Thursday, October 27, 2016

No Trick, Just a Treat: Rakkup offers Free Trail of the Long Branch/Guide Walls and Reed Creek Guidebooks

Happy Halloween from the Climbers of Smoke Hole and the folks at!

Starting tomorrow, download a free two-week trial run of the guidebooks for Long Branch and the Guide Walls or Reed's Creek. 

This offer is good through the end of our next Trail Daze weekend, November 6th; if you haven't signed up to join us, check out either of our facebook pages; Reed's Creek Climbing or Smoke Hole Canyon. 

Bookmark either (or both) of those, give us a "Like", then look for the Events page, and click "Going" to let us know you'd like to give back to the community, meet some locally active climbers and discover a great new area. 

Deadline to register for free camping and breakfast is noon on Friday, October 28, so don't delay!

Trial Download Instructions:

1. Download rakkup from the Apple App Store.
2. Register an account from the My Account Tab. (You must create an account to download a free trial)
3. Tap Reed's Creek or Long Branch in the Store.
4. Tap the 15-day trial button.

1. Download rakkup from Google Play.
2. Register an account from the My Account Tab. (You must create an account to download a free trial)
3. Tap on Reed's Creek or Long Branch in the Store.
4. Tap the Try it button.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Game of Stones

Game of Stones: First Ascents, Projects, and Crag Etiquette

By Mike Gray

Bolting Gypsy Conditions in Northern Devil's Canyon, Tonto National Forest, AZ. Photo by Cindy Gray

About to create the line Castles Made of Sand 
at the Entrance Walls of Smoke Hole Canyon.

It begins with a dream; to find a piece of stellar rock, and to make your mark.

In some cases, it’s a desire to give back to the community; to expand the number of available climbs to make the journey and the hike worthwhile, to create more moderates for the beginners and weekend warriors or to increase the number of technical pump fests for the hard persons seeking new challenges.

In other instances, it comes from a deep need to find your own space and explore the blank spots on the map, for your own enjoyment, in a place far from the madding crowd.

And, of course, there are those whose quest is for personal glory and fame; very little will stand in the way of someone determined to make a name for themselves, at any and all costs, with a drill and a rope, rather than training and ethical behavior.

In the desire to create a reputation, climbers too often abandon responsibility, respect and common courtesy, the foundations of crag etiquette.

Creating routes is a process, sometimes a quick one, more often a labor of love over the course of weeks; preparing the belay and base, top-roping the line, cleaning away loose stone and searching for gear placements or safe protection bolt locations.

Good stainless steel bolts cost $5 apiece, stainless steel bolt hangers are about $3, and SS top anchors cost $12-15 a pair. Drill bits are good for about 12 holes, and cost from $9 up to $18, for a drill that will cost $400-800.

If time for development is figured at one eight-hour day, minimum wage labor cost (which is a true bargain) is $66, so multiply that times however may days it takes to put in the route.

Investment to bolt two routes with four bolts each and two top anchors: from $600 to well over $1,000, depending on the quality of the gear you choose.

An old Hilti, one of the last drills you could get for a few hundred dollars. This one created routes at Franklin, installed anchors at Hidden Rocks, and put up over 68 routes across the Virginias and in Devils Canyon, in Arizona. Since then, armed with a lighter drill and still hungry for new lines, the author has managed to knock off another 98 first ascents.

If anything goes wrong in the process, add the cost of more bolts, bits, plus wear and tear on your drill, gear and body.

Of course, you also have the $250 investment of a rope, carabiners and rappel device that will all be trashed by rock dust, probably an ascender and daisy chain that will wear out in a season, ditto for the harness and forget about your shoes once well-coated with limestone.

Most route developers do not live near the crags at which they are working, so the end of every trip that does not end in a first ascent requires them to drive away from their creation with the knowledge that, barring ethics, anyone with a rope, a willing partner, and the right gear could come along and take advantage of all their efforts; steal the line and claim the first ascent.

To help identify projects and prevent all their expense and effort from going to waste,  route developers often place red tags on the first bolt, or leave a knotted piece of red webbing in the base of a crack they are cleaning. Some go to greater lengths, removing or placing locks in the first bolt hanger to prevent anyone from clipping in, or taping the hanger closed for the same purpose.

In other words, projects are usually marked in some very obvious way.

Even if your drill is paid for, a four or five bolt route with anchors, created by a skilled route setter, taking three days to clean and bolt, is worth about $250 in basic materials and labor- never mind the love and vision of the person creating the line.

