Legal for a Day: West Virginia's PsicoRoc Deep Water Soloing Competition

Summersville Lake in West Virginia features the best deep water soloing in the country, and it has the potential to bring in major dollars for the local economy. The catch? It’s technically illegal. The wild and unique PsicoRoc event wants to change that.

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Daniels Woods on Woofer Arête Direct (5.13+). Photo: James Lucas

I looked down at the water, and it just hit me where I was,” said Jesse Grupper. Fifty-five feet above Summersville Lake in West Virginia, the 19-year-old competitor from Montclair, New Jersey, shook out on the small holds of the Woofer Arête Direct project, estimated at 5.13c/d. More than 160 athletes, volunteers, sponsors, and spectators shouted for Grupper to keep climbing up into the V7 crux. No other climber at the deep-water-soloing competition had topped the line—as a matter of fact, no other climber had topped the line ever. The crowd was psyched; they wanted see a first ascent.

Holy crap, what am I doing? he thought. Videographer Tara Kerzhner, who had been hired to make a short film about the event, hung from an anchor a few feet from Grupper. His instinctual response was to grab her foot. All he could think about was getting down safely. This was his second time ever deep water soloing, the first being just one weekend earlier at Summersville Lake’s Pirate Cove. This climb was twice the height of the cliffs he’d explored previously. Grupper had little experience with enormous falls, and certainly not with near-horizontal roof climbing so high without a rope. But competitors Matty Hong and Sean McColl had both fallen safely from the crux. Looking down, he saw the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) patrol boat, staffed with a nurse, doctor, and other medical personnel, as well as the handful of locals on jet skis who were there to help pull climbers from the water.

The Floatilla. Photo: James Lucas

“I made the same decision I’d made a thousand times before and the same decision I’ll make a thousand times in the future,” Grupper said. He pushed hard with his foot and snatched a sloping hold two feet away. The crowd cheered louder. Imagining that he was above a crashpad, he pictured himself landing safely. The next hold, an undercling, seemed far away, and the move looked hard. Grupper launched, but hit the hold awkardly and out of sequence. He flew out from the wall, twisting in the air as he plummeted 60 feet. He hit the water sideways and came up a few seconds later. As Grupper gasped for breath, he raised a fist to signify to the rescuers that he was fine. The crowd sighed with relief.

Zoe Steinberg on House Boy (5.12a). Photo: James Lucas

On Tuesday, August 23, the New River Alliance of Climbers (NRAC) held the first ever PsicoRoc competition on the Nuttall sandstone that lines the shores of Summersville Lake near Fayetteville. During humid, 80° conditions, 16 pro climbers from all over the country came to Summersville for this inaugural event to hang with friends, relax on the water, and experience some of the best deep water soloing the United States has to offer. “We have an incredibly unique resource. There are hundreds of areas to go roped climbing in the East, but very few DWS locations,” said local guidebook author and PsicoRoc judge Mikey Williams. With 100 DWS routes from 5.9 to 5.13c, the cliffs range from a relatively safe 30 feet to a scary 70 feet over the water. There’s only one catch—deep water soloing at Summersville Lake is technically illegal.

Actually, the climbing portion is legal, but falling into the water is outlawed. In 2007, the USACE, which manages Summersville Lake Dam and the surrounding recreation area, enacted a restriction that prevents anyone from entering the water from above six feet. Since 1993, there had been 69 water-related deaths (including drowning, boating, and cliff-jumping accidents) at 19 lakes in West Virginia and surrounding states. Violators face up to $5,000 fines and six months in prison. The citation is for “an act that impedes the safety of oneself or another person” under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.

Zoe Steinberg climbs on Rat Race (5.12b). Photo: James Lucas

In January 2015, NRAC chairman Kenny Parker began organizing PsicoRoc as a replacement for the New River Rendezvous, a multiday festival involving sumo wrestling, a dyno comp, a running and drinking game, slideshows, a dance party, and a trad climbing competition. The National Park Service, though it had hosted the Rendezvous at the Burnwood Ranger Station for the past 10 years, had become uncomfortable with the amount of partying. They denied NRAC’s request to hold it at the site again.

As the premier advocacy group for climbers in the New River Gorge, Meadow River Gorge, Summersville Lake, and Gauley River areas, NRAC works to secure access to privately owned and government-managed climbing areas, builds and maintains trails, and replaces hardware for more than 3,000 routes. Unable to get a new location for the Rendezvous, which brought in $30,000 annually, NRAC was looking for a new way to promote the area and raise money.

