I just got back from four days in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky.
It was my first visit to this Mecca of sport climbing, arranged by my wife Robin (in what will surely go down in history as the BEST BIRTHDAY GIFT EVER) with some help from my climbing friends Adrian and Gail.
Adrian and I were set to climb for four days, and Gail ultimately decided to join in too, coming down a day ahead of us with Max, her twenty-three year old son. Max is a strong boulderer. He competed as a youngster and came to the Red several times as a teen. But he dropped out of climbing when he went to college and only recently got back into it, though to all appearances the time off hasn't hurt. He has returned to fine form.
As my trip approached I tried to get more fit so I'd be able to survive on the steep overhanging routes for which the Red is famous. I went vegan (!), trained on the lead routes at the gym, and got back on my bicycle for some regular cardio exercise for the first time in a while. I succeeded in losing a few pounds and felt like I was in better shape than I'd been in all year.
But what was it all for? What did I hope to accomplish in the Red?
I had no sport climbing goals or expectations.
News flash: I am not a sport climber. Trad is my thing.
When I looked through the guidebooks for the Red, the sport walls all seemed the same to me. What I noticed mostly was that I needed to climb 5.11 if I wanted to do anything more than the warm-up routes at most of the sport crags.
So my goal was to lead 5.11 sport climbs. I didn't care whether I could send them cleanly. I just wanted to feel comfortable enough leading them that I could get the full experience of the area and have a good time.
As I reviewed the guidebooks I also noticed that for a sport climbing destination the Red sure seemed to have an awful lot of trad climbing. There were several different walls with a good selection of what appeared to be amazing climbs. I couldn't visit the Red without at least checking out some of these climbs. I knew Adrian and possibly Gail would want to hit the trad crags too.
When the time came for our visit, we found it hard just to get to Kentucky. But after a host of travel difficulties much too boring to talk about, we were all finally together at the Red on Friday afternoon, ready to climb. (Gail and Max had already begun climbing the day before.) It had rained all Thursday night and much of Friday morning but by noon it seemed like the skies were clearing and things were looking up.
Our first destination was the Drive-By Crag, a part of the climber-owned PMRP (Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve). Young Max had some friends from his Philadelphia climbing gym/team at the wall so this seemed like a good place at which to start.
The PMRP contains an odd mixture of natural wonder and heavy industry. Active oil rigs are scattered about the preserve. As you walk through the peaceful woods you will often be startled to encounter the smell of oil and the whine of machines, sometimes very close to the cliffs. The Drive-By Crag in particular has an active oil rig just downhill from the cliff face, and the noise of the drilling is clearly audible at the cliff. It is sort of a microcosm of the entire gorge; the beauty of nature is constantly juxtaposed with ugly human creations.
Despite the oil drilling the Drive-By Crag is a lovely and impressive place, steep and large. My immediate impression was that the creator had devised the ideal outdoor climbing gym, with a huge sweeping curve of pocketed, steep rock set with route after route of hard climbing. If this was your average Red River sport crag then I could see why the sport climbers love the area so very much. And I could see why gym climbers in particular are taken with the Red, since the cliffs so resemble the gym environment. But these cliffs are much better than any gym, with their real stone and a variety of holds, textures and colors that no man-made plastic palace could ever match.
(Photo: Adrian showing the stoke. Sport climbing RULES!!)
I liked the routes. We started with a 5.10b called Slick and the 9mm, on the left end of the wall. I was surprised at how easy it was. It had some steep moments but I thought it was more like a 5.9. I had heard that the Red was a little soft but if this was a representative 5.10 then we could own this place! The 5.10b that Adrian and I had done at Poke-O Moonshine just the week before made this one seem like a joke.
(Photo: Adrian on Slick and the 9mm (5.10b) at the Drive-By Crag.)
Our feelings of invincibility were sadly short-lived. Slick and the 9mm turned out to be an anomaly. I felt like the grading was stiffer and more accurate on every other climb we did over the next four days.
Storms came and went throughout the afternoon-- we stayed completely dry under the huge wall but we could tell it was raining by the sound of it pouring down behind us. It was a strange sensation.
The crag was crowded despite the weather. Most of the easier routes were constantly occupied even though it was a weekday. I accidentally worked on my first 5.12, Primus Noctum, when I found it open and was told it was a 5.11. I got shut down by one move I couldn't figure out, which I suppose must be the crux, at the very last bolt, but it was nice to work on a 5.12 on just my second pitch of the trip. I wasn't expecting that to happen. It made me feel right at home in the Red.
(Photo: That's me just over the roof on Primus Noctum (5.12a) at the Drive-By Crag.)
