The Lightness finally falls on the Darkside
by Michael Gray
The Long Branch buttress in Smoke Hole Canyon was first explored by hunters wearing the skins of animals and using bows and snares. A short time later, geologically speaking, young men from all corners of the United States wandered through the region on their way to shoot young men from all over Europe and Asia. During or shortly after this point, rock climbing began in the canyon. During the 70s and 80s, hardpersons of Germany Valley and the eastern seaboard came here to escape the rock-trundling tourons of Seneca Rocks and Beltway refugees of Carderrocks and Great Falls. Darrel Hensley was climbing in Smoke Hole long before most people even knew where the place was, and it was at his incvitation that I came to climb there with Troy Johnson and a handful of friends in the early 90s. In 1994, I helped Troy, an active young Shenandoah Valley caver, kayaker and rock climber, create a steep line out the tiered roofs of what we referred to as The Darkside, the north and east-facing end of the Long Branch buttress. At the time, Troy climbed 5.11 off the couch and had established a number of hard climbs throughout the region, as well as at New River Gorge and other southeastern crags. But even his lanky power wasn't enough to conquer the unrelenting pump through the roofs to "easier" 5.11 terrain above, on a route that, unlike many hard lines, checks in with ten well-spaced (some might say run-out) bolts before reaching the anchors. Flash forward two decades. Troy does not climb these days, having been involved in a serious auto accident that left him with debilitating physical injuries. Repeated invitation to assorted hardmen and women have availed me nothing, the route still stands, waiting. Enter Mike Farnsworth, Harrisonburg, Virginia resident, former 'Dacks climber and local route developer. Mike made his debut in the Smoke Hole region when he worked on new lines in River's Bend, then put up the big-roof line "Black Magic" (5.12+) on the middle Impact Zone walls in Franklin Gorge. With support, belays, and timely supply of a beer via clipstick from partner on rope and in life Connie, he went on to add the steep direct start "Harlem" to my moderate line "Winterharvest", then added an alternate finish to Mike Fisher's pumpy 5.10 "Aphophis" with the airy 5.12 outing "Skywalker", and drilled the moderate "Superwoman" all in one weekend, at nearby Reed's Creek. Through several online discussions, Mike remained positive and cheerful, and in person showed an enthusiasm and curiosity about obscure walls and new route opportunities in West Virginia that has become all too rare in the age of phone app topos and Falcon Press guides to everything over fifteen feet tall. After his work on "Skywalker", which he bolted in gusty 32 degree winds with snow flurries, I offered to show Mike some of the other climbs in the region. Having seen his strenght and love of steep terrain, I pointed him in the direction of troy's project, still awaiting first ascent. Mike spent his first visit, a midweek afternoon, getting sandbagged on a nearby route and equipping the line, trying three more times, working through all of the moves but falling at the precision crux after the roofs. We left the line equipped and planned on another attempt this weekend. Mike got back early Saturday, and after our ubiquitous boulder-scramble session up through the greening talus field, we threw down in the massive shadow under the wall Through the Looking Glass, the north-facing end of the Darkside. A warm-up on the route for which the wall is named led to toprope climbing forthe rest of us before I scrambled up the slope to the top of the cliff to set a toprope on a nearby project. Mike rested as we scrubbed and flaked and enjoyed all the good, dirty, high-impact, ecologically incorrect fun and brutally hard work that comes with putting up new routes. A few minutes before lunch, Mister Farnsworth tied in again. I checked my belay and wished him good luck, and he went about the business of first ascent as if it were a job, something he did on a daily basis. the precision move that had halted him snapped through without a pause, the footwork was clean and precise, and in a few moment more, he clipped the anchors and "The Lightness" was a matter of record. "The Lightness", 10 bolts and cold shuts, 5.12+, 85+ feet, Through the Looking Glass Wall, Darkside, Long Branch.