Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Friends of Smoke Hole Climbing Management issues and proposed solutions

Climbing Management Plan: Issues and Solutions for Smoke Hole Canyon, North Fork Mountain, and Reed’s Creek area crags

Climbing areas: Smoke Hole Canyon crags, inclusive, Reed’s Creek

Introduction and Climbing History

Prior to the discovery and development of world-famous New River Gorge, the region around Seneca Rocks and Germany Valley was an important cornerstone in the history of West Virginia and East Coast rock climbing.  Pioneers who would go on to define outdoor sports in America came to explore and discover Seneca Rocks, and, in time, to spread their efforts and attentions out from that base, through the assortment of crags by which it is surrounded.  

To the east of Seneca rises the green wall of North Fork Mountain, its wandering spine lined with cliffs of varying height and quality. Across those heights signs of vertical passage can still be found; the tattered sling, ring pins and pitons, broken flakes and leveled bases overgrown in greenbrier.  The setting, perched high above Germany Valley, with the Alleghany Front rising before you, is among the most beautiful locations in the United States.

On the opposite slope, behind these cliffs, hides a garden gem of climbing and natural beauty, carved by the South Branch of the Potomac River from the bedrock of the Alleghenies, framed by the steep ridges of Cave, Middle and North Fork Mountains. Pins and pitons, fading webbing and anecdotal evidence give proof that the early explorers came this way, as well.

This is Smoke Hole Canyon.

The character and features of Smoke Hole are as varied as its inhabitants.  For the wealth of history alone, natural and manmade, Smoke Hole is a treasure. 

Like Germany Valley, home of climbing landmarks Nelson, Seneca, and Champe Rocks, Smoke Hole Canyon also offers a variety of opportunities for recreation and adventure.  Spectacular views and quiet solitude wait for the visitor who wanders down one of Smoke Hole’s many trails and old roads, through hardwood and coniferous forests, wildflowers and gardens of ferns, past groves of cedar and pine in open mountain meadows beside the inviting waters of the South Branch of the Potomac River and its many feeder creeks.  

From Smoke Hole, the scenic North Fork Mountain Trail can be accessed via four different trailheads.  Single track enthusiasts can enjoy the trail from its juncture with FS 79 north to the final steep downhill at the northern terminus of the trail, just a half mile from Route 28/55.  From the canyon‘s mouth just north of the town of Upper Tract, Petersburg is a rewarding weekend’s journey away for the paddling enthusiast.  Heavier rains and deeper waters convert this quiet river into an adventure worth remembering for even expert boaters.  

Climbers came to Smoke Hole after WW2, came back in the late 70s and early 80s as crowds of tourists increased at Seneca Rocks, and a new generation of guides, locals, and visitors continued exploration throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Today, most of Smoke Hole’s major crags have been visited and are home to at least one route, although there a untapped remaining walls and areas of some size in the lower canyon. New routes continue to go in, mostly developed by local residents, with the occasional addition of a gem from a visitor.

The dramatic nature of the canyon’s cliffs and steep ridges, the incredible and visible variety of wildlife and native plants, and the wilderness feeling of a place just off the beaten path seem to invite a lot of superlatives from visiting climbers, including the globe-trotters who have counted these scattered crags and routes among the best climbs in their lives.

Smoke Hole may be one of the best-kept open secrets in West Virginia.  In an age of massive social media, instant internet rumor and on-demand beta, the canyon has always been something of an enigma; minutes from the main road, less than an hour from the tourist magnet of Seneca Rocks, marked by the blazing banner-in-the-sky of Cave Mountain’s limestone cliff band, with 40-80 foot cliffs lining the entrance and 300-foot Eagle Rock sitting five minute’s hike from the car, above the cool waters, numerous campsites and inviting swimming holes of the South Branch of the Potomac River, somehow, the canyon remained a place where few paddlers or peddlers explored and almost no one climbed.  

Today, Smoke Hole offers escape from the crush of better-known crags, a satisfying variety of styles and formations, with a number of moderate routes for the beginning to moderate leader and more than enough challenges for serious technical climbers.

But like so many of America’s formerly “lost treasures”, Smoke Hole now sees more crowds than ever before, and the popularity of outdoor sports had been paralleled by impact to our outdoor resources on public lands. The recent pandemic only increased the crowds, refugees from the cities and suburbia with little or no outdoor experience, trampling the trails and crowding the crags and roads, campgrounds and riversides of the Canyon and nearby Reed Creek.

How best to deal with these issues is the question. Personal responsibility and proactive stewardship by a loose coalition of climbing activists has been the tradition in and around Smoke Hole for the last three decades, and to that end we semi-officially formed the Friends of Smoke Hole in 2017. 

Since 1990, the founders and members have planned, funded and carried out over a two dozen trail work and trash clean-up days at various local climbing areas, created bridges between climbers and local businesses and in 2017 launched the Smoke Hole Anchor Renovation/Upgrade Project to replace the aging and substandard climbing bolts and anchors of the canyon region. The co-founders of Friends live in Franklin and are regular visitors to the canyon and area crags, where they routinely pick up trash, repair trails and help visiting climbers with questions about routes or access issues.

The founding members of Friends of Smoke Hole have, collectively, more than five decades of climbing in the U.S. and Europe, and the same number of years of route development and stewardship in Smoke Hole Canyon and across the Canyon region, as well as at crags across the continental United States. 

Our recommendations are based on the responses to our survey among region climbers and residents, Leave No Trace principles, extensive research into scientific data, personal stewardship efforts in half a dozen National Forests, and conversations with hundreds of climbers, many of them veteran climbers and outdoor stewards, trail-building activists and engineers.

Position statement

We the Friends of Smoke Hole feel that the management of outdoor recreation like climbing, its impact, development and sustainability can best be accomplished with a pro-active partnership of government and local climbing communities.

The goal of any management plan should be to preserve the greatest possible amount of current cultural, historical, natural and recreational resources while also allowing for the responsible development of potential new areas. 

Sharing responsibility for communication, pro-active stewardship and responsible use and development among the local and regional user groups and businesses profiting from climbing, while promoting responsible, inclusive, sustainable use of public land and resources, is the best way to empower local and traditionally-marginalized groups while reducing costs and need for government support and personnel. 

