The country’s first outdoor deep-water soloing competition was certainly a spectacle, but what does it mean for the future of climbing at Summersville Lake?
On a crisp summer morning last August, 16 of the world’s best rock climbers gathered on the crystal clear waters of Summersville Lake to climb its world-famous Nuttall Sandstone cliffs sans ropes for PsicoRoc—the first deep-water soloing competition on real rock in United States history.
The audacious event included big routes, big falls, and big fun. The spectacle garnered a flotilla of psyched spectators and is the subject of Tara Kerzhner’s film Wild and Wonderful, which nabbed the Viewers’ Choice Award at this year’s Appalachian Outdoor Film Festival.
Now that the waves have settled and the waters of the Gauley River have once again filled Summersville Lake, what’s next for deep-water soloing?
Deep-water soloing (DWS) is a style of ropeless climbing over deep water, where climbers fall into the drink when they lose their grip. Many climbers avoid DWS at Summersville because falling while doing so is currently considered illegal per a cliff jumping ban by the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that manages the lake.
On Aug. 22, 2016, the Army Corps temporarily lifted that ban to allow the PsicoRoc competitors to push their physical and mental limits on the lake’s legendary rock.
Army Corps Natural Resource Specialist Kevin Brown said the agency agreed to sanction PsicoRoc in part to promote Summersville Lake as a world-class recreation resource.
“Well, what it is here is the fact to showcase some of the wonderful rock climbing we have in the area, we have a nice clean lake, and we enjoy having people come and have fun here,” he said.
Maura Kistler, co-owner of Waterstone Outdoors in Fayetteville, said that Waterstone and the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) had been envisioning and planning the event for five years. “What all this means to me is a dream come true and that sounds so cheesy, but we have been talking about this thing, imaging how it would look, I can’t even tell you what a thrill it is,” she said.
The cliff jumping ban, which went into effect in 2007, prohibits jumping from heights above 6 feet in all 19 of the agency’s Huntington District lakes. This effectively shut down DWS in Summersville Lake, which is considered by many as one of the finest DWS areas in the world. The Corps, however, has been somewhat relaxed in fining climbers who fall as opposed to deliberately jumping from the ledges or cliff tops, which can approach 70 feet in height. On any given summer day, it’s likely that you can motor around the lake and spot at least one climber precariously hanging on a sandstone ledge without law enforcement. With that said, Brown is quick to point out that falling is still within the realm of punishable offenses—climbers beware.
While PsicoRoc’s waves have reverberated throughout the climbing community, including the hype around Kerzhner’s film Wild and Wonderful, questions regarding the event’s impact on recreational climbers remain. What does it mean for climbing at the lake?
With shot after shot of athletes topping out classic routes, pulling hard moves, and falling from heights of up to 60 feet, one can assume that even more climbers will want to come push their physical and legal luck by practicing DWS on the lake. Kenny Parker, NRAC vice president and Waterstone co-owner, stated that a long term goal of PsicoRoc was to encourage the Army Corps to fully legitimize DWS at the lake. And while it won’t happen overnight, the fact that PsicoRoc even happened to begin with was a step in the right direction. “We first met with [the Army Corps] without even a snowball’s chance in hell thinking we’d ever get to do it,” he said.
Parker was responsible for the majority of man-hours invested in making PsicoRoc possible, and now he’s had time to reflect. “The reflection was that I didn’t get to take in or grasp how cool of a thing it was at the time, I was in the grind of making it happen,” Parker said. “In hindsight, it actually turned out as good as we could have expected.”
When a climber hits the water, the waves extend in all directions. With PsicoRoc behind him and his eyes forward, Parker certainly appreciates the success of the event and the film, but he’s far more excited about the success with the Army Corps and potential outcomes. “We’re pretty happy with the effect that it had with the Army Corps,” he said. “It really solidified our credibility with them, the fact that we could pull something like that off and have it done as professionally as it was.”
Under Parker, NRAC remains serious about pushing to legitimize DWS at the lake, and it shows with its dedication to the cause. The Army Corps is currently in the process of revising their management plan for Summersville Lake to including language about rock climbing and standup paddleboarding—two activities that aren’t even listed in the current version governing the lake.
“I’ve already been to two meetings about it, and climbing has a seat at the table for future plans,” Parker said. “I think anytime you are recognized as a legitimate user group by a government agency, that’s a good thing. The additional bonus of PsicoRoc was that it gave us credibility in further approval of expediting a climbing plan.”
That credibility and recognition as a user group is already evident as plans are in the works to shore up the quickly-eroding shoreline at the lake’s popular and heavily-impacted Orange Oswald crag. By partnering with the Army Corps, NRAC will help pay for the sustainability project with revenue it earned from PsicoRoc.
