort to increase public awareness of that egregious behavior and encourage outdoor enthusiasts to not only speak out but to question the gear manufacturers and advocates who partner with Backcountry, I posted links on quite a few outdoor pages, many of them climbing pages. Most were well-received or silently ignored.

Such was not the case across the hill from Smoke Hole Canyon.

Yesterday, in recognition of the futility of trying to change closed minds, I deleted my post on the Climbing Seneca Rocks Facebook page regarding the Access Fund's silence on the predatory legal practices of Backcountry, as well as the Fund's untrue denial of any previous partnership, whether from ignorance, as an effort at spin control, or to avoid losing a future sponsor for their Jeep Sales and Climbing Conservation Teams is unclear. 

Any effort to discuss the issues on that page is inevitably drowned out by people who hate me regardless (or because) of the truth in what I say, whether for daring to impugn their situational ethics, their self-serving idols or shine a less than flattering light on the failures of the corporate advocates they blindly support, of which many of them are members or administrators. 

You will find no posts there about climate change, mountaintop removal, fracking, or pipeline incursions on public and private lands, because they believe those issues "have nothing to do with Seneca Rocks." 

Despite the recent failure of erosion controls that dumped pipeline sediment into 19 miles of a stocked trout habitat beginning just a few miles downstream from Seneca, the sad fact is THEY DON'T CARE.

Until extraction industries blast the top off of North Fork Mountain, surround the crag with drilling rigs and pumping stations or drain the river to feed the same, there will be no discussion of how those issues are affecting the state in which they play.

You will see posts about "empowerment" because most of the women who climb have a decent amount of disposable income and the page is primarily a promotion site for the guide services which have exploited Seneca for decades. 

While they are active in raising money to replace bolts in other countries, at least one guide has taken the hangers off newly-replaced bolts based on the fictitious guidebook info that he had completed the first ascent. The young climbers who had replaced the bolts went on to free the 5.12 route on trad gear and the legendary Honemaster who had actually done the FA with bolts congratulated them while correcting the incorrect info in the guidebooks, which has been revised in the latest edition.

In a delicious twist of irony, the guide who removed the hangers later published a post in which he stated that FA parties have no ownership of those routes and deserve little or no consideration if modern climbers wish to change or add protection.

While posts about ethics are scarce, you'll see posts about the first human-parrot team to reach the summit, because what climbing truly needs is yet another form of fashion accessory pet dragged up the crags.

You won't see too many posts about drone use that interferes with climber-belayer communication and impacts peregrines, because the guides supplement their income using those drones and because the post authors are so resoundingly vilified that most delete their posts in an effort to reduce the negativity they'll face if recognized at the crags or posting about other topics.

People tend to hate anyone who sullies their Pollyanna world views with inconvenient facts. 

I find Generation Z and those who crave their friendship increasingly pathetic; more than willing to ignore how the issues on their t-shirts, bumpersticker or memes affect the places where they recreate or to acknowledge their own impacts. 

I have given up trying to change their minds, because they are satisfied with their minimal efforts and virtue signalling 'activism'.

You really can't teach a pig to sing, nor challenge the rule of the Queens of Denial.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Reply to Forbes Magazine's BS

Sorry, Forbes, but that's a fail on your attempt to throw shade at legalization.

The black market continues to thrive here and in Canada because of several factors.

First and foremost, cannabis, unlike alcohol, has not been legalized nationally in America. Too many churches, police unions, private prisons, rehab centers and drug testing manufacturers make VAST amounts of money maintaing the status quo, and none of the bureaucrats in Congress or the DEA want to yield their cash cow. 

Second, if we or our northern neighbors sell each other weed without paying taxes or getting a business license to do so (you know, the way they did business for a century before regulation sought to make up for billionaire and corporate tax dodges), we're black marketeers.  

So your figure of 43% of Canucks getting their herb from "the black market" is semantics.