This in no way negates the government’s obligation to educate outdoor users as to best practices and guidelines in order to increase sustainability and access while limiting impact to natural, cultural and recreational resources.

The following is an outline of issues and solutions in which the climbing community can join the Monongahela National Forest and act to best protect recreational, natural and cultural resources in and around climbing areas of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks Recreation Area while providing for sustainable climbing.

Goals of the Friends of Smoke Hole CMP Proposal

  1. Recognition of climbing as a valid and established use of Public Lands in the Monongahela National Forest.

  1. Recognition that this effort must be cooperative and that it can only succeed with the support of local residents and the climbing community, since the Monongahela National Forest does not have the budget, manpower, or resources to patrol every crag in the northern 500,000 acres of the Forest.

  1. Creation of clearly defined guidelines through a fact-based decision-making framework, using scientific data and input from all affected user groups, especially local residents, area climbing and environmental stewards, and active local climbing organizations, to supplement NFS on-the-ground data gathering and surveys and guide policy.

  1. Recognition of Smoke Hole’s unique setting and characteristics to develop area-specific guidelines. The AAC Seneca Chapter, former Access Fund Regional Access Coordinator and the AMGA guides of Seneca have all recognized the very different nature of extant facilities, types of climbing and the various recreational communities of the Smoke Hole Canyon/Reed’s Creek area, from those at Seneca Rocks. Thus, any climbing management plan will need to address those very different needs and realities.

  1. Creation of a coordinated network for climber and public education, information and engagement through use of existing platforms, i.e. official NFS pages, social media, email, Zoom and in-person interaction and discussion.

  1. Engage the climbing community in cooperative management and stewardship, respecting local experience and integrating science and local solutions as well as popular opinion into the creation of guidelines and official policy.

Smoke Hole Area Issues and Possible Solutions

  1. Preservation of natural/cultural resources and impact mitigation

Greater popularity means greater numbers, impact, and demand on limited resources.  


  1. Commitment to preserving the existing historical markers and culture while expanding signage and available information to more completely educate the public about Canyon history and the indigenous cultures whose presence in the region predates the arrival of the first Europeans.

  1. Expansion of currently incomplete climbing information on all USFS pages relevant to the Smoke Hole region to include links to the crags at Long Branch, the Guide Walls and the Entrance Walls, and Reed’s Creek.

  1. Established parking limits for crag and hiking trail parking areas. 

  1. Post No Parking signs on road shoulders at problem sites. 

  2. Expand existing parking at Reed’s Creek

  3. Explore options for optimizing use of shuttles and carpooling.

  1. Consistent enforcement of existing NFS regulations in cooperation with local law enforcement and rangers.

  1. Consistent definition of acceptable and unacceptable impact, maintenance, conduct and regulations at all crags in the Recreational Area, trad or sport.

  1. Improved NFS signage with accurate geological information and histories of the area, including traditional inhabitants, according to WVU and other accredited sources.

  1. Limiting NFS info signage and kiosks with CMP and other pertinent info to Canyon entrances (Upper Tract/220 and Cabins/28), day-use parking areas, crag parking and/or trailheads. 

  1. Recognition of established standards for fixed climbing gear and its sustainable use.

  1. Recognition of Friends of Smoke Hole as the local contact and go-to resource for information on Smoke Hole Canyon and Reed's Creek area history, climbing and ethics, as well as significant trail changes and/or stewardship and climbing events.

  1. Engaging climbers in trail maintenance and other crag stewardship efforts


  1. Create mutual stewardship support agreements with the Access Fund and Friends of Seneca Rocks.

  2. Groups that have completed 4 or more trail days with at least 6 people in a two-year period should be fast-tracked for approval of proposed improvements/projects on existing trails.

  3. Informing climbers of trail and route closures for maintenance and safety, and completion of maintenance, in a timely fashion, using NFS information boards, social media, national climbing advocate newsletters, and email groups


  1. Guided, gym and social group size and usage management 

Along with large groups connected to social media, guided groups connected to climbing schools and gyms have exponentially expanded in number and activity over the last decade, vastly increasing the impact on recreational and natural resources. 


  1. Effective and universal management of the climbing community.

Climbing Rangers should not be hired from any guiding service active at the crags where they will work, to ensure equal enforcement and regulation and any appearance bias and/or conflict of interest.

  1. Defining groups and the responsibilities of the leaders and/or guides, including daily or yearly fees and permits.  If yearly, there should be a limit on frequency and guides/leaders should make an effort to utilize social media, climbing websites and email to post planned outings as soon as possible to limit overcrowding and reduce impact on resources.

  1. A group shall be considered to be six or more traveling and/or climbing together.

  2. Leaders, organizers and guides are responsible for ensuring that group members are adequately experienced, equipped and educated regarding common climbing skills, best practices, local ethics, and Leave No Trace.

  1. An incentive of 10-20% discount on permits to operate in the MNF should be offered to guides any year that they complete a total of 32 hours of trail work, per guide, with the LCO. Discount would apply to guide fees for the following year.


  1. Guides operating outside Seneca Rocks, i.e. in and around Smoke Hole, at Reed’s, on the cliffs of the North Fork, should have a maximum 1:4 guide-client ratio, with a max of 300 clients/ year 

  1. Guide activity at these crags should be no more than 1 guide/25 routes at a single crag on any weekend day, 1:50 on weekdays.

  1. Events

Large scale climbing events attract hundreds, sometimes thousands of out of state climbers and spectators and create massive impact on recreational and natural resources, as well as local traffic, infrastructure and EMS. Careful, thorough planning needs to take place well before any such events are permitted in the SR-SKRA.

  1. Create a covenant for event organizers requiring

  1. $1000 unacceptable impact bond

  2. Plan for parking, trash, human waste, camping, lodging, shuttles, and traffic control 

  3. Coordination with local EMS and Law Enforcement.

  4. Provision for on-site EMTs and first aid/hydration stations at the crags and parking.

  5. Adequate prior improvement and/or reinforcement of crag trails, belay areas and hardware.

  6. Commitment by crag organizers to support, promote and participate in future stewardship events at that location for a period of not less than two years from the end of the event.

  7. Coordination with local businesses to ensure equal opportunity for participation by all, big or small. 

  8. 30 days of public/climbing community notice on social media, via email, text, message boards, forums and newsletters.

