When the Red River Gorge and New River Gorge rivalry threatened to boil over, there was only one place to settle it: on the basketball court.
Huge spotlights suddenly lit up the small community basketball court in Lansing, West Virginia, near the rim of the New River Gorge. Lights, really? Who rigged those? Surrounding me was the rowdiest scene I had observed in several decades as a local at this worldclass climbing area, famous for bold first ascents and equally hazardous social activities. No craziness I could recall—from nine years of the New River Rendezvous, the Gauley River whitewater festival, even the notorious Pimp ‘n’ Ho parties of the 1990s—could rival this moment.
It was the deciding game of a best-of-five series between the Red River Gorge Red Rockets and the New River Gorge Sock Monkeys. I was courtside on the New River bench, dressed in a white linen suit, black V-neck shirt, white sunglasses, and greased-back hair, a look any NBA fan would recognize as Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley’s.
Lights? Really? The scene was pandemonium: a crowd of nearly 200, music throbbing, and a palpable intensity out on the court. This was more than just a basketball game. Two teams of climbers were battling for the ultimate prize: the right to call their home area the “Best Crag in America.”
As the Southeast’s two top climbing areas, less than 250 miles apart, “The New” in West Virginia and “The Red” in eastern Kentucky have had an informal rivalry for at least a decade. From the perspective of a New River Gorge climber, the Red is home to mindless jug-hauling, a technique-optional outdoor gym with soft grades. A Red River Gorge climber would counter that the techy climbing at the New is a throwback to times when climbers didn’t have any steep rock, and thus forced themselves to endure desperate high-stepping and crimping on slabs. In fact, both climbing areas offer a variety of styles, and both are world-class. Habit, mood, or proximity to one’s home usually determine which crag you favor. But that hasn’t cooled the rivalry.
Unlike Yosemite Valley, Eldorado Canyon, or the Gunks, which have rich climbing histories dating back 50 years or more, the New and the Red first saw significant action in the late 1970s, and only in the 1980s did word of the quality routes creep into the collective consciousness. As the first magazine articles appeared, climbers from surrounding areas began making exploratory forays. Sport climbing was unknown in the early days, but cracks of all dimensions were plentiful at both areas. Many of these crack climbs remain popular to this day.
One invention really initiated the divide between the New and the Red: the TCU. The gear innovators out in Oregon and Arizona may not have realized how influential their three-cam units would be in Appalachia, but climbers visiting the New sure did. While the softer Corbin Sandstone at the Red was swirled and pockety, the New’s much harder Nuttall Sandstone was littered with letterbox slots that were perfect for small cams. New routes at that time, in the late ’80s, were all done ground-up, and first ascensionists at the New could confidently launch up seemingly blank faces, knowing the odds of finding pro were good. (The occasional hand-drilled bolt helped, too.) Standards soared, and a wealth of hard routes put the New on the map for all serious climbers in the South and Midwest, while the Red remained obscure.
It’s hard to say which side started it, but in the summer of 2011 the rivalry finally went viral. A potent combination of online boredom and frustration at getting shut down on climbs in the sweltering Southern heat filled the local climbing forums with serious smack-talking. “You can be old and fat and still climb at New River,” read one post from a Red local. Something had to give.
In July, Gene Kistler of Water Stone Outdoors, the Fayetteville climbing shop, and Dario Ventura, of Miguel’s, hatched a plan for settling the “who’s the best” debate once and for all in fine Southern style: a basketball game. The flames were fanned at the August Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, when Maura Kistler and I confronted Dario and crew over beers at Brittany Griffith and Jonathan Thesenga’s traditional preshow party. Our loud conversation got the attention of several industry insiders, and suddenly Black Diamond and Petzl had thrown down, backing the New and Red, respectively.