Despite the contorted path offered by several wannabe Democratic pretenders to the Oval Office, and the promises offered to justify the slow, profitable approach taken by advocates,  no one has managed or is actively trying to take the US government to court for Scheduling cannabis as a drug with no medical applications while simultaneously issuing patents for medicines containing cannabis.

Your language reveals your bias; I don't think I've ever read a Forbes article referring to cheap alcohol consumers as "broke drunks", so why call cannabis consumers of lower price products "broke stoners"?

And the high taxes attached to legal cannabis keep medical cannabis prices low for patients with PTSD, MS, seizures and cancer. There is no such benefit among alcohol users since alcohol cures nothing but an excess of brain cells and money.

As for reduction in work forces, yes, there was great hope that Colorado, Oregon and California might lead the way to overturning the current racist Prohibition and ending the American War on Citizens, but 2016 produced a field of tragically laughable Presidential candidates with no interest in sacrificing campaign support for denouncing an institution in which they were all invested.

And despite claims from the Tweetster, not every sector of the job market is growing.

We sure aren't seeing much of it in West Virginia.

The hemp trade would probably do better if cops stopped raiding grow ops they think are cannabis and the farmers didn't have decades of public misperception to overcome. 

The reason for increases in arrests has a name and it's Jeff Sessions, who reinstituted the forfeiture and seizure laws allowing police to seize money and assets.

And, finally, no, as long as they are required to support Google and Amazon's tax immunity, as well as that of Trump's golf buddies, with stultifying taxes and fees, Americans probably won't buy 100% of their cannabis from government approved sources.

We stopped marching obediently into that turnstile in 1776.

To read the article:

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Open letter to the advocates

Since no one else who knows the story has the courage or integrity go share it, I guess it falls to me.

Why do you have such a grudge against the guides, the Access Fund, the Mid-Atlantic Climbers, the American Alpine Club and the PATC-MS, Mike?

Well, it all began long ago, but the story coalesced in the cabins of Seneca Rocks, just a few years ago.

When Cindy and I were invited to the DC AAC Leadership Conference at Seneca, it was made very clear that no mention of the past was to be made during the meeting. 

Nothing about Franklin access negotiations or lack thereof, or guide incursions onto private land, or, really, anything that actual affects climbers and access in the Smoke Hole/Seneca Rocks region.

We complied with that stipulation and spent most of the meeting listening and taking copious notes, including who said what.

Seneca chapter co-founders Diane Kearns and Tom Cecil both agreed that Seneca and Smoke Hole were "very different climbing communities".

This was the same meeting in which Dave G. revealed that the DC AAC would be getting a new chapter or admin position, to accomodate the arrival of Dave's buddy, Piotr, from out west.

"Even though we don't really need another chapter or admin," Dave admitted, "I gotta give the guy something to do, right?"

Maybe this slip was why Dave promised, as we were leaving, that if Cindy and I wanted to start a Smoke Hole AAC Chapter, he, Dave, could "make that happen, no problem."

After weighing our options and talking the matter over for several days, we reached out to Dave to follow up on that promise and begin the process of forming a new Chapter in SHC.

It turned out that doing so wasn't quite a "no problem" effort; we wound up exchanging emails and messages with Dave, and then Adam Peters, in Utah, the AACs shot-caller regarding new chapters.

We complied with every request from Adam for info, bios, etc., and were told, in as many words, that we were "in" and that Adam would be in touch with info on how to take donations and set up a bank account for the new Chapter.

Very excited, we contacted a number of climbing friends and volunteers, local businesses and the drive-in theater about staging some membership and fundraising events and potentially showing some climbing films.

Six days later, Adam pulled the plug. His first justification was that we "failed to meet certain criteria".

When we pointed out that those same criteria applied to Seneca Rocks, Adam's attitude became much less cordial and we were told, in no uncertain terms, that this was not going to be a discussion about the obvious double standards between making two guide and gear shop owners into Chapter co-founders versus allowing to local climbers to do so.

When we pointed out Tom and Diane's comments about differing communities with very different needs, Adam still didn't care.

When I shared this info with the climbers we had contacted over the years, "someone" leaked a copy of that email back to Adam (as intended) and at that point his attitude went from defensive to downright hostile.

