Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


Geology and Geography

Committee Chair

J. Steven Kite.


The New River Gorge National River (NERI) consists of 300 km2 of public land including an 85 km length of the New River, covering parts of Summers, Raleigh, and Fayette counties in West Virginia (National Park Service, 2006). NERI is known for world class rock climbing because the Pennsylvanian lower Nuttall Sandstone of the Pottsville Group forms 15 to 30 m high cliffs along the gorge walls, containing more than 1500 documented climbing routes. This project investigates why the lower Nuttall Sandstone in NERI creates one of the premiere climbing areas in the Eastern United States, and why the lower Nuttall Sandstone is climbed instead of other cliff-forming sandstones in the gorge. Outcrop investigations on climbed routes, including rebound hammer determinations, show the lower Nuttall Sandstone's competence, level of surface features, jointing, and bedding are controlling variables acting on climbing desirability. Ranked level of surface features assigned based on field observations is correlated with climbing grade and popularity. Thin sections sampled from the lower Nuttall Sandstone and other sandstones document petrology as it affects rock competence.;The most desirable stratigraphic interval for expert climbers is a 15 to 20 m interval in the lower Nuttall Sandstone composed of homogenous quartz arenite that lacks partings along bedding planes. Throughout NERI, a basal conglomerate in the lower Nuttall Sandstone and an underlying shale unit are less mechanically strong and less resistant to weathering than the massively bedded quartz arenite layers above. Differential erosion, combined with widely spaced vertical tectonic joints, leads to large blocks of overlying lower Nuttall Sandstone failing in a predictable pattern, creating planar cliff faces and opening joints that provide climbing appeal. Lower Nuttall Sandstone cliffs and blocks contain goethite as a secondary cement along tectonic joints, which add to the rock's resistant nature. The competence of the rock appeals to climbers because the lower Nuttall Sandstone is relatively safe for climbing. Differential weathering of sandstone behind areas with goethite cement, and weathering along bedding and other sedimentary structures have created surface features that increase climbing desirability. Other cliff-forming New River Group sandstones in NERI have not been widely developed for expert climbing because they exhibit more heterogeneity and are more thinly bedded, making them less challenging for expert climbers.