The Pittsburgh Climbers calls out a final “Off Belay”

By Buff Rodman

            The Pittsburgh Climbers, one of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s founding organizational members, has ended its long run.  The majority of its remaining members are well past retirement and the organization has reluctantly accepted the inevitable march of time.

            The Pittsburgh Climbers began in 1953 as a group of like-minded rock climbers.  Made up of mostly Pittsburgh locals, the group quickly added friends from WV and the DC area, as well as grad students from Carnegie Tech (later Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh.  The club attracted scientists, engineers, educators, lawyers, artists, and professional writers. 

Many of them lent their skills to the WVHC’s beginnings and early campaigns.  And there has been continuous representation on the Conservancy’s Board, since its founding, by members of the Pittsburgh Climbers.  To name a few: Bob Broughton was a Pittsburgh lawyer, boater and mountaineer who drew up the by-laws and coined the name, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  Victor Schmidt, a geology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, published the Conservancy’s first hiking guide to Otter Creek, that also contributed to its establishment as a Wilderness.  Sayre Rodman was a chemical engineer, boater, mountaineer and avid photographer.  His photographs and testimony were used in Conservancy court cases and in the Conservancy’s hiking guide.  

            Over the decades of their active years, the group’s interests expanded to include all kinds of outdoor recreation.  But the early focus on rock climbing made neighboring West Virginia a natural fit and its members are credited with some of the first ascents on several routes at Seneca Rocks.  

The Climbers rented a series of old, dilapidated farmhouses from local land owners in WV from the mid-1950s until the floods of 1985 washed away the last one. They started renting from the Germany Valley Limestone Company, then moved to a larger house belonging to the Arbogasts up Roaring Creek above Onego, and finally renting from the Bonners along the Dry Fork near Gladwin.  These houses were used as a base for year-round adventures in their favorite parts of the Highlands in Tucker, Randolph, and Pendleton counties.  Nearly every weekend was spent climbing, caving, hiking, backpacking, skiing, or whitewater boating, including first descents on parts of the Youghiogheny, Cheat, and Gauley rivers.  Some older members of the WVHC will also remember Conservancy committee meetings at the house at Roaring Creek or the club’s annual Pig Roast on Spruce Knob.

            Not confined to West Virginia or the east, there were also longer trips out west.  In the summers they could be found mountaineering and backpacking in the Colorado Rockies, the Wind Rivers and Tetons in Wyoming, and even up in the Bugaboos in British Columbia, Canada.  Or canoeing or rafting on big western rivers like the Colorado, Green, Rio Grande, Salmon, and Snake.  In the winter, there were skiing trips to Colorado and Utah.

            A hallmark of the club were its monthly meetings from its founding right up to February 2020 when the Covid pandemic hit. These meetings always featured slideshows and trip reports from recent adventures and planning for future outings.  This is also when members would receive detailed updates from the current WVHC board representative about ongoing issues.  All of the news would be written up and published in the club’s monthly newsletter, The Social Climber.

            The Pittsburgh Climbers was never a particularly large organization.  There were fewer than 100 members at its height and over time we grew as close as family.  As a group, these outdoor enthusiasts have enjoyed playing in the wild places of the world.  As individuals we were, and remain, dedicated environmentalists, thoroughly committed to establishing and preserving public lands and the wonderful recreational opportunities those places provide.  We would all agree that it has been an honor to be included as an organizational member and friend of the WVHC for all these years.