The Mountain State boasts a wealth of exposed rock among its hills and hollows, but two regions standout as world-class climbing destinations: the New River Gorge (NRG) and Seneca Rocks. Both climbing meccas feature world-class guides that show clients the ropes. From basic toprope and rappelling trips for beginners to advanced multi-pitch and instructional courses, West Virginia’s climbing guide services offer something for everyone.
Most of the guides featured in this story are certified through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or Professional Climbing Guides Institute (PCGI). Both organizations offer ascending certifications that instill technical mastery and professionalism. If your guide isn’t certified, they’re overseen by a certified manager, so you can be sure that you’ll be making a wise choice by booking a trip with any of the outfits mentioned here.
New River Gorge
The Appalachian Plateau features a layer of erosion-resistant rock known as Nuttall sandstone. The New, Meadow, and Gauley rivers relentlessly sliced their courses through it for eons, creating some of the finest single-pitch climbing routes on the planet. Over 3,000 routes exist here, some up to 120-feet tall and varying in difficulty from beginner to extremely difficult.
The “Coolest Small Town” of Fayetteville is the hub for this tight-knit climbing community, and the NRG is big enough to support three rock guiding outfits, each offering its own unique flavor and interpretation of the region’s treasures.
New River Mountain Guides (NRMG)
Operating out of Water Stone Outdoors in downtown Fayetteville, NRMG has been a bedrock of the guiding scene since 1994. Founded by Elena Arenz, NRMG now functions under operations manager and senior instructor Jeff Hearn’s whacky brand of fun.
Hearn, who joined the ranks at NRMG in 2011, has been climbing since 2001. He is AMGA-certified and is WV’s only authorized Rock Warrior’s Way instructor, a mental training program for climbers. “We take an in-depth look at attention and how it’s focused during climbing,” Hearn says. Considering there are only a handful of Warrior’s Way instructors in the country, the unique program sets NRMG apart from other guiding outfits.
NRMG offers sport and traditional climbing trips as well as custom instructionals and Warrior’s Way sessions. Hearn also claims that NRMG has the goofiest guides. From cut-off jorts to spandex and tutus, the NRMG crew certainly knows how to keep it interesting. “I’m pretty goofy, and we’re supposed to be having fun,” Hearn says. “Last summer, we put our helmets on backwards and tried to toprope race to the top of two climbs. We looked like total goobers.”
Appalachian Mountain Guides (AMG)
Founded by prolific climber Jim Taylor in 2001, AMG provides custom instructionals and AMGA certification courses and exams. Co-owner Kyle Kent holds the AMGA’s highest certification of Rock Guide.
AMG is permitted to run unique climbing trips on Summersville Lake from the deck of its pontoon boat. Guests can climb on ropes from the boat, explore the cliffs on paddleboards, or attempt challenging deep-water bouldering routes that keep guests within the legal height limit for falling into the lake.
“Summersville Lake is one of the most incredible places one can climb,” Kent says. “When appropriate, guests are able to lead climbs from the boat or try incredible bouldering problems. It’s a customized experience for any level of climber.”
Kent says the diversity of climbing programs is what makes AMG stand out. He’s also quick to highlight the cooperation among guiding outfits in the NRG. “We have a fantastic, amicable working relationship with each other,” he says.
New River Climbing School (NRCS)
Last but certainly not least, NRCS is the one-man show put on by PCGI-certified guide David Wolff. Since 2012, Wolff has offered PCGI courses and trips geared for both aspiring and advanced climbers.
Wolff says being in control of each trip allows him to ensure the highest-quality experience and zero in on his clients’ goals. From first-time climbers to visiting experts looking to climb the classic routes within their range, Wolff has seen it all. “We may be the smallest service in the gorge, but I feel that’s a benefit to the client,” Wolff says. “Every person that calls will talk to me and likely climb with me, every experience is fully customized.”
When Wolff needs extra muscle, he contracts guides from NRMG and other local outfits to get the job done. “One of the things I love about guiding here is how well we get along,” he says, “We look out for each other and are good friends.”
East of the Allegheny Front and west of North Fork Mountain, the Potomac River meanders through the bucolic German Valley past a series of Tuscarora quartzite fins known as the River Knobs. Seneca Rocks, the most prominent of the knobs, rises 1,000 feet above the valley floor at the confluence of Seneca Creek and the Potomac.
