Emily Chen-Newton Published

Welcoming All Climbers In Appalachia

A young man rock climbs. It's a sunny day.
The steep angle of the rock and tree canopy casts a dark shadow over Brian Zarzuela as he climbs. His bicep and chalk bag stand out, and a glint of blue from his harness can be seen as he pulls through a difficult move on the overhang.
Cail Soria/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

This story originally aired in the Dec. 17, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

A man stands next to a ATV. It is sunny outside on a fall day.
Two wheelchairs are strapped to the back of an ATV driven by a Lee County Search and Rescue volunteer. The ATV plods down a wide path surrounded by trees full of golden leaves.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

It’s mid-October in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge and the trees are just beginning to take on their autumn colors, as rock climbers from around the world flock to the region. The crunching of dried leaves and clanking of metal safety gear creates a type of rock climber’s soundtrack. But, on this particular weekend, you might also hear ATVs grinding up the trails, bringing wheelchair users to the area. 

A man smiles for the camera, as he waits in an alcove on the rock face. He has a prosthetic leg.
Sporting a goofy smile and “surfs up” hand wave, Jono Lewis crouches in an alcove about 30 feet up a climbing route. He’s tied into a neon green rope and using a prosthetic climbing foot he made himself.

Credit: Cail Soria/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

This is the Fourth Annual Adaptive Climbers Festival, which brings together climbers with disabilities from across North America. Sydney Kessler is one of those climbers.

“I’ve been climbing outdoors for now, two days,” Kessler said. 

Sitting in the shade of the cliff, Kessler explains she started climbing indoors about a year ago. There, she learned some tricks like wearing knee pads to avoid bruises, because she doesn’t have much feeling or use of her legs from a spinal cord injury.

“For me, my climbing, it’s basically 20 pull ups in a row,” she said. “And to figure out where I can grab my fingers into a hole or use a palm down method and try to push with one hand and pull with the other.”

Every climber at this festival finds their own adaptations and accommodations to their different disabilities – visual and neurological or limb differences. And the camping and transportation accommodations are just as varied as the climbing styles. The festival planning crew considered all of this when choosing the location.  

A young man climbs the side of a mountain. He wears a yellow helmet, blue t-shirt and khaki pants and climbing shoes. It's a sunny day.
Wearing an orange helmet and royal blue harness, Brian Liebenow holds onto the rock above his head looking down for the best place to move his feet. The green tinted sandstone looks like dragon scales in the morning light.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

“For the Adaptive Climbers Festival, we have such a very specific list of needs,” said Maureen Beck, who goes by Mo.

Mo is an internationally decorated climber born without her lower left arm and one of the festival organizers. 

The Red River Gorge is known simply as “The Red” to climbers. And while it’s renowned as some of the best climbing in the world for its overhanging sandstone cliffs or “crags,” Mo says that’s not why the festival landed here.

“As you can imagine, there’s world class climbing, you know, all over the country that have excellent, world class festivals,” she said. “But you can’t get a wheelchair to the base of the crag, or you don’t have enough cabins for people to sleep in because they can’t sleep in tents because of their medical conditions.”

“And so, for us, The Red fit this very narrow need of: accessible crags, accessible lodging and camping. And then a community that can support it. Because we’ve had this festival in two other locations, and the support we have gotten from the local climbers, local business owners here is unparalleled to any place we’ve had this.” 

One of those local businesses is the Lago Linda’s Hideaway Campground, where the festival lodging is based.

Mo said, “The owners here at Lago Linda’s are going above and beyond to retrofit their bathrooms to meet ADA compliance. They’re adding ramps to all of their cabins and buildings. They off the cuff, booked a band for Saturday night because they want everybody to have a good time.”

Larry and Elaine Fredrickson run Lago Linda’s Hideaway. They’ve added grab bars to the shared bathrooms and ensured the showers are large enough for wheelchairs and other mobility aids. 

Before the event kicked off, Elaine explained the simple reason why they do all this.

She said, “Once you sit up and look at the sky at night and you see those stars, it’s just beautiful and peaceful. Nobody should be denied that. Nobody.”

Two older people pose for a photo while giving each other a side hug. One individual is a man with a white beard, wearing a ball cap and blue long-sleeved shirt. The person next to him is a woman with gray, curly hair, wearing a black t-shirt. The leaves on the trees behind them are changing for fall.
Larry and Elaine Fredrickson stand next to one another, both smiling. Elaine is in a dark blue Lago Linda t-shirt. Larry, with his arm around Elaine, is wearing their campground branded sweatshirt with the image of a hiker, a biker and a climbing woman on the front.