  1. Parking

Parking throughout the Canyon and at Reed’s is a longtime problem. The increasing popularity of Smoke Hole for hunting, fishing and camping, as well as hiking and climbing, have created unacceptable conditions that create traffic congestion, impact the resource, and negatively impact the enjoyment of shareholders. 


  1. Expanded/improved parking where needed 

  1. Reed’s

  2. Entrance Walls

  3. Long Branch

  4. Reduce NFS requirements and fees for shuttle services to operate to and from canyon and area campgrounds.

  5. Create separate Jess Judy parking area, upstream (south) of group sites, open sunrise until dusk for free day-use parking on weekends, towing enforced.

  6. Carpools- as part of permitting process, require groups to park at sites like Industrial Park/Swilled Dog and Shadows of Seneca and carpool from there, or use shuttle services. 

  1. Work with Pendleton County and LCOs to create a green trail from Industrial Park parking to Reeds on the W side of 220, and improve trail from Shadows to Yokum’s/Gendarme.

  1. Encourages foot traffic from camp grounds and/or shuttle usage and carpooling.

  1. North Fork Trail, Dolly Sods and Spruce Knob need No Parking signs, parking limits, and/or parking passes; 40 cars for a 10 car parking area is not unusual on peak weekends. This will encourage people to hike the other trails or hike in other areas and ensure equal enforcement and regulation for all user groups.

  1. NFS/DNR needs to get a handle on hunting and fishing traffic for consistent enforcement. Stocking truck “caravans” and dog hunting groups clogging roads and parking does not present a picture of equal enforcement or regulation.

  1. Crag access, route access and descent points


  1. Creation of a trail on the North side of Reed’s Creek Road, to reach from the proposed new parking lot to the existing trail at the base of the crag, ensuring safe access by climbers that does not interfere with local traffic or other users.

  1. All crag trails clearly marked with standard blue blazes.

  1. Anchors and bolts- standards and replacement

There are currently no standards for bolt materials, sizes, placement/replacement or fixed gear in the SR-SKRA


  1. Clear definitions of acceptable hardware materials (stainless steel or titanium), bolt types (stud, sleeve, and glue-in), and sizes (3/8” or ½”, 10mm or 12mm)

  2. Anchors should be titanium or stainless steel and manufactured by commercial gear manufacturers like Petzl, Metolius or Climb Tech.  

  3. Bolt replacement should be carried out by active route setters and volunteers with hands-on experience,  from within the LCO

  4.  Where possible, new bolts should use the same holes. Where the same holes cannot be used, relocation distance needs to be minimal. Current standard is 6-10 times the bolt diameter (3 inches for 3/8”, 5 inches for ½”). 

  1. New Routes

Creating new routes at existing crags is an established activity in the NFS. Given the lack of overall familiarity and experience with the process on the part of the NFS, new routes should not be regulated by the NFS beyond establishing guidelines and participation in assessment to fulfil the legal requirements of the Service.


  1. NEPA assessment of established crags in the Seneca Rocks-Spruce Knob Recreational Area (SRSKRA) for improved understanding of potentially-impacted natural and cultural resources by the NFS and climbing community.

  1. Climbers wishing to learn the art of bolting and anchor installation should do so by participating in mentored bolt replacement efforts.

  1. Bolt installation should left to experienced route setters who have worked with bolt replacement efforts or mentored under an experienced tutor.

  1. Permadraws should be kept to a minimum and camouflaged with three layers of weather-resistant paint.

  2. The use of extension chains rather than swaged-cable permadraws should be discontinued.

  1. Route setters should be responsible for creating and maintaining spur trails and belay areas required to access and safely climb their proposed route.


  1. Any gear left on red-tagged routes should be removed in 72-96 hours. 

  1. New Crags

There are currently no regulations or guidelines for establishing new crags in the SK-SRRA.


  1. Submission of new crag/route proposals to a committee made up of one NFS staffer and two LCO members with route setting experience; one from Friends of Seneca and one from Friends of Smoke Hole.

  1. Establishment of new crags should require NEPA assessment, as well as trail work and maintenance plan and schedule from developers, with a 4-year minimum commitment, taken on by LCO beyond that point.

  1. Restrooms and Human Waste

At present the nearest bathrooms are in Ruddle Park, 5 mi. S of the Canyon, which is closed from late November until early April, Jess Judy, two miles North of Long Branch and technically off-limits when the campground is closed, usually late November until April 1st, and the rotting pit toilet just off the day use trail and parking lot at Big Bend. 

This means that just as the prime fall seasons for climbing, fishing, and hunting begin in the canyon, all nearby bathroom facilities are closed to the public or non-functional.


  1. Repair and maintain pit toilet at Big Bend Day use parking.

  2. Establish a wag bag supply and drop off point at Long Branch/Guide Parking area. The same company that services Jess Judy and Big Bend could provide removal, and the fees could be part of BB/JJ operator’s contract.

  3. Jess Judy toilets need to be open to the public on a year-round basis. Friends of SH will volunteer to clean and restock, as the founders have years of experience with those duties as NFS volunteers in AZ and CO.

  4. Pit toilets need to be left in place where currently located rather than upgraded to running water systems. 

  5. Install pit toilets or wag bag station at Reed’s once parking is expanded.

  1. Camping

At present, all major NFS campgrounds in the Seneca Rocks-Spruce Knob Recreational Area are operated by American Land and Leisure. AL&L campgrounds in the district close in October, the month which traditionally marks the beginning of prime climbing season, as well as the start of hunting and fish stocking season. 

The majority of profits from those campgrounds go out of state and there is no guarantee that the revenues that remain will be used where they originate. 

Facilities in Smoke Hole have suffered from a lack of consistent maintenance under contract with AL&L; the historic picnic area, now dismantled and abandoned, and Jess Judy campground, with minimal mowing, picnic tables rotted away too badly for use and the pit toilet windows that have had holes in them for almost a decade.


  1. NFS campgrounds, at least in Smoke Hole, need to be operated by locals and open year round.

  1. Campground operation and cleaning could just as easily be done by a Friend of Smoke Hole host and volunteers of Friends of Seneca/Smoke Hole in lieu of fees for 4 parking passes per year for each organization. Training for volunteers required, online and paid for from general fund, along with cleaning supplies and PPE. 


  1. Camping fees collected during what is currently the off season, from October through April, could fund many of the improvements and added infrastructure detailed in this proposal, without the implementation of new, onerous fees.