Seneca Rocks is widely considered the traditional climbing mecca of the east. The South Summit is the highest true summit accessible only by technical climbing east of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. If Fayetteville is small, the town of Seneca Rocks is microscopic. Yet Seneca and its neighboring knobs feature enough terrain to support three guiding outfits.
Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides (SRMG)
Founded by world-renowned climber and route developer Tom Cecil in 1990, SRMG has been a major hub of Seneca’s modern climbing scene for 30 years. While SRMG offers a full range of guided trips and instructional courses, it specializes in courses for climbers transitioning from gym to crag.
Although Cecil, who holds PCGI’s highest certification level, has established over 100 routes in WV, one of the most valuable things he’s established is SRGM’s training facility, which features 35-foot walls with simulated cracks to practice traditional gear placement, anchor building, and advanced techniques. “We do a complete review of your skills in our gym where there’s no rockfall or distractions before heading out on the rock,” Cecil says. “Most climbers have an unbalanced skill set. A lot have climbing ability, but we’re teaching hazard awareness and route-finding skills.”
Tori Hyndman, a PCGI-certified guide who joined SRMG in 2013, loves showing clients what they’re capable of on Seneca’s rock faces. “The look on someone’s face when they get to the top and achieved this goal that six hours ago seemed impossible, that’s the best moment of my day,” Hyndman says.
Seneca Rocks Climbing School (SRCS)
Offering climbing instruction since 1971, SRCS is the Mid-Atlantic’s longest-running guiding service and is based out of The Gendarme, a gear shop named after the famous rock spire on top of Seneca that fell in 1987.
SCRS guide Claire Murphy is an AMGA-certified instructor and an aspiring Rock Guide. She started climbing in the gym and quickly transitioned to guiding after discovering The Gendarme. “We have the advantage of having a gear shop that functions as a gathering place right there with our climbing school,” Murphy says. The Gendarme also features instructional areas to educate clients in any type of weather.
Although Murphy spends her winters ice climbing and mountaineering in Colorado, she’s always stoked to return to Seneca in spring. “The terrain is mind-blowing, there are achievable routes that can get a person who’s never climbed before to a technical summit,” says Murphy. “There’s nothing else like it in the region, you get to have this alpine-style climbing day and then sit on the porch, eat pizza, and look at the rock you just climbed.”
Nelson Rocks (NROCKS)
Just 11 miles south from Seneca Rocks lie the split fins of Nelson Rocks. Imagine slicing Seneca in half along its length. Take those two slices, place them 200 feet apart, and span them with a swinging suspension bridge 150 feet above the ground. This is the site of NROCKS, one of WV’s more unique private adventure resorts.
Along with its Via Ferrata—an adventure route on which participants climb and traverse a series of iron rungs and cables with safety clips—NROCKS offers toprope climbing trips geared for beginners. “The Via is a great way to try climbing and see if it’s something you’re into, it’s also fun for climbers who want to move light and fast and explore Nelson Rocks,” says NROCKS manager Bryan Williams.
Although NROCKS only offers toprope climbing, Williams says the unique formation of Nelson Rocks is worth a visit and perfect for families who want to give climbing a shot on the rock or on the meandering Via Ferrata.
Fortunately, advanced climbers aren’t left out: both SRMG and SRCS offer guided trips at Nelson Rocks for rockhounds who want to sample harder technical routes like the incredible 10-pitch Millenium Route established by Tom Cecil.
From trail work and maintaining access to donating and replacing bolts and anchors on aging routes, these outfits and their guides give back each year through advocacy and stewardship.
NRMG works closely with the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) to host (Not) Work Week, an annual week-long trail work event that’s improved climbing access in the NRG.
Working out of their homemade facility, AMG’s Taylor and Kent manufacture sustainable glue-in bolts, rebolt aging routes themselves, and donate their bolts to NRAC’s hardware replacement initiative.
Accidents happen, and through SRMG, Cecil runs a community rescue team and hosts an annual rescue training course to teach climbers how to perform self-rescue and work together to get injured climbers down from Seneca’s dizzying heights.
On the lighter side, SRCS fosters a sense of community by hosting annual events, including the chili cook-off and the legendary Cinco de Mayo party that benefits the American Alpine Club.
When you support these guiding outfits, you support trails and climbing access, new hardware on classic routes, and the thriving community that calls West Virginia’s outstanding crags home.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and spent one wonderful summer as a climbing guide in the New River Gorge. He’s since traded his days being hunched over his belay device for endless days being hunched over his keyboard.