By Jay Young, Photos by Matt Sloan
Of all the user groups active in the New River Gorge—rafters, kayakers, hikers, hunters, birders and more—it’s hard to deny that the most active of them in terms of volunteering are climbers. Organized since the 1980s, climbers have always stepped up to the plate to make the park a better place for everybody. Whether it’s cleaning up roadside dumps or replacing outdated, unsafe protection bolts in rock, the Park has counted on climbers to come through again and again.
But climbers aren’t just active within the National Park. In fact they pay to play all over the region, and in early June, these guys stepped up in a big way to put a couple very important jobs in the DONE column.
The Whippoorwill Trail
Jeff Young and Dave Montgomery have an unusual job. They travel around America for a non-profit national organization of climbers called the Access Fund, building trails at rock climbing areas. Jeff and Dave, both of Colorado, came to the area specifically to work on a trail that climbers and many others use all summer long and a climbing/swimming spot on Summersville Lake.
Whippoorwill, one of the area’s most popular winter climbing areas and certainly it’s most popular summer swimming hole, has seen more than it’s share of people, dogs, grills and coolers full of beer tumble down the trail. “This is the worst trail we ever had to work on,” says Dave.
“It’s horrible,” agrees Jeff. “It’s like a slip and slide.”
The Whippoorwill Trail, which previously beelined straight down a slick, muddy gully before spilling over a short cliff, was dangerous at best and deadly at worst. Dave and Jeff are attacking the most dangerous part of it where climbers and others previously had to negotiate a 4’ drop off covered in mud and run-off.
With an ingenious system of cables and pulleys, Jeff, Dave and a revolving door of local volunteers are hauling rocks to build stairs and mitigate the run-off problem. Has this trail claimed its last victim? Climbers sure hope so.
In one of the most ambitious projects area climbers have ever seen, another national non-profit, the American Alpine Club is constructing a climbers’ ranch. Similar to their ranch in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, this project will house a caretaker to look after a communal meeting place, a pavilion and (eventually) 60 campsites—with 20 planned to open before Fall.
The unique part about this project, however, is the method by which the team is removing logs to construct a road into the property. They are logging by horse.
Climber, Gene Kistler, is the President of the Board of Directors of the local climbers’ organization, the New River Alliance of Climbers and the lead contractor on the campground. “There will be no straight lines on this road,” says Gene proudly. “And we’ll mill the wood on site to use for tent platforms and other buildings.”
Daryl Stanley works for Sinking Creek Horse Logging out of Virginia. “Why horses?” he asks. “They’re greener. They burn less fuel. They’re less destructive.”
Logger David Marrale agrees. “Better us than conventional loggers, who would tear the place up,” he says. “We take pride in that.”
“It’s a blast,” Daryl says of the job, which to any observer also looks back breaking. “It’s so much better than working with heavy equipment—challenging… sometimes dangerous.”
What’s also obvious is that the horses enjoy the job as much as the men. Weighing in at up to 1600 lbs. apiece, all four of the huge animals have Suffolk in them, and three are mixed breeds of Suffolk and Belgian Draft Horse. Each of them is calm enough to hang out blissfully with chainsaws buzzing around and trees slamming to the ground, and smart enough that they respond instantly to voice commands.
All of this—the Whippoorwill Trail and horse logging to break ground on a major new climbers’ campground—is happening in one week… one very big week for New River Gorge climbers.