Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jonny Hudson didn’t see a hill until his twenties. He was born in Oklahoma, then lived in Tennessee before moving all around Arkansas. At 24, he joined the army as a combat photographer and was stationed in eastern Maryland. During his training, Jonny stumbled into climbing while searching for a way to train that didn’t involve stuffy gyms.
His first climbing trip was to Coopers Rock State Forest. Soon after, he was deployed to Afghanstan, where he dreamt of returning to the states to climb. Since then, he’s climbed all over West Virginia, the U.S., and several foreign countries. While finishing a degree at the Adventuresports Institute at Garrett College, he became a climbing guide at Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides.
Last year, Jonny became Seneca’s first climbing ranger. The U.S. Forest Service position is one of just a few in the country, and maybe the only one on the east coast according to Jonny and my brief internet search.Through his new gig, Jonny builds connections between climbers, hikers, and visitors. From evaluating permits to providing self-rescue tips, he helps keep climbers safe on the rocks and helps everyone else understand what the heck those crazy climbers are actually doing up there.
I caught up with Jonny to chat about the new job, his climbing obsession, and the spectacular nature of West Virginia’s mountains. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into climbing?
It was my daughter’s birthday. I wanted to do something other than dinner and a movie, so I just started googling around. I found out about Earth Treks in Columbia, Maryland, which was right near where we lived. I went out there and did the little day pass. They belay you up three climbs and they don’t even give you climbing shoes—you’re just in your tennies.
Were you hooked on climbing since day one?
It wasn’t like some crazy light bulb went off. I probably went four or five times, learned how to top-rope belay, and was enjoying it. At the same time, we were doing a lot of field training exercises with the army, which means we spent a lot of nights outside bushwhacking through the woods. Through that, I was exposed to nature and that was really starting to creep into my being again. As soon as I put two and two together that you could rock climb outside, that was all I wanted to do. That’s when the light bulb did go off. After that, everything was about climbing.
“The mountains we have out here are super intimate. Out west, people go to the mountains and they recreate on them and they look at them. But we live in our mountains, so they feel very cozy, almost like we’re a part of them.”
I think what draws me to climbing is how multifaceted it is because it can be a lot of different things at different times. If you’re working a sport project, it’s all about efficiency and drive and pushing yourself physically. You start with a climb where you can’t even make it past the first couple moves. After putting in a bunch of hard work, it almost feels easy and you float it. That progress is super rewarding. Big, scary traditional routes offer a full-on sense of adventure where the outcome is uncertain. You’re battling back and forth with fear, so you’re kind of constantly overcoming your fear, which is a super stressful but rewarding endeavor. With bouldering and top roping, it’s much more social. You can get a bunch of people out there and everybody’s hanging around working on a problem. You can also throw yourself at something that’s ultrahard. You always learn something about your body movement or your actual limits when you do that.
What drew you to West Virginia?
I absolutely love West Virginia. It’s one of the first places that really feels like home. The mountains we have out here are super intimate. Out west, people go to the mountains and they recreate on them and they look at them. But we live in our mountains, so they feel very cozy, almost like we’re a part of them.
When did you first climb at Seneca?
I did my first multi-pitch climb at Seneca Rocks. As soon as we got off the deck, I was grinning ear-to-ear. I was already super into climbing, but that first trip to Seneca absolutely cauterized it. It was definitely one of those days when you get down from a climb and you have the thought, ‘I’m going to climb for the rest of my life.’
“In the North Fork Valley, there’s still tons and tons of unclimbed rock. You can go out and find stuff that nobody’s ever been on. A lot of times finding that stuff is a huge adventure in and of itself.”
What does a climbing ranger at Seneca do?
One of my purposes is to engage the climbing community. I’ll have a presentation at the visitor center where I’ll talk to non-climbers about what’s going on up there. On weekends, I’ll do a climber’s coffee. I talk with people and give them beta on what routes are good for them and different rappel stations. I offer up basic self-rescue tips: a couple of ways to climb a line and a couple ways to get down it without a rappel device. The whole purpose of that is community engagement and preventative search and rescue. As a climber, it’s probably one of the better jobs out there because I get to actually go out and rock climb. Another big part of the job is doing guide and outfitter permit evaluations and instructions. I do permit evaluations for climbing, fly fishing, horsepacking, backpacking guides, anybody with a guide and outfitter permit.
What makes climbing in West Virginia unique?
Just on the approach hike to wherever you’re trying to climb, you never know what you’re going to see, especially if you’re interested in natural history, wildflowers, plants, animals, and mushrooms. The approach can be almost as enjoyable as the climb sometimes just because of all the flora and fauna. And I think the fact that it’s not really on the map in the climbing world. Especially in the North Fork Valley and Seneca, there’s still tons and tons of unclimbed rock. You can go out and find stuff that nobody’s ever been on. A lot of times finding that stuff is a huge adventure in and of itself.
Any advice for new climbers?
Learn basic self-rescue before you even get out on the rocks, and wear a dang helmet.
Johnny Hudson loves to climb, paddle, bike, and hike. You can find him sippin’ coffee in the parking lot or danglin’ on a rope at Seneca, shouting beta to gumby climbers whilst swaying majestically in the breeze.