Over the course of the next few emails, what we learned was that the nix had come down from no less than the head of the AAC, Phil Powers.


Well, despite OUR agreement to let the past be the past, it seemed that Phil had a grudge against "that guy Mike Gray".

For what, you ask?

Why, for... you guessed it... the PAST.

I have repeatedly, unforgivably pointed out the glaring contradictions between AAC member/admin actions and the AAC's press releases, mission statement and stated ethics.

When I posted about this entire debacle on my blog, several folks from the AAC tried to call me a liar in reply.

Unfortunately for the spin doctors, I have my blog set to require approval before any comment is posted, and I simply laughed and deleted those attempts to soften the harsh truth about AAC politics.

Flash forward to the recent past, when an AAC Chapter co-founder and Educational Director posted that "in his (forty years of) experience, (contacting) landowners to ask permission to climb on their land never turns out well", a tacit endorsement of trespassing.

This is the same person who, with numerous guides in his employ and from across the road, has trespassed on any number of privately owned crags in the surrounding region, in most cases permanently removing those climbing areas from any possibility of future climbing access. (I got this information from a former Gendarme employee and guide as well as from the farmers and landowners I know throughout the region.)

This is the same person who claimed to be in negotiations with Franklin Gorge landowners, when in fact he was only in contact with one of the four families who own the two crags in Franklin, his offers had been refused, and further attempts at contact were met with silence.

More recently, this luminary removed hangers from a climb at Seneca after they had been replaced (in the exact same locations). He did so without notifying the climbing public, despite the opportunity to do so during John Christian's birthday celebration at Seneca. His actions were based on having asked two young climbers not to replace those bolts because he planned to move several placements and would do so after he returned from a climbing trip.

His authority in this matter was based on a lie; that Tom had done the FA of Black Mamba, an untruth perpetuated by his fellow guide Tony Barnes in the Seneca Rocks guidebook, despite the climber who did the actual first ascent, Eddie Begoon, having tried for a decade to get that information corrected.

We all know how the story ends; the young guns did the route on trad gear, Eddie wrote a lengthy comment giving insight into the backstory and duplicity (including Tom's failure to return any calls following his temper tantrum).

Eddie was also gracious and humorous, stating that he would have only asked that the bolts be replaced in the exact same locations (as they were), commending the young climbers for in effect saying "F*ck you old guys, we don't need no stinking bolts" and raising SR standards in doing so, while laughing at the fact that the route had been done in better style almost as soon as the FA info had been corrected in the latest SR guidebook.

Several weeks ago, Tom had the gall to follow this fiasco (Eddie's description) with a repost of his manifesto Carved in Stone, a rambling self-important discourse about climbing ethics, in which he gave his blessing to adding bolts to other people's routes, based on the assumption that all those sport routes were rap bolted and/or the routesetters have no authority over them.

Holy double standards irony, Batman.

In June of 2018, the DC AAC crowed over the fact that Vice Social Chair Michael Astran's efforts had added 800+ climbers to his outing group (and thus, more than a few to the DC AAC's income and outreach), with no acknowledgement or apparent understanding of the impact even a quarter of that number would have on any crag in the region.

They did show up in Smoke Hole, eventually; despite posts on the Smoke Hole Canyon and Friends of Smoke Hole pages informing them of ongoing bolt replacement, Mike and his trusty sidekick Darwin Castillo brought over 50 climbers and half as many cars to a crag with 30 routes and parking for a dozen cars. 

They devastated the trails and belay areas, and never offered to join any of the rebuilding efforts that we held afterwards. When I showed up with tools and a work crew, we found Darwin pulling a rope through anchors in which I had fixed a work line.

Part of this crew has climbed at Franklin repeatedly after the new no trespassing signs went up, despite Tyrel Johnson and myself, among others, attempting to dissuade them from doing so by pointing out the Posting and the availability of over 250 new climbs on public lands just 15 minute's drive north, at Reed's Creek and in Smoke Hole Canyon.