“For the long term, the outcome is good. Total legalization is definitely on the table now. I feel what we’ve accomplished, even if not directly legalized in the near future, at least the Army Corps has a more objective view of climbers and the people who are out there climbing, and is able to discern between climbers and partyers.”
While PsicoRoc’s success didn’t convince the Army Corps to legalize DWS right away, it produced additional progress: Appalachian Mountain Guides (AMG), a rock climbing guide outfit based in Fayetteville, obtained a permit to offer instructional rock climbing and deep-water bouldering trips on Summersville Lake.
While other guiding outfits have offered multisport pontoon trips on the lake for years, guides played by the rules and had guests climb from the deck of the boat on top ropes and restricted guests from free soloing or jumping from anything above 6 feet.
AMG guide and co-owner Kyle Kent said that the company decided to coin the deep-water bouldering verbiage to obtain the permit and to entice climbers who want to push their limits without a rope closer to the water. Kent has handpicked specific sections of cliff that showcase some of the lake’s best climbs and bouldery movement that remain within the legal parameters of the permit.
Kent said clients will be restricted to heights of about 10-15 feet, and will be required to make their best attempts to return to the 6-foot mark for safe and legal reentry into the water. “Essentially what we are doing is climbing above the water within the legal heights allowed,” Kent said. “If you’ve got them climbing within heights, even 10-15 feet above water, if you lose grip and fall in, we understand that thing happens , and that’s not the big deal. The big deal is when you turn into a cliff jumper; we won’t allow them to jump, and we are limiting heights.”
AMG is the only guide service currently permitted to offer deep-water bouldering trips on the Lake, something Kent says should continue to improve the relationship with the Army Corps. “Hopefully, we continue to improve the relationship with the Corps, and continue to pursue an amendment to the [DWS] rules,” Kent said. “It’s a slow political process, but we’re not going anywhere.”
Parker agrees. “I feel that with [AMG] getting the permit, the Army Corps is pretty psyched on climbing and the relationship that it has with climbers,” he said.
Does this mean open season for the droves of climbers hungry for DWS at Summersville? According to Kent, not completely. The Army Corps still has a strict ban on cliff jumping, but legal, guide-sanctioned ropeless climbing is a start. For those heading to the lake without a guide, the unofficial and unspoken policy that has governed DWS on the lake for years remains: climbing technically isn’t illegal—it’s the falling part that is.
“You can rock climb above the water all you want, there is no law against that,” Kent said. “The big issue becomes, specifically, when you top out on cliffs or ledges above the given legal height, and then turn around and jump off.”
So what is one to do? The official answer for visitors and those unsure of their climbing skill is to book a trip with AMG and climb without worry. The unofficial answer is to test your endurance at the lake and not fall while climbing above 6 feet. If you want to top out that 70 foot route, go for it—just don’t fall, or make sure to down-climb to reenter the water from a legal height. If you’re unsure, use your best judgment—is that one move worth it?
But one thing is for sure—as a single event, PsicoRoc was a huge success. Gene Kistler, Maura’s husband and president of NRAC, said concerns surrounding the event have been assuaged. “We certainly can see what climbing on the lake is all about,” he said.
PsicoRoc is over, and isn’t likely to ever happen again, at least according to NRAC and the Army Corps. But the permit issued to AMG just months following the event is a photon of light in the dark abyss of a deep lake, and the addition of climbing to its revised management plan signals that the Army Corps is serious about legitimizing DWS once and for all. Brown and Parker have repeatedly stated that they want to continue to strengthen the positive relationship between the Army Corps, NRAC, and the Fayetteville climbing community.
PsicoRoc certainly succeeded in doing just that. The strength of NRAC and the Fayetteville community in organizing and following through was on full display. “That’s signature NRAC,” said Parker. “We’re welcoming and inclusive, the biggest weirdo in the world is welcome in Fayetteville.” Brown praised its reliability. “NRAC is a known product and whatever they say we can trust them, and they can deliver the product that they say,” Brown said. “We weren’t nearly as nervous as we would have been if somebody else had approached us.”
Gene Kistler’s confidence in NRAC’s potential is as high as his confidence on the rock. As the epic day on the lake wrapped up, Kistler surveyed the scene, reflecting on the day while thinking about the future. “I’m looking across this line of boats seeing a really diverse, happy group of people and it has gone better than I ever imagined it would,” Gene said. “This is being done in the tradition of things that haven’t been done before. This is the new chillenium.”
Dylan Jones is managing editor of Highland Outdoors. He enjoys pretty much every crunchy outdoor activity and goofing off with his girlfriend Nikki all over West Virginia. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org