So, you think you’d have to be insane to be a rock climber, huh? Sure it looks fun, but all that danger! You’d have to be crazy to trust your life to a little metal clip hammered into the side of a mountain. Hey, I’m right there with you. I always admired those ridiculously fit “dudes” who could scale a cliff like a monkey climbs a tree. Sure, it would be awesome, but there’s no way I’d do it.
But… what if you didn’t have to carry all those ropes, and learn how to use all that equipment? What if you could make your way up a mountainside, almost as easily as climbing a ladder? What if there were rungs and safety cables already built into the rock? Does climbing suddenly sound a little more reasonable?
What I just described is a Via Ferrata. There’s only a handful of them in the U.S., and one of them is located in the hills of eastern West Virginia.
Let’s start out with a picture taken from a few miles away, atop Spruce Knob, to give you a lay of the land. Those rock fins that protrude from the side of the mountain are part of NRocks (a.k.a. Nelson Rocks Preserve): a privately-owned nature preserve near Judy Gap, West Virginia. From a distance, those rocks don’t look impressive…
… but up close, you realize they’re several hundred feet above the ground. There isn’t a great place to take an up-close picture, until you’re actually on the rocks. This dirt road leads through the hollow in between the two hills, and ends on private property (where I’d bet they have a very nice view–but you can’t go there!).
NRocks isn’t a big operation. If you blink, you’ll miss the one tiny sign pointing up the dirt road that leads to the preserve, off WV Route 55 near Judy Gap. A small shed serves as its business headquarters. The only restroom fulfills the stereotypical assumption many visitors will likely make before arriving in West Virginia. Yes, it is an outhouse.
At the shed, I paid the $45 fee for climbing the “Via”, received my safety equipment, and met my climbing partners. Burt, Bonnie, Neil, and Jeanne were from Ontario, and had driven through the mountains every year on their way to vacation in Florida. They had always wanted to spend a few days hiking, climbing, and rafting through the Mountain State on their way to the Sunshine State, and now they were finally doing it.
Our guide, Brian, greeted us. He’s been living the life of a pioneer for several years now at Nelson Rocks, in a cabin that doesn’t have an electric light or a flushing toilet. During our climb, we learned a lot about how he happily lives a primitive life. In 2002, he helped install the Via Ferrata — drilling hundreds of holes in the hard quartz rock, and then gluing the rungs into place.
Our group hiked up to the base of the first fin, then stopped for some instruction. Brian is fanatical about safety, and spent a good half-hour making sure we knew what we were doing. Our equipment consisted of a helmet, a harness that fit snugly around the crotch, and a rope that looked like the letter “Y”, with carabiners on all three ends. One end was to remain fastened to our safety harness, while the other two clipped to the continuous steel cable that ran the entire length of the Via. Never were we supposed to remove both clips at the same time.
Brian went first, then Bonnie, who had designated herself as the most nervous member of the group. This meant I would bring up the rear, and I couldn’t have been happier. With no one behind me, I could take my time.
The Via Ferrata runs up, over, and through the two rock fins, which jut out from a rounded, tree-covered hillside. The naturally-occurring route has been there forever; the rungs and cables merely make it easier to navigate it. For the first stage of the climb, we went up and to the left, working our way to a notch in the first fin.
The Via passes through the notch, then continues up the other side of the first fin. As each climber ahead of me reached the notch, I heard a “wow!”, and when it was my turn, I said it too.
Neil was feeling pretty confident at this point!
As I rounded the corner and climbed through the notch, the view was incredible. Suddenly, I could see the other rock fin, the chasm in between, and of course, that swinging bridge. Passing through the notch is tricky, though, as it requires climbers to swing around to the other side of the rock. Brian told us about half the climbers call this the scariest part, and on a previous trip, it had made his brother cry.
The view looking across the hollow, onto the rock fins on the opposite hillside.
Our group took a break at the end of the bridge, if for no other reason than to give us the chance to work up the nerve. The bridge is built with four cables. Two ran at our feet, with narrow, widely spaced boards serving as steps in between them. The other two are waist-high, creating handrails. There are no extra reinforcements to keep the contraption from bouncing, twisting, or swaying in the wind. A fifth cable runs overhead, which allowed us to clip in. If the bridge failed, or I missed a step, I would quickly appreciate that safety line.
As we rested at the foot of the bridge, a group of West Virginia State Police troopers came up behind us. They were using the Via to train for rescue operations. One of them was more nervous than anyone in our group. It was a big confidence boost for us all. He wasn’t crying, but he was quivering.