  1. Dogs

Dogs don’t stay on trails. Many chase wildlife, dig up areas adjacent to the trail, get into the packs and snacks of other climbers, and their barking impedes communication between climbers while it detracts from the quality of the outdoor experience.


  1. Pets need to be on leash, maximum length 12 feet, at all times when on approach trails or at the crag.

  2. Dogs are to be tied up on sturdy surfaces and leash length should not allow interference with trail traffic or nearby climbers. 

  3. Owners/group members need to be in sight/within 50 feet at all times

  4. Dogs that bark incessantly need to be taken away from the crag.

  5. Dogs that dig should not be brought to the crag and need to be taken away from crag areas and trails immediately when/if they begin to dig.

  1. Drones


  1. Pilots need to be registered with MNF ($50 fee per year to be paid into general fund to support purchase of trail work tools, signage, first aid supplies and PPE) 

  1. Set up on-line check-in for each crag and require check-in on the day of operation. $50 fine for first offense, $100 for 2nd, 90-day ban from operation in Cheat-Potomac and $150 fine for third. Violation of 90 ban or 4th offense: loss of drone, $200 fine, 1 year ban from operation in Cheat-Potomac, all fines to be evenly divided between NFS operating costs for regulation and trail work fund. 

  1. NO drones within 200 feet of climbers/crag. Limit 1 drone operator per 100 routes per day.

  1. Slacklining

Slacklining is not a traditional activity in any portion of this Ranger District.

By opening the door to this activity at Seneca, the Cheat-Potomac Ranger district invites and tacitly condones its expansion throughout the region. It would be naïve to think that practitioners would ask permission, rather than forgiveness, for such expansion.

Slacklining or highlining creates the probability of additional impact on climbing trails and anchors, as well as the natural resources at the crags of Smoke Hole and Reed’s Creek, and throughout the MNF. That places additional burdens on crag stewards, NF Law Enforcement, DNR and the EMS community through the region, in places where EMS receives none of the financial, tactical or logistical support they receive at Seneca Rocks. At many of these locations access and extraction would be much more difficult and involved, with resources already strained and personnel at increased risk due to COVID-19.

There is no road or even a working trail to the far side of the South Branch, no phone service in the lower Canyon, no stash of EMS gear, no helipad or rescue squad closer than 7 miles away in Upper Tract, and that facility is a volunteer-only squad that has a hard time getting EMTs to respond to simple calls for falls and other typical injuries and health complaints. Search and Rescue is in fact carried out by the Franklin and Petersburg VFD/VRS, entailing even more of a wait for help.

Consider the complications of an accident on the cliffs of North Fork Mountain; limited, sporadic and undependable phone service and no paved or even gravel road for access to anything but a tiny portion of the cliff. Approach via the steep, uneven access trails at Landis, Redman and the North End would require 2-3 miles of carrying a Stokes litter and other gear up and back down for extraction. Coming from 33 could require as much as 6 miles of approach, and there is little or no established access to the W side of the 40-100 foot cliffs lining the west side of the summit, where such accidents would likely happen.

Some thought must also be given to the peregrine falcon population of those cliffs and the impact of slacklining and climbing activity there. 


  1. Two-year FS Superintendent’s Special order, akin to the prohibition of camping within the defined corridor along the South Branch between 220 and Big Bend, needs to be applied to slacklining outside of Seneca. 

  2. Create a two-year study by climbing, slacklining, EMS and NFS to identify safe sites with minimal environmental and resource impact where slacklining can be developed. 

  3. Look at ways existing opportunities can be improved to create a portal for sustainable slacklining activities in the future.

  4.  Prohibition on use of climbing anchors for slacklines; climbing anchors can be damaged and compromised by the direction and force of slackline loading.

  5. Coordination with NFS and LCOs regarding new trails for slackline access

  6. Permit for slacklining activities, as they are not an established practice in the NFS

  7. No slacklines over any type of roads or across creeks and rivers.

  8. No slacklines where there is no road for access by EMS.

  9. Require LCO review and approval of new slackline anchors, to conform to standards for climbing anchors.

  10. Require slacklining groups to inform NFS and utilize all possible avenues for informing climbing community of planned activity.

  1. Dry Tooling

Dry tooling is the practice of using ice tools and/or crampons to ascend rock climbing routes in order to train for ice climbing. This practice has exponentially more impact on climbing routes than normal climbing.


  1. Dry tooling practitioners need to avoid popular crags and peak climbing times, creating areas specifically for this practice, preferably where there is potential for ice formation. 

  2. Steps 2 and 3 in the section on Slacklining, above, can be used to explore and expand opportunities for sustainable dry tooling within the Canyon area.

  1. CMP review and revision

NFS should hold an annual meeting, in person or in virtual format, to allow review of how well the CMP is working, issues not addressed by the CMP, and suggested editing or removal of CMP guidelines. 

  1. Public notification through social media, climbing club and organization newsletters and NFS web pages should precede the review by 30 days.


  1. Email submissions should be a part of this process and accepted for 30 days prior to the date of the review.

  1. These meetings should be held not less than 12 and no more than 16 months apart.

Action Items

  1. years

  1. Create a Climber’s Covenant, agreeing on bolt standards, stewardship, areas to be preserved from bolting (Peregrine habitat on North Fork Mountain, hibernaculum on Cave Mountain, Sanctuary, the South side of Reed’s Creek), as well as off-limit preserves for conservation.

  1. Create a separate Reed’s Creek parking area for climbers, behind the screen of trees at the back of the existing roadside pullout, entered from Reed’s Creek Road. Funding could come from Smoke Hole area campgrounds of run by local volunteers in cooperation with the NFS, as well as Mon Forest Town program grants, Friends of Smoke Hole fundraisers, AAC grants, and Pendleton County.

  1. Install composting or pit toilets at Reed’s and a composting toilet at the top of Seneca Visitors Trail, accessible from the Yokum’s Horse Trail.

  1. Explore pros and cons of wag bag distribution processing requirements and expenses at Seneca, Reed’s and Long Branch/Guide Walls.

  1. Create a well-marked trail along the north side of Reed’s Creek Road to allow climbers to access the crag from parking without walking along the road.

