Kayah Gaydish Left Legacy of Friendship, Love of Wild Places

I have never known an individual as sincere and genuine as Kayah. I think that may be because no one has ever been so personally fulfilled by the combination of the outdoors, friendships, and a devotion to others.

No singular story — and certainly not this column — could ever fully do justice in portraying the person that Kayah was. Its scope — her love for this region, the depth of the relationships she held, and her selflessness to her friends, her children, and her favorite wild places — is simply too vast.

In December, my dear friend Jennifer “Kayah” Gaydish was killed in a rock-climbing accident in the Hidden Valley Lake area in southwest Virginia. She was climbing in a landscape that she — like she had for so many others — helped protect. She was 36.

Kayah was many things to many people. She was a devoted mother, a caring friend, a passionate conservationist, a defender of wilderness, a builder and maintainer of trails, and a voracious rock climber.

In every way, she made this region, and all those who knew her, better. If you did not know Kayah, I hope you will read on and get to know her.

I first met Kayah in 2011 when she began volunteering with the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC), a regional hiking and trail organization. The CMC was helping build the Bearwallow Mountain Trail, a new hiking path being constructed by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), who had recently protected the mountain's scenic summit.

She instantly impressed me with an uncommon combination of vigorous work ethic, humility, and patience for others. Naturally, personalities among folks who are swinging tools, flinging dirt, and hoisting big rocks — all in a coordinated effort to build a trail — can initially come across as a little intense, if not aggressive.

But Kayah, working just as hard as any other volunteer, exuded a calming warm-heartedness. From the beginning, she made me — like she did for many others — feel entirely comfortable when she was around.

As we constructed more trails together, we soon realized a common bond: an adoration for the outdoors — particularly the most rugged, wild places among the southern Appalachians — and a yearning to care for and protect them.

“I love stewardship of public lands,” Kayah told me shortly after I met her. And it always showed.

She evolved into an advanced trail builder, becoming a master at the grip hoist — a cable tool used to pull stumps from the ground — and honed her rock skills in order to skillfully construct stone staircases.

Kayah put her devotion to stewardship and love of the outdoors directly into the land as often as possible. In addition to the CMC, she also volunteered frequently with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) maintaining several sections of the "AT."

Her dedication to that venerable long-distance trail was so apparent that she was hired on to staff by the organization that protects it. She worked part-time in the ATC's Southern Regional Office in Asheville, first for a summer coordinating the base camp for trail rehabilitation crews and then for almost two years as office manager.

Kayah also volunteered her trail-building skills with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), constructing a new trail to the popular summit of Hawksbill Mountain.

This experience, combined with her avid interest in rock climbing, led her to fall in love with the Linville Gorge Wilderness. She ultimately worked for nearly two years as a wilderness ranger with Wild South, inventorying and eradicating invasive species threatening the biodiversity of the Linville Gorge.

In addition to the Appalachian Trail and Linville Gorge, Kayah's other — and perhaps most — cherished landscape was the Hickory Nut Gorge.

A resident of Bat Cave for many years, she had long sought out the majestic views from Bearwallow Mountain and Blue Rock, two of her favorite destinations in the Gorge. These places inspired and rejuvenated her in good times, and in bad. And her interest in rock climbing increasingly lured her to the Gorge's towering cliffs.

Just like in her other beloved landscapes, she tirelessly devoted herself to caring for the land and trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Over three years, Kayah donated more than 125 volunteer hours to CMLC's trails projects in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge, including the Bearwallow Mountain, Florence Nature Preserve, and Trombatore trails, eagerly contributing her time and energy to building a trail network that linked conserved lands.

Her passion for the Hickory Nut Gorge extended its entire length — from the Upper Gorge all the way to Chimney Rock.

“She was the first volunteer to approach me,” said James Ledgerwood, who became superintendent of Chimney Rock State Park in 2013. “She told me 'Hey, I'm here. What can I do to help?' It really caught me off guard that someone was so willing to give their time, and to constantly keep asking what help I needed.”

Kayah aided Ledgerwood extensively in the development of new sustainable trail at the base of the cliffs on Rumbling Bald, an increasingly popular rock-climbing and bouldering destination within the park.

“She helped me lay out the trail, letting me know where climbers would want it to go,” said Ledgerwood. “Then she was the first volunteer crew leader on the project, and kept coming back again and again. She built rock stairs, spread gravel, cleared corridor with a chainsaw, built fences — you name it.”

Kayah helped Ledgerwood take the project all the way from start to finish over a three-year period. Work was completed on the entire Rumbling Bald loop trail — which accesses the popular “East Side” and “West Side” areas sought by climbers — just this December. And Kayah was there, volunteering as usual. The project was completed only a few days prior to her death.

“She may be gone now, but her work in the Hickory Nut Gorge is not done,” said Ledgerwood. “I can see it in all of our volunteers and in every person who cared about her. They'll continue to pursue here what was important to her.”

Kayah left an indelible impact on the Hickory Nut Gorge, Appalachian Trail, Linville Gorge, and other cherished wild places of our region. But she left an even deeper impact on the people in her life.

Kayah was the dearest of friend to seemingly countless souls. “She'd give you the shirt off her back, and everyone who knows her knows that to be true,” said her mother, Ann Kendall.

“Hey friend. Just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about you. Wanna hike soon?” Kayah thoughtfully wrote to me during a time period in which I was struggling. While you could count on Kayah to be there for the wild places and the trails, you could doubly count on her to be by your side when you needed her friendship.

Most of all, Kayah was an endlessly devoted mother to her two teenage children, Caleb and River. She gracefully instilled in them the values that she held dear, and frequently brought them along to volunteer projects to build trail with her, side by side.

For the rest of my life, I will be inspired by Kayah's compassion, sincerity, and love for our mountains. In my last conversation with her, less than a week before she unexpectedly left us, I told her something that I had always felt: “Kayah, you're my hero.”

Even though now she is gone, I hope she will be yours, too.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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