The New, Meadow, and Gauley rivers took eons to slice through the bullet-hard layer of Nuttall sandstone that caps the southeastern portion of the Allegheny Plateau, exposing some of the country’s finest rock. The legendary tribe of rock climbers that had the vision to scale those cliffs took only decades to establish thousands of routes that are now household names for climbers the world over.
Those original climbers also had the vision to establish one of the country’s most vibrant climbing communities in the quirky and charming mountain town of Fayetteville, West Virginia’s “Coolest Small Town” and de facto outdoor recreation hub. While the climbing community—including its members, styles, and ethics—has ebbed and flowed throughout the decades like the rivers themselves, a tight-knit group of vertical stewards known as the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) has remained rock solid.
Depending on whom you ask, NRAC is a lot of things. To some, it’s a nonprofit organization that does advocacy for climbing-related issues. To others, it’s a crew that does trailwork and maintains hardware—bolts and anchors—on climbing routes throughout the region. Many would even boast that NRAC has been largely responsible for some of the raddest events and competitions east of the Mississippi. Yes, NRAC is all those things, and much more. The organization has had its chalk-covered hand in just about every aspect of New River Gorge climbing, and, through the collective brains and brawn of its dedicated members, has expertly curated the cherished climbing community that thrives in Fayetteville today.
It all started with trash—mounds and mounds of seemingly endless trash. Back in the golden age of the 1980s when the early climbers were cherry picking the lines that would become today’s classics, they had to cherry pick their way around piles of detritus that had accumulated from decades of locals tossing expired household items over the cliffs.
Gene Kistler, president of NRAC and co-owner of Waterstone Outdoors, was one of those original climbers. Working alongside Rick Thompson, the OG climbers of the New organized trash pick-ups twice a year. “For years, that’s what climbers did,” Gene said. “That’s how we got to know the folks at the Park Service and the Army Corps in the early days.”
The feds would supply trash bags and trucks, and climbers would supply the sweat equity. These grass roots service events took place in the years when the fledgling sport of rock climbing was maturing into an activity that was becoming recognized by the National Park Service (NPS) and other federal land agencies. With help from the Access Fund, Gene and other big-name climbers like Doug Reed seized the moment and actively worked with the NPS to develop a climbing management plan for the New River Gorge. Part of that plan required an LCO—a local climbing organization—to serve as a local advocate and to interface with the local community.
The plan was adopted by the NPS, and the stewards of the New River Gorge decided it was time to organize. Over the course of a winter, Gene Kistler, Dan Hague, Kristen Richards, and Gary Land met around a kitchen table, filled out forms, and sketched out the framework for NRAC.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. According to Gene, NRAC has a tried-and-true formula that continues to function at a high level. “NRAC really hasn’t changed much in 20 years,” Gene said. “We had four committees: trails, fixed anchors, advocacy, and outreach. That’s the way it is today.”
According to Gene, the first pressing issue was addressing the spider web of social trails created by climbers to access different areas of the clifflines. “In those early days, we were very focused on the park land,” he said. “We knew it would probably bite us in the ass if we didn’t try to address it, and we knew could get a grant from the Access Fund to bring some expertise in fixing those trails.”
Nowadays, the New River Gorge is a model park for climbing access. Social trails have been mitigated, official trails have been shored up to accommodate increased traffic, and improvements like bridges and heavy-duty steel ladders have been installed to prevent accidents. Several major trail improvement projects have taken place during the (Not) Work Week, and annual, week-long trailwork event hosted by NRAC. This year’s installment deployed over 25 volunteers each day to address the eroding cliffbase at the Butchers Branch crag. “I think the biggest success is in the body of our trailwork,” said Maura Kistler, Gene’s wife and co-owner of Waterstone Outdoors. “NRAC is a remarkably functional organization.”
Next on the list was the climbs themselves. In the 1990s, local climber Kenny Parker began to notice the need for updating the outdated hardware rusting away in the rock. One of the New’s most prolific first ascentionists, Parker is now vice president and head of the Anchor Committee, and co-owner of Waterstone Outdoors. “The original bolts were non-stainless steel, and when sport climbing blew up and a bunch of bolts started going it, no one was using stainless,” Parker said. “We had this realization that this is gonna be a problem; this is gonna require some money.” He worked with then-NPS ranger Rob Toran to get the anchor replacement permit that is still in effect.