  1. Mark all canyon area crag trails with blue paint diamonds.

  1. Install a kiosk with more complete historical and geological signage at the ends of Smoke Hole Road (Upper Tract/220 and Cabins/28), including NFS regulations and a basic map of the canyon with campground and crag locations.

  1. Review and amend the current onerous requirements for shuttle services operating in the Monongahela NF/SR-SKRA in order to create opportunities for local entrepreneurs to reduce traffic and parking congestion and greenhouse gasses.

  1. Committee of NFS, LCOs, Steel city Slackliners to explore possibilities for sustainable slackline opportunities in the SR-SKRA.

  1. Committee of NFS, LCOs, SUOC/AAC to explore potential for sustainable dry tooling/ice climbing in the SK-SRRA.

  1. years 

  1. Install identifying signage at the end of crag access trails, and wall identification signage at trail intersections.

  1. Replace all substandard bolts and anchors.

  1. Create an agreement with Pendleton County and Swilled Dog to use parking at the Industrial Park, located just south of Reed’s on Route 220, for carpool and shuttle parking. This would boost business at Swilled Dog and reduce traffic and parking congestion at the crag.

  1. Create/improve the old road/trail from Shadows of Seneca tent camping down to the Gendarme, Harper’s and Yokum’s.

  1. Transition Canyon and Seneca Campgrounds to local operation by NFS and/or local concessionaire.

  1. Restore the South Branch/Picnic Pavilion Loop with improved signage regarding history, conservation and nature.

5-7 years

  1. Open Jess Judy for Year-round camping.

  1. Expand Jess Judy to allow area between dumpster pad and South Branch for day use by fishing enthusiasts, hunters and climbers.

  1. Expand Jess Judy camping into the meadow South of existing Site C for walk-in only.

  1. Create trail from Picnic Pavilion Loop to Cave Mountain, improve FR 802 to increase shareholder and EMS access from Cave Mountain Road. (NEPA RE:bats)

  1. years

  1. Restore Smoke Hole Canyon Picnic Pavilion 

  1. The reopening of this historically important facility would greatly benefit all canyon visitors and begin to restore the reputation of the NFS in a community where support for the Forest Service is sorely lacking.

  1. Restoration through combined NFS and volunteer action would also be a great place to begin a positive interaction between local residents, NFS and LCOs. It would provide a place for local families to gather for reunions, birthdays, weddings and memorial services. Being central to the canyon, the SHCPP is a convenient location for socially-distanced gatherings for climbing, hiking, and other recreation groups.  

  1. It would also provide toilet amenities to help mitigate human waste and littering issues in the Canyon, and could be maintained through a combination of concessionaire and volunteer efforts.

  1. The Concessionaire operating Big Bend would, as part of their contract, provide seasonal staff support and dedicate a portion of revenues generated at Big Bend and Jess Judy campgrounds to maintain the facility during their season, with Friends of Smoke Hole taking over in the off season to clean restrooms and dispose of trash.

  1. In the event that the NFS/Monongahela National Forest elect to operate SKSRRA area facilities without concessionaires, the Friends of Smoke Hole will volunteer to help support the Service in all aspects of that effort.

  2. Use of the Picnic pavilion and grounds should remain free for all shareholders. 

  1. Negotiate with landowners for 10 foot wide access corridor atop Reed’s and Guide Walls for hardware inspection and rescue.

  1. Corridor and private property boundaries to be clearly marked

  1. Complete South Branch Trail from the Picnic Pavilion to Jess Judy for foot travel and MTB, with signage for cultural, historical and natural resources.

  1. Create a committee with NFS, DNR, LCOs, EMS, local merchants, County commissions, Chambers of Commerce and Tourist Boards, LEOs, AAC and AF to explore and set out guidelines and regulations for the first regional Craggin’ Classic or other national level event.


I first began working on the concept in 1995 when, after 5 years of overtime and side jobs in construction, I took 6 months off to explore America. 


Climbing in Yosemite, The Sierra, Owens River Gorge, King's Canyon, Red Rocks Canyon, Joshua Tree, and RMNP, I shared ideas with and listened to literally hundreds of climbers. I filled an entire notebook with those ideas.


In 1996 I moved to Phoenix and was deeply involved in climbing access and development there, including discussions with Access Fund and Sierra Club admins and members about trails, bolting and climbing management/regulation in the Superstitions, Queen Creek, Jack's Canyon, the Cobra Grande Mountains, the Kachina Peaks, Mt. Eldon, Paradise Forks and Devil's Canyon. 


I began laying out a CMP in 1998.


Another notebook.


This is the culmination of that effort, and all that input, tailored to this specific region.


Tyrel Johnson, Army Corps of Engineers consultant Brian Dziekonski, MTB trail rider and builder Brian Brydges, R Neil Arsenault, former Lyndon State College Outdoor Education Director Jamie Struck, retired DNR officer Gregg Willenborg and my wife Cindy all had a hand in the creation of the final product; research of dozens of other CMPs and articles about their successes and failures, proofreading, suggesting edits, emails, chats, callbacks and rereads.


Then there were the 93 local folks and visitors who took our Survey.


Credit must also go to Eddie and Tracy Begoon, Mike Artz, George Powell, Darrell Hensley, Tony Barnes, Heather Jiles, Mike Fisher,  Kathryn Murphy, Nancy Stoner, Travis Wilson,  Dan Rodriguez, Jane Bull, Steve Emswiler, Connor Pace, Michal Stewart, Michael Greene, Suzanne Shaeffer, Pat Frank, Bob DuBois, Ryan Lee Eubank, Ryan Coppage, Ben VanderStouw, Tim Bova, Evan Genay, John Riedel, Evie Brooks, James Mazzaferro, Tom Reid, Seth Myers, James Mash, Mark Winbourne, Dena Zavier, longtime Canyon climber Danny Rowand, local librarian Rebecca McConnell, and MNF staff members Julie Fosbender and Gray Buckles. 


Every one of those folks shared their knowledge and perspectives on climbing, impact, the Canyon region, its issues and what they saw as solutions. 


Everything I've written was shaped and informed by those conversations, my experiences and our survey responses.


My deepest thanks to each and every person who has helped with the effort.