Credit: Maureen Beck/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2022

Another major part of the community system for the festival is the Muir Valley Nature Preserve and Climbing Area where the adaptive athletes climb and teach their clinics.

Like at the campground, ramps and railings were added for the event. 

Zane Paff, a local search and rescue volunteer and one of the valley’s caretakers, says Muir Valley and the search and rescue crews from surrounding counties support the festival with transportation in ATV buggies.

“Lee County will bring in their buggy and the Wolfe County will bring in their buggy, which these are just razors,” Paff said. “We call them our rescue buggies. And then it’s just a day of playing taxi and having fun.”

He says riding in an ATV was new for most of the climbers last year. 

Paff said, “I mean they were joking around having a blast and psyching me up. None of them been in an ATV. So, I’m like, ‘well, hold on.’”

“I had a little bit of fun with it, but made sure we were being safe, too.”

He said, “And Muir Valley doesn’t allow any electric or motorized vehicles except for this event, actually. And we’re only using it for like anybody in a wheelchair if they’re missing a limb, can’t get themselves too ‘bruise brothers.’ We’ll drop them right off at the climb that they want to go up.”

A woman climbs a rock wall. She smiles down at the camera.
In a bright teal shirt and white helmet, Sydney Kessler looks down after climbing to the top of a beautiful gray and orange rock face. She smiles as she steadies herself with her hands at the top of the sandstone wall.

Credit: Brittany Morguelan/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

After Kessler finished one of those climbing routes, which is one of the many climbs she’s done with the help of Paff and his ATV, she says this sport reminds her of her recovery.

“When you go on a wall, you don’t exactly know what’s ahead, and you just kind of figure it out as you go. And then eventually make it to the top. So, I feel like it shows you how to do hard things and that gives you the confidence to believe that you can continue to do hard things, even if you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.”

Something else she learned she could do this weekend was camping.

“I was like, I don’t know how I’m gonna sleep in a tent,” Kessler said. “And like pressures – like there’s a lot of things that you have to think about when you have a disability … like pressure points or just getting in and out of a tent, like transferring from a wheelchair to a tent. 

“I didn’t know how exactly that would work, but I went straight from the chair down to the tent floor.”

A person with a walker holds a plate of pancakes and bacon and reaches for some syrup.
A climber in a dark blue, puffy coat holds a plate of pancakes and bacon while they choose between different types of syrup. A label reading “blueberry” can be seen on one of the mason jars of sweet homemade goodness. Every meal at the Adaptive Climbers Festival is shared, including breakfast.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

She says it’s the support of her adaptive family that makes it possible.

“Even just a couple minutes ago, I was at the top, my arms were burning, I had to give it a little shakeout,” she said. “And you listen to it, when you’re up on the wall. You listen to all the people behind you, cheering you on. And it’s a truly supportive community. It’s hard to find that supportive community that doesn’t treat you in a certain way because of your disability, but they’re there to support you. And however they can, to help you do what you want to do. 

“It’s literally like a mindset of whatever it takes to get you to where you want to go, that you have the people power to do it.”

And the “people power” is exactly what Mo emphasizes, too. Much of the climbable land in The Red, and throughout Appalachia, is owned by individual people or private organizations. 

This is in contrast to the western United States where many climbing areas fall under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, or other public land governance.

In fact, nearly 60 percent of all climbing in the U.S. is on federally managed land, making The Red, and other such areas in and around Appalachia, unique. The folks who run Muir Valley can reserve cliffs for special groups because they own the land. It was a quick conversation, Mo says, when they asked to use the area for the festival. 

“They were more than willing to shut down crags for us. One of them was one of the most popular crags in the entire gorge.” 

And that’s not the only part of the Appalachian landscape that makes it a good fit for this event.

Mo said, “Most of the walking paths here are dirt and soft and gentle. They’re not like rocky scraggy things. And when you stop to think about it, so many of them are on these old, or even currently used, oil roads or logging roads, and it’s just gentle.”

Climbing areas throughout Appalachia feature these access roads that are currently used by or left by extractive industries like timber, natural gas and oil. 

With trails originally forged as logging or oil access roads, they’re much wider, more even and more accessible than what you get at other climbing destinations. 

Many of the trails in Muir Valley are modified logging cuts, making them great for ATVs. You might not be able to follow an access road all the way to the base of a climb, but you can get pretty dang close. This is the case for one of The Red’s most famous areas: The Mother Lode. 