Stealing anything else worth that sum is a felony.

In climbing, it is an accepted practice few seem willing to challenge or even discuss.

Respect for those tags is all that keeps those of us who are invested in the process, those who gave the community most of the lines they enjoy, who maintain the trails and clean up the dog poop and tape ends, rope tags and water bottle lids the rest of you leave behind without a thought.

It is not the Access Fund; the Access Fund does not put up routes, or create climbing areas, or write guidebooks to help you find your way safely. The Access Fund took decades to encourage personal responsibility among climbers, and as long as you send them your money every year, they will never throw you out of the club, certainly not for failing ethically or violating even the most basic rules of courtesy.

After all, they have a reputation to consider, and their continuing existence is chained to the funds they can collect from willing members.

Back at the crags, however, things are a bit different.

For those out there in the climbing community who may feel the occasional overwhelming temptation to ignore a red tag or other indicator of project status, there are several things that even such a narcissistic egomaniac might wish to take into consideration;

1) Bolts in the holes are not always torqued down to specifications… sometimes you run out of daylight, sometimes you forget the wrench, and sometimes, you’re just tired of dealing with the shallow end of the gene pool.  Translation: If you fall during your bogus attempt at stealing a first ascent, you could pull the bolt and seriously hurt yourself, maybe your belayer. Limping around in a cast trying to explain your sins will not be considered cool, no matter how stupid your significant other and/or crew of homeys may be;

2) You will never be able to claim the first ascent, unless you are some sort of serious masochist who enjoys the abuse of the veteran members of the local climbing community, and from experienced climbers in general.  There are climbers, one of them the author, who will call you out on the forums, on social media and blog sites, and at any and every climbing function and/or area where they encounter your sorry carcass.

3) You will never be able to put up a project of your own without finishing it in a rush, worrying (and with good reason) that someone will come along and steal it just like you would and did, or if someone from whom you snaked a route will come along and chop it right down for you, taking your gear, fame, pride, and all your hard work with them as they go whistling down the trail with a song in their heart and a smile on their lips.

4) Coming out during the week does not guarantee your continuing anonymity, because there are some of us who prefer to be at the crag mid-week. If you are caught in mid-theft, you just might get yanked right off the rock, and in an age where every phone is a camera connected to the Internet, you could be infamous before you return to earth.

If you want to put up new lines, go for it; there is plenty of untouched rock scattered across the United States, even in some of the most active climbing areas like Colorado and California.

For those who know respect and discipline, who truly practise crag etiquette, the opportunities for a lifetime of adventure and fantastic new routes, free of guilt or shame, are almost limitless.

The Macdaddy, keeping it real, on the first bolts of Gray Matter, Franklin Gorge, WV
For those who care only about their own tiny egos and self-fulfillment; enjoy your good days and the friends you have now, because none of them will last for long, certainly not for a lifetime.

In the Game of Stones, honor comes from those who blazed the paths and laid the foundations, to those who respect the crag and the people who worked so hard and gave so much to create them.

For those who still want to make this a discussion about ancient history, particularly on the Facebook pages dedicated to the climbers of Seneca Rocks:

Brian, I commend your lack of actual commentary on the topic, as well as a complete absence of any involvement in getting local access freed or supporting trail maintenance at Franklin, (the crag you love so much that you trespassed to get there). Even more impressive is your obsessive ability to maintain this stance despite any troublesome facts that might contradict your assertions, still reserving the right to spew about routes you never put up, which were not in fact chopped, but rather upgraded and improved, with hardware you did not buy or install, by people whose water you could never have carried.

My invitation stands: come here, to the home of the post, and renew the discussion.

Put up, lad, or admit that you never had a dog in this fight in the first place.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Long Branch and the Guide Walls: Discovering the Heart of Smoke Hole

Discovering the Heart of Smoke Hole Canyon:

Long Branch and the Guide Walls

 Looking upstream from the top of 'Shattered Illusions', at the height of summer; the route’s anchors sit near the top of the Long Branch Buttress, rewarding climbers with one of the most amazing views in the canyon.

Climbers are a quixotic breed. We are known to leave behind good jobs, family and loved ones to cross the country, camping in our cars or sketchy rest areas, pounding down twisting wash boarded backroads, living on fast food and cheap beer, bush whacking and hiking for miles, thrashing through thorns and stumbling across talus, to find great crags in unique settings.