Back home, Adam Ostrander, a Water Stone employee, became a driving force for the New River team, not only on the practice court but also through the creation of a Sock Monkey YouTube campaign that featured talking, dunking sock monkeys, with names such as Monkey Jordan and Sockeal O’Neal. The videos included reverse-psyche clips of appallingly poor practice performances, complete with frustrated coach dialogue, comic interviews, and well-intentioned jabs—one with a particularly stinging visual comparing the Red’s diminutive Natural Bridge with the New’s majestic span—rounding out the propaganda package.
The crew at the Red countered with intimidating videos highlighting their on-court skills, plus creative ways of defiling the Sock Monkey mascot. One barely PG-rated segment featured the Rockets’ ginormous Jordan Garvey, clad only in tightie whities, with the Sock Monkey’s head stuffed in the crotch, dunking the ball accompanied by jeers from the rest of his team. Practice intensity picked up. Rumors of ringers on both squads began to fly, despite a rule that all players had to be local climbers.
The five-game tournament was scheduled for late August. Water Stone Outdoors would host the event at the New, since the Kistlers had recently paved a new half-court in their side yard, while Miguel’s crew was still playing on gravel. This detail proved useful to me as coach, as it gave me the first clue that the Red Rockets’ game would be long on outside shooting, and primitive when it came to driving to the hoop. Dribbling on gravel gets old fast.
After all the pre-contest drama, the whole climbing community of Fayetteville was buzzing as game day neared. Upon arrival Friday afternoon, Dario Ventura, Pete “Stingray” McDermott, the Rockets’ coach, and I set the rules: best out of five, with each game played by single points to 15, with shots behind the arc scoring two points. Two games the first night, with Saturday being the main event—it would go to five games if necessary.
Game one exploded in a frenzy, each team bursting onto the court with reckless intensity. The Sock Monkeys’ tighter passing led to a victory that stunned the Rockets, who seemed to be expecting to play the “Suck Monkeys” portrayed in one of our comical pre-game videos.
Game two began as all games did: with first possession being decided by a coaches’ “chug off” rather than a traditional tip-off. This is where I truly shone, guzzling a beer to easily win the ball, as I did in each of the pre-game drinking contests.
The Red team came out looking for revenge. In a hard-fought match, the Rockets sank jumpers while the Monkeys banged the boards. In the end, the Rockets prevailed, evening up the series. The pre-game hype was turning out to be true. The showdown on Saturday night would be huge.
After the Friday games, an ill-advised decision found me and some of the Monkeys out on the town in Fayetteville along with the entire Rockets team, cheerleaders and all. Pies and Pints, Fayetteville’s answer to Miguel’s Pizza, was our first stop. After much drinking, discussion of the day’s games, and gorging ourselves on pizza, Brian “Vince” Vincent, our ace point guard, and I launched a plan to sabotage the visitors. Next stop: Charlie’s Pub, Fayetteville’s iconic hardcore drinking destination. At 2 a.m. the entire crew was still at the pub playing pool, drinking, and enjoying the local WV color, seemingly unfazed by our nefarious intentions. I began to wonder if we had met our match.
Saturday arrived bright, sunny, humid—and with hangovers all around. Still, the entire Kentucky entourage seemed psyched to sample some of the New River’s finest routes. An enjoyable day of cragging ensued, with some impressive sends by the visiting team.
As the crowd began to gather at the Kistlers’ court on Saturday evening, I sensed that things were about to get serious. Game three alone justified the tournament’s considerable hype. Scrappy play, smooth jumpers, and a hard-edged will to win on both sides inspired the crowd. The cheering echoed through the quiet neighborhood, drowning out the usual summer evening sounds of distant weed whackers and barking hounds.
But the beefier physiques and more physical play of the Sock Monkeys—setting hard picks and crashing the boards—was taking its toll on the skinnier Red Rocket players, who were well built for gravity-defying sport routes, but ill-suited for our New York Knicks–style inside play. Just as I began to relax after a gamethree victory, however, a late arrival, Peter Foister, rumored to be a former Division 1 college basketball player (falsely, it turned out), showed up for game four, injecting a new level of intensity into the Rocket team. He got right in our faces, pushing us back on our heels. I was forced to call another time out.
