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If you’re a rock climber who’s spent any time in West Virginia’s New River Gorge, you likely know of Mike Williams—or at least recognize his name. If you’re an NRG climber and don’t, you must have spent the previous decade living under a rock instead of climbing one. That’s because he’s authored three comprehensive rock climbing guidebooks—his inaugural 2010 edition and an updated pair of companion volumes in 2013—that reign supreme as the authoritative sources for everything climbing in the New River Gorge region.
Guidebook authors are the unsung heroes of the climbing world—without a guidebook, how the hell would you know how to find that obscure crag tucked deep in the woods, or even know what route you’re climbing? A well-done guidebook is much more than a simple route directory—quality books feature the history and climbing ethics of their crags, provide profiles of prominent personalities, and feature pro-quality climbing photography of area climbers on famous routes. Guidebooks adorn climbers’ bookshelves like prized possessions as if they were original Picassos on display at the Guggenheim.
If you’re not a climber, you can still appreciate the perseverance, tenacity, and quality of Williams’s numerous contributions to the ongoing legend of rock climbing culture in the New River Gorge. Nowadays, Williams and wife Elissa Williams share their Fayetteville dream with three-year-old daughter Hazel who is, presumably, bound to be a future crusher. He’s on the Board of Directors for the New River Alliance of Climbers, and is heavily involved in rebolting old routes. Last year, Williams started Bridge Bound Campers, where he designs and builds custom camper vans for road tripping climbers.
How did you end up in Fayetteville?
I went to Brevard College in North Carolina, where I studied wilderness leadership and experiential education. During my time there, I started to come to the New to climb on steeper rock, because NC is a bunch of slabs. I fell in love with Fayetteville. After school, I was living in a 1986 VW van and using my degree working with at-risk youth in the wilderness. I wanted to climb more, so I started working as a guide with New River Mountain Guides in 2004. For the next four years, I would work all summer, then take the van out west in the winter and rock climb. I met Elissa in 2006 at the campground, and we bought a house in 2007—that was the first year we really lived in Fayetteville.
“I have so much gratitude for Kenny Parker, and Gene and Maura Kistler. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without all the help of the community.”
How did you initially get involved with creating the NRG guidebook?
Dave Pegg of Wolverine Publishing had just done the Red River Gorge guidebook with Ray Ellington; that book killed it, and was selling well. Dave wanted to do a New River book, and Kenny Parker said, “No way,” so Kenny pitched it to me. Maura and Gene Kistler, and Kenny Parker; they’re just amazing people. They look at everyone in Fayetteville and find this place in the community for them. You know, they ask, “How will they contribute to our little outdoor utopia?” I have so much gratitude for Kenny, Gene, and Maura. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without all the help of the community. That was 2008 when I started working on it. I hadn’t spent a full year anywhere in like 10 years, which was kinda cool. I finally saw what’s its like in the winter here.
What was the catalyst to writing the guidebook? Was there an “aha” moment?
The catalyst was that this area needed a book, and I just happened to be in the right area at the right time. The original book, New River Rock was written by Rick Thompson, who had moved out to Colorado in the 90s. There were about three or four years where no guidebook author lived in town, and Thompson’s book was out of print. It went along with the evolution of guidebooks in general. Wolverine Publishing really started the quality guidebook with digital route photos; you’re standing at the base of the cliff and looking at photos of the actual cliffline instead of hand-drawn topos.
“I had never written anything more than a term paper. It was definitely a big task, but I relate everything to the process of rock climbing… You just chunk it down.”
Did you have prior publishing experience?
No, none. I had never written anything more than a term paper. It was definitely a big task, but I relate everything to the process of rock climbing. With any project, whether its working on a van, writing a book, or projecting a rock climb, you just chunk it down. You figure out one move, and then the other move, and it actually chunks down very easily.
Guidebooks possess an overwhelming amount of information—route names, grades, ascent histories, descriptions—how did you go about digging it up?
