Two steps from the front door to eNeRGy Rock Gym in Charleston and I discovered a problem. The plastic fob on my key ring that unlocked the entrance to the rock-climbing gym was gone.
Somewhere it had fallen off and I wasn’t sure about getting in the building, even though I knew, for sure, that there were at least a couple of people climbing inside.
I peeked in but saw no one.
With the music up, the odds of anyone hearing me hammering on the door to get anyone’s attention seemed long.
Aggravated, I rifled through my car, tossed the contents of my gym bag and made a mess of the trunk, but nothing.
Maybe if I was lucky, the little plastic chip was on my nightstand at home. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I drove toward home, hoping that I hadn’t completely blown the evening.
It had been a rough couple of days for my month looking into climbing. My hopes at getting out to climb on actual rocks in the wild had crumbled and fallen apart.
I’d made plans to visit NRocks Outdoor Adventure in Pendleton County, where they’d mentioned me giving the Via Ferrata a shot. I’d agreed to that but hadn’t actually checked on what that was until after I canceled my trip.
The day I was supposed to go, a couple of people I’d been around had taken sick. Nobody had COVID, as it turned out, but I was worried I might pass along whatever weird bug they had to someone else.
Getting someone like me up on any kind of climb, I imagined, would probably mean close quarters with a guide (particularly, if I got stuck) and I just didn’t want to get anyone else sick.
It turned out that the Via Ferrata is a three and a half hour climb to gain 1,085 feet of elevation. You cross a suspension bridge and reach exposed heights of 280 feet.
All of this sounded horrifying.
Part of me thinks I dodged a bullet on that. I should have maybe asked that they put me on the bunny slope.
But I called off my trip, stayed close to home and wore my mask in public for a couple of days. Instead of going out and climbing a rock, I focused more on how much it would cost to go do something like that.
This is, if you planned to try to do it safely.
It turns out that if you’re interested in rock climbing, your best bet is to find a friend who already does this and has all the stuff you can borrow — or go join a rock climbing gym.
At least in Charleston, buying new gear is difficult. I checked around.
At Dick’s Sporting Goods, I asked an associate whether the store carried anything for climbers and was told, “I think we used to, like 10 years ago, but there’s not a lot of demand for it here, I guess.”
At Cabella’s, which has everything you might need to survive a zombie apocalypse — fishing gear, guns, and fudge – there was almost nothing.
“We have some safety harnesses,” one of the workers said. “Those are probably more for hunting. Rock climbing just isn’t that big for us.”
Just for fun I tried Walmart and Target. They didn’t have any climbing gear either, but I did get some reasonably priced bananas and a scented candle.
Meanwhile, after a quick search of my house, I found the plastic tab for the front door to eNeRGy Rock Gym in a jacket pocket and drove back, hoping to talk to some climbers.
I got back just in time to watch D.J. Michaels do a fair impression of Spider-Man. He was climbing and chatting with Craig Yeomans and Judson Johnson, a couple of gym friends.
D.J., originally from Tennessee, told me he’d been climbing since the early 2000s, had gotten into the sport in college and had spent a lot of time coming up from Tennessee to Fayetteville for outdoors sports, like rock climbing.
After college, he’d moved to Colorado, but then relocated to West Virginia in the Spring, where he’d bought a house. He gushed about the cost of living here.
“My rent for a townhome in Colorado was $2,000 a month,” he said. “My mortgage here is $700.”
D.J. said he was finishing up a degree to become a nurse practitioner. He was very happy to be here.
“West Virginia is a gem,” he said.
For guys like him, who like the outdoors and things like rock climbing, the state wasn’t just less expensive, it was more accessible.
Sure, Colorado has great places to climb, but D.J. said to get to them, you usually had to drive and then hike. They could also get kind of crowded.
“West Virginia has great places that are right off the road,” he said. “The New River Gorge is amazing.”
Craig agreed with that. He’d only been in the area for a couple of months. For how he wanted to live and what he wanted to do, West Virginia was pretty close to heaven.
“Tourism will want to talk to the both of you,” I said.
I wasn’t entirely joking.
Both of them seemed to represent what the state hoped to attract — young, educated folks with valuable skills who’re attracted to the state’s rugged, natural beauty and outdoor adventure spots, who can also overlook some of West Virginia’s less charming features, like the spotty cell phone coverage, weak internet service and the slow pace at which new chain restaurants enter our borders.
Nothing causes as much of a stir as the rumor of a Popeye’s Chicken or maybe a White Castle coming to town. I still remember the lines of cars in the streets from when Kanawha County got its first Cookout and we finally had fresh corndogs on demand.
While I never got to climb a real, live rock, I got a pretty good idea of what rock climbing was about. David Statler, the owner of the gym, said, “It’s not just the physical part, it’s also the mental part. It’s not just solving these problems to move forward, it’s solving them while you’re potentially in jeopardy.”
There were no two ways anyone got into climbing, but like a lot of hobbies or sports, many people got into it because of friends.
Matt Massey told me he got into climbing sideways through playing the fantasy card game, “Magic: The Gathering.” One of the friends he made playing the game every week at a comic shop was a climbing guide who offered to let Matt try climbing out.
“I was hooked after I went,” he said.
I wish I could have come up with at least one trip out to climb outdoors, but that was my fault. Messages went back and forth between a couple of climbing companies and me, but it didn’t really lead anywhere.
A friend explained it to me.
“You always pick the worst time to do these things,” she said. “Right now, everybody is out climbing. It’s the perfect time of the year to be outside.”