“So, like, we were able to bring one of our wheelchair athletes to The Mother Lode last year. And most of the time, he was still in his chair,” Mo said. “And that’s always a big goal with folks who use chairs, is to keep them in it. A little bit he had to get backpacked and carried. But it’s like a huge dignity and safety thing — the more they can be in their chair, the better for that human.”

Several climbers, and many in wheelchairs, prepare to rock climb.
A colorful scene of athletes, climbing gear, wheelchairs and trekking poles are scattered at the base of a cliff. Everything has a golden glow from the light beaming through the fall foliage. Ropes of various colors hang in front of the wall waiting to be used.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

“And yeah, for The Motherlode, it was like 80 percent of the time he was in that chair. And you know, not not all of our athletes … I think when people think disabled athletes, I think they think a lot of wheelchairs, but we have a lot of folks with walkers or who use side sticks or who just use trekking poles or you know, we have a lot of athletes whose like, legs work fine, but maybe they can’t carry a pack that far.”

And no matter a person’s disability, they’re welcomed as part of the family. One big family reunion is something heard over and over again. 

So, it makes sense that the small, family run businesses are such an integral part of the gathering. 

Miguel’s Pizza is one of the most well-known local businesses and a staple of the festival lunches. 

A climber reaches for a slice of pizza.
With hands covered in white chalk, a climber reaches for a slice of Miguel’s Pizza. The cardboard pizza box is open showing off slices full of cheese, mushrooms, onions and green peppers.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

Paff says Miguel’s is emblematic of the festival vibe.

“Like you see over at Miguel’s, it’s just like families running businesses and even Lago Linda’s is family owned and operated. So, like, you’re just getting a big, warm welcome when you come down here.”

But Kentucky’s Red River Gorge isn’t the only Appalachian climbing destination serving as a home base for niche festivals. HomoClimbtastic is the largest, queer-friendly climbing gathering in the world. 

And for over a decade, they’ve called Fayetteville, West Virginia their home, climbing in the New River Gorge.

“They’re putting together window displays full of color for us, right? To see pride flags all over town, at almost every business, it can make you cry. Yeah,” said Jay Dempsey, on how the town shows their support.

He says Fayetteville being a small town facilitates climbers and locals actually connecting. For example, when picking out a place for dinner.

“You’re gonna choose from one of, you know, 10 restaurants, probably a locally-owned, family restaurant. You’re going to feel more connected to the town where you’re staying. You’re going to feel that reason why all the locals choose to live there.” 

Several climbers are seen resting in hammocks outside in the woods.
Several colorful hammocks hang in between trees near the base of a cliff in the New River Gorge for the 2019 HomoClimbtastic event. A large silver gray rock is in the foreground with small brown lichen speckled across it. Below the rocks climbers organize their gear.

Credit: Taylor Smith/HomoClimbtastic, 2019

For nearly the whole life of the festival, HomoClimbtastic has been hosted at the whitewater guide company and campground, Cantrell Ultimate Rafting.

“I don’t have anybody else on the phones this time of year because we’re getting ready to shut her down,” said Cantrell Ultimate Rafting owner Nancy Cantrell.

Cantrell’s is the only family owned and operated raft guide company in West Virginia. Cantrell and her husband Richie are ‘West by God’ born and raised, and they’ve seen the shift in the economy in Fayetteville over the years, spurred on by groups of rafters and climbers. 

Cantrell said, “We grew up here. We grew up in Hinton, an hour and 15 minutes south and, of course, rural West Virginia and southern West Virginia is not greatest for employment anymore, because we’ve lost the coal industry.” 

“So, high price jobs aren’t there.” 

“Most of us are dependent on the tourist industry, unless you’re a school teacher, pretty much. So, any type of gathering like this and events and large numbers of people that come in really helps that economy. But, the HomoClimbtastics, they go out, they eat at several different local eateries. They shop in the outfitter stores for equipment. I mean, they bring a lot of additional income into the area that helps sponsor jobs that people really need in this area.”

Just like how the folks who run the campground in Kentucky installed ramps and grab bars for their camper’s safety, Cantrell also takes precautions to make sure everyone at the queer-friendly event is safe while at Cantrell’s.

She said, “Now, I close my campus when they come. It is their campus. This is their home while they’re here. You got a common bathhouse, I don’t have to worry that there’s any kind of altercation going on or an issue, things like that. It’s just a nice safe environment for em.”

The support and protection is certainly felt by the climbers.

“In a world where there is a difference between accepting and welcoming, they’re incredibly welcoming,” Dempsey said. “It’s warm … they learn everyone’s name. It’s just a great place to kind of call home for our weekend.”

