Climbers are a quixotic breed. We are known to leave behind good jobs, family and loved ones to cross the country, camping in our cars or sketchy rest areas, pounding down twisting wash boarded backroads, living on fast food and cheap beer, bush whacking and hiking for miles, thrashing through thorns and stumbling across talus, to find great crags in unique settings.
Truly great climbs and climbing areas both challenge and inspire; they motivate us to push the edge, to ‘rage against the dying of the light’, and they return us to that quiet place inside, where wonder still lives.
These are the crags from which we return tired but renewed, exhausted and at the same time, restored.
Some of these destinations require great expense, deprivation, epic approaches, and hardship of every kind for the lucky and determined few who scale their walls. Others are tucked away, just around the corner, minutes from the main road, less than a morning’s drive from major cities, but somehow still lost to the masses; secret gardens to test strength, endurance, and mental control, in which we can, when day is done, find replenishment for mind, body and soul.
The crags that sit on either side of Long Branch, two miles downstream from Shreve’s little store in the heart of Smoke Hole Canyon, are the perfect setting for this dualistic pursuit of peace and adventure.
Hidden behind a screen of trees and perched high on the ridge, the Guide Walls’ southern end was dubbed The Sunshine Wall for good reason. Here you can shed those layers and dance up lines like the long-distance 5.8+ Guide’s Arete, 5.9s Zendo, Funboy and The Never Ending Story, huck and crimp your way through the Guide’s 5.11 or George’s Dilemma, another great bucket tour that leads to a challenging 5.10 roof crux. If you’re in the mood to test your roof technique, try the Macdaddy Roof; weighing in at 5.10d, this body-length overhang will tax even the strong for the bucket at the lip.
Around the corner, on the crag’s middle section and northern end, the east-facing lines of the Ninja Walls offer climbers both summer shade and a haven from winter’s cold, as leaves and temperatures begin to fall.
Chris Beauchamp’s ‘Glossolalia’ kicks things off and Nick Kurland’s ‘Cu Rodeo’ ups the ante with thin holds on steep ground and a touch of run-out. Beyond these wait classic Ninja lines like ‘Destiny’ and ‘Hummingbird’, the 5.9- trad headpoint “Name Your Poison’ and mind-boggling roof of 5.10c/d ‘Carpe Diem’.
For a final burn of all remaining rounds, hike out to the north end and jump on crusher Mike Fisher lines like ‘Slight of Hand’, ‘Defenders of the Faith’, or Chris Beauchamp’s thuggish ‘Pon Hoss’.
On the south side of the creek, Long Branch is home to some of the tallest faces, as well as some of the most difficult technical lines, to be found in the canyon.
Tom Cecil’s world-class ‘Beautiful Loser’ checks in at a sustained 5.11 with 9 well-spaced bolts, nearby ‘Shattered Illusions’ requires a full bag of 5.10 tricks over the course of 11 bolts and a V-slot through a roof, while ‘Big Johnson’, ‘The Ron Jeremy Arete’, ‘The Darkness’, ‘The Lightness’, ‘Gone Sniffin’’, ‘Local Hospitality’ and Parker Smith’s new addition ‘Shorty’s Lament’, all lay solid claim to territory at 5.12 and above.
Troy Johnson and I first came here in the very early 90s, at the invitation of Darrell Hensley, the Seneca Rocks guide and WV native who explored Smoke Hole and climbed here before most people knew the canyon existed. Franklin Gorge, where we had all been climbing for years, was filling up with people and the number of new routes left for development was down to maybe a handful of good lines and a dozen or so more mediocre routes.
Troy and I drove up to Smoke Hole on a windy, rainy day, waving at Franklin as we passed, grabbing coffee at the Shell station at the light, then rolling up 220 through pastureland and river bottom farms. We stared up at Reed Creek and wondered again if the “No Trespassing” signs were bogus (it turned out that they were, but that is another story), waved at the old men of the Liar’s Club, drinking coffee on the bench in front of Kile’s Grocery in Upper Tract, and turned off just before the old iron bridge.
