Flyin’ Brian McCray
Gene and I met Brian McCray in the early 80’s at Seneca Rocks. He was on his first rock climbing trip, under the wing of Ron Putterbaugh, a friendly, relaxed Ohioan who had recognized potential in this intense and troubled teen. I remember a wide smile, pin straight white blonde hair and an appealing, goofy warmth. Sure enough, the boy was born to climb and climb he did. He and Ron were constants at Seneca, where Brian mastered the fundamentals. He was strong, ridiculously strong, but it was his fierce drive and his utterly abandoned approach to climbing that soon distinguished him.
He left his mark on Seneca Rocks and then made his way down here to the New River Gorge in the mid 90’s. Mind you when he showed up hardly any climbers lived here. There weren’t any cool restaurants, there really wasn’t much going on at all. We were psyched he showed up because he was so…psyched. He was dedicated. And that meant he went climbing all the time. No matter the heat, no matter the cold, he just went climbing. I will leave it to others testify about his climbing feats; i just want to say that I remember him as being consistently kind and thoughtful and interested–a good friend. I am glad to have known him, the NRG is better for him having been here, my heart goes out to his family and friends who are missing him so badly every day. Rest in Peace Flyin’ Brian.
Kenny remembers: Flyin’ Brian McCray was the most motivated, “psyched” climber I have ever known. A lot of climbers are good, as in talented, and a lot are just so motivated they look good. Flyin’ Brian was both. His determination was inspiring and this aspect of his personality made those around him climb better. His tenure at the New River Gorge truly launched it as a climbing area to the next level. Doug, Porter, Eddie, and others had huge impacts on the development of the New and, having climbed with all of them, were all great climbers. But something about Brian was different. He just had a sense about him that he could do it all, which he basically went on to do. His many ascents on all kinds of climbing terrain have been documented elsewhere so all I will say is that it was evident then what was to come for Brian in his climbing career.
Like many of my climbing friends, Brain had slipped out of touch so I had not talked to him in a long time. The last time I remember seeing him was after his Alaska trip with Bridwell. He came to the shop and gave a gripping slide show about the ascent. It was truly mind boggling what Brian had done up there, basically learning how to ice climb way up on an Alaskan wall. Only Brian had that kind of climbing talent, drive, and fearlessness. I remember how fun Brian was to be around and do things with. My first time down the New was at night with Brian, Tom Wendell owner of Hard Rock, Jim Taylor, and a few others. We left late after a day of guiding with lots of beer and other things in our systems for the put in. Neither Brian nor I had ever been on whitewater before and for Brian it just didn’t matter. It was an adventure with good friends. It was all of that and more as I recall and Brian was the highlight.
It’s those memories of Brian that will all really stick with me. His hilarious chuckle that he had. Just him laughing made others laugh. It was a real laugh and that was truly contagious.
R.I.P. Flyin’ Brian, you were one of a kind.
Mikey Williams interprets:
I can’t pretend that I knew Brian well. As I was researching for the New River Gorge guidebook, we chatted on the phone and exchanged emails, but that was the extent of our interaction. That said, you can tell a lot about a person by examining the legacy of what they left behind. Many route developers helped shape the New into what it is today and Brian McCray had a firm grip on the reins during the late 90s.
It sounds clichéd but examining what Brian was doing during the era he was doing it defines “visionary.” Perhaps more than any other climber in New River Gorge history, Brian saw the potential in the blank walls that had turned away everyone else. His primary contribution was, of course, the Cirque where he bolted over 20 routes, most of them all the way to the top of the intimidating cliff. Proper Soul gets all the glory as the New’s first 5.14 but his other contributions are just as stunning. Ride the Lightning, a sandbagged 5.13b, was one of his proudest—a climb he considered “good enough to hike there for just that one route.”
