Nov 2017: Thanksgiving Gorge

I’m all about gorging at Thanksgiving. And one of the best gorges in the East is the 1,000-foot-deep New River Gorge in West Virginia, which is lined with miles and miles of vertical rock cliffs that beg to be climbed. It’s also in the middle of Appalachia, with its Deliverance stereotypes for lawlessness and renegade hunting. While the stereotypes are just that, I soon bumped into one of them.

Photo by Jenna Cho

Pulling my car in front of an old graveyard, the designated parking area for a climbing zone called Bubba City, Jenna and I saw we weren’t alone. Even though it was Thanksgiving morning, the graveyard was filled with a group of camouflage-wearing, rifle-slinging hunters with big trucks that carried ATVs. Before we got out of the car, a hunter walked over to us and motioned for Jenna to roll down her window.

“Lot of hunters out today,” he said, “so you may not want to be in the woods.” He looked at me wearing brown pants and a forest red jacket and said, “See, that’s exactly what you don’t want to be wearing. Put on something bright. There’s someone just up the way hunting now. It’s dangerous to be out here.”

I don’t think the hunter necessarily meant to be menacing. But he certainly came across that way. Here we were at a public cemetery, about to hike into a national park and one of the East Coast’s premier climbing destinations, and we were being warned to not get shot. What kind of hunter mistakes a person for wild game? Aren’t you supposed to know what you’re shooting before you shoot it?

I’m not sure what the proverb forewarned is forearmed means in this situation. Feeling like we might be taking our lives into our own hands, we trekked into the woods.

We had arrived the previous evening. Fittingly for this gorgeful Thanksgiving, the drive from New York to West Virginia started and ended in crossing over the two longest arch bridges in the U.S. Leaving NYC, Jenna and I (and her dog, Orbit) drove over the Bayonne Bridge from Staten Island to New Jersey, which is the second-longest arch bridge at 1,673 feet. Entering Fayetteville in West Virginia, we crossed the New River Gorge Bridge, whose 1,699-foot-long arch has been the continent’s longest since it opened four decades ago.

Photos by Jenna Cho

We found a camping spot at Chestnut Creek Campground, which was actually closed for the season — so there were a lot of available camping spots. The owner said he’d already shut off the water lines and couldn’t offer bathrooms or hot showers, but he’d let us use the outhouse and would only ask us to donate whatever fee we thought seemed reasonable.

That all seemed reasonable. We set up camp and retreated into our sleeping bags as the temperature quickly dropped below freezing. Orbit fell asleep reading the guidebook, dreaming of adventures to come…

We woke Thanksgiving morning to a bitter cold. Our water bottles had frozen, and Orbit’s water bowl was sealed with a thick crust of ice. We waited for the sun to burn off the frost. By 11am it felt warm enough to head out to the climbing area called Bubba City where we met those territorial hunters who told us we might get mistaken for wild game.

We walked down a set of powerlines and then through wooded trails to the cliffs of Bubba City and found… nobody. The area was empty of any hunters or climbers, which we later learned was because Bubba City is considered a less popular climbing area. Jenna, Orbit and I had the entire cliff to ourselves.

Here’s Jenna climbing a couple of 5.8 sport routes called Geisha Girl and Mrs. Field’s Follies, both in an area called Sandstonia. Below that, Jenna is looking down at me from the top of a fun 5.6 trad route called Plumber’s Crack.

Photos by Jenna Cho

It was a race against the setting sun to complete all the climbs we wanted to complete, and there were still more I’d have loved to try in that area. We hiked out in the dark, which may not have been the smartest idea given the poor-sighted hunters prowling the woods. The previous evening, by coincidence, a woman walking her two dogs in upstate New York actually had been shot by a neighbor who mistook her for a deer. So much for the stereotypes about Appalachia. America is crazy.

This being Thanksgiving, we had stocked up on holiday provisions: canned peas and corn and cranberry sauce, packaged turkey pepperoni, and instant stuffing and mashed potatoes. Just one problem: We forgot the can opener.

We brought our problem to the owner of Chestnut Creek Campground, who let us borrow his can opener (while also subtly complaining that his wife had demanded his help for the entire day to prepare their Thanksgiving meal). Within 30 minutes, our incredible camping-edition of the traditional Thanksgiving meal was prepared.

The day after Thanksgiving, after finishing our leftovers for breakfast, we hiked to an area called The Endless Wall, so-named because it is a three-mile long section of 100- to 200-foot-tall vertical cliff. The Endless Wall approach trail included steep ladders and cave-like alleyways

The morning started chilly, but by afternoon we were both sweating and rolling up our sleeves from the hot sun. Below, Jenna is on a 120-foot-high, 5.9 sport climb called Fool Effect in a section called the Kaymoor Slabs.

We again climbed until it was dark, then drove to a local pizzeria called Pies and Pints in Fayetteville, which is the self-proclaimed “coolest small town in America” (a title that seems to be derived from when the backwater outpost was listed in the “Top 10 Coolest Small Towns in America” by Budget Travel Magazine in 2006).

Our third and final day of climbing was at a section called the Bridge Area, which is below the northern side of the New River Gorge Bridge.

Below, I’m on an interesting 5.6 trad route called Easily Flakey (nearby was a 5.8 trad crack called Zag that we also did). Jenna’s on another 5.6 trad route called Afternoon Delight, which finished atop a slender rock pillar that overlooked the bridge.

By now we hadn’t showered in four days and were caked in sweat and grime, but fortunately the smell of campfire overpowered our personal body odors. Orbit was the one who seemed to feel most in need of a cleansing wash.

We drove down a steep, winding road to the base of the gorge. Wet-suit-wearing rafters were putting inflatable rafts and hardshell kayaks into the river just above a set of rapids. Orbit didn’t think twice about jumping into the bone-chilling water, which has an average temperature in the low 40s this time of year. He played in the river until he seemed unable to stop shivering. Which is a fair summary of the trip: Cold but fun.

Photo by Jenna Cho
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