Dave, I know from emails shared with me that the AAC and the PATC-MS know very well that the Mid-Atlantic Climbers and the Access Fund did little more than exacerbate the issues which closed climbing at Harper's Ferry, and it was due to their interference that the closure has lasted this long.

And yet no one in either of those organizations has had the courage to call them out for their obstruction or for their ridiculous claims to have been pivotal in lifting the ban.

(I'm not the only climber who found it hilariously ironic that they first claimed to have been instrumental in informing climbers about the peregrine falcon element of the closure, then claimed to have been responsible for the closure ending on the exact date it was scheduled to end in the first place.)

One reason I have heard that the truth will not come out is that there is a concern that doing so might affect LCO's ability to get funding from the Access Fund, since MAC admin and founder Chris Irwin is close personal friends with the new head of the Fund.

Isn't this covering up cronyism and personal agendas?

And for what? Money? 

That's pretty ironic rationalization coming from a Mountaineering Section whose members own cabins and second homes, whose same members can afford to ski at Monarch and fly to Ouray and vacation in Europe and Thailand.

But sacrificing convenience for ethics and addressing the contradictions between your sales pitch and what happens at the crag aren't things you people at the top do very well, is it?

These are problems which must be addressed if the Access Fund is to be seriously considered as "the voice of climbing". 

Until the AAC cares as much for preserving and sustaining Appalachian mountain culture and communities as it does for those in the Andes and the Karakoram, save your Bears Ears hype.

Until such time as I don't hear West Virginian jokes that are no more appropriate that "n word" jokes in a Mountaineering Section, affiliate or chapter event, please spare us your virtue signalling on empowerment, inclusiveness and diversity.

Playing politics serves only the corporate advocates (a term I first heard at that long-ago AAC meeting), not the greater climbing community and certainly not future generations of climbers.

Saturday, October 26, 2019


I hear a lot about the war on Christianity, and with Christmas right around the corner, I'm sure we'll hear even more in posts and news, as well as tweets from Pennsylvania Avenue to Lynchburg.

I hear a lot about Israel, from people screaming in angry denial because the world has seen just how corrupt its leaders have become, to "Squad" members mouthing ignorance between affairs with campaign consultants, to Jewish friends who have, over the years, described Zionism as "insane".

I hear a lot about human rights, demands that we protect everyone in the rest of the world from injustice, exploitation and brutality.

But when the people of Appalachia cry out to end the destructive, poisonous, landscape and heritage erasing practice of mountaintop removal, once Matt Damon's movie was done and Free Solo and the Dawn Wall arrived, I heard only crickets.

I don't remember the PATC-MS, the DC Chapter of the AAC, the Mid-Atlantic Climbers, Gendarme or Waterstone announcing a showing of "Promised Land" or the documentary "Coal Country".

I don't read posts on any of their pages about the Mountain Valley Pipeline, another assault on Appalachia.

Clive Bundy and his thugs pointed weapons at federal officers and walked away free as a bird.

The tribes at Standing Rock waved signs and were attacked with dogs, water cannons and riot gear.

The Apache Stronghold and Arizona Mining Reform Coalition continue to fight international mining giant Rio Tinto. The Access Fund has a static page with a link to comment on the proposed mine at Oak Flat, as well as a link to donate to the Access Fund, which has little or no ongoing investment in the fight.

Why should Americans revere Christianity, when Christians have owned most of the businesses despouling America's beauty and backed most of the candidates whose ideals were antithetical to conservation?

It is the height of irony that Christians claim persecution and demand protection when they've spent almost 250 years destroying a religion that existed here when Christ was born.

How can Christians, who influence candidate platforms and Presidential elections, scream about a war on their faith, when the faith of the First Tribes isn't even acknowledged in the National Forest's EIS for Oak Flat, and when almost all of America's natural wonders are sacred places that were taken from their inhabitants?

Oak Flat was sacred to these people when a shepherd named David went out to face a giant with a sling and stone.