Appendix I. Glossary

Aid climbing:  Aid climbing is the direct use of climbing equipment (pitons, wired nuts, “camming” devices) for upward progress. The challenge of aid climbing is to ascend very smooth faces with minimal tools. Aid climbing can also be a method to access these faces for installation of bolts for protection where no traditional gear can be placed.  Although this type of climbing is particularly associated with “big-wall” areas such as Yosemite and Zion national parks, famous climbing areas where traditional climbing techniques (both aid and free) are utilized to ascend long routes on sheer rock walls, it can in fact be practiced anywhere there is vertical rock. 

“Clean” aid climbing entails the use of hand-placed protection only, instead of using pitons or other types of protection that require being drilled or hammered into the rock.

Traditional climbing:  Traditional climbing or “trad” is climbing protected by a variety of removable gear placed in cracks and pockets in the rock. Trad climb lengths can vary from a single rope length (“pitch”) to thousands of feet. Many trad climbs end at a summit, ledge, or other natural break in the face being ascended. The end of a climb may offer bolted anchors, like a sport climb, natural features like trees, boulders or outcrops, or require the climber to walk off rather than lowering or rappelling.

Traditional climbing has been practiced in the Cheat-Potomac Ranger District since shortly after World War Two.

Sport or bolted climbing: Climbs that are protected exclusively with bolts are called sport climbs. Sport climbs are generally a single rope-length (50 to 60 meters) or less. They rarely continue to summits but instead end at fixed anchors at the top of the cliff. Lines may also end where the sustained difficulty of the climb diminishes, the character of the rock changes, or simply at the half-rope point to allow the climber to descend by being lowered. 

Sport climbing is pretty easy to learn, and requires far less commitment and equipment than traditional climbing. Due to the fixed bolted protection and limited height, it often provides a safer climbing environment than that found in a traditional climbing venue. Sport climbing has also allowed climbers to push the limits of athletic ability with little fear from repeated falls. 

This accessibility with minimal expense or commitment, increased promotion by climbing advocates and their partner gear companies and a vastly expanded number of platforms for climbing-oriented media, all these factors have made sport climbing very popular with a huge number of relative newcomers to the outdoors in a very short amount of time, greatly increasing impact at climbing areas.

Like many crags in the U.S., bolted/sport climbing came to the region in the late 70s and early 80s.

Permadraws: usually a piece of stainless steel cable or links of steel chain, attached to a protection bolt and hanger at one end and equipped with a steel carabiner at the other, to eliminate the need for placing a piece of gear at that location. Often used where steepness of a route makes carrying and placing gear prohibitive to success on the clean ascent, or where abrasion can threaten the integrity of a nylon runner or aluminum carabiner. 

Top roping: Top roping is (as the name suggests) the practice of establishing or clipping into an anchor at the top of a cliff or face and climbing that section of rock without placing gear or clipping bolts. It allows the climber to focus strictly on mastering the moves rather than dealing with the technical aspects of protecting the climb while mastering its challenges. 

Climbers following a leader up a cliff are top roping, in a sense, although they often need to unclip from bolts or remove gear if they are the second person to climb following the leader. Subsequent ascents on the same rope and anchor are possible, and these would be considered purely “top roping”. This practice allows for numerous ascents of the same line by less experienced climbers and without the delay or technical know-how required to lead that route.

Bouldering: Bouldering is ropeless climbing that concentrates on difficult sequences of moves on short faces or boulders (hence the name) rather than completing long lines up entire cliff faces. Traditionally, falls were very short (a few feet) and inconsequential, but “highballs” involve ascending much taller faces where falls are potentially as long as 20-30 feet.  “Spotters” usually friends and partners, wait during the ascent top help catch or redirect possible falls away from hazards and prevent head and neck injuries, while professionally manufactured foam pads, “crash pads’,  soak up much of the impact to feet, ankles, knees, hips and back from any fall.

Boulder problems vary in difficulty, like routes requiring ropes and gear, and have a grading system all their own, from V1 (5.10+) to V15 and above. 

Dry tooling: Dry tooling is the practice of using ice tools and/or crampons to ascend rock climbing routes in order to train for ice climbing. This practice has exponentially more impact on climbing routes than normal climbing.

Slacklining: Essentially tightrope walking using specialized tensioning devices and flat webbing stretched between two trees or geological features. Slackline practitioners typically wear a harness and lanyard to protect them from falling when cross ing a line far enough from the ground for a potentially fatal fall.

Appendix II: Yosemite Decimal System: 

The YDS is a system of grading route difficulty.

Movement is broken down into 5 major categories:

Class 1: walking a flat, established trail.

Class 2: hiking a steep incline, possibly requiring scrambling and using your hands

Class 3: climbing a steep hillside or ridge, requiring the occasional use of hands for balance or upward movement, with potential for a fall. 

Class 4: Scrambling in exposed terrain where a rope may be the only means of preventing a serious fall

Class 5: Requires technical knowledge and climbing, use of a rope and protection, for avoiding potentially fatal falls.

Class 5 is, at present, subdivided into 15 grades of difficulty

5.1-5.4: Easy; a near vertical to vertical section or face with plenty of large hand and footholds that can be used by a complete novice with no technical skills

5.5-5.8: Moderate; available holds are smaller, experience and some technical movement may be required

5.9-5.10: Hard; steep, sometimes overhanging terrain with small holds that must be used in a limited number of ways, requiring not only technical skills but a certain level of fitness.

5.11-5.12: Difficult; small holds on vertical to overhanging faces requiring technical skills, experience and a level of fitness  above that of intermediate climbers and weekend warriors

5.13-5.15: Expert; small holds that must often be used in a specific, unbroken sequence to ascend a vertical to overhanging face, requiring extreme technical skills, experience and fitness. For all intents and purposes, this is Olympic-level climbing.

Class 6: routes which require direct aid to ascend, rather than simply using hand and foot holds. See Aid Climbing

Appendix III: Bouldering Grades

VB: 5.1-5.8

V0: 5.9

V1: 5.10+

V2: 5.11-

V3: 5.11+

V4: 5.12-

V5: 5.12

V6: 5.12+

V7: 5.13-

V8: 5.13

V9: 5.13+

V10: 5.14-

V11: 5.14

V12: 5.14+

V13: 5.15-

V14: 5.15

V15: 5.15+

Sunday, February 27, 2022

No Time Like The Present

While I understand that we are all somewhat overwhelmed by current world events, there's still no time like the present to plan for the future.