A climber scales a rock face.
Chris Jones climbs an intimidating overhang. His chalk bag dangles from his harness emphasizing the steepness of the climb and his blue rope trails behind him popping against the yellow colored West Virginia rock.

Credit: Taylor Smith/HomoClimbtastic, 2019

Jason Traylor, another member of the HomoClimbtastic crew, said Fayetteville feels like a safe location because it’s rural, but not totally isolated. 

“Having a place that’s not remote allows you to have more safety protocols and things of that nature. Because that’s like a huge thing with any queer event — to be able to get help that we may need.”

A young man climbs a rock face.
Jason Traylor holds onto a rocky cliff face in West Virginia’s New River Gorge during HomoClimbtastic 2022. With his arms reaching high, he bends deep into his right leg while fully extending his left, to balance his body on the wall.

Credit: Jason Traylor/HomoClimbtastic, 2022

Both the adaptive and queer climbing communities have within them even more diversity than their niche names suggest. And it’s important to say that many climbers of color within these communities and beyond, don’t always feel at home in Appalachian climbing destinations. Jason, who’s Black, says he’s always felt safe and welcomed at HomoClimbtastic, but…

“I’ve talked to like other BIPOC [Black, indigenous, and people of color] people, when I go in these areas. They feel, you know, just the stares even if they’re not judgmental stares. They’re just stares, but who’s to say what they mean?”

Back in Kentucky, festival goers sit on a long wooden bench waiting to climb. Kareemah Batts, a Black adaptive climber, waits for her turn. And she says there’s safety in numbers. 

“Oh, I feel safe right here with my homies. I feel great. When I’m on my way here, no, no,” Batts said.

She goes on to say that she would not feel safe coming to The Red on her own. “I gotta be with a safe group of some sort. Something.”

It’s only in recent years that conversations about race and inclusion have been embraced by climbing culture as a whole. 

Three people ready themselves for rock climbing.
Kareemah Batts ties a knot in her climbing rope attaching it to her harness. The sun shines across her face, illuminating her smile as she looks out at her fellow climbers at the Adaptive Climbers Festival. Yellow and orange ropes are suspended around her for others to use.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

“Things happening in 2020 allowed me to be a little bit more open about how I’ve always felt like the last 12 years, because I’ve always been the Black paraclimber — all the time,” Batts said.

“I enjoy being in the space. I enjoy my community overall. But there’s there’s certain instances when I’ve traveled or, you know, I kind of feel like I’m on the outside looking in,” she said.

There are some initiatives within the climbing community at large to do things like change the names of climbing routes, originally using racist or bigoted terms. Batts has been part of some of these efforts.

 “Are you  gonna make everyone feel safe? Impossible, but can you improve it? Yes,” she said.

Jason Traylor from HomoClimbtastic says the name changes benefit everyone, not just select groups of people.

“I think it makes it more welcoming as, like, not just like for individuals, but also for the mainstream family, you know,” Traylor said. “And just like to understand, we as human beings evolve. And so that means if we as human beings evolve, that means our communities must evolve with it.”

Nancy Cantrell has been around long enough to see her community of Fayetteville, West Virginia evolve, because she says, of the influence of those who came originally for the whitewater and the rocks.

“A lot of those initial outdoor adventurers that came into the area to enjoy the area, ended up moving here,” she said. “They’re adults now. Some of them are in their 60s.” 

“So, their kids have come up in the school system. And now their kids have got kids in the school system. They’ve certainly demonstrated their commitment to the area and proven it. And I think the locals that actually were born here, see that and respect that. And, you know, it’s a very blended, eclectic, little community.” 

“For southern West Virginia, it’s an anomaly. And it’s been because of the outdoor adventure community that, that is how it’s evolved.”

The outdoor adventure economy, and Kentucky’s Red River Gorge isn’t quite as mature as Fayetteville, but it’s heading in that direction with new signs for kayak and cabin rentals popping up each year. 

A woman in a blue shirt climbs a rock face.
Hanna Zook hangs from one arm and a carefully placed foot. Gripping the yellow colored sandstone, she balances herself by dangling her right leg.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

John May, chief of the Wolfe County Search and Rescue, which provides ATVs for the adaptive festival, waves toward a cliff line in the distance from Miguel’s Pizza. 

“It used to be a pasture up there with cattle roaming, and now you might see a cabin,” he said. “You still see the pastures, too. You know, some people don’t want to give that up, but it’s given the local community a way to maybe live a little better life.” 