It is as sacred to them as the Mountain where Moses received the Commandments and Noah came to rest in the Ark.

Despite this, and his apology for the U.S. government's long history of taking Native lands for a profit, a descendant of slaves spent 6 years of his Presidency ignoring their requests for protection, while bailing out Wall Street, pouring millions of tax dollars into a green tech scam, creating a tax dwindle disguised as universal health care and arming ISIS through negligence and ineptitude.

Now the NFS is checking off items on the list to move forward with the plan to destroy not only Oak Flat but also nearby Superior, gorgeous Queen Valley, the beauty of Queen Creek and the heritage of the San Carlos Apache.

And no one in the Fund, or the Club, or the Section is talking about it.

We hear preachers screaming about what is happening in Israel with never a mention of or prayer for the assaults faced by our own people at the hands of a Conservative Christian government right here at home.

The old ones are passing and their children are angry. Wounded Knee, Standing Rock, Oak Flat, Matewan, Blair Mountain, Buffalo Creek; these will be the rallying cries.

Those who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Who Is Mike Gray, Anyway?

"He’s not a hard numbers climber."
"His online ticklist looks average to weak; he doesn’t boulder V6, never on-sighted anything harder than 5.11 or worked on any of the steep famous lines at the New or Red."  
"He put up some lines at Franklin but none of them is harder than 10a. He doesn’t climb anything harder on a regular basis and he’s not a guide, never been a guide or been AMGA certified.  Not a member of any gym, climbing club or organization." 
"He chopped those routes at Franklin."  
"He’s a tyrant and an ass who thinks he owns the crags."   
"He’s obsessed with impact and dogs, landowner rights and something called stewardship."  
"He has an online reputation as someone with a quick temper and a disregard for public opinion, while wandering off on tangents, waxing long-winded and posting rants about trails and impact out of the clear blue, slagging on the hallowed institutions that keep climbing safe and available for all."

That's what you can get from the online community and some of my biggest fans.
Now, here's my side of the story.

I’m the caregiver and devoted husband of a recovered stroke victim and Multiple Sclerosis patient, now in her eighteenth year of fighting that disease, the oft-mentioned “Miss” Cindy Gray.

Since meeting and realizing that it was “bigger than the both of us” in the spring of 2008, we’ve lived in the basement of an old church, an apartment over an old brothel and bowling alley, several trailers, and a selection of tents in five National Forests, three National Parks, on BLM land, in a National Monument and at private pull-ins all over the U.S of A.

In our tiny but mighty S10 pick-up truck Icy Blue, an aged Suburban, and a classic 1979 Lindy motor home, we have crossed the continent eight times, and have covered roughly 200,000 miles in search of relaxation, adventure and great climbing over the last 11 years.

From the rocky forests of the Alleghenies to the shoulders of the Rocky Mountains and the sands of Joshua Tree, we’ve cooked hundreds of meals on a single burner stove, camped in temperatures below freezing and above 100F, and climbed several hundred routes together, forty-nine of them first ascents.

How am I tied to the Smoke Hole Canyon and Pendleton Valley area?

Mike Fisher and I laid off and constructed the original line for trail now in existence at Franklin Gorge in a single month of long weekends, arriving on Friday evening, knocking out a few routes before working most of the night by headlamp and in the full range of weather conditions, repeat on Saturday and Sunday as conditions permitted, head home Monday morning to start work.

I created that crag’s first organized trail work and clean-up events using the Internet and local shops to spread the word; events, by and large paid for out of a carpenter’s pay and sometimes less; building campsites, providing materials and tools, coordinating work efforts and feeding dozens of hungry volunteers.

Those “chopped routes” at Franklin some of you might have heard about?

The bottom hangers and the anchors were removed to replace many of the old protection and anchor bolts, as well as some dangerously worn cold shuts, and to give the severely impacted belay areas underneath time to recover.  The supposedly chopped routes were improved and re-equipped within 60 days, a part of the initial Potomac Highland Anchor Replacement/Upgrade Program.

