Over 125,000 pounds of trash. Two hundred abandoned tires. A car. Whole refrigerators. Buckets and buckets of broken glass. That’s what accumulated in the Mad River Gorge, Ohio’s premier climbing destination, during the 20-plus years it was closed to climbers.
“There was an old trailer park that was located at the top of the cliffs,” explains Carol Kennard, executive director of the Clark County Park District, which now manages the area. For years, the trailer park used the gorge as its dumping grounds. And there was nothing climbers could do about it: Local private landowners had banned access in the ’90s after a fatal accident ignited liability concerns. The move cut off climbers from hundreds of high-quality limestone routes of all styles and grades.
Then, about five years ago, things started to change. The trailer park was eventually declared a public nuisance and shut down, and the land went up for sale. Clark County snapped it up.
“That purchase didn’t provide the cliffs just yet,” Kennard says. “But it would provide us access.” That was all the spark they needed. The Ohio Climber’s Coalition (OCC), the state’s small but hard-working climbing advocacy organization, had had its eye on the Mad River for years. The OCC knew full well that securing access to the gorge would open up enormous opportunities for Ohio climbers to hone their skills in their own backyards instead of having to drive to West Virginia or Kentucky for good rock.
“Before the Mad opened, we just didn’t have a ton of roped climbing options in Ohio,” explains OCC President Courtney Cutner. “This is probably the area with the most concentrated routes in the state.”
So, the OCC, the Park District, and national climbing advocacy nonprofit Access Fund put their heads together and started applying for grants. In 2017, they succeeded and were able to buy the land outright, securing climbing access for good.
But that was only the first hurdle. The second was the trash.
“We had a grand opening in May of 2017, and the weekend before, we had a cleanup,” says Kennard. The OCC and Park District put out a call for volunteers and they were overwhelmed by the response. Over 200 people showed up, some of whom had been climbing since the ’90s and had waited for decades for the gorge to reopen.
“We also had a local crane operator business donate his crane and his crane operator for the whole weekend,” Kennard says. It was a massive operation. “We had volunteers loading bags of garbage down in the gorge, and someone would load them onto a rope, and the crane would lift them up out of the gorge.” By the end of the weekend, they’d filled seven 30-yard dumpsters.