It’s 7:30 Tuesday morning. The marina at Summersville Lake is already packed. Pontoon boats jostle against the deck as nearly 100 people file on board with their coolers and cameras and SUPs. The mood is light. Everyone’s in bikinis and board shorts despite the brisk mountain morning. Professional climbers like Daniel Woods and Alex Johnson mingle in the parking lot. Someone procures a pan full of breakfast burritos, and amid the bustle, the singular, satisfying crack of a can opening.
Water Stone Outdoors co-owner Gene Kistler shakes my hand before folding me in an embrace. His red baseball cap reads “Make Climbing Great Again.”
This is Psicoroc, the United States’ first outdoor deep water soloing competition.
Gene guides us to a small boat at the end of the dock. Fitz is our captain for the day. His sun-bleached hair is short on the sides, long on the top, pulled neatly into a bun. A cigarette hangs loosely from the corner of his mouth. After a few introductions, he eases the media boat away from the marina and points the bow toward Long Point.
Someone’s already raising the American flag for the anthem when we arrive. As we idle beside the cliff, the full scale of the entire production hits me. In addition to our little media boat, there’s a boat for the judges, one for the video team, a few for the climbers. A fleet from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lingers at the perimeter. Two jetskis taxi latecomers back and forth from the marina.
There’s a rumbling above. I crane my head back just in time to see the tail of a helicopter on standby, passing overhead. A closer whirling, like a swarm of bees, signals the launch of a drone. Around the corner from Long Point at the Houseboy area, climbers already have ropes and rappel stations fixed to lower soloists who successfully top out.
Everything is in place. The stage is set.
“I had no idea what I was signing up for,” Fitz mutters. “I have never seen anything like this.”
Truth be told, nor have I. Climbers from as far west as California and as far north as Canada have journeyed here, to this little pocket of southern West Virginia, for the first-ever outdoor deep water soloing competition on U.S. soil. Representatives from big name brands like Mammut, La Sportiva, Scarpa, and Black Diamond are all in attendance. It’s an event of historic proportions, but one that may not ever happen again.
Per a decision made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District on May 5, 2007, cliff jumping, and consequently deep water soloing, has been banned for the past decade in as many as 19 Army Corps-operated lakes throughout Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. The ban, at least in Summersville Lake, has been somewhat of a gray area—according to Army Corps personnel, deliberate cliff jumpers received 100 citations one year while countless more climbers, who “fell” from the cliff while deep water soloing, went fine-free.
“The Army Corps here has always been flexible with climbers,” says Fayetteville-based climber Zak Roper. “They’ve been watching from a distance and letting us get away with [deep water soloing].”
Roper moved to the Fayetteville area seven years ago, specifically for the climbing. He says that during those years, and even prior to it, climbers had been working hard to develop a good rapport with the Army Corps through trail maintenance projects with the New River Alliance of Climbers.
“They love climbers,” he says. “We build trails, we clean up, we’re friendly. They’re working with us.”
“We cause them virtually no trouble,” adds Water Stone Outdoors co-owner Maura Kistler. “[The Army Corps] has always considered climbers to be a great user group because they give back and they follow the rules and they respect the resource.”
Which is why U.S. Army Corps Natural Resource Specialist Kevin Brown was open to the idea of incorporating a deep water soloing competition into Summersville Dam’s 50th anniversary. The celebration, which officially kicked off on August 19th, took the better part of a year to organize.
“We wouldn’t have entertained the idea of doing it had it not been for the New River Alliance of Climbers,” Brown says. “I’ve been with the Army Corps for 20 years and we’ve had a good relationship with them since that time.”
The event marks an exciting opportunity to dote upon the first-class recreational resource that is Summersville Lake. Still, he says, deep water soloing will remain an unsanctioned activity, at least for now.
“At this time there is no interest by the Corps of Engineers to have a future event or allow deep water soloing.”
Back at the cliffs, the 16 competing climbers are finishing up their second round of burns. The day is perfect—warm, but not humid, the sky painted with wispy clouds. A slight breeze ripples the otherwise still water. Brown’s eyes scan the line of pontoons anchored in front of The Movie Screen area.
The crowd erupts in cheers as Roper peels 30 feet off the cliff, plunging into the lake feet first (only after rotating into a backflip). Scoring here at Psicoroc includes categories like “style,” after all. Behind Brown’s spectacles, I catch a glimmer of something more than a sense of duty or responsibility. It looks a lot like hope.
“Recreation at Summersville Lake has become more diversified and it’s branching from the traditional boating, skin diving, fishing, swimming, into the other sports that are maybe not quite as resource intensive,” he concludes.
With that, I return to the party à la jetski taxi service. Psicobloc deep water solo champion Michaela Kiersch is cheering on her fellow competitors, shouting beta from the boat. Kiersch has never been to West Virginia before, let alone gone deep water soloing on natural rock. Having just come off of the high stakes, high-pressure scene at Psicobloc in Park City, Utah, she says Psicoroc here in Summersville is a breath of fresh air.
“I couldn’t imagine a better setting to have this event,” she says. “It’s beautiful. It’s so much fun being in the South and having this experience because I love the southern mentality of hospitality. Everyone is having fun and coming together and I think that goes really well with climbing communities.”
Couple that feel-good vibe with quality sandstone, crystal-clear water, and crowd-free cliffs, and you have what many consider one of the best deep water soloing resources in the world. Unlike other deep water soloing destinations such as Majorca, Spain and Halong Bay, Vietnam, Summersville Lake in West Virginia is affordable, accessible, and enjoyable year-round. When water levels drop during the fall and winter months, sport and trad routes become 40—60 feet taller, boulders emerge, and a whole world of adventure opens up. If deep water soloing were to become officially sanctioned and publicly marketed, many locals feel that it would only bolster the ever-growing recreation tourism scene here.
But for now, the precedent set by Psicoroc will do. The day closes with a high note—on the very last climb, eight-time World Champion Sean McColl takes the first ascent and overall win. The worst injuries, short of sunburn, are a slight concussion and a few bruises.
Despite the Army Corps’ attempts to keep the event “spectator free” (which is why you haven’t heard about it), by the time McColl topped out more than 40 feet above, our initial floatilla was far from alone—locals in pontoon boats and inner tubes, kayaks and SUPs, showed up to witness and support the momentous occasion. And it is this, says Maura Kistler, that truly demonstrates how a little West Virginia town made the impossible possible, if only for a day—community.
“We all feel like we cashed in every karma chip we ever earned in our whole entire lives to get this day,” says Kistler. “We couldn’t have done this if our community weren’t so well-developed.”