Although considered by many to be a dog hater, your author is in fact a former SPCA member and volunteer who’s had dogs, cats, lizards, pythons, scorpions, tarantulas, sport and trad climbers, musicians, DJs, strippers, forest firefighters, construction workers, junkies, hackers and Marines for housemates, and coexisted peacefully with them all.

I led three rebuilding trips to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, built homes with Habitat for Humanity for poor families in West Virginia, began a breakfast program for homeless vets and seniors in Flagstaff, Arizona, picked up donations and delivered meals to homeless shelters and fed upwards of 200 people a day with the Flagstaff Family Food Center, often taking days off to see that needy seniors and veterans got food and warm clothing.  When the Food Center had a surplus of donations, Cindy and I distributed Christmas presents to families too poor to afford them, going door-to-door on Christmas Eve.

In the last three decades, I’ve put up over 200 new lines; trad and sport, rap bolted, ground up, and solo aid, as well as having explored several amazing bouldering areas, in Virginia and West Virginia, Arizona and Colorado. Quantity means nothing in the age of the drill, but I’m proud to say I’ve had far more rave reviews than complaints over the quality of my lines.

During the early 90s, I was bolting my first sport lines in Franklin Gorge, starting with  Belly of the Whale and Aloha and the appropriately-named Hard Thang.

Due to a long spate of bad weather and unemployment, as well as a willingness to spend entire days either freezing or baking while dodging loose rock and eating dirt on belay, I soon found a place on the first ascent teams of routes like George Powell’s delightful Anchors Aweigh and John Burcham’s Rock Your World and Walk the Plank.

It was during this period that Darrel first mentioned Smoke Hole, and our discovery of this amazing place began.

In November of 1995, I took a one-way ticket to Sacramento, California and, for the next six months, climbed, hiked, and in every way embodied the old and honorable tradition of dirtbagging; camping in bounds and out  in Yosemite and J-Tree, Red Rocks and Hueco (back when it was still wide open to climbers), climbing and bouldering every day that shredded skin and screaming muscle would allow, dumpster diving and sweet-talking day-old produce and bakery goods out of cashiers across the land.

I survived headlamp rappels and blind 5th class down climbs from classic climbs in the Needles of California, topped out and retreated in thunderstorms and hail, torrential rain and sleet, and weathered sub-zero bivvies while homeless in Flagstaff.

In the spring of 1998, while living in Phoenix and working as a stagehand and concert rigger, I wandered off the beaten path, where I discovered and began development of the trails and routes of Northern Devil’s Canyon in the Dripping Spring Mountains of Arizona.

In the next four years, I built several miles of trail and put up over thirty new routes, often on solo aid or with inexperienced climbers riding a Gri-gri for first ascent attempts.

Eventually, fortunately, I ran into Devil’s Canyon pioneers Rich LeMal and Marty Karabin, ended my Russian roulette version of belay and began developing routes like Red Raspberry, Slappin’ Stinky, Angelicus and Exit Stage Right.

In 2001 and again in ‘02, traveling from Arizona to the east coast, I was fortunate enough to hook up with local climbers Tom Reid and Bryan Gartland to do ground-up ascents on the short but exciting lines of North Lake and the boulders and faces of Monument Lake in Colorado.

In October of 2006, once again on the east coast and searching for an escape from the city life, I moved to the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon and returned to exploring, building trail, and developing new lines in the area. 
In late 2007, I found the abandoned gear and three existing bolted lines on what had for years been posted as private land along Reed’s Creek Road, in the northern end of Pendleton County, West Virginia.

In the next year, Cindy and your humble author, along with friends and fellow route developers Michael Fisher and Ryan Eubank, put in hours of work stabilizing trails and belays, restarted development and opened a dialogue with the Monongahela National Forest.  With the help of the Cheat Potomac Ranger Station and Recreation Director Julie Fosbender, we got the property boundaries resurveyed and re-marked to protect landowner privacy as well as to secure and define climbing access.

