I'll start by putting it out there: If I needed to become a sport climber, I'd be in the New River Gorge in West Virginia and (almost) not miss bouldering. It's that good.
After last year's trip, like with Ten Sleep, we planned on spending more time in the NRG. In Jeremy's words: "It's the best single pitch climbing I've ever done and I haven't even bouldered there yet!"
The Rock and Geology
The NRG is composed of Nuttall sandstone, 98% quartz and harder than granite. It's bullet hard. It's like climbing on granite but with small, small crystals. If climbing on granite and climbing on sandstone had offspring, it'd climb like Nuttall sandstone.
The NRG is a National River and one of the oldest in the world. Erosion takes much longer than usual because the rock is so hard; the gorge is still only 900ft deep despite its age. And unlike most rivers which fall to the bottom of their mountains as they flow and erode, the New River rose with the Appalachians and still follows its crest at 2000ft elevation.
The rock quality and movement are superb--it's technical, powerful, and varied. We couldn't find areas that were chossy, which is often the case at other crags, where you get varied quality. No matter where we went, it was like comparing the most amazing sport climbing we've ever done with slightly less than superb climbing.
It's the most bouldery rope climbing we've done but requires a lot of technique and finesse; being just a gym aficionado won't cut it. You can't always muscle your way through the aretes and laybacks and very frequent hand/finger jams. There's steep overhangs, face climbs, slabs, cracks, slopers, patina crimps, sloper crimps, sidepulls and you can bet on multiple of the above on each route. You can have a bouldery start and then feel your stomach drop on exposed, slabby arete. Your depth and breadth of climbing experience will be tested. There's over 1600 routes, sport, trad, and mixed. You're in heaven if you like to place gear (and we actually speak from experience--the trad was great).
Compared to Ten Sleep: I'd call Ten Sleep a destination climbing crag. It's straight-up incredible fun, and somewhere we'll try to visit each year, and still sits in our top 3 North American sport climbing crags, but not something that'd entertain us as a home crag. It won't scratch the power itch if you're a boulderer, and both of us prefer sandstone and granite to limestone.
Compared to the Red River Gorge: The Red has its gems, but caters to enduro, roof, gym-like climbing. My eyes glassed over when people would say "the crux of the climb is pump management." The New is more varied, more technical, and harder rock. It's a shame the NRG is overshadowed by the RRG (but ssh, it's a great secret!).
Words of Caution
Don't go to the NRG if you want to add ticks to your list on your 1-week climbing trip. You'll be hit in the head by a sledgehammer. There's no vacation grades in the NRG; every send is legit and a proud send. It will improve you as a climber.
The first bolts are insanely high, like at 20ft. We actually ditched our 8ft stick clip and got a 16ft-er, and even then it was a reach for Jeremy.
The bolting's done by 6ft+ men, so I was told by a local. Hanging draws was often reachy for Jeremy (5'9"), and I (5'4") would've had to venture into non-comfy or crux territory to hang draws. It wasn't usually an issue unless I was attempting an onsight redpoint. I rarely had trouble reaching clips once draws were in with the extra foot.
You won't z-clip here. Unlike Ten Sleep, it's more committing, but for the most part well bolted to protect cruxes. There's often 10-15ft runouts on easier climbing. "80ft, 6 bolts" is common.
You'll probably hate yourself if you climb in the heat. Sandstone + heat + humidity + very stiff grading will make you question your existence as a rock climber.
Banjo and hillbilly jokes aside, West Virginia is gorgeous, especially around the NRG. The trees are larger than you find on the Kentucky or North Carolina side, and there's no farmland to be seen. At almost 2000ft elevation, the NRG is a bit more temperate than what you find in the rest of the Appalachians.
Fayetteville is surprisingly young and outdoorsy--half of town is outfitters for climbing, rafting, and mountain biking. Fayetteville and the surrounding areas have a population of about 10,000. There's local breweries and distilleries. We got to the NRG in time for Bridge Day in October, the world's largest BASE jumping event. Jumpers are allowed to take off from the 900ft-tall bridge, and upwards of 80,000 people come out to watch.
There's quite a few options for camping, mostly because of the river outfitters in the area. We camped at the AAC campground, which is one of the most beautiful and well-built campgrounds we've ever stayed at. If you're there for any length of time, it's worth getting an AAC membership for camping discounts ($20/night).
Other Top North American Climbing Destinations
To top my list, climbing destinations need to:
- Have quantity of great rock quality and movement to justify a destination
- Have a beautiful crag setting. We climb in large part to escape the city and to enjoy the outdoors. There are definitely ugly crags.
- Have a comfy camping scene. 'Cuz we like glamping. Camping for days on end in harsh, exposed conditions, or where camping is scarce, isn't fun.
- Be close enough to essentials like showers and groceries.
- Bonus: Cool local town. You need rest days, and a place to chill and write blog posts is a big plus!
These locations fit the bill for everything. Check the these links for my climbing guides: