This isn’t a traditional climbing story. It’s not a sport climbing story, either. But this is the story of how climbing brought me to West Virginia. Clinging to the sandstone cliffs that rise from her ancient mountains made me fall in love with the hills and hollows that weave in between. But it all started further east in a cramped climbing gym with wooden walls and dusty holds in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of my friends started climbing as a way to tackle his fear of heights, and he thought my boyfriend and I might enjoy it, too. After the first climbing session, my boyfriend was hooked, and I was dragged along for the ride.
We met an older fellow, a route setter at the gym who was keen to find some young guns interested in learning the ropes—literally. He became our mentor, teaching us how to tie knots, use a harness, place protective gear, and build anchors. He showed us how to move gracefully up routes and indoctrinated us into the Rock Warrior’s Way, a guide for building mental strength and fortitude while climbing. But perhaps the greatest impact he had on my life was introducing me to Seneca Rocks.
Nearly every weekend, the three of us piled into the car and made the journey to Seneca, anxious to see the monumental Tuscarora sandstone fin breach the verdant mountains of Pendleton County. We set up camp at Seneca Shadows, ate pizza and fried potato wedges at the Front Porch Restaurant, and spent all day scaling the cliffs in bids to reach the summit.
I struggled up flakes and cracks, jamming my feet and hands wherever they would squeeze. I grasped the rock with every ounce of my strength and desperately yanked the weight of my body closer to the top. It was exhausting, terrifying, and exhilarating. There was something unparalleled about the struggle and reward of being perched atop the narrow fin of Seneca, peering out into the vast, undeveloped landscape of the Potomac Valley.
We continued these regular pilgrimages to Seneca for several years, tackling as many routes as we could while growing closer to the climbing community. We made chili for the annual Chili Cookoff, where everyone shared stories of their alpine adventures and argued about the etiquette of traditional climbing, a style in which climbers place and remove protective gear as they go. I learned the lingo and became one of those people who never stops talking about what routes they climbed or wanted to climb one day. If you ever see someone across the room suddenly throw their right arm in the air, pretend to grab a micro hold, then spastically launch their right leg up at a 90-degree angle while yelling ‘psssaaaaat,’ they’re definitely talking about climbing.
In 2013, I moved to Pittsburgh to start graduate school and immediately joined the local climbing gym – another cramped, wooden, dusty den. I made new friends who shared my passion for wrestling rocks. They introduced me to another climbing mecca in West Virginia, the New River Gorge, which quickly became my weekend home. We traveled down to the New every Friday and returned to Pittsburgh in the wee hours of Monday morning. After a few hours of sleep, I would stumble in to work totally exhausted but incredibly fulfilled. We camped, built giant bonfires, and flipped through guidebooks finding destinations that catered to everyone’s abilities and goals.
In some ways, my experiences climbing at the New felt more lighthearted and easygoing than my days at Seneca. Perhaps because I got to hang out on the ground cheering my friends on instead of standing alone on an awkward belay ledge hundreds of feet in the air. But there was always an intensity and eagerness to push my limits. I quickly discovered that if I could climb harder, a world of possibilities would open up for me at the New.
I trained in the gym, crammed my toes into aggressive shoes, and ruined my skin with dry climbing chalk. Every weekend, I attempted more and more difficult climbing routes outside. I was thrilled when I started leading 5.10 climbs, a grade that describes intermediate routes that require a good bit of fitness and technique. My friend Sandra and I became the queens of 5.10, trading off leads and coaching each other through the challenging sections. We had a blast, but there was always a nagging feeling that I should be advancing my skills and capabilities. After all, my friends were cruising up even more strenuous routes.
