An internationally known climbing organization has chosen to set up camp in the New River Gorge, with an eye toward deepening and strengthening the sport’s roots in the area.
The American Alpine Club aims to provide a family-friendly, community-supported campground for climbers and outdoor enthusiasts who want a quiet, secluded place to pitch a tent after a day of adventure.
“The New River Gorge is impeccable as far as a climbing destination. There are tremendous roots already in place, and a tremendous amount of potential that hasn’t been developed,” says Penn Burris, chief financial officer and membership director.
The campground on Burma Road, adjoining the New River Gorge National River west of U.S. 19, could eventually host up to 60 sites and will be built in phases.
“What’s cool about this is the American Alpine Club decided the New is a significant climbing place,” says Gene Kistler of the New River Climbers Alliance, the project’s local partner.
“This brings some serious credibility to the climbing here.”
The mission of the club, established in 1902, is to “provide knowledge and inspiration, conservation and advocacy and logistical support for the climbing community.”
Among many other activities, they run festivals and events, provide grants to protect climbing places and publish two annuals.
Burris says the Fayette County location was also attractive because of the other adventure opportunities nearby, be it hiking, rafting or mountain biking.
“Climbers are a group that travel from all over to go places, and often you end up at a place where climbing is it,” he says. “The New River Gorge has so many options available for our members and the community as a whole, so on your rest day you can go do something else.”
And finally, one of the only campsites for climbers in the area — Roger’s, located at Kaymoor Top — did not reopen this year, displacing those who had come to rely on it as a base camp.
Recently, the Fayette County Planning Commission unanimously approved a zoning change for the 40-acre tract of land from land conservation district to business and tourism district.
The county commission accepted the recommendation, and ground could be broken on the project’s first phase in as little as two months.
The club aims to have 20 primitive sites with portable toilets in place by the fall climbing season, says Burris.
Eventually, they will build a community gathering room, caretaker’s cabin, pavilion, toilets, bathhouse, sewage disposal system and more campsites. At its full build out, occupancy will not exceed 240 campers.
The club says a LEED-certified architect will design the site, structures and lighting to be sensitive to the natural landscape, animals and water sources.
A viewshed analysis was performed for the site and included in the presentation to the planning commission.
Only car and walk-in camping will be permitted — no RVs allowed here. This rule is in keeping with the club’s outlook and philosophy.
“With the New River Gorge parcel, designing a campground that is environmentally sensitive and supported by the adjacent landowners is paramount to the project’s success,” says the project summary.
“We like [campgrounds] to be quiet and somewhat removed from the public. We like being able to walk to the climbing site so we minimize our carbon footprint,” says Burris.
“People might think we are developers, but that’s not really what we do. We’ve been around for 109 years now. Our philosophy is one of stability and longevity. We are community-centric and community-building.”
Burris says he has sent information to and met with some of the campground’s neighbors in Ames Heights, the local community bordering the parcel. The design includes a spatial buffer from the neighborhood.
“Our take is that the neighbors do not want to look onto a campground, and we don’t want our campers to look into the neighbors’ back yard,” says Burris. “We want to create a rustic, secluded feel. We’ve had conversations with neighbors to make sure they are comfortable with it.”
The club purchased the land from Alabama Properties in December 2010. The initial plan was to work with the National Park Service to develop the site, but funding dried up.
The Access Fund, a nationwide non-profit focused on keeping climbing areas open, provided initial funds, but there’s plenty more fundraising to do before the entire project is paid for.
“It’s going to take climber involvement both locally and nationally to get this done,” says Burris.
Will the campground change the area’s climbing reputation?
“I think one thing that people have come to expect from the American Alpine Club is stability,” says Burris. “By creating an infrastructure where people know what to expect, it will allow people to plan better.
“You can show up with your family knowing that it’s not going to just be a bunch of people getting drunk and throwing down every night with loud music. We’re not going to alienate the younger crowd, older crowd, or people with kids.
“This is a beautiful place ... This will make it an even greater destination.”
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