After the troopers crossed, it was our turn. I once again let the Ontarians go ahead. Brian only wanted three people — at the most — on the bridge at a time. Once Jeanne neared the end, and Neil reached the middle…
… I took my first step. I couldn’t help but look down…
… because each plank is spaced 18 inches apart (to decrease wind resistance and weight, Brian told us — adding to the thrill was merely a bonus). The key, we all later agreed, was staying focused on our feet, and not the tree tops, far below.
The bridge wasn’t terrifying. It felt reassuring to be firmly secured to the safety cable. I felt so confident, that about midway I pulled out my camera for a few photos.
This is the view looking uphill, between the two rock fins…
… and the view downhill, towards the hollow and the next mountain.
As I turned to take the shot down the valley, I unintentionally leaned against the cable at my side, causing the entire bridge to shift. If I had leaned any further, it felt like the entire bridge would have flipped. My confidence level suddenly dropped (thankfully it was the only thing). I put the camera away and didn’t waste any more time returning to solid ground.
The view from the end of the bridge, looking back after crossing it…
… and another view looking downhill.
At the end of the bridge, another climb awaited.
It didn’t take long to gain altitude again, and leave the swinging bridge behind.
That brief climb was followed by passage through another notch…
… which took us to the far side of the second rock fin. That’s where the final, big challenge awaited.
The Headwall offers an optional, 100 foot climb, straight up. At the top of the narrow rock knife is an unobstructed view of the entire area.
I decided to tackle the headwall, along with Neil and Jeanne. It was certainly one of the biggest physical challenges of the day…
… but the reward was great. At the end of the climb, the rock’s narrow ledge was only a couple of feet wide. I tried to stand, but the sheer drop on either side of my feet left me feeling dizzy. So instead…
… I sat down and dangled my feet over the side. Looking down into the gap between the two rock fins, the swinging bridge now appeared tiny and distant, and not the least bit threatening.
Atop the headwall, there’s a great view of the farmland that borders WV Route 28…
… the secluded land in the hollow…
… and of course, that swinging bridge.
Neil and Jeanne posed for a picture at the top of the headwall. It pays to get to know your fellow climbers — a few weeks after our climb, Neil and I exchanged pictures (a much better idea than passing a camera back and forth!).
I could have stayed here for quite a while, but after just a few minutes, my partners begun the trip back down the mountainside, and I didn’t have much choice but to follow them.
Brian told us that only about 3% of climbers find the Headwall descent to be the scariest part of the climb. I discovered I was in that minority. Going down is tougher, I learned, because instead of fighting against gravity, you’re moving with it, while trying not to move too fast. Also, when headed uphill, the next rung is usually right in front of you; downhill, it’s below your feet, where it’s difficult to see.
As I grew tired on the descent, I was thankful that earlier in the climb, I had become comfortable with what’s known as the “resting position”. It’s a simple maneuver that was absolutely thrilling. Instead of staying clipped into the safety cable, I hooked onto one of the rungs above my head, and let go. My harness held all the weight, allowing me to dangle, hands free, on the side of the mountain. Previously, the move had been pure fun. But now, as I descended the Headwall, it was a necessity. My arms were growing weak, and the sweat on my hands was loosening my grip. Several times, I had to quickly clip to a rung and go hands-free, just to give myself a rest.
The headwall was the last big challenge of the day. While the safety cables continued, there were only a few spots, like this one, that required a brief climb.
There are a couple more good viewpoints near the upper end of the Via.
From this one, you can see Spruce Knob, the tallest point in West Virginia.
There it is! Yes, some of the other mountains look taller, but that’s because they’re closer.
The Via officially ended at the top of the hill. We took another break before tackling the long hike down.
While resting, snacking, and gulping down what remained of our water supplies, Brian told us how he has climbed the Via Ferrata hundreds of times — even in rain, fog, or snow. Under perfect conditions, he traversed the entire Via in just 15 minutes. We were approaching hour number five.
The remaining hike was certainly the least thrilling part of the day. Back at the parking lot, we removed our equipment and praised Brian’s guidance, while Bonnie and Jeanne worked up the courage to visit the outhouse. Who would have imagined that would be the scariest part of the adventure?
You should expect the journey to take four hours or more. This includes time for the pre-climb orientation, and several rest stops along the way.
Leave your cell phone in the car — there’s no coverage here. Also, wear a cheap wristwatch (or none at all). An expensive watch will likely end up scratched by the rocks.
The nearest cold beverages and modern restrooms are at a convenience store in Circleville, 2 miles south. Lodging is limited in the area. I stayed at the Hermitage Motor Inn in Petersburg, 33 miles north of Judy Gap.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.