After I split up with the aforementioned boyfriend, I started dating another guy, a route setter at the gym who was (and remains) more invested in climbing than anyone I’ve ever met. We devised a training plan and spent all our time either climbing or talking about climbing. He picked out routes to project at the New, a process in which you repeatedly try the same route in the hopes of one day making it up without falling, and encouraged me to pick my own. I’ll never forget the feeling of clipping the anchors on my first 5.11 on lead. Everything fell right into place. I felt calm, smooth, and strong. My goal was always to make climbing look as effortless as possible. I wanted to feel like a gentle stream of water flowing up the rock. And for once, I did.
But instead of mastering a bunch of climbs at each grade, I started rushing the process, pushing myself into tougher and scarier terrain. I skipped over easier warm-up routes and hopped right into the nitty gritty climbs before I was physically or mentally prepared for them. I fell—a lot. Then I’d get frustrated, tear up, and give up. I was always in my head about what I was doing wrong and comparing myself to people who were climbing better than me. My friends would say, “I’ve seen you climb in the gym, you’re strong, you can definitely climb harder routes outside.” Although they had the best intentions, it just made me feel like I was underperforming and letting people down. I struggled with motivation but wasn’t ready to give up, which led me on a trip down to the Red River Gorge.
I stayed at a bunkhouse with a bunch of climbing-obsessed folks and one guy who seemed a little tired of the scene. We went to the crag the next morning, and after working his way up one route, this guy, let’s call him Dylan, decided it’d be better to set up a hammock, drink a beer, and nap for the day. It was the first time I had been around someone who didn’t care about pushing his limits, he just wanted to have fun and enjoy spending time in a beautiful place with his friends. We talked for a while, and well, now we’re married and don’t climb anymore.
OK, that’s not completely accurate. Dylan and I still climbed quite a bit when we started dating in 2016. We made weekend trips to the New and Seneca, and climbed during our travels to California, Colorado, Oregon, and France. But when I moved to Davis, other outdoor pursuits commanded my attention. I bought a mountain bike and was determined to learn how to hop over logs and navigate technical rock gardens. On the weekly group rides, my only goal was to not fall so far behind that I’d get lost. I took a beginner lesson at the Canaan Mountain Bike Festival and spent entire afternoons by myself on a single trail, not moving on until I cleared every move.
Picking up a new sport was frustrating and painful; mountain biking is far more prone to injury than climbing. But starting fresh completely shifted my expectations and alleviated the pressure I had put on myself to perform. I tried to view every outing as a learning experience (sometimes unsuccessfully). When I had to walk my bike over tricky or scary trail sections, I focused on my surroundings, staring up into the red spruce forest or down at little patches of fluffy moss.
Instead of pushing through the frustration, I stopped and took a few minutes to appreciate the beautiful places through which I was traveling. Everyone I biked with was extremely supportive, cheering me on when I tried difficult moves and offering bits of advice when I struggled. And while they were all better than me, I didn’t care. I channeled that guy I met in the hammock; I just wanted to be outside having fun with my friends.
I felt the same way about cross-country skiing and paddling, two activities I picked up after moving to Tucker County. Instead of being hyper focused on a single sport, I now mediocrely dabble in many. I’ve backcountry skied through perfect pockets of powder, paddled 20 miles through a remote gorge lined by limestone cliffs, and biked along the quartzite ridge of the driest high-elevation mountain in Appalachia.
And yet, I can’t help but miss climbing. I long for the fitness, confidence, and level of mastery you can only achieve when you fully dedicate yourself to a sport. Every time I go to Seneca, I stare up at that prominent fin, remembering what it was like to sit on the summit and wondering how it would feel to lead a route again. It would be exhausting, terrifying, and exhilarating. But instead of focusing on my performance, I’d just enjoy being in a stunning place with people I love.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what role climbing plays in my present or future life because it’s already given me everything I could ever hope for from an outdoor activity. It forged my connections with amazing people, drew me to majestic landscapes, introduced me to endless outdoor adventures, and brought me home to West Virginia.
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors and wore a harness and mimed various climbing moves while writing every word of this piece. Pssaaaat!