The New River Gorge in West Virginia is a major climbing hub for a reason; the hard Nuttall sandstone cliffs that line the river are carved with plenty of features to draw advanced and expert climbers from all over the country. While “the New” is best known for its sport climbing, a group of friends and I recently headed there for something else: the boulders.
Despite climbing regularly since 2018, I’d only started climbing outdoors with any frequency in the past year and had only ever climbed on New Hampshire granite. Also, this past spring, I was staring down an impending knee surgery that would sideline me for most of the short spring climbing window that happens in New England. Essentially, I was ready for any opportunity to climb while I could.
So, this past February, when a small group of climbing friends asked if I wanted to make the drive down to West Virginia with them for a week of climbing in the New, I jumped at the chance to climb in a new place and have one last hurrah before being relegated to the sidelines.
We spent one night in Connecticut, then drove the rest of the way to West Virginia in a 9-hour push, arriving at the American Alpine Club Campground in Lansing just after dark on February 18th. I set up my Dagger OSMO™ 2P tent, scrounged together a camp dinner, and spent the evening discussing climbing goals and driving playlist–strategy with the group. Then: bedtime.
Day 1 (2/19)
An “alpine start” is the practice of getting up well before dawn, traditionally done on alpine climbs when limited weather windows and long, grueling climbing demands it. We did not partake in the alpine start on our first day of climbing in the New; instead, we rose at 7 a.m. for a leisurely breakfast (granola for some, half of a Kroger pecan pie for others) before leaving for the first crag of the day.
Oliver and Eli wanted to work on F5, a burly V10 boulder where hard compression moves take you to the top of a beautiful tornado-shaped piece of sandstone. After a 20-minute walk down a railroad track and scrambling up the steep slopes of the gorge, we arrived at the Fern Creek Boulders area.
Eli and Oliver assessing F5
Eli on one of F5's crimps
The boulder stood a just few feet from a series of waterfalls that fed into the New River below. The rushing of the water was a constant backdrop for all of us as Oliver and Eli worked their problem, trying individual moves again and again to determine what specific sequence would bring them over the mantle finish.
I’ve been asked many times to explain the appeal of climbing, and outside of the social aspect of the sport, the most succinct explanation I can give is this: Every climb is like a 3D vertical puzzle, and you have to solve it within the specific parameters and limitations of your body. The more you climb and familiarize yourself with different forms of movement and strength, the more tools you have for solving the puzzles; and the harder grades of boulders gradually become approachable.
As Oliver would say, “literacy begets literacy,” and the satisfaction of solving those increasingly difficult puzzles is incredible.
Oliver swaps a left heel hook for a right toe in a tenuous move (photo by Greta Grant)
The rainy season caused all the waterways in the area to swell - in drier times, the tall arete to the right can be climbed
While Oliver and Eli worked on F5, the rest of the group explored some of the other climbs nearby — a slabby V4 right next to a warm-up V2, and an overhung V5 with a large, dynamic beginning move and a spooky mantle finish that none of us were willing to commit to.
I spent most of my time watching Oliver and Eli climb from the comfort of my Moonlite™ chair — V10 is far outside of my climbing grade range, and there’s a particular magic to watching someone figure out how to do something that feels physically impossible to you.
Aidan spotting Greta on the V4 slab problem
After several hours of working on F5, Oliver and Eli decided to call it for the day, so we hauled our gear back to the cars and went off to the next crag. Another relatively short but scrambly approach led us to a cave with a V7 crimpy traverse named “Incident.” An aptly named boulder — because after warming up on a nearby V2, I hopped on only to feel a familiar, sharp catching sensation in my knee within the first few moves. I had re-tweaked my injury, and on the very first climbing day!
Limping but luckily still able to walk, I spent the rest of the golden afternoon watching the others take turns putting together moves on Incident, feeling grateful just to be there. We left at dusk and made our way back to the campsite, and I was enormously relieved to have the thick cushion of my Roamer™ sleeping pad waiting for me in my tent.
Aidan inspecting the start of Incident
Day 2 (2/20)
One our second day in the New, we elected to once again forgo the alpine start. A persistent drizzle instead led us to the nearby Cathedral Café, where we enjoyed a late breakfast.
Fending off the rainy day gloom in Cathedral I
Eli decided to take a rest day in anticipation of better climbing weather in the days ahead, so he stayed at the café while the rest of us set off to an overhanging cave in the Short Creek area with some protected roof routes we hoped would stay dry in the inclement conditions.
Greta watching Oliver from a Stargaze
Aidan’s focus was Ali Bubba, a V8 boulder that started on the back wall of the cave and travelled across the roof, finishing on a large hold at the outer lip of the cave. The movement was strenuous and sustained; holding yourself in a horizontal position using opposing force from your feet and hands is no easy feat, especially when the only handholds available are sharp pockets and difficult pinches.
Aidan working out the last section of Ali Bubba
Aidan made good progress linking together the different sections of Ali Bubba, which at one point required cutting feet and using just his grip strength and core tension to stay parallel to the roof while he repositioned his legs. Happy just to be present and hoping that resting my knee more would allow me to climb for the last few days, I collected everyone’s unworn coats into a pile on my Victory™ Patio blanket and took a nap.
