Image: Climber Cristyn Olenick at New River Gorge
Jeff Gentner  /  AP file
Novice climber Cristyn Olenick of Asheville, N.C., inches her way up the rock during a climbing trip to West Virginia's New River Gorge in Fayetteville, W.Va. There are more than 1,600 routes to climb in the gorge, making it one of the nation's premiere climbing destinations.
updated 8/24/2007 3:21:06 PM ET 2007-08-24T19:21:06

You press your body tightly against the rock, fingers running along its crevices, trying to keep from slipping.

You don't feel the scrapes on your legs and knuckles or the pinch of climbing shoes designed to feel a size too small. There's too much adrenaline, too much focus on finding a firm foothold or handhold.

Muscles shake and the brain screams, "Stop moving!" but you ignore it. And finally, there is a rush of pride, then spontaneous whooping and hollering.

You've just climbed a mountain.

"This kind of stuff makes me feel alive," novice climber Cristyn Olenick said after mastering a 60-foot cliff in the scenic New River Gorge. "I think I might make a hobby out of it."

Thousands of visitors share the same thrill each rock-climbing season, which runs from April through November in West Virginia.

Olenick, of Asheville, N.C., has tried hiking, mountain biking, running, disc golf and one skydiving leap but concludes, "there's not really many more exciting things to do than this."

Image: New River Gorge Bridge
Jeff Gentner  /  AP file
The top of the popular climbing area known as the Junkyard Wall features a scenic view of the New River Gorge Bridge, in Fayetteville, W.Va.
The cliffs along the 53-mile long, 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River range from 30 to 120 feet tall and are composed of Nuttall sandstone, harder than granite and considered among the finest quality climbing rock anywhere.

In that way, fans say, it's superior to climbing in some western states.

"I think the New River Gorge is the best climbing in the country," said Elaina Arenz-Smith, owner of Fayetteville's New River Mountain Guides.

"The rock quality is superb," she said. "A lot of different climbing areas you go to, you'll have junky sections next to nice sections. But consistently across the board, the rock here is very high quality.

"And the climbing here requires a lot of problem-solving, a lot of technique," Arenz-Smith added. "You've got to know how to rock climb and use your technique, rather than just muscling through things."

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Gorge rock is firmer than that of the Grand Canyon and other areas out West, where the rock is "gritty and sandy and kind of wears away," Arenz-Smith said.

Though California, Nevada and Colorado have long been known for rock climbing, West Virginia's industry didn't get off the ground until the 1970s.

In 1984, the gorge received national attention in a prominent climbing magazine. From there, interest grew — as did the number of climbing routes.

Today, there are more than 1,600 routes, making the gorge one of the nation's premiere climbing destinations.

New River Mountain Guides is one of 15 companies with commercial use permits for climbing in the gorge, said Sherri Clendenin, program specialist for the National Park Service. Another is Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing, a Virginia company about 2½ hours away.

"There's a lot of climbing there and it's beautiful," said Wilderness Adventure program director Abbie Feigle, who helps organize two or three trips to the park every summer. "The concentration and variety of problems and routes, nothing really compares to the gorge around here. ... It's amazing."

Another 14 nonprofit groups, such as the Boy Scouts, have special use permits for their outings, Clendenin said, Combined, companies and nonprofits bring as many as 4,000 climbers to the gorge each year.

The number could be even higher, she said. Not every company that operates here reports to the park service as required, and nonprofits don't have to report the number of participants.

Tourists who make the trip can do more than climb in the gorge, famous for its whitewater rafting. Some climbing companies offer both rafting adventures and pontoon boat trips to nearby Summersville Lake.

Climbing schools will even arrange trips 165 miles northeast, to the often-photographed, jagged peaks of Seneca Rocks.

Though in the same state as the New River Gorge, Seneca Rocks offers a very different climbing experience, said Diane Kearns, co-owner of Seneca Rocks Climbing School.

The 900-foot formation is comprised of Tuscarora sandstone, an even harder rock than that found at the New River Gorge, and climbers must be more experienced in using anchors and ropes, Kearns said.

Seneca climbing involves fewer hand cracks but more edging, in which the climber uses the ball of the foot to move upward.

Seneca is also unique in that its South Peak is the only climbing destination east of the Mississippi that can be reached only by technical climbing, Kearns said. There is no hiking path or steps to the summit.

"There's no other way to get to the top. You have to rappel down," she said. "That's usually a big draw. Folks remember that part."

At the New River Gorge, climbers tend to be more gymnastic, Kearns said. Seneca has a smaller percentage of routes considered expert and elite.

The standard U.S. rating system ranks climbs from 5.0, which is comparable to climbing a ladder, to 5.15, which can only be achieved by the best climbers.

"At the New River, you find a lot more gymnastic climbers — 5.12 and 5.13 climbers," Kearns said.

Arenz-Smith, who has climbed all over the world, said variety and accessibility are what make the gorge perfect for her business and her life.

"There's a lifetime of rock that I'll never be able to do."

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