Usually the best season to raft/kayak is in the spring when the snowmelt is bringing fresh water down to the rivers. The Gauley River is a special exception. Each year before winter the Army Corps of Engineers drain Summersville Lake into the Gauley, bringing consistently high water levels and thousands of whitewater enthusiasts to the area. Over the period of 30 years, it went from being considered an “impossible” stretch of whitewater to one of the most popular day trips in the country.
There were several ECPers in the campsite next to us, so we joined them on Sunday for a day of climbing.
Rafting: Ange, Chad, Chris, Chris, Dave, Eduardo, Heidi, Kristen, RJ, Tina and myself
Climbing: Ange, Chris, Chris, Dave, Heidi, Jim, Melissa, Michelle, Tina and myself
We had 7 + guide on a big raft, and 4 + guide on a smaller raft. The action started quickly at Initiation rapid, where we (literally) got a taste of how cold the 50°F water was. Most of us wore wetsuits. There are countless class III and IV rapids, Initiation rapid included, so I won’t bore you with the details of those (actually I just can’t remember them all that well).
The main attractions of this river are the class V rapids; Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Iron Ring, Lost Paddle, and Sweet’s Falls (some people have a different list, but I am sticking with our guide’s opinion). I was excited to get on some real rapids.
When we were coming up to Insignificant rapid the guide explained to us that the first person to run the river, John Sweet, claimed there was “nothing significant before Pillow Rock.” Ironically, it is one of the toughest parts of the river. We were successful on this rapid: those who managed to stay dry until this point were now completely wet. Oh, and nobody fell out.
Next up was Pillow Rock. The guide psyched us up and said it would probably be the toughest rapid of the day. The water rushed up against a large rock, with a natural “pillow” of water as a cushion for your boat. If you did it right, the pillow would protect you and you’d slide through the rest of the rapid. If you did it wrong, you’d crash into the rock and probably flip your boat. Unfortunately our guide did his job and nobody fell out. With the combination of a huge drop into a huge hole, and being an aesthetic rapid overall, it was my favorite of the day.
Link (our Class VI guide) opened the story of Iron Ring rapid by telling us that it’s the location of the first whitewater deaths in history. Fortunately for us it was under very different circumstances, involving a ferry carrying confederate soldiers and cannons across the river that sank. 6 soldiers and every piece of weaponry were lost. None of the people in our trip were lost however, and we continued downstream to Lost Paddle.
Lost Paddle is the longest continuous rapid on the Upper Gauley, consisting of 4 separate drops. This doesn’t give much time to recover between drops and if you fall out, you’re swimming rapids. The first 3 drops went as smoothly as the previous rapids but the 4th drop left us with our first swimmers. Somehow the rear end of our raft got parked on a rock with our front end out over a big drop, but the current didn’t care and pushed us right over. I think our boat was sideways and vertical at this point and I’m amazed that only 3 fell out. We scooped up their bodies and paddles and continued on to the final class V rapid.
Sweet’s Falls was the rapid that I had heard described as a 14 foot waterfall so I really had my hopes up for this one. Ace is a little more creative in describing it:
In your raft, you start out in a big pool next to a cliff above the rapid, and here’s what you see: nothing. Actually, a horizon line. Maybe some mist coming up from the bottom of the falls. That’s it.
But Sweet’s isn’t really about what you see. It’s about what you hear. Remember, it’s a coliseum. The roar of the crowd lets you know if the raft in front of you won glory in battle, or if they got eaten by a lion.
As we pulled up on the rapid, I saw a huge number of people lining the banks of the river, all hoping for a show. I started wondering if they were going to get one or not. While it wasn’t quite the “Gauley Carnage” I had seen on YouTube, I was eaten by the lion. The floor of our raft had a tendency to get sucked down into the water when we entered deep holes, and this was no exception. As soon as we entered the hole I lost my secure foot placement and was immediately ejected. I surfaced and was pulled immediately back into the raft by Tina in a record time of ~3 seconds. Because I fell out, we got to go through the Box; a fun little channel in the rocks that our huge boats barely fit through, causing many a boat to flip (but not ours).
After Sweet’s Falls, we pulled off to have an awesome hot lunch. A couple of miles later we reached the take out and loaded our boat onto the school bus loaded with a couple of coolers of beer. This made the hour ride back to Fayetteville a bit more entertaining. Everyone had a great time including the boat that managed to flip twice, dumping all 9 passengers and the guide. The Upper Gauley was by far the most fun I’ve had on a river, crushing the other stretches of river I had been on. Although the Upper Gauley would be a very long term goal, it makes me really want to go out and buy a whitewater kayak.
We still had a full day of climbing ahead of us, so we recharged as climbers do at Pies and Pints with delicious pizza (Chipotle, Cuban Chicken, Thai and Pineapple) and beers.
As if rafting on a beautiful 80°F day in fall wasn’t enough, we had another day ahead of us with another forecast of upper 70°F sunny weather. We teamed up with Jim, his daughter Michelle, and Melissa to search for Rehab Crag.
I’m not sure where Jim learned of Rehab Crag, but it seemed to fit our group perfectly as it had sport climbs from 5.7 and up and was relatively remote (and secret) which meant less crowds. His directions weren’t perfect, but after a long drive through the woods on rough roads we ended up in the general vicinity.
The search was on to find any signs of climbing on the cliff line above us. Unfortunately, all we could find were two routes with anchors at the top. Jim was a good sport though and led these pretty tough cracks to set up top ropes for the rest of us. We estimated they were around 5.9 or 5.10 cracks. With Dave’s help, I also set up a top rope on an easy route a little further down the cliff. At ~5.4 it was a lot easier than I thought it would be, but at least gave us a third option so that we weren’t all fighting over two routes. The day served as a great reminder that I really need to work on my crack technique, because I am really making these cracks harder than they should be by not trusting my jams.
We broke down our climbs and made our way out, but not in the direction that we came in since we knew a small town was up ahead leading to a better road. About a quarter mile later on the way out, we passed a little parking area with two cars from North Carolina. Although Ange and I didn’t bother to stop, I knew that this was the sport area we were looking for. It turns out that Tina, Chris, Chris, Heidi and Dave did stop and confirmed that this was it, and even climbed a few of the routes. I will definitely be back though because they had nothing but good things to say about it.
The trip turned out to be a major success, and the great weather was a huge reason for that. Thanks to everyone involved for a great time! Next week… Seneca with Ange!