Zak Roper is a climbing reference in Fayetteville. For the last eight years, West Virginia has been home and he’s climbed more routes in the area than most people. On sandstone, he has found his passion and a way of life.
“I always climbed things, ever since I can remember. Both my grandmother’s first real memories of me moving around has to do with me scaring them getting up a tree when I couldn’t even walk. I grew up boxing, riding motorcycles and climbing mountains on motorcycles by my house. My best friend David ended up taking me climbing after I graduated high school in this place called Obed in Tennessee. He didn’t event tell me how it worked. He was like, you take these things and just clip them in as you go up. He made me lead the route because he didn’t like top roping and he knew I’d be fine. That was it, from that moment on, I was done with everything else. Instantly addicted.”
He loved it and was naturally good at it. Already fit from boxing, it didn’t take him long to get the gist of it. Less than six months into it, he was already attempting complicated climbs. He wasn’t scared of anything. In fact, it’s one of the reason David kept it a secret from him.
“Even though we grew up from 5th grade riding dirt bikes together, he never told me about climbing because he thought I was crazy and would kill myself. He kept it a secret from me but all through high school he was on the climbing team. I can’t blame him, that’s how I was with dirt bikes. I was always ready for anything.”
But to Zak, climbing is different. It’s not a dangerous sport in itself because it can be practiced safely. Most people, however, don’t see it this way, referring to their own fear and imagining a risk level equivalent to that fear. He believes that fear is what makes climbing a great sport.
“People think that something is wrong with them and that they are weak because they are scared, but that is completely natural and they need to realize everyone is scared and it doesn’t matter. Keep pushing through it, it’s always worth it. The rewards that comes after fear are greater than any other rewards. Before making a decision, look at it rationally, assess the risk and go for it. You’ll see that your fear is almost always irrational.”
Despite years of experience, Zak still experiences fear. It’s part of the sport. He’s more than a just a thrill seeker though. He sees climbing as an equation he has to solve. The harder the better.
“It’s not like boxing or racing where it’s me against everybody else. It’s me against me, against the rock really but it’s just mostly really against yourself. It’s a big puzzle and you have to be able to relax and focus to figure it out.”
Being able to control your emotions and keeping your stress level low is key to a successful climb. What Zak loves is to contain it until you make it to the top, letting it unveil as you take in the views from the best seats in the house. The day Zak tried Deep water soloing on Sommersville Lake, he wanted that feeling to last. And so he made it home.
“Sommersville Lake is some of the best sandstone in the world. It’s just the best. It has comfortable holds, miles and miles of cliff line over clear water. The water is not cold. It’s a beautiful, magical spot. I never thought I would live in any one spot until I got way older, but then I just can’t find anywhere that has better rock than here.”
When he got here, Zak was planning on spending the summer before moving to the Chatanenga. He’s been here for eight years and is not planning on leaving. The amazing climbing on and off the lake is only surpassed by the quality of climbers.
“I think we don’t get as much traffic here because it’s sandbagged grades. A lot of people climb for the grades and not for the aesthetics quality and here is not a good place to fluff your 8A scorecard. It’s a little scarier than a lot of other places. Because of that, people who move here come because they recognize it’s the best rock on the planet and the most fun moves. They recognize this is one of the coolest small town in North America. It’s really a family here.”
If you want to visit Fayetteville and enjoy it’s rocks, you might find Zak on your path. He enjoys showing people around as much as making his way up the cliffs and his stoke is contagious.
“When we grew up, we traveled a lot, saw a lot of things. Our parents raised us believing that doing what makes you happy is what’s important. I guess I took that advice a little too literally. Thanks to my parents though, I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I can’t say I have a balanced life. Not by most people’s standards, but I live comfortably, have whatever I need. I’m content. Balanced though, not so much but that’s not what I’m looking for!”
Zak’s balance requires a healthy dose of being outdoors, pushing yourself and seeking adrenaline, averaging 320 climbing days a year. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you see the giant smile on his face when he hangs off the wall. You’d want to do the same!