With that in mind, I offer the following:

Over the last four or five years, there's been some discussion in the MD/DC/VA climbing community focused on organizing a smaller version of the New River Rendezvous/AAC Craggin' Classic at Reed Creek; bringing together gyms, regional chapters, affiliates and outing clubs in the same way that advocates, affiliates and regional climbing groups will come together at NRG again this year. 

An event like this would be a major economic boost for Franklin and Pendleton County, an opportunity for regional climbing groups and organizations which have traditionally focused on Seneca Rocks to participate in stewardship in the Canyon, and a great way to introduce a new generation of climbers to even more of the incredible recreational potential of the area.

Obviously, a lot of practical and logistical background work will need to happen before even a small-scale climbing event. and that's where the Friends of Smoke Hole sees many opportunities for the entire community, climbers and residents alike.

The Monongahela National Forest will also have to sign off on any such activity, and this would be an opportunity for them to bring the entire community of shareholders up to date on the long-overdue Climbing Management Plan and workshops, the NFS personnel and other organizations involved, and their future plans for public input and involvement.

Combining the knowledge and resources of the Monongahela National Forest, Pendleton County Commission, the Town of Franklin, the Friends of Smoke Hole, the Friends of Seneca, the DC and Richmond Chapters of the AAC, and the Access Fund's Conservation Team and local affiliates, the community can move forward with planning and preparation; strengthening trails and belay areas, working with local authorities to create a plan, obtain permits and promote the event as part of the Mon Forest Towns Initiative and to explore access to nearby parking at the industrial park, coordinating with local law and EMS for traffic and crowd control and climber safety, rescue and first aid considerations.

As climbers, stewards of the land and residents of Pendleton County, we believe that the goal should not simply be to create an event, but to see that the entire community has an opportunity to join in, creating new connections in the area, encouraging conversations between climbers and residents; increasing opportunities for local youth to experience climbing, for residents to better understand climbing and the diverse community of climbers, for visiting climbers to better understand the diverse local community, and for local entrepreneurs and small area businesses to become invested in long term benefits from the recreation economy, creating a synergy ensuring the sustainability of our recreational resources and the culture around them.

To keep events as positive and conflict free as possible, I will not be directly involved in organizing or administration, beyond answering any questions and sharing any tools, knowledge or insight I can to assist the effort. If I am there, it will be as a volunteer, local climber and excited spectator.

I've asked one of Rakkup's publishers, Rob Price, who is also President of the Access Fund's Board of Directors, to explore grants and Conservation Team support and reach out to the NFS and various affiliates. I wouldn't be surprised to see Tyrel Johnson or my wife Cindy in attendance, representing Friends of Smoke Hole. Friends of SH will also promote the event and reach out to volunteers from our trail and clean up days.

I'm inviting you to consider joining any effort the AAC DC, PATC-MS, MAC, DC Outing Club, Shenandoah Valley, Richmond or Charlottesville climbers might organize, and to encourage any of those groups to which you belong to do so if they have not.

Thanks for your time.

Climb on,

Mike Gray

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Do Not Go Gentle

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Invisible Warriors


That radiant smile on my shoulder belongs to Cindy Gray, my partner, my wife, and the best friend I've ever had. 

She's also disabled.

People who see Cindy smiling and laughing in pictures, out at the crag or on the trail, often say, "Wow! She looks great for someone with MS."

What they too often mean is, "How can she have a disability?" 

They don't see the incision scars from reconstructive surgeries to her lumbar vertebrae, the silver dollar sized lesion on her brain stem or the three dime-sized ones scattered over her brain.

Cindy takes a break atop the Gypsy Dome, Elevenmile Canyon, CO

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 in 2001, and have no clue about the titanium stents inside her skull from a massive aneurysm that nearly claimed her life in 2016.

Few of us can even imagine 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 know about 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.

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 a new trad line in the Canyon.

She spent months walking with a cane and living with extreme pain, awaiting surgical scheduling. 

In February of 2020, the old support screws and plates were removed and new hardware installed to fuse the lower 15 inches of her spine.

In March COVID-19 shut down WV and much of the world.

After 14 months of rehab, Cindy began hiking and climbing again in April of 2021, and was once again slaying trout with the best of them.

On Friday, the 13th of August, after a wonderful day in the Canyon and evening of good food and conversation, out of the blue, Cindy woke at midnight to dizziness and nausea. After 7 hours of fighting the inevitable, we drove to Virginia, where she was admitted to the hospital for two days.

A week later, we celebrated our slightly delayed 10th anniversary with a 2.5 mile hike up a steep ridge and back down along the creek below, then prepared and enjoyed dinner in a perfectly preserved CCC cabin.

In September, Cindy began a new treatment for MS, and was excited by an immediate improvement in her energy levels and greatly reduced symptoms of the disease.

On Monday, November 8, eleven months after her first hospitalization, doctors determined that she has Ménière's disease, effectively bringing to an end her ability to participate in climbing, hiking, or trail work.

The end of an era in Smoke Hole climbing and stewardship

Despite it all, Cindy refuses to surrender to despair or simply succumb to any affliction; between her weekend days at the Franklin town library, she's still leaf peeping on the North Fork, picking up trash along Canyon roads, chasing trout in the South Branch and watching for her big feathered friends.

Life goes on.

Remember that there is far more in Heaven and Earth than your rush to the crags or convenient sympathy for the obviously disabled and challenged.

Invisible warriors walk among you, many of them the very reason for the places in which you live and play.

Open yourself to the lessons and inspiration they offer, the history they would share, if not for blind eyes and deaf ears.

Thank you, Miss Pinkpants, for a decade spent cleaning up over half a ton of trash on Canyon area roads, of sponsoring, organizing and participating in over a dozen trail work events, feeding hundreds of hungry volunteers, putting up new lines, helping to rebolt old ones, and sharing your wisdom and experience with a new generation of young climbers.

It's no exaggeration to say that the last decade has been a milestone in the history of women, disabled climbers, and climbing in the USA, as well as a grand adventure of mishaps, lessons, magic and discovery that changed life forever for this Southern boy.

Thank you, my love.