Truly great climbs and climbing areas both challenge and inspire; they motivate us to push the edge, to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, and they return us to that quiet place inside, where wonder still lives.

These are the crags from which we return tired but renewed, exhausted and at the same time, restored.

The crags that sit on either side of Long Branch, two miles downstream from Shreve’s little store in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon, are the perfect setting for this dualistic pursuit of peace and adventure.

Hidden behind a screen of trees and perched high on the ridge, the Guide Walls’ southern end soaks up sun all year long, and is dubbed, imaginatively enough, The Sunshine Wall.

The east end of the Sunshine Wall on a fall day, as seen from the approach trail; these conditions can persist into the middle of winter. Photo by Mike Gray.

Heather Jiles spots Andrea Nelson as she heads through cracks and buckets on the 5.8+ Arete of the Sunshine Wall. Photo by Tyrel Johnson.

Here you can shed those layers and dance up lines like the long-distance 5.8+ Guide’s Arete, 5.9s Zendo, Funboy and The Never Ending Story, huck and crimp your way through the Guide’s 5.11 or George’s Dilemma, another great bucket tour that leads to a challenging 5.10 roof crux.

Most of these lines were put up by the Seneca Guides of the early 90s, including Darrell Hensley, Tony Barnes, and Tom Cecil. Mike Fisher and I came back in 2003 to add ‘Funboy’ and ‘Zendo’ on an overlooked panel on a ledge in the middle of the wall.

The author and Andreas Czerwinski enjoying some fall sunshine on The routes of the Macdaddy Roof; the 5.9 Never Ending Story (R) and the Guide 10b (L)

Around the corner, on the crag’s middle section and northern end, the east-facing lines of the Ninja Walls offer climbers both summer shade and a haven from winter’s cold, as leaves and temperatures begin to fall.

Michael Fisher cruising the bomber moves and stone of 'Destiny', one of the original lines at the Ninja Walls.

Chris Beauchamp’s ‘Glossolalia’ kicks things off and Nick Kurland’s ‘Cu Rodeo’ ups the ante with thin holds on steep ground and a touch of run-out.
Beyond these wait classic Ninja lines like ‘Destiny’ and ‘Hummingbird’, the 5.9-  trad headpoint “Name Your Poison’ and mind-boggling roof of 5.10c/d ‘Carpe Diem’. 

For a final burn of all remaining rounds, hike out to the north end and jump on crusher Mike Fisher lines like ‘Slight of Hand’, ‘Defenders of the Faith’, or Chris Beauchamp’s thuggish ‘Pon Hoss’.

Tyrel Johnson fighting the good fight and looking for Zen on the steep Mike Fisher route 'Defenders of the Faith' (5.10d), at the Ninja Walls.

The incredible Long Branch Buttress, with 'Beautiful Loser' on the left end, and the overhanging Darkside on the right. Photo by Mike Gray.

On the south side of the creek, Long Branch is home to some of the tallest faces, as well as some of the most difficult technical lines, to be found in the canyon.

Tom Cecil’s world-class ‘Beautiful Loser’ checks in at a sustained 5.11 with 9 well-spaced bolts, nearby ‘Shattered Illusions’ requires a full bag of 5.10 tricks over the course of 11 bolts and a V-slot through a roof, while ‘Big Johnson’, ‘The Ron Jeremy Arete’, ‘The Darkness’, ‘The Lightness’, ‘Gone Sniffin’’, ‘Local Hospitality’ and Parker Smith’s new addition ‘Shorty’s Lament’, all lay solid claim to territory at 5.12 and above.

Troy Johnson and I first came here in the very early 90s, at the invitation of Darrell Hensley, the Seneca Rocks guide and WV native who explored Smoke Hole and climbed here before most people knew the canyon existed. Franklin Gorge, where we had all been climbing for years, was filling up with people and the number of new routes left for development was down to maybe a handful of good lines and a dozen or so more mediocre routes.

Troy and I drove up to Smoke Hole on a windy, rainy day, waving at Franklin as we passed, grabbing coffee at the Shell station at the light, then rolling up 220 through pastureland and river bottom farms. We stared up at Reed Creek and wondered again if the “No Trespassing” signs were bogus (it turned out that they were, but that is another story), waved at the old men of the Liar’s Club, drinking coffee on the bench in front of Kile’s Grocery in Upper Tract, and turned off just before the old iron bridge.