Dru Mack makes it to just below the Woofer Arête Direct (5.13+) roof crux. Photo: James Lucas

Working with park ranger Kevin Brown, Parker got the event approved as part of the Summersville Lake Dam’s 50th anniversary. USACE allowed a number of events, including a water-skiing showcase, triathlon, boat parade, and a fireworks show. “We want the Army Corps to make a distinction between partiers, people jumping off cliffs, and deep water soloing,” said Parker. As a longtime developer at the New and co-owner of Waterstone Outdoors, Parker hoped to show that deep water soloing was a legitimate activity, one that could bring climbers and their tourist dollars to the New River Gorge area. “The fact that all of these top climbers were there, representing their sponsors, which are internationally known brands, gives credence to the idea that this place is for real and worthy of a visit,” said Parker.

The USACE builds bridges, transportation routes, and overseas waterways across the U.S. In 1966, they built the Summersville Dam to prevent the Gauley River from flooding Charleston, which is 40 miles west. Over six weeks in the fall, the USACE schedules dam releases. The 2,700-acre lake drops nearly a hundred feet, exposing 40 more feet of climbing in the winter months as well as solid ground under many of the climbs. Deep water soloing is only possible in the summer, after spring rain has filled the lake. Of the 250 routes at the lake, 100 of them are safe DWS lines during high water. The remaining 150 are bolted and traditional lines that can be climbed with a rope during the fall and winter. USACE overseas the recreation around the dam, including whitewater rafting, scuba diving, and climbing, and the group works with the NRAC to allow access to lakeside crags.

Jimmy Webb cuts loose for the camera on Rat Race (5.12b). Photo: James Lucas

“You’re taking too long,” a judge shouted through a megaphone to pro climber Nina Williams. “You need to come off the wall.” Twenty-five feet up House Boy (5.12c), Williams responded by turning and showing her middle finger to the judges. It was difficult to tell if the judges were serious. A random fall from the wall at that point seemed dangerous.

The comp featured a loose and subjective format. A half-dozen judges scored the climbers on a scale of 1 to 10 based on the difficulty of their ascents, if they onsighted, how many routes they had climbed previously, and who took the “coolest” fall. The judges wanted the climbers to ham it up for the PsicoRoc film as much as possible, encouraging them to do double dynos, figure-fours, bat hangs, and other stunts.

The film was meant to be a showcase of the deep water soloing at the lake. Mike Call, videographer and founder of PsicoComp (a DWS comp held on a manmade wall at Olympic Park in Park City, Utah), and Tara Kerzhner were producing the film, which would be entered in film festivals across the United States with hopes of attracting climbers to the New River Gorge. Wild, unique footage was the goal.

Jesse Grupper launches off the six-foot dyno on the Movie Screen Project. Photo: James Lucas

“The event tried to mix in a fun aspect with the performance aspect, so we judged people both on how well they climbed as well as how much ‘flare’ they had,” said judge and Summersville Lake veteran Greg Kerzhner. “Overall, the winner was the one with the most inspiring performance.”

The video crew had decided on shooting two areas, the Movie Screen and Rats Hole. Each featured a testpiece project and moderate classics. The comp started late when the production boat’s engine failed and the boat had to be towed. Initially, the seven competing women climbed on two 50-foot 5.12s—Cabin Boy (5.12a) and House Boy (5.12c)—which were about a hundred feet apart. The first few women climbed slowly, figuring out the routes and where the holds were, and getting comfortable over the water. To speed up the process, the judges had two women climb at the same time, one on each route. A few hours in, the video crew wanted the best light for the filming, so the 13-boat flotilla moved a few hundred feet around a corner so the men could try the Movie Screen, an open project. While the line is only 35 feet tall, it has a six-foot dyno in the middle and clocks in at mid-5.14.

Even the easier comp routes seemed serious. “Rat Race was mellow, flowy, relaxed—until the last committing move. Definitely a wake-up call,” said Nina Williams of the 5.12b that featured a series of sandstone jugs capped with a large dyno. Instead of attempting the Movie Screen project, local climber Zac Roper got on Stumbling Dice, a 5.12c with two no-fall zones. The judges told the climbers they could try the route, but warned competitors that if they fell in the beginning, they could hit a ledge at the bottom, and that if they fell in the middle, they could hit a pedestal. Since different lines were encouraged, climbers would receive more points if they climbed additional routes, though only Roper attempted Stumbling Dice. He topped out and did a backflip off the cliff, landing smoothly in the water. One other climber, Zoe Steinberg, a comp climber from Ramsey, New Jersey, attempted a different route, Kirkules (5.13a). The technical climbing on the arête forced her into an odd position, causing her to somersault off the wall. She emerged from the water unharmed.