The biggest resource was previous guidebooks. There’s no way I could have known anything about the gorge at all without the previous authors’ work. Just like any history book, you read it, understand it, and build off that knowledge. There’s certainly a level of incorporating other peoples’ work.
I’d walk around in the woods with the original books; without those books, I would have been lost right from the start. Most of the original climbers are still around, and I got some of those major players in the history of New River climbing to write essays. I wanted to show respect for those who came before us who wrote the history of the area. Rick Thompson was quite helpful; Kenny and Gene were my go-to guys. We spent countless hours walking around in the woods. We documented a lot of new stuff that hadn’t been in previous books. There was no information about Summersville Lake or the Meadow River in Thompson’s book.
Did you climb every route in the book?
Definitely not. Nobody has even come close, there are just so many. That’s just an ongoing process—I’m still trying to climb them all. Since then, I’ve gotten another ten years of routes under my belt, so I’ve got a lot more knowledge now. I’ve been climbing here for over 15 years, and there’s just so much more to do. I’m still finding new routes.
I know it’s a lame question, but, favorite sport and trad route at the New?
Favorite sport route is Coal Train (5.14a) at Beauty Mountain, a route I found and bolted. It’s just amazing. It’s emerged as one of the best routes at the New. Even Alex Megos said it’s one of the ten-best routes in the world. For trad, Leave it to Jesus (5.11c), a route that most people can aspire to if they’re committed.
“Coal Train… a route I found and bolted… It’s just amazing. Even Alex Megos said it’s one of the ten-best routes in the world.”
Give me one ridiculous story from the research phase.
The winter I was working on the guidebook, I got this really bad issue with my feet, and my feet would get cold and wet, and burn and itch. One time I was out in the snow, just sitting on the ground writhing in pain, and I was done. I had to pack my shoes with snow and freeze my feet solid so I could hike them out. I got home and thawed them out and had the screaming barfies in my feet.
What was the most enjoyable aspect?
Being able to get in touch with, basically, my heroes, the climbers I looked up to and read about in the original books. You see those names and pictures, and then you get to talk to those people, here their stories, and pick their brains.
Describe life after the book. How did you deal with all the fame and wealth?
One of the coolest things, maybe the second coolest night of my life, after my wedding, was the guidebook release party that Gene and Maura organized. Porter Jarrard and Eddie Begoon were there along with all the people in town, and my dad came in. It was just super cool to bring everyone together to talk about the New, to feel this new level of energy of people psyched about the book. Right after that I was out of a job, and that’s when I started writing for Dead Point Magazine.
You’re still here. Why Fayetteville? What makes the New River Gorge so great?
Where do you start? I love Fayetteville, its perfect for me. I love New River climbing, for whatever reason, I just climb really well on New River rock. The rock and the climbing here is like nowhere else on earth. It’s the place I’ve connected to the most. As far as the town, it’s the perfect sized town for me. To have the best climbing destination in the world, in my opinion, you just don’t find that anywhere else.
“I love Fayetteville, its perfect for me. The rock and the climbing here is like nowhere else on earth. It’s the place I’ve connected to the most.”
What’s the future of climbing in the New River Gorge?
I think that we’re gonna have a lot of challenges in the future. I think we’re already seeing the effects of the popularity of climbing. We wanna share the area and see more people become climbers. At the same time, the National Park Service is severely underfunded, and now we’ve got an administration that doesn’t care about the parks and funding them anymore. We’ve got an understaffed NPS, and more and more people coming here every year. There are parking issues, and there are impacts on the crags themselves. There’s not money to deal with these kind of things, and the crags are becoming stressed. It’s a constant challenge to accommodate, and I’d like to see us be able to step up and deal with those challenges, and make this a really great climbing area.
If you’re at the New and don’t know where to find that uncrowded, 100-foot, four-star 5.9, stop by Waterstone Outdoors and pick up Mike Williams’s guidebook. And if your new rig isn’t ready for #vanlife, consider letting Mike work his magic.