He possessed impressive physical ability which we can reflect on today as the next generation of strong young gym rats get punted off his “5.13b’s” like Xanth. There was a time when the only climbers that had repeated Xanth had all previously climbed 5.14! Another of his 5.13b’s, Quake at Beauty Mountain, is likely still unrepeated. Brian’s House of Cards (5.13d) wasn’t repeated until last year. Ragnarock (5.13b) may be unrepeated as well…
But more impressive than his physical ability was his vision to see what might be possible. Whether he thought he might someday be capable, or if he was bolting for the next generation, is unclear to me. But back in 1997, Brian was bolting 5.14 and what may be 5.15 routes in the Cirque. This was during a time when 5.15 didn’t exist in the world, yet he was already seeing the possibility. What we’ve dubbed the Cirqueles project is one example of a route that I never would have thought possible, even in today’s world where we view almost anything as achievable. His project to the left of Ride the Lightning is still unsent to the first anchor, but what lies above is simply outrageous climbing that would likely shut down Adam Ondra and maybe even his unborn children.
While Brian’s contributions to the gorge are most concentrated in the Cirque, he also laid claim to hard climbs throughout the region like BC in the Coliseum and the futuristic Dihedral Project that was finally sent two years ago. Suicide Blonde (5.13b) and Deep Throat (5.13c) at the Lake are also his. He claimed the first dude ascent of Lynn Hill’s Greatest Show on Earth (5.13a trad) at the lower Meadow and the first ascent of the still unrepeated trad route Temporary Insanity (5.13a) at South Nuttall.
Outside of the Cirque, South Nuttall was the site of Brian’s other major contributions, though his focus there came right at the end of his time at the New River Gorge. He left a handful of futuristic projects there that are still unsent, like the two beautiful projects on the White Wall or the Reign in Blood project—a name that offers some insight into his penchant for dark clothing and dark metal music.
It’s impossible to examine Brian’s legacy at the New and reflect on his character without addressing the fact that he was, undoubtedly, a bit of a renegade. Many of the routes he drilled at South Nuttall were done illegally which ruffled feathers with other climbers and the NPS. He also caught shit for “adding” a hold or two to make a route go. Without condoning the practice, I still feel comfortable applauding his craftsmanship. It’s obvious that he spent hours sculpting and camouflaging a single handhold so that the sequence was perfect and subsequent climbers would need to break out a magnifying glass to determine the “authenticity” of the grip. House of Cards is a testament to his vision and stealth as is Into the Sarlacc (5.14b) another project he left behind that wasn’t redpointed until last year.
My favorite story regarding Brian’s outlaw behavior took place at Fern Buttress as he illegally drilled bolts on the Wide Open Beaver project. Park officials were alerted by the hum of a drill and came to investigate. Caught red-handed, Brian hung from the rope and quickly debated what to do. He could have tucked his tail, rappelled down, and faced the music, but instead, I picture him copping a little smirk as he jugged to the top and ran away!
It’s been nearly 20 years since Brian moved on from the Gorge and what he left behind, whether sent or unsent, STILL represents the future of difficult New River climbing. Up-and-comers test their skills on the routes he redpointed while today’s cutting edge climbers attempt to redpoint the projects he left behind. Today, his rusty bolts mark paths through the Cirque that may someday be climbed by the next generation of elite climbers. These relics left by Brian McCray, the first person to climb 5.14a at the New, might mark the New River Gorge’s first 5.14c, 5.14d, 5.15a, and beyond.
He was a visionary soul for sure and the legacy of routes he left behind is impressive, but not nearly as extraordinary as the speed with which he accomplished this. Nearly everything was established during a three year period from 1995 to 1997. It takes today’s climbers twice as long just to climb all his routes, minus the exploration, rappelling, and bolting.
The whirlwind pace of life that Brian subscribed to during his time at the New continued for another 17 years and the scale of his accomplishments grew with time. All this—everything that we here see as remarkable—represents Brian cutting his teeth and finding his groove. We celebrate his contribution to New River climbing, but in the grand scheme of his climbing life, this was all just practice for what was to come.
Brian was a climber, first and foremost, but climbing still represented just a portion of who he was. He was an elite level rigger, an antiquities dealer, a shoe-resoler, and so much more than that to the people that knew him well. His character was larger than life and, although I sense it through his contributions to the New, I wish I had known him for the extraordinary person that he was during those rare moments when his feet were planted firmly on the ground.