Cindy and Mike Gray: New Routes and FAs 


West Virginia: Franklin Gorge, Smoke Hole, Reed’s Creek and Germany Valley 

1. In Your Footsteps 2/28/08
2. Going on a Bender 8/24/08
3. Little Eagle 10/16/08
4. Fledgling 10/16/08
5. Really Bad Eggs 10/17/08
6. The Last Laugh 12/08
7. Feels Like the First Time 2/12/09
8. Like a Wirgin, Captain 2/12/09
9. Teeth of the Dragon 4/12/09
10. Orange Dihedral 08/09/09
11. Internal Dialogue 09/27/09
12. Thieves in the Temple 10/19/09
13. Second Rule 12/14/09 MF/CB 
14. SuperNatural 12/30/09
15. Winterharvest 01/18/10 
16. Flying Below Radar 04/01/10 
17. Hootenanny 05/05/10
18. Mixed Blessings 06/22/10
19. Gypsies 
20. River Song
21. Horse With No Name 
22. A Walk in the Park 
23. Blessed River
24. Infamous
25. Raindancer 08/18/10
26. Bridgeburners 11/14/10
27. Chasing Ghosts 12/24/10
28. My Silver Lining 
29. Castles Made of Sand 07/10/13
30. Nightshade 07/12/13
31. Ghosts of Christmas 12/25/13
32. Little Khumbu 06/23/14 
33. Jack in the Pulpit 07/05/14
34. Synergy MG/CG/JP 01/17/17
35. Pink Kung Fu 02/04/17
36. West End Girl  02/02/17
37. Windwalker 03/08/17
38. Ecstasy Loves Company 06/09/17
39. Pernicious Twits 07/08/17
40. Nick of Time 08/25/17 w/BB
41. Colors of the Fall 09/28/17
42. MPP 11/15/17
43. Fire on the Mountain 11/22/17
44. The Smoke Eater 11/30/17
45. New Kid on the Block 12/13/17
46. Let It Be 10/14/18
47. Afterglow 12/18/18
48. Take It To the Limit 01/01/19
49. Not Very Sporting 03/25/19
50. Running Against the Clock (est. w/MH) 04/26/21

Arizona: Northern Ga’an Canyon 

51. Pink Cadillac 03/18/12
52. Three-toned Gs 03/19/12
53. Fisher King 10/4-5/12
54. Working Class 12/08/12
55. Gypsy Conditions 12/25/12
56. Resolution 02/04/13
57. Stoneblind 02/04/13
58. Troll’s Shoulder 02/04/13
59. Trolls Under the Bridge 02/04/13

Colorado: Elevenmile Canyon

60. Gypsy Road 08/28/15
61. Tenuous 08/29/15
62. Owl, My Calves Are Burning 08/30/15 
63. Gypsy Rain 09/06/16
64. Calle Esposa 09/16/16 
65. Li’l Sumpin’ Sumpin’ 09/25/16

Friday, November 19, 2021

High Hopes

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young

In a world of magnets and miracles

Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary

The ringing of the division bell had begun

Along the Long Road and on down the Causeway

Do they still meet there by the Cut?

There was a ragged band that followed in our footsteps

Running before times took our dreams away

Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground

To a life consumed by slow decay

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
When friends surrounded
The nights of wonder

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us

To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side

Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again

Dragged by the force of some inner tide

At a higher altitude with flag unfurled

We reached the dizzy heights of that dreamed of world

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition

There's a hunger still unsatisfied

Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon

Though down this road we've been so many times

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder

With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river

Forever and ever

Source: LyricFind
Songwriters: David Jon Gilmour / Polly Anne Samson

Thursday, October 14, 2021


... is amazing, artistic, astounding, audacious, beautiful, brilliant, calm, captivating, caring, caustic, classy, comical, creative, curious, delightful, determined, direct, effervescent, earthy, faithful, fashionable, fierce, feminine, funny, gentle, generous, gracious, gutsy, helpful, humble, hilarious, indestructible, inspiring, inquisitive, insightful, imaginative, inventive, jealous (just a bit), kind, laconic, loving, misunderstood, maternal, maddening, moody, musical, naive, natural, no-nonsense, old school, original, outgoing, perceptive, personable, quiet, reserved, romantic, sarcastic, serious, singing in the rain silly, tasteful, tactful, undaunted, understated, unstoppable, untamed, unwavering, vivacious, voracious, watchful, wonderful, wilful, wild, wise, young at heart and filled with a zeal for life that nothing can hide.

She is Cindy.

And I'm lucky, because out of all the people wandering this old world, she chose to spend her days and nights with me.

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, could drink like a fish and swear like a sailor, had a temper like a thunderstorm and a heart that was sometimes as tough as whale bone and others 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. 

We drove up to Reddish Knob to watch meteor showers over the VA/WV border, listened to jazz and bluegrass on the Oldies Show on NPR, read and loved (or hated) the same novels and had long discussions about them, shopped kitschy pawn shops and backstreet jewelry stores, and once sang the entirety of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" while preparing lasangne for my housemates, who laughed at us the entire time. 

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, repeated Through the Looking Glass and Hawk, then, further afield, 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.

In the course of one frigid winter, Melissa and I put up six routes, including Batteries Not included and Overtime in Smoke Hole, and The Mushroom Tower and Rock of Ages in Germany Valley. 

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. 

Whether setting out into a -20F day to bolt new lines (we bailed), riding my GPz 750 Kawasaki down to Goshen to boulder and swim and just hang out, heading out at midnight to hear a band in a new bar with people we just met at the last one, or putting up new trad lines on lead with sketchy gear and bad landings, Melissa Wine was always good to go.

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. A series of bad climbing falls, one on Critter Crack at Seneca and two more on a trad project in Smoke Hole, left Melissa with a hairline fracture in her ankle. Desperate for money, she took a job in the poultry industry, working in the nastiest of conditions, on an egg farm, in winter.

After 6 months of this, she quit and accepted a job as a cashier at Wal-Mart, where she soon began to make new friends and move up through the ranks of employees.

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, her new job and her life in the Valley. Three days later, she moved out of our cabin in Rawley Springs, and one of the most amazing chapters of my life came to an end.

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 the Dollar General 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 her smile is just as bright when she thinks back on those days with a wistful nostalgia, those times "when my life was so much more exciting and interesting".

Melissa will forever be the amazing woman with whom I discovered so much of myself, the Shenandoah Valley, country life, and climbing, a country girl and old soul with whom I fell deeply in and never quite out of love with, not for many years after we parted company. 

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.

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.