We rounded the curve, crossed the hill by the old Alt farmhouse, and dropped into wonderland. Cliffs rose up on both sides of the river, the nearest just ten feet from the car windows as we stopped to stare up at the huge roof of the Entrance Walls. Another shower drove us back into the car, and hid most of Eagle Rocks and the French Fin from our gaping view as we passed.
Eventually we reached Shreve’s Store, got our bearings, and had almost returned to sanity when we dropped into the lower canyon, and saw that all that had gone before was just a prelude.
We gibbered. We pointed, craned our necks and pointed some more, making nonsense noises and banging our heads on the windshield, spilling coffee.
Two miles beyond the store, we reached the destination Darrell had described and a breaking point at the same instant; parked, grabbed water bottles, and scrambled madly up the talus slope leading to the base of the Long Branch Buttress.
After half an hour of absolutely speechless wandering, we nodded to each other, returned to the car, and headed home to gather allies and supplies.
Troy came back and bolted “Local Hospitality’, ‘Big Johnson’, ‘Pigs on the Wing’, and began the task of ground-up bolting the visionary project that would eventually become Mike Farnsworth’s ‘The Lightness’. He took off from the start of my mixed route “Through the Looking Glass’ and gave us the superb 5.11 ‘Pigs on the Wing’.
Rachel Levinson and Melissa Wine joined us, as did Mike Fisher, Greg Fangor, Chris Riha and a host of talented climbers from the Shenandoah and Albemarle valleys. Together, the group of us cleaned and put up ‘Shattered Illusions’, then Melissa and I produced ‘Hippo Head’ (the wall’s first all-female FA by Wine and Levinson), ‘Batteries Not Included’ and ‘Overtime’.
Taking a break from developing routes on the far side of the creek, at the Sunshine Wall, Tom Cecil, Tony Barnes and Darrell came over to bolt ‘Beautiful Loser’ and Tony’s mixed 5.10 line in the cave to the left.
Mike Fisher had dubbed our group the Five Deadly Ninjas, a tongue-in-cheek nod from his deep love of Kung Fu theater. Troy, Rachel, Melissa, myself, and Mr. Fisher decided that we needed a look at the walls they were developing on the other side of the creek, and the classic lines of the Ninja Walls were born in the following months.
Life went on, our little crew drifted apart, and I moved off to the west. I would call Mike Fisher on my occasional trips home, and we would invariably wind up at Smoke Hole for a climb or three, plotting on the remaining lines in this apparently forgotten corner of West Virginia.
In 2003, I returned to the Valley, and we put up Funboy and Zendo on an overlooked ledge at the Sunshine Wall. Four years later, we bolted and led the routes of the Corvinus Cave, at Long Branch.
A recent surge in activity saw four new lines at or above 5.12, bolted and led by Michael Farnsworth, the guy who conquered one of the steepest routes of Seneca Rocks. Added to the already impressive set of routes in place, you have an area to test the mettle of climbers from around the globe.
But don’t worry, moderate climbers and fun seekers… there’s still plenty of good times to be had, with enjoyable lines tucked in amongst the test pieces and enduro routes. Smile your way through sport warm-ups like ‘My Silver Lining’ (5.7), ‘Lost World Arete’ (5.7), or ‘Batteries Not Included’ (5.8+), mix things up with bolt and gear offerings like the 5.8 ‘Through the Looking Glass’, or take a break from the bolts and pull out the whole rack for the long trad adventure of 5.7 ‘Cherry Lane’.
Although the road is a bit bumpy, and even dusty and blessed with more than its share of potholes, from the crags of Long Branch and the Guide Walls, climbers are still less than an hour from hot food, showers and all the comforts of modern life.
Volunteers are constantly working to protect access, maintain the trails and improve old routes with new hardware.
No bushwhacking, no epics, no ‘scene’, just great lines of all levels on great stone, a zen garden in which to find a bit of peace and quiet, in the beat of your heart, in the heart of the canyon.