Day 3 (2/21)
We woke to sunny conditions on day three and decided to try a hard V7 on a boulder in the riverbed that someone recommended. It was our longest approach of the trip, with the trail leading between clusters of rhododendrons down towards the river. While the deciduous trees had dropped all their leaves, the evergreen rhododendrons keep theirs all year round, and the greenery they provided gave the understory a beautiful density. We emerged from the woods to the open space of the riverbank, and the trail lead us past the base of some of New River’s incredible cliffs. The varied, overhung face dwarfed the enormous boulders we walked past, which in turn dwarfed us. Down by the water, a boulder the size of a house sat alone on the bank with the list of a grounded sailboat.
The boulder we were looking for was right next to a stream full of logs and debris. We fished out branches (and a single car tire) to build a platform under the climb for the crash pads, as the aggressive angle of the ground and various protruding rocks and stumps would have made the landing area unsafe otherwise. The climb itself proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, being both very difficult and incredibly dirty, and we all agreed that the process of building the platform was more fun than the actual climb.
Eli topping out as Oliver spots from below
Abandoning the riverside, we decided to spend the last hours of daylight at the boulders just a short walk from our campsite. The primary boulder was balanced on top of an overlook, and boasted both a gorgeous sunset and some fun, moderate climbing. We stayed there until well after dark, enjoying each other’s company and the simple pleasure of being out in the woods at night.
Attempting a low variation of a rightward move on the V6
Day 4 (2/22)
Feeling indulgent, Oliver and I went back to Cathedral Café for breakfast before going out to meet up with Aidan and Greta at the Meadow Top Boulders. In contrast to the other crags we’d visited, these boulders were at the top of the cliffs, rather than below them — this gave the approach a more heightened feel as the path would frequently thread between the rock face of the boulders at the top of the cliffs and the drop-off into the gorge below.
One of the thin channels between the blocks of rock that lined the cliff's edge
We found Greta and Aidan at a V6 crimp line on a near-vertical wall. The movement was straightforward but extended, requiring the climber to fully trust their left foot as they stood up in a committing move to the hold just out of reach. The rock had a beautiful red marbled look, which — combined with the dark waxy green of the surrounding rhododendron leaves — was incredibly aesthetically pleasing.
Greta reaching for a far crimp at the crux of the problem (photo by Aidan Roberts)
We moved on to a low overhung cave right next to the cliff’s edge, which was home to a V8 called Thomas Pinch-ons and a V7 called Oil Sands. While I wasn’t able to complete either route, it was gratifying to be able to work through some of the moves, particularly so soon after having re-injured my knee. The breeze coming up from the valley and slowly coasting turkey vultures set a beautifully languid scene for a lighthearted, relaxed afternoon.
Working on Oil Sands, an overhung V7 next to the drop-off (photo by Greta Grant)
There’s a commonly repeated piece of advice for new climbers, which is that if you want to get better at climbing, you should climb with people who are better than you. This is patently true, though I would amend it to the following: If you want to get the most out of your climbing, climb with the people you have fun with. I’m deeply fortunate in that the people I have the most fun with are the same ones who make me a better climber.
Hydration station at the Stargaze corner (photo by Greta Grant)
Day 5 (2/23)
Our fifth day was a more laidback affair. We knew that we would do some hard climbing the next day, and with a high above 70 degrees, we decided to keep things simple. We headed out to the Cotton Bottom area, where we found a boulder right off the road with a V4+ traverse route. Starting on small crimps, balanced technical moves took you through the crux on some tricky slopers before you topped out on the good holds along the arete. We took turns working on it (Oliver did so barefoot for an additional challenge) and, emboldened by the climbing from the day prior and the encouragement of the others, I was able to send the route.
Completing a boulder problem is always satisfying, and there is an additional satisfaction that comes from doing so and using different beta than the others around you. The small silver lining of an injury is that it can force you into trying new movement, and sometimes it pays off.
Oliver juggling while Aidan approaches the crux of the V4 traverse
Day 6 (2/24)
Our final day of climbing in the New was spent returning to complete the projects we hadn’t finished. Oliver and I went back to F5 and after three hours of continued effort and dialing in the smallest of details (down to the specific holds he left unbrushed to retain the most chalk on his hands for friction), Oliver sent the boulder; his first outdoor V10. It was an amazing process to watch — methodical, patient, persistent, and deeply joyful.
Oliver working through the beginning of F5
While we were back at F5, Aidan sent Ali Bubba, and we reconvened at Incident, where Aidan, Greta, and I took turns working on the traverse. There’s immense fulfillment in coming back to a problem, or even an individual move, and finding that you’re now capable of doing it. I had that experience several times on Incident as moves that initially felt completely impossible began to feel doable, and ultimately, I was able to link together the majority of the route. I was stymied by a right leg dropknee at the end that my injury prohibited, but I still walked away with the feeling of having earned something.
We left after Aidan sent the traverse and headed back into town for a celebratory dinner before retiring at camp for our last night in the New.
My Dagger OSMO, lit by a headlamp in the interior lighting pocket
- Dagger OSMO™ 2P Lightweight Backpacking Tent
- Roamer™ Self-Inflating Luxury Sleeping Pad
- Disco™ Men’s 30 Down Sleeping Bag
- Stargaze™ Reclining Camp Chair
- Moonlite™ Reclining Camp Chair
- Victory™ Patio Blanket
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it.
Isaiah is a Customer Service Guide at NEMO. He enjoys climbing, Anne Carson, and the relentless pursuit of the perfect oatmeal chocolate chip cookie