On a crisp summer morning, 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 for Psicoroc—the first deep water solo climbing competition on real rock in United States history.
Deep water soloing (DWS) is a style of ropeless climbing over deep water, where climbers fall in the drink when they lose their grip. On Tuesday, August 22, the Army Corps of Engineers lifted its ban on cliff jumping to allow the athletes to push their physical and mental limits on the lake’s legendary rock.
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, and to have perfect weather and all of this, I can’t even tell you what a thrill it is,” she said.
The women’s field (in order of results) was represented by Inge Perkins, Zoe Steinberg, Alex Johnson, Nina Williams, Jacinda Hunter, Michaela Kiersch, and New River climber Lydia McDonald. The men’s field (in order of results) included Sean McColl, Matty Hong, Jesse Grupper, Dru Mack, Jimmy Webb, Paul Robinson, New River climber Zak Roper, Daniel Woods, and Joe Kinder.
As the athletes boarded a flotilla of pontoon boats at Summersville Lake Marina, many of them donned red hats stitched with ‘Make Climbing Great Again.’ Behind them were a film a crew and a rowdy group of New River climbers who volunteered to help the event go off, and, of course, to witness the climbing. The flotilla met up with a patrol boat staffed with Army Corps crew who were there to oversee and manage the event.
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; that’s what were here for,” he said.
The jumping ban, which went into effect in 2007, prohibits jumping from heights above six feet in all 19 of the agency’s 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 clifftops, 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 sans law enforcement. With that said, Brown is quick to point out that falling is still within the realm of punishable offenses—climbers beware.
Those who take to ropes, however, can still sample the lake’s vast array of quality sport and trad climbs in the late fall and winter months. When the Corps starts to drain the lake in September to initiate the Gauley River rafting season, the lake bed is exposed, opening up the full length of routes that the Psicoroc athletes sampled over water.
Psicoroc was unpublicized to keep pandemonium to a minimum, but the morning’s official flotilla continued to grow as the day went on. As the evening sun illuminated the impressive cliffs of Rat’s Hole, the morning’s squad of pontoon boats and two jetskis had grown into a full-on barge party complete with speed boats, rafts, kayaks, and an armada of SUPs patrolling the scene for primo photographs.
Brown and his fellow Army Corps crew didn’t seem to mind. In fact, their smiles seemed to grow a little bit wider with each addition. “In our day to day activities at the lake, we usually deal with the one percent, and deal with the problem, so when you can come out here and have a well–organized and safe event, it’s not work at all,” he said.
While Psicoroc made waves that are still reverberating throughout the climbing community, some have started to ask questions. What does it all mean? One of the main reasons for Psicoroc was to produce a film to bolster tourism to the Summersville region. Kenny Parker, NRAC Vice President and Waterstone co-owner, spoke to the Psicoroc film that is being produced. “You have these major companies, you have all of these high profile athletes that are household names in the climbing world, and you have this amazing resource, Summersville Lake,” Parker said.
“It’s dramatically beautiful for many reasons; it’s a diverse playground to all sorts of user groups, and couple that with the economic challenges of West Virginia, we figured this was the best way to create value as a marketing resource for the state.”
But with shot after shot of athletes 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. Parker said that an influx of deep water soloists is expected and has been discussed with the Army Corps. He also hinted that one goal of Psicoroc was to encourage the Army Corps to legitimize DWS at the lake. And while it won’t happen overnight, the fact that Psicoroc even happened is 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.”
So does Psicoroc mean the Army Corps is lifting its ban or considering changing its management plan to allow for falling while engaging in DWS? Not yet. “Unfortunately, we’re still under the posted restriction ban of anything higher than six feet resulting in a citation,” Brown said.
“But what this does is we’re hoping by having this event here, we can educate everybody on some the safety aspects of rock climbing, and to encourage more people to get involved with rock climbing in the area.”
Another reason for Psicoroc was to showcase the strength of the Fayetteville community in organizing around the psych of its supporters and following through on its promises. “That’s signature NRAC,” said Parker. “We’re welcoming and inclusive; the biggest weirdo in the world is welcome in Fayetteville.” Brown spoke to 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.”
Brown also stated that while the Army Corps was supportive of Psicoroc to promote the 50th anniversary of Summersville Dam and its rock climbing, there is no current interest to do another DWS event in the future. While the waters in Summersville Lake are crystal clear, the political waters surrounding the wake of Psicoroc remain murky.
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 the concerns of injury with the land managers have been assuaged. “We certainly can see what climbing on the lake is all about,” he said. “It’s clear that when you’re climbing, you’re focused, and even after you come off your body knows what it’s doing.” The only injury sustained was a minor concussion to Jesse Grupper, who still placed third, and a sting from a rogue bee in a climber’s shoe.
Spectators were hopeful to see someone ascend the entirety of the Movie Screen project, a blank and steeply-curved overhanging wall of clean, white rock with just enough minuscule holds for climbers to dyno (launch upwards) to reach the next set. Fayetteville-based climber and competitor Zak Roper said, “I just wanna see someone stick that dyno on the Movie Screen. That’s what I wanna see.” Those hopes live on as none of the athletes were able to stick the improbable dyno move, leaving the Movie Screen as a route yet to see a free ascent. The comp’s strongest threw for the precision move repeatedly, each time coming a few inches short before plummeting into the aqua abyss beneath.
Petzl athlete Dru Mack spoke to the quality of the Nuttall Sandstone:
“It’s exciting to be here, it’s cool to climb on real rock over water, and have a huge competition and a bunch of real climbers and cool people here just trying hard and hucking crazy stuff, its real wild,” he said. “I’ve climbed at [the New River Gorge] a little bit, but never at the lake. It’s insane, the rock’s like bullet-hard, it’s super clean, it’s really cool, these jug lines are incredible, and the harder stuff looks really cool, too.”
The ending couldn’t have been scripted any better—on the last burn of the day, bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, Mammutt athlete Sean McColl pulled an improbable crux move over 60 feet off the water and grabbed the victory hold, from which he hung one-armed and flexed his other. The feat ended up being a first ascent of the 5.13a arête. The crowd erupted in hoots and hollers as McColl topped out, effectively bringing Psicoroc to an epic close.
“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. “One concern was we’re bringing in these professional athletes, we want them to have fun, want them to have a day, and I think there’s a smile on every face. This is being done in the tradition of things that haven’t been done before. This is the new chillenium.”