To keep climbers from cliff jumping, they were lowered after sending. Nina Williams heads down after ticking Cabin Boy (5.12c). Photo: James Lucas

Though Grupper had raised his fist when he bobbed back to the surface after his 60-footer off Woofer Arête Direct, he had hit the water hard and smacked his head. A local on a jet ski was sent to pick him up. Grupper got on and sat in the front, trying to drive the jet ski, confused and unaware of what had happened. “Did I just climb?” he asked the other person on the jet ski. The medical staff on the USACE rescue boat recognized his short-term memory loss as a symptom of head trauma. They rushed him to the marina, seven minutes away on the high-powered boat. After receiving a precautionary CT scan at the hospital, Grupper was determined to have a contusion: Localized head trauma had led to a bruise on his brain.

“It wasn’t a big concern because the safety plan was in place,” said Brown. Medical professionals were watching how climbers fell and looking for signs of injury. When Grupper fell, they got to him in less than a minute and did a quick diagnosis. One stipulation for having the event is that the USACE required climbers to have a safe way off the top. Volunteers lowered the climbers using ropes, aiders, and pool noodles, though some climbers chose to jump anyway. However, unexpected falls meant there was a chance for accidents. “There’s not a lot of discussion around What if I fall?” said Brown about most climbers who come to the lake. And those climbers don’t have the luxury of a watchful medical staff in a fast boat.

The USACE medical boat stands ready while Matty Hong climbs above the lake. Photo: James Lucas

The climbing at Summersville seems more intimidating than other classic DWS venues like Mallorca and Thailand, where the ocean waves aerate the surface of the water, offering softer falls. In addition, climbers have been deep water soloing in Mallorca since 1978. After years of practice, the climbers there have a deeper understanding of how to fall, which routes are safe, and what type of terrain will result in certain falls. Conversely, the still lake water, lack of experience for many climbers, and high cruxes make the climbing heady at Summersville.

During the competition, a few athletes chose to skip their chance to climb. “I’m not really a big watersports person,” said Joe Kinder, a pro climber from Berkeley, California. At the comp, he tested the waters slowly, trying the Movie Screen and then climbing to the crux, at 40 feet, on Rat Race (5.12b) before dropping off, to the disappointment of the crowd. “I get kind of stressed out swimming and climbing in front of people,” Kinder said. After sending Houseboy and Rat Race, Nina Williams stopped climbing because she got too much water in her ears, giving her a headache. Another climber, local Lydia MacDonald, stopped when she dislocated a rib falling awkwardly off a big move 40 feet up on Rat Race.

“An uncontrolled fall from 50 feet is dangerous no matter what,” said local guidebook author Mikey Williams.

The 13-boat flotilla watches climbers at the cabin boy area. Photo: James Lucas

Shortly after Grupper’s fall, Canadian climber Sean McColl sent Woofer Arête Direct (5.13c/d). The PsicoRoc film trailer shows McColl on top, 70 feet above the water. “I’m so high,” Mccoll says. “I wouldn’t even want to jump from here.” But the falls make for an exciting competition for the spectators, whether they’re climbers or not. With standard roped and bouldering comps, viewers can have a hard time telling the difference in difficulty; elite athletes make 5.10 and 5.13 look equally easy. Plus, the scoring with traditional comps is confusing, and it can be hard to tell who is winning.

With a DWS comp like this, climbers and non-climbers alike can see the climber high on the rock, without a rope, risking a big fall. During the event, spectators shouted encouragement for the climbers to keep going higher and higher. Similar to NASCAR, in which viewers tune in not for the race but for the crashes, seeing big falls and the resulting splashes was thrilling, regardless of the hazards.

NRAC estimated that the 16 climbers collectively climbed 2,640 vertical feet and fell 1,280 feet. They raised $40,000 through eight corporate sponsors. After paying for boat rentals, housing for the athletes, food, and film-production costs, NRAC netted about $5,000. This money will help build a parking area at Whippoorwill, one of the most popular deep water soloing locations in the summer and sport climbing destinations in the winter. In support of the comp, the West Virginia tourism board and the town of Summersville featured the PsicoRoc trailer on their social media.