To date, thousands of bolts have been replaced on hundreds of routes. According to Parker, NRAC has likely spent between $75,000 and $100,000 on hardware and tools for its bolt and anchor replacement program. “Drills, drill bits, bolts, that stuff really adds up,” Parker said. “I can’t even begin to think of how many people I’ve shown how to do anchor replacement.”
NRAC has also been historically exceptional at keeping the New River Gorge on the map throughout the years. Climbing areas tend to go through spurts of route development, which can coincide directly with their position in the limelight. When a climbing area goes unloved for too long, it can often lose the support and stewardship of the climbers that are crucial for replacing hardware and keeping access open.
When the Red River Gorge started stealing the Appalachian climbing thunder in the early 2000s, the New was at risk of losing its title as a premier mid-Atlantic destination. NRAC’s answer was the New River Rendezvous—a legendary three-day climbing fundraiser that set the format for future climbing festivals in stone. Although the Rendezvous was the brainchild of Parker, Maura was the event’s organizer throughout its 10-year lifespan from 2003 – 2013.
“I think the Rendezvous was a remarkable event that really reflected the spirit of our climbing community and our organization; that was a big feather in our cap,” Maura said. “We developed the Rendezvous when the Red was sucking up every bit of publicity available to our region, and we wanted to keep the New, which is an older climbing area, on the map and keep it in the forefront of peoples’ minds, and it worked really well for that.”
Although the Rendezvous is but a nostalgic memory in the mind of many a New River climber, it has been replaced by the Craggin’ Classic, an annual fall event put on by the American Alpine Club (AAC) and NRAC at the AAC Campground—just a few hundred yards away from the NPS site where the Rendezvous was held.
NRAC has also charted new waters with its innovative climbing competitions. Last year, NRAC made history at Summersville Lake by hosting PsicoRoc—the country’s first-ever deep water soloing (DWS) competition held on real rock. The competition featured 16 of the world’s strongest climbers going ropeless for bold ascents of classic routes and first ascents of new ones. The event was covered by major climbing media outlets, and climbers are hungry for another installment.
NRAC didn’t stop there. In November, it pioneered the New River Boulder Bounty, a wild-west bouldering competition with an innovative format—climbing companies and gyms put up bounties on 10 unclimbed boulder routes, and the first climber to complete the route took the cash reward home. World-class boulderer Jimmy Webb cleaned up and rode off into the sunset with a $5,000 purse.
Climbing Into the Future
NRAC is looking forward by building on its past successes. For Parker, that begins with PsicoRoc. He said the event was successful in opening dialogue with the Army Corps of Engineers to potentially recognize DWS as an official recreational activity in future management plans—something that has been in the works since DWS was effectively banned in 2007. “PsicoRoc highlighted the quality of the climbing at the New, and it showed the ability of the climbing community to come together and pull off a big scale thing,” Parker said.
PsicoRoc also raised $5,000 that will go toward working with the Army Corps to reinforce the shoreline at the Orange Oswald crag on Summersville Lake. “The shoreline is eroding away; there’s not much of it left,” Parker said. “There could be a point where the water meets the cliff. It’s a pressing thing that needs to happen.”
NRAC is also looking to bridge the pressing gap between the explosion of climbing gyms and outdoor climbing etiquette by fostering partnerships with regional gyms. NRAC hopes area gyms will serve as financial sponsors for the (Not) Work Week in future years. “The biggest issue in climbing these days is how do we get the visiting gym climbers up to speed with being responsible outdoor climbers?” Maura said. “Partnering with gyms to produce events seems to be the way to start this process and build these relationships from the ground up. People come here and they’re high on this place and they’re high on giving back. By figuring out how to leverage that, to actually getting the values transmitted, I really think we’re on to something.”
While the nuts and bolts of NRAC are constantly evolving, the organization remains as strong as the Nuttall sandstone itself. “I think NRAC has a ton of smart people, and I think we can develop all kinds of models,” Maura said. “We’ve got the brainpower and the psych. It’s a 20-year organization, but it’s stronger and more vibrant now than it’s ever been, and that’s a sign of how the community is developing and how the organization is maturing, and it’s all very positive.”