Adrian worked at Spirit Fingers (5.11c) and then I tried leading it too. I was happy to get over the technical, bouldery sequence off of a scary ledge near the bottom, but then I flamed out and had to take a hang in the pumpy upper section just one move below a good rest stance near the top. Having narrowly missed the onsight I regretted not trying harder.
We finished up our Friday with a 5.10d called Fire and Brimstone. I got the onsight lead on this one and felt pretty good about it. The crux climbing through the middle of the pitch was crimpy, making for a difficult clip of the draw. Seemed like a hard ten to me.
(Photo: Adrian on Fire and Brimstone (5.10d) at the Drive-By crag.)
Leaving the Drive-By Crag I felt like we'd had fun and gotten a taste of the real Red River Gorge, though we hadn't even begun to exhaust the possibilities within our ability levels at this one wall. I was relieved to find that I could climb in the Red. The routes were good, and they varied enough to discredit the widespread notion that all the climbs in the Red are steep, mindless jug hauls.
Still I knew that if we kept on climbing sport routes like these for four straight days I'd get bored.
Saturday and Sunday were expected to be sunny but cold, and rain was predicted again for Monday. Adrian and I decided to spend the next two days trad climbing. We guessed that the weekend crowds would be thinner at the trad walls, and then on Monday we could find a sport climbing location that would stay dry even if it was raining.
On Saturday Adrian and I headed to the Long Wall (a trad showcase) and had a great day. (Gail and Max went elsewhere for more sport climbing.) We got started pretty late, as the temperatures hovered in the low forties until late morning. Despite our lazy start we were just the second car parked at the tiny pullout. If you want to be alone at the Red, go trad climbing! We were the first to arrive beneath the marquee climbs of the area, Autumn (5.9-) and Rock Wars (5.10a).
Both of these climbs follow beautiful cracks up corners. Autumn is a hand crack/layback while Rock Wars is a fingers/tips crack that turns into an overhanging thin hands crack at the top. I thought Autumn would be good practice for me (I need to work on both hand cracks and laybacks) and it was theoretically the easier climb so I volunteered to start us off by leading it.
(Photo: I'm at the crux of Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)
I didn't exactly cruise it but I got through it unscathed. I was a little bit jittery all the way up. I found it easier most of the time to lay back off the flake rather than jam it, but I had to psych myself up to shakily commit to the moves at several points along the way. Nevertheless it was a success, and what a fine route! Beautiful rock and movement. I was glad we'd pooled our gear, since this climb will take as many blue No. 3 Camalots as you care to bring up. I placed three blues and two gold No. 2 Camalots. Adrian, when he followed, often jammed one hand in the crack and layed back with the other. Seemed smart to me. I might have felt more secure if I'd done it his way. He made it look very easy.
(Photo: Adrian on Autumn (5.9-) at the Long Wall.)
Next Adrian led Rock Wars and after the straightforward stemming section at the bottom the moves up the thin crack looked tough. Then the steeply overhanging hand crack to the anchor looked even tougher. I got it done as the second without any falls but of course it would be a bigger challenge to do the last part while also placing the gear. It is very steep. This is a pretty solid 5.10a, in my humble opinion, and another beautiful pitch.
I led a 5.9+ called Cruise Control which is right where the approach trail meets the Long Wall. This is another high quality pitch with steep moves up a few corners, around some small overhangs, and then a fun finish up a crack/flake system. And then I also led a sport route at the left end called Boom! Boom! Out Go The Lights (5.10b), which presents some overhanging, crimpy reaches past a bulge close to the ground and then finishes with technical moves up a slab. It was interesting. I liked having sport climbs intermixed with the trad routes. It is totally alien to me as a Gunkie, but I found that running up a moderate sport route is a really good way to take a mental break after a solid trad pitch.
(Photo: Adrian getting started on Cruise Control (5.9+) at the Long Wall.)
Adrian finished our day with a trad pitch called Mailbox (5.8), which features an easy low-angled off-width crack and then a sandbagged, steep finger crack to the finish. It is a really cool pitch. I wonder if the (quite straightforward) wide bit scares many people off.
(Photo: Adrian crammed into the off-width on Mailbox (5.8) at the Long Wall.)
We both loved the Long Wall and we didn't even make it around to the right half of the cliff. I'd be happy to go back.
On Sunday we had a similarly nice day trad climbing at the Fortress Wall. Gail and Max came along too and shared some of the routes with us. I didn't think the climbing at the Fortress Wall was quite as consistently stellar as at the Long Wall. The routes can be overly sandy and sometimes the rock feels unpleasantly sharp.
(Photo: Adrian on Bombs Bursting (5.8) at the Fortress Wall.)