Along the line, I worked with Professor Jamie Struck and the Outdoor Adventure class of Lyndon State College in Vermont to improve and maintain area trails on their annual trips to West Virginia, a program that has benefited Reed’s Creek, Smoke Hole Canyon, and Franklin Gorge.

In 2014, a new grandfather, working as a sometimes cook and sometimes guidebook author, I came back to the coast with my lovely wife, to put up lines and build trail, gathering volunteers and organizing work days, introducing people to and continuing to explore the beauty and wonder that hides in the depths of this amazing canyon.

In that same year, I launched a Kickstarter campaign and self-published The Climber's Guide to Smoke Hole Canyon, which included Reed's Creek and, for the sake of historical accuracy, the climbs of Franklin Gorge. I am, at present, the only person who actually put up routes and built trail to have published climbing info about Franklin.

With the help of D.C. climber Tyrel Johnson and editor Todd Kutzke, I published the climbing apps for Reed's Creek and the Entrance Walls, and for Long Branch and the Guide Walls, on
These are the only guides to Smoke Hole and Reed's written by the crag routesetters, and all proceeds from sales go back into trail work, trash cleanup, and bolt replacement.

In 2015, Cindy and I launched out on a new adventure and became campground hosts, booth and maintenance staff in Colorado's amazing mini-Yosemite on the South Platte; Elevenmile Canyon. We hiked and explored, repeated multi-pitch trad domes and single rope sport classics, found a ton of untouched rock and established a few lines of our own.

In February of 2016, Cindy suffered a massive swelling in her brain and was rushed to the hospital, then transferred to the Critical Care Unit of Richmond, VA's VCU, where she was diagnosed with a Giant Petrous Dissecting Cerebral Aneurysm. A month later, she underwent almost four hours of surgery to place three stints in and around the carotid artery, an operation her surgeon described as one of the most complex he had ever performed.

Two months later, the incredibly determined Miss Pink Pants was sitting in the navigator's chair as we returned to our duties in Colorado, where we spent another season working with the sometimes hilarious and often tragic American public and a host of foreign visitors while ticking off boulder problems, climbing more classics, finding two brand-new crags and establishing another handful of lines, among them two trad on-sights.

Winter and the end of season once again returned us to the mountains of West Virginia, where we live in the small town of Franklin, working part-time jobs and being full-time stewards and mentors.

My wife is as sharp-witted, lovely and spirited as ever, and I'm trying not to be so crusty, working to build alliances and restore bridges.

In 2017, I launched SHARe/UP; the Smoke Hole Anchor Replacement/Upgrade Program, to replace all the substandard, twenty-three year old cold shuts, bolts, and hangers of the canyon and surrounding regions. At the same time, Cindy and I created the independent local climber's alliance Friends of Smoke Hole, and created a Facebook page to keep climbers and the local communities informed about our activities.

I publish photos on Instagram under @wvmgray and @smokeholecanyon, and Cindy's pictures can be found at @grayowlfeather.

At present (September of 2019), along with Friends of SH, I'm coordinating with the Monongahela National Forest to increase parking opportunities at the end of Reed's Creek Road, where we hope to break ground on a new parking lot within the next year or two.

That’s me; that’s Mike Gray.

I invite you to come and discover, and beg you to take the time, between swearing eternal enmity on lying guidebook authors and enjoying phenomenal climbs, to appreciate the wonders, the history, the underlying strength and the fragile beauty that is Smoke Hole Canyon.

Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I'll see you there.

Mike Gray
Smoke Hole Canyon/Petersburg/Germany Valley, WV May13, 2007-Nov 24, 2010
Flagstaff, AZ August, 2011- March, 2012
Colorado Springs, CO May - June, 2012
Brainerd Lake, CO June-August, 2012
Coon Bluff, Tonto National Forest, AZ October-November, 2012
Boulder Creek, Apache Trail, TNF, AZ November 2012-February, 2013
Monongahela National Forest, Petersburg, Maysville, WV, March 2013-October, 2014
Riverside/Springer Gulch Campgrounds, Elevenmile Canyon May-Oct 2015, 2016
Franklin, WV, 10/2016-present