“A lot of my friends now, they’re building cabins. We built a couple of cabins, and it’s good. It’s a good business.”

May has lived here his whole life, and he says that climbing is bringing a new perspective about the value of the land in the area.

“Because we mainly have farmers and people that work in coal, coal industry, and cliff lines were just a way cattle would fall off and die,” he said with a laugh “and now it’s like, you know, I can build a cabin on that. I can rent that cabin out.”

“So, I think people are starting to see the opportunity in it — not just if you own a business selling food. But maybe you’re a guide. You can go out and make a good living doing that.”

“And it’s really changed how people look at some of the property that they owned for generations, and now they’re gonna make money off of it instead of just raising farm animals.”

The change in perspective goes both ways, though. Mo, the adaptive festival organizer, has climbed all over the world, and she says her opinion of Kentucky changed after actually spending time here.

“Even when I had heard of the Red River Gorge, I was like, ‘ah, Kentucky, like I’ll never love Kentucky,’ like ‘what’s Kentucky?’ Now I’m like, ‘oh my god, can I buy a house in Kentucky, please? It’s one of my favorite places.’” 

“Like, climbing is amazing like that, though. It’s this activity. It’s this hobby. It’s this passion that just lets you see the world through a different lens. Not only because you’re literally on a cliff, a hundred feet up, but because you’re just experiencing places that you’d never think about otherwise.”

And wanting to become even more involved, Mo says they plan to add a community service project to the festival.

“Because, like, I think so many people in our community are used to being served. And I think people are used to serving us. And I would love to flip that around and be like, no, we can also be a part of this community and give service back to it.”

HomoClimbtastic has their own way of giving back. They raise money with their annual drag show for local causes. Last year, the money was given to a safe house for queer youth in Morgantown, West Virginia. And efforts like these are how they’ve become part of the eclectic community in Fayetteville. 

A drag queen inspects her nails, while sitting in a director style chair. She wears a beautiful black and blue sparkly dress.
At the annual HomoClimbtastic drag show (2019), Queen Madison S. Monroe checks her nails, showing off her perfectly done makeup including fuchsia eye shadow, long lashes and a burgundy lip. The blue and black sequins of her dress shimmer as she sits dramatically lit waiting for her next cue.

Credit: Taylor Smith/HomoClimbtastic, 2019

Nancy Cantrell says they’re like family. 

“We just fell in love with them. And it is like a reunion for us now.”

This is just how Larry and Elaine Fredrickson talk about the adaptive climbers who come to their campground. 

It’s the last night of the gathering and they heard two climbers who met at the Kentucky Festival last year wanted to get married this year. 

So, they’re pulling out all the stops. Unprompted, arranged for a bluegrass band and a hairdresser for the bride. 

“I love what you did here. So beautiful,” said Elaine, as she brings candles and mason jars to her crew working on the ceremony archway. 

She says the archway and homemade cake are decorated with flowers from the surrounding woods.

“They’re working with natural flowers and lights, all from this area. And we do have some that’s plastic, but, it’s because it’s October.”

They’re busy getting ready, but she gives a quick tour of the party supplies inside.

“We got lights. We got decorations. We have tablecloths. We have champagne for them. It will be on ice, but it’s in the fridge right now.” She says, “We have a guest book, which I think is the most important thing. So, they can go back and see who has attended their wedding.”

A young woman wears a flower crown and holds a necklace.
Olivia Conforti, the official bride of the Adaptive Climbers Festival in 2023, smiles looking down at a necklace in her hands while getting her hair done. She’s wearing a flower crown of roses and baby’s breath.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023

The ceremony was beautiful. And as the night went on, the blended community that’s forming here was on full display. The wooden slats of the dance floor vibrated with bluegrass tunes and rock climbers, some in wheelchairs, some with prosthetics, all dancing. 

Kessler says this was an important moment for her. 

“Like, usually if I’m dancing, I’m with people that are, like, jumping. And that’s great, but I’m usually the only chair user. And so the fact that I’m dancing with other chair users and people that maybe they don’t have your exact circumstance, but they have something or they’re here for some reason … There’s literally no other community like it.”

Mo says that their community service next year could be an accessible trail project or trash cleanup, but no matter what they plan on calling this place home for a while.

Dozens of people dance at a party. And the center of the group is a woman in a wheelchair, smiling and dancing in her chair.
Climbers and volunteers from the festival dance at the wedding reception, serving as the event’s big party for 2023. Climbers clap in a circle as the dancer in the middle shows off her wheelchair moves.

Credit: Katie Jo Myers/Adaptive Climbers Festival, 2023