Alex Johnson passes the bolt used in winter on Rate Race (5.12b). Photo: James Lucas

In the New River Gorge, it’s not unheard of to legalize an adventure sport for just one day a year in order to promote tourism. On the third Saturday of every October, thousands of BASE jumpers gather at the New to jump off the 876-foot-tall bridge. Bridge Day is a once-a-year opportunity for BASE jumpers to gather in Fayetteville and enjoy the area’s fun resources. “Bridge Day certainly has a huge impact on the local economy,” said Mikey Williams, who estimates that approximately 80,000 people will attend this year’s event, creating an economic boom for the small town and introducing people to the area. “Many of them will return to explore trails, raft, revisit their favorite restaurant, or maybe even take up rock climbing.”

And Fayetteville needs the economic boost that climbers can provide. The town of about 3,000 grew rapidly in the late part of the 19th century during a surge in coal mining. When the demand for coal decreased in the mid-1900s, so, too, did the economy. Neighboring towns were abandoned, but Fayetteville has found support and dollars through outdoor tourism: whitewater rafting, fishing, mountain biking, and rock climbing. The biggest fundraiser for American Whitewater, an advocacy group for the protection of whitewater rivers in the United States, is Gauley Fest, a three-day festival held in Summersville every September.

While Bridge Day and whitewater sports are solid summer attractions, an increase in climbers could make the local economy strong throughout the year. While conditions for deep water soloing are ideal at Summersville Lake in the summer, the other few thousand routes in the New River Gorge area come into season in the winter, spring, and fall. A recent study on the economic impact of rock climbing on the nearby Red River Gorge by Eastern Kentucky University found that an estimated 7,500 unique climbers spend $3.6 million dollars in the area. The New and the Red share many similarities: moderate climates, depressed economies, and lots of rock. However, the New’s location far from any major cities, small number of moderate climbs, and the technical, conditions-dependent style of climbing make it less attractive to the large number of climbers looking to go from the gym to the crag. Yet the hope is that piquing climbers’ interest in the New with the attraction of DWS could help grow climbing traffic in the area, and thus bring in more dollars.

Joe Kinder samples Proper Soul (5.14a), one of the many classics on the three-mile-long Endless Wall. Photo: James Lucas

“If we could get DWS at the lake legalized, it would be a summertime economic boost for local businesses, who were all hit really bad by the flood in June [2016] and lost at least half their business this year,” said Parker of the torrential storms that brought flash floods, caused more than $20 million in damages, and killed 23 people. President Obama declared West Virginia a major disaster site.

But despite the success of the PsicoRoc event, legalizing DWS at Summersville seems unlikely. “All of us locally really enjoyed it,” said Brown of the USACE’s response to the comp. “We have an appreciation for the skills and the athletic abilities of everyone involved.” Still, they don’t plan on allowing the event again. “At this point, there is no interest in the USACE allowing a future event like this, because it did require a waiver of the [cliff-jumping] ban,” said Brown.

But there is one big difference between cliff jumpers and climbers. Climbers tend to acknowledge that the sport is inherently dangerous, and they are conscious of the risks involved. We must assess situations, discuss possible outcomes, weigh the risk factors, and make calculated decisions about our actions. Cliff jumping at Summersville Lake tends to be an in-the-moment decision, perhaps made by visitors to the lake who haven’t considered all the consequences.

PsicoRoc judge Greg Kerzhner scores an athlete on their performance. Photo: James Lucas

Despite the ban, climbers continue to deep water solo at Summersville Lake, particularly at the Whippoorwill zone, which hosts a series of moderates. “The ban on jumping and DWS there put a damper on the action for awhile,” MacDonald said. “Though we still messed around over the water occasionally, it slowed down for a lot of us who were paranoid about the Army Corps.” After the comp, a few climbers headed to Rats Hole to set up rope swings. One injured a finger, and another took a bad fall.

Parker thinks that deep water soloing at Summersville will be OK if climbers are smart and stay under the radar, like many locals have been doing since the ban was put in place nine years ago. He said, “Even though DWS is still technically illegal, if climbers act responsibly and don’t do stupid stuff while climbing, they might be able to climb there legally in the future.” 

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