Moving through the sandpaper textured holds on the long, steep route called The Return of Chris Snyder; I manage to secure a solid foot placement in a nook the size of a small garbage can on the dramatically overhanging face. Wiggling my legs into the small space, I find a way to rest my arms before the final 40 feet of pocketed climbing. As I hang there and try to catch my breath, I hear echoes of support from my climbing crew on the ground, encouraging me the entire way on my journey upward.
The weather here is extremely hot, the air suffocating. Glancing back toward the canopy of the Kentucky oak and hickory forest while dangling from the rock, I notice something I’ve never seen before in my years as a climber. As I reach back into my chalk bag in a desperate attempt to dry my hands, I notice the excess chalk dust that I shake off floating in the air. With absolutely no atmospheric movement, the white particles hover, mid-air like crumbs from a freshly bitten saltine, lingering uneaten in the weightlessness of the space shuttle. Laughing, I bring my focus back to the rock, squinting through sweat covered eyelashes, and dream of cooler temperatures.
When I tell people I’m going on a climbing trip in the backwoods of Kentucky, their eyebrows raise and their foreheads crinkle. My friends have heard of Smith Rock and Yosemite, but not the Red River Gorge. The confused expressions are almost always followed by a barrage of questions, which I try to answer as patiently as possible.
The Red River Gorge is a challenging climbing destination that doesn’t feel like a climbing destination at all. Arriving at the Red, as it is known, the local “flavor” makes itself apparent immediately. The town of Slade, nestled in the heart of the Gorge, has a population of 38 and consists of two gas stations, a post office and a rest stop just off the highway. Miguel’s Pizza, the climber’s hangout, lies a few minutes out of town and boasts the best pizza in Kentucky. Nowhere else in the South can you get organic vegetables, salmon and pesto put on your pizza while you slack-line out back. There is very little in the way of facilities in Slade, and you certainly can’t buy beer, because it’s an enforced “dry” county. The next town, Stanton, a 20 minute drive away, offers full amenities: beer and a drive-in movie theater.
Climbing in Eastern Kentucky in late June is the perfect time to experience the Red, particularly if you are interested in doing a study on how continuous perspiring influences the rate at which a poison ivy rash spreads. It’s hot, and it spreads fast. It is not uncommon to experience an ambient temperature of 90 degrees and have an even higher percentage of humidity.
Rock climbers come to the Red River Gorge because more than 140 individual crags and 2000 established routes exist for climbers to test their skills.The rock is solid, gritty sandstone that is infinitely varied in texture and type. The main climbing styles throughout the Red are sport climbing (clipping into pre-placed protection on an established route) and traditional climbing (placing the protection while you climb a route). The sport climbing at the Red has a reputation of having monstrously steep, overhanging walls that spit off many of the world’s most accomplished climbers. The trad climbing is known for its sustained vertical cracks that seem to never end. Both styles are practiced here, but it was the sport climbing that we came for.
On a typical June day at the Red, shake off the jet lag and try to wake up by 9:00 AM, right around when your tent will reach “sweat lodge” status. Starting early or late isn’t a serious issue, because most of the cliffs are so steep they are kept from the sun. Add to that the thick Kentucky jungle and the walls are in the shade all day. The approaches are littered here and there with poison ivy, and the occasional Copper Head snake. Trek through the broad leaves of tulip poplars, rhododendrons, and thick vines of Virginia creeper, and although you may feel like you are bushwhacking for moonshine, there is a well planned out trail system to the cliffs. Few approaches are over 20 minutes.
Some of the land in and around the Red River Gorge is owned by oil companies, and the derricks’ steady working songs provide rhythmic background music to some of the climbing areas, echoing in the giant rock amphitheaters. Once arriving at the crag, the sheer enormity of the towering walls starts settling in. You are elated to throw yourself at some of the steepest climbing test pieces in the South, yet your mind is battling you, telling you that you haven’t trained hard enough, haven’t eaten the right breakfast and are severely dehydrated because your urine is darker than the New Castle Brown Ale from last night. Pushing that all aside, you drop your pack, massage your forearms to prep them for the punishment they are about to incur and gaze at what could possibly be some of the longest, steepest rock climbing this land has to offer.
“I’ve never seen anything like this!” My friend Bob exclaimed as he contorted his neck backwards to gaze toward the top of the cliff, dark red stone meeting the brilliant blue sky. Coming from him, a well traveled and mutant-status climber, this confirmed that this was the place to be. As our heads slowly lowered back toward the ground, scoping the climbing route called Tuna Town, 5.12d, our eyes met and we both instantly knew that this was going to be a route to remember, located on a wall that can’t be represented accurately on film.
Staring in amazement around the circular amphitheater of the Motherlode crag, the sun bounces off of the west facing walls across from us and projects a yellow glow into the deep green forest. The red and orange rock starts in the cool shade and rises violently into the air creating a massive 150 foot tall tsunami that feels as though it could break at any moment. If this was the stairway to heaven, then we are the panting, sweating, screaming heathen climbing up the underside of the staircase, groveling for forgiveness the entire way. At this particular cliff, there are no breaks, no ledges, and no places to catch your breath on your journey to the pearly gates at the top. Fine tuned technique and extreme endurance are integral to successfully climb the walls, as well as a positive attitude and a climbing crew that supports you the whole way.
Completing the pre-climb sequence, nodding toward Bob, I grab the first holds and gaze up towards the sky, trying to gain answers from the rock. Visualizing myself on the route; my eyes follow the path of least resistance and try to see if there are any places that look beyond what I am capable of. Frowning, I come to the realization that I’ve seen several sections that look beyond possible for me. In the back of my mind, this is exactly what I wanted.
A deep breath, a slap on the back from Bob, and I’m off. The beginning of most climbs start out like a song and this one is the same way. A relaxing and melodic intro coaxes me into moving up the route. Soon the tempo picks up, in time with my heavy breathing and racing heart. The blood in my arms starts to boil as my fingers search for the hold that will let me continue on my way. In the middle of the wall, I start to wonder if this route will ever end. I feel as tired as though I’ve run a marathon, and my body is letting me know by filling my arms and legs with stinging lactic acid. My fingers act as if they are stiff and cold, hindered from fatigue.
With a few movements of my arms and legs, I’m now positioned about 15 feet above my last piece of protection, which means a fall from here would be at least a 30 foot fall into nothing but air. I look around, and I find nothing to hold on to. I blink, and in an instant I’m floating, weightless. All at once the song stops, and all is silent except for the air softly whispering by my ears. The fall seems to last forever and a feeling of great exposure washes over me as I experience the dizzying height of the Motherlode. When my fall finally stops, the only part of the song still playing is the bassline, throbbing deep within my chest as I swing in space.
“That was a good fall”, Bob said warmly, as he took his belay gloves off after lowering me back to the ground.
“That was a good catch!” I replied, replaying the long fall in my head. Bob took his turn on Tuna Town and came close to completing it. At the end of the day, even though we hadn’t successfully climbed the route, we each learned something. Just like a book, every climbing route will teach you something whether you finish it or not. We both had something inspiring to come back to on our next trip to the Red.
Good rock, friendly locals, and the unique southern style of Kentucky separate this climbing destination from all the rest. The Red is a place where a lifetime of climbing and dreaming coalesce into the perfect climbing expedition. No matter the heat and humidity of a late June day, no matter the poison ivy and horse flies, climbing on Kentucky’s sandstone makes you glad that you’re a climber, and that you discovered Dixieland climbing for yourself.