We rounded the curve, crossed the hill by the old Alt farmhouse, and dropped into wonderland. Cliffs rose up on both sides of the river, the nearest just ten feet from the car windows as we stopped to stare up at the huge roof of the Entrance Walls. Another shower drove us back into the car, and hid most of Eagle Rocks and the French Fin from our gaping view as we passed. 

Eventually we reached Shreve’s Store, got our bearings, and had almost returned to sanity when we dropped into the lower canyon, and saw that all that had gone before was just a prelude.

We gibbered. We pointed, craned our necks and pointed some more, making nonsense noises and banging our heads on the windshield, spilling coffee. 

Two miles beyond the store, we reached the destination Darrell had described and a breaking point at the same instant; parked, grabbed water bottles, and scrambled madly up the talus slope leading to the base of the Long Branch Buttress.

After half an hour of absolutely speechless wandering, we nodded to each other, returned to the car, and headed home to gather allies and supplies.

Troy came back and bolted “Local Hospitality’, ‘Big Johnson’, ‘Pigs on the Wing’, and began the task of ground-up bolting the visionary project that would eventually become Mike Farnsworth’s ‘The Lightness’. He took off from the start of my mixed route “Through the Looking Glass’ and gave us the superb 5.11 ‘Pigs on the Wing’.

Rachel Levinson and Melissa Wine joined us, as did Mike Fisher, Greg Fangor, Chris Riha and a host of talented climbers from the Shenandoah and Albemarle valleys. Together, the group of us cleaned and put up ‘Shattered Illusions’, then Melissa and I produced ‘Hippo Head’ (the wall’s first all-female FA by Wine and Levinson), ‘Batteries Not Included’ and ‘Overtime’.

Taking a break from developing routes on the far side of the creek, at the Sunshine Wall, Tom Cecil, Tony Barnes and Darrell came over to bolt ‘Beautiful Loser’ and put up a 5.8 mixed line in the cave to the left.

Mike Fisher had dubbed our group the Five Deadly Ninjas, a tongue-in-cheek nod from his deep love of Kung Fu theater. Troy, Rachel, Melissa, myself, and Mr. Fisher decided that we needed a look at the walls they were developing on the other side of the creek, and the classic lines of the Ninja Walls were born in the following months.

Life went on, our little crew drifted apart, and I moved off to the west. I would call Mike Fisher on my occasional trips home, and we would invariably wind up at Smoke Hole for a climb or three, plotting on the remaining lines in this apparently forgotten corner of West Virginia.

In 2003, I returned to the Valley, and we put up Funboy and Zendo on an overlooked ledge at the Sunshine Wall.  Four years later, we bolted and led the routes of the Corvinus Cave, at Long Branch.

A recent surge in activity saw four new lines at or above 5.12, bolted and led by Michael Farnsworth, the guy who conquered one of the steepest routes of Seneca Rocks. Added to the already impressive set of routes in place, you have an area to test the mettle of climbers from around the globe.

Mike Farnsworth, on the crux of "The Lightness", 5.12d, Darkside, Long Branch Buttress.

Mahtaab Bagherzadeh eyes the long road ahead, facing the first of many cruxes on ‘Shattered Illusions’, the longest 5.10 on the Long Branch Buttress. Photo by Tyrel Johnson.

But don’t worry, moderate climbers and fun seekers… there’s still plenty of good times to be had, with enjoyable lines tucked in amongst the test pieces and enduro routes. 

Smile your way through sport warm-ups like 'My Silver Lining' (5.7), 'Lost World Arete' (5.7), or ‘Batteries Not Included’ (5.8+), mix things up with bolt and gear offerings like the 5.8 'Through the Looking Glass', or take a break from the bolts and pull out the whole rack for the long trad adventure of 5.7 'Cherry Lane'.

Racked up and ready for ground-up adventure; the author clips in for the first ascent of 'Cherry Lane', 5.7, Darkside, Long Branch Buttress.

Now beta for the heart of the canyon is available in a new, stand-alone phone app from, with all the info on new routes, great navigation features, and plenty of eye candy action shots:…/smoke-hole-canyon-long-branch-and-guid…/

Although the road is a bit bumpy, and even dusty and blessed with more than its share of potholes, from the crags of Long Branch and the Guide Walls, climbers are still less than an hour from hot food, showers and all the comforts of modern life.

Volunteers are constantly working to protect access, maintain the trails and improve old routes with new hardware.

No bushwhacking, no epics, no ‘scene’,  just great lines of all levels on great stone, a zen garden in which to find a bit of peace and quiet, in the beat of your heart, in the heart of the canyon.