“Don’t let him get in your head,” I calmly instructed. I was speaking as much to myself as to the team—a few minutes earlier I had completely lost my composure, running out onto the court and screaming after a particularly hard foul. Adam, Vince, and Micah Klinger of the Sock Monkeys had really gelled during the tournament, and the Rockets so far had found no answer for their aggressive style. Peter, being probably the most experienced player on the court, answered immediately with an effective plan: piss us off and disrupt our game. It was working. The Rockets eked out a game-four victory, evening up the series again, at two games apiece. It had all come down to one final game, under the lights (Lights? Really?), in the ultimate showdown for Best Crag in America.
The Sock Monkey cheerleaders took to the court as I admonished my players. Wearing black shorts and Monkey-green shirts, the squad of super-fit local climber girls performed a rousing song and dance routine. Suddenly, a Rockets fan, sporting nothing but a beer cup over his junk and a large cardboard Red Rocket on his upper body and head, came streaking through the crowd, harassing the Sock Monkey bench before disappearing into the darkness and leaving roaring laughter and cheers in his wake.
During this surreal interlude, I had a flash of what this event— and New River Gorge climbing, for that matter—was really about. Climbers love the New’s routes, love to try hard and improve, but they find something larger here in Fayetteville. Pre- and postclimbing outings at Cathedral Cafe, Water Stone, Pies and Pints, and other local gatherings spots—these are the glue of the scene. It was that sense of community that we were really playing for on that court, not a trivial disagreement over style or quality of rock climbing.
I snapped out of the warm and fuzzy and back to the harsh reality of game five. Glancing over at the visitors’ bench, I could tell from the animated gestures and intent faces that the Rockets had no intention of losing. My players also had fire in their eyes, however, and as they took to the court they looked as if they were heading into a UFC cage match. Their determination erupted into a flurry of buckets, catapulting us into a significant lead. I was really starting to taste it, and so, making some substitutions, I rested my key starters.
Out on the court, Lisa Kleinert, the Rockets’ star female player, who had a previous life as a college baller, and Mariah Hibarger, the Sock Monkeys’ counterpart, were really going at it. The hardestplaying people in the game, they covered each other with tempers flaring, wrestling for loose balls. Before I knew it, the Rockets had surged back to tie the game at 13-13. At this point, both coaches called time out just to catch our breaths.
Both teams sent their starting lineups back onto the court. The Sock Monkeys had the ball. Vince drove the lane, drew in the defense, then dished out to Adam, who sank a jumper for point 14, igniting the crowd to unprecedented decibels.
The Rockets rushed back with the ball but missed a shot, and Micah—a tall, badass climber but until this summer totally inexperienced at basketball—snagged the rebound and passed out to the top of the key. The next few seconds unfolded in slow motion: Vince driving the lane, Jordan shifting over to double-team Vince and force a miss, the ball bouncing toward Dario, and then, somehow, Adam slithering in, scooping up the ball under the basket, and sinking the winning shot.
It was over. The New River Sock Monkeys had won the Gorge Cup. But it was now clear to both sides that the contest could have gone either way. Both areas had strengths. Both had heart. Either, on any given day, might be Best Crag in America.
The after-party was huge, and the bourbon-drinking prowess of the Kentuckians really came to the fore. The Rockets, despite their loss, appreciated the WV hospitality and vowed to return the favor. One of the Rockets, who had never been to the New River Gorge before, was heard to drunkenly call the climbing routes “fin’ bloody brilliant!” as he staggered into the darkness toward the keg. Slurred throughout the evening were countless other compliments, friendly jabs, and, of course, the recurring words “Rematch at the Red.” Rumor has it the court at Miguel’s is getting paved.
Kenny Parker is half owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville, West Virginia, and has been putting up routes in the New River Gorge for 25 years. Bad knees have ruined his basketball game, but he can still crimp, high-step, pluggear, and chug beer.