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 rakkup.com.
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