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A Climber We Lost: Paul Nelson, July 12

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.

Paul Nelson, 40, July 12 

On July 12, 2021, the Fayetteville community, West Virginia, and the world lost one of its great humans in Doctor Paul T. Nelson. Paul was a professor of history, a nails-hard climber, a fun-loving raft guide, a bluegrass and jazz musician, a husband to his sweet wife Miranda, and a staunch advocate for positive change in West Virginia. He earned his PhD in American history from Southern Methodist University in Texas, and authored Wrecks of Human Ambition: A History of Utah’s Canyon Country to 1936.

In the wake of what he described as an “increasingly unsuccessful attempt at an academic career,” Paul moved to the New River Gorge in 2013 to manage the fledgling American Alpine Club campground and to climb. Paul cut his climbing teeth on the limestone of Utah’s Logan Canyon before discovering his love for hard splitter cracks as a regular at Indian Creek. On one occasion, Paul sauntered alone up to the crag and approached a party with a top rope on The Incredible Hand Crack (5.10) and asked if he could drop in for a “speed lap.” Paul’s belayer recalls using two hands and still being unable to pull rope through fast enough. Over a decade later the two met again at the New and became great friends.

(Photo: Jay Young)

“Paul was brilliant, nerdy, and prone to putting his foot in his mouth, but somehow also the coolest guy you’d ever meet,” says Mike Williams, a prolific NRG first ascentionist and climbing guidebook author. “His climbing style was a direct reflection of his personality. His footwork was imperfect, partially because he spent most of his climbing life wearing a pair of blown-out, baggy Five Ten Moccasyms.”

Paul ticked many hard routes in his day, including the desperately overhanging Red River Gorge trad classic Welcome to Ole Kentuck (5.13a). He was  known in the tight-knit New River Gorge climbing community for his harrowing headpoints of 5.12 and 5.13 trad climbs, including first ascents of Are You an Idiot (5.12R) and Dead Ráibéad (5.12+). Paul got a brief moment of internet infamy for footage of him sending Williams’s heady route Color Blind (5.13a R).

In a brilliant blog post on Evening Sends titled “The Day I Sent Color Blind,” Paul wrote:

The psychology of sending is interesting.  For me, if a climb feels too easy on the send, you wind up wondering why the hell you hadn’t sent the route sooner.  If it feels too hard, sketchy, or ugly, you feel as though you really haven’t mastered the route, that you just rolled the dice and succeeded by chance. Neither scenario feels quite perfect.

Although Paul was sidelined at times from a recurring spinal issue, he continued to climb hard, falling in love with bouldering as it allowed him to push himself in spurts instead of spending time tied in. But tie back in he did—on a recent trip to his old stomping ground of Utah, Paul made a near-onsight ascent of Moonlight Buttress (5.12+) taking just one fall on the 1200 foot, 10 pitch Zion classic.

In September 2015, Paul went on a Tinder date with Miranda Howard. The two fell in love quickly and were married on May 5, 2018 at the New River Gorge. “I saw right away that this was a man of enthusiasm,” Miranda Nelson says. “He truly enjoyed everything from bouldering and beers on a sunny winter afternoon to hiking 25 miles into a camp in the Bugaboos with his friend Matt, only to have to turn around and hike back out after they got snowed off the mountain.”

Paul Nelson, his dog Meadow, and wife Miranda on the New River. (Photo: Miranda Nelson)

Beyond climbing, Paul was prolific in myriad ways during his time in Fayetteville: he taught a variety of subjects at various Fayette County schools, co-founded the tutoring agency New River Academics, and trained as a raft guide on the class V whitewater of the New and Gauley rivers.

“He loved puns and dad jokes and memes, and he was the most curious human I’ve ever known,” Nelson says. “Pragmatic to almost a fault, Paul still maintained an almost childlike willingness to be delighted. If you wanted a trashy frozen margarita, he was your man. Also an accomplished jazz guitarist, he was proud of being the go-to jazz guy in town. If you ever visited the NRG and saw a guy in town playing a guitar and wearing a fedora and a tweed jacket with elbow patches, it was Paul.”

Paul was a frequent contributor to Highland Outdoors, an outdoor magazine I publish here in West Virginia. He wrote about the stunning geology of his beloved Nuttall sandstone and the future of 5.15 climbing at the New. I’ll forever cherish the one and only time I went climbing with the one and only Paul Nelson. He warmed up by running free solo laps on the NRG classic splitter New Yosemite (5.9) while I chuffed lead attempts on neighboring 5.10 trad lines. He then proceeded to cruise up Stuck In Another Dimension (5.11a), a burly and overhanging crack, on minimal gear while simultaneously discussing his spinal issues and espousing the socioeconomic values of national monuments in Canyon County. I didn’t know what to focus on more—both the belaying and the conversation were quite engaging.

In our final conversation, Paul and I talked about paddling the New River together, his ideas for future articles, jamming out on mandolins, and how getting old will suck. It breaks my heart to know none of these things will come to fruition, and to know that Paul will no longer get to laugh about his aging body. In my limited conversations with Paul, it sounded like he squeezed more adventure, joy, and love out of life in his 42 years than most do when given double that amount of time. I take comfort knowing he lived it right.

Paul’s journey came to a close during a climbing trip out West. According to friends with whom he was traveling, Paul had enjoyed a wonderful day of climbing before passing peacefully in his sleep at the base of a mountain near Lake Tahoe, California. He is survived by Miranda Nelson, his crag dog Meadow, his close friends, and everyone whose life he touched along the way.

“There were cliffs yet for Paul to climb, but other than that, he left behind no unfinished business. May we all be so lucky,” Nelson says. “I’ll always be thankful that I got to be part of that story. Living my own life with intention and curiosity and authenticity will be my way of carrying on his legacy. The next time you’re holding a glass of whiskey or mezcal or a frozen margarita at your trashy local Tex Mex joint, raise it to Paul. I can’t think of a better tribute. Cheers, my love.”

Rest easy, professor.

–Dylan Jones

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.