We mostly did pleasant moderates like Bombs Bursting (a tough 5.8, with mandatory hand jamming and a committing finger crack crux) and Blue Runner (5.9- and similar to Cruise Control, with steep climbing down low and technical layback moves above). Adrian led both of these, plus a pretty easy but entertaining 5.8 called Snake, which slithers up an off-width for one or two moves before transitioning to a moderate hand crack with tons of features outside the crack.
(Photo: Here I'm following Adrian's lead of Blue Runner (5.9-) at the Fortress Wall, with Gail and Max below.)
I enjoyed leading Calypso I, a fun 5.7 flake climb.
(Photo: That's me leading Calypso I (5.7) at the Fortress Wall.)
My big lead of the day was Where Lizards Dare (5.9+), a beautiful and imposing finger crack up an overhanging corner which starts one pitch up off of the ground. I took us up Calypso III (5.5 off-width, very sandy) to get up to the ledge above. Then I plunged into Where Lizards Dare and found it pretty technical and sustained. The hardest single move involves stepping up into the dihedral where the crack begins. The crack at this point is too thin for fingers and the available face holds are high slopers. I took a long time and placed more and more gear (bomber nuts!) before finally committing to this move and making it into the crack. But then the route continued to be challenging and I got flustered. Eventually I had to hang to get my head together.
(Photo: I'm leading Where Lizards Dare (5.9+) at the Fortress Wall.)
The pitch eased up a little bit as the crack got wide enough for fingers and when I finished it I wished I could come back the next day to lead it again and do a better job. To me this was perhaps the best pitch of the trip. It rivals Rock Wars for quality and difficulty, though Rock Wars is longer.
(Photo: Gail on Calypso III (5.5) at the Fortress Wall. Photo by Adrian.)
I also enjoyed leading a chimney/off-width climb on the right side of the Fortress crag called Cussin' Crack (5.7). I enjoyed the moderate climbing up the wide chimney off of the ground (it was a great excuse to use our No. 4 Camalots), but then after reaching a ledge (where I thought I was all but done) I found a surprise squeeze chimney finish, invisible from the ground, which turned out to be the crux. This climb obviously doesn't see that much traffic. It was a bit dirty, with sharp edges, but I still found it to be a good time.
As predicted, it poured all Sunday night and into Monday morning. Gail and Max were exhausted and decided to head back to Lexington to try to catch an early flight. I hoped Adrian and I could do a day of sport climbing at another one of these sheltered, overhanging walls. Adrian was feeling pretty whipped but he was game to go for it for one more day.
We went to the Military Wall, which Gail and Max had enjoyed on Thursday and which the guidebook said was a good rainy day crag. We walked up during a break in the storms and found the climbs to be pretty much completely dry even though it had been raining steadily for hours. Another thunderstorm rolled through just as we were beginning to climb but it didn't really matter to us since we were already beneath the wall.
(Photo: Adrian on Sunshine (5.9+) at the Military Wall.)
It seemed to me that the Military Wall (one of the more mature sport crags in the Red) had a mix of the best and the worst of the sport climbing scene. We did the warm-up routes Sunshine (5.9+) and Moonbeam (5.9). These are overhanging jug hauls made more difficult by the fact that they are so greasy and chalky from the thousands of ascents they have seen over the years. Standing there on a rainy Monday, we had no trouble getting access to them, but the chalk told the story of many many crowded weekends. It was like being in a gym where the climbs are never changed. I felt similarly put off by the supposed classic Fuzzy Undercling (5.11-). The start is so slimy and white with caked-on chalk, it is just gross. Also impossible. It is gross and impossible, a lethal combination.
(Photo: I'm about to start Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b) at the Military Wall.)
My mood improved when we walked left to the far end of the Military Wall, where we found ourselves beneath a spectacular overhanging face that is covered in swirling black lines made of iron oxide. Behind these bands of iron oxide, the wall is a gorgeous mixture of reds, oranges and yellows. It is like a kaleidoscopic work of art. We looked at the two routes on this wall, and when I stepped up to try the one on the left, Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b), I was tickled to find that the thin black iron oxide bands formed awesome crimps and pinches. The route had some tough, long reaches from the first to the third bolts but I got by this crux section okay and then managed to climb through the pumpy remaining terrain for an actual bona fide 5.11b onsight.
(Photo: Adrian on Another Doug Reed Route (5.11b).)
I later read on the internet that if you move further right after the second bolt everyone thinks this is really a 5.10. But I didn't move to the right, so I guess I did it the hard way. And the guidebook calls the route a 5.11b so who am I to question it? I am officially a 5.11b sport climber, there is simply no denying it.
Right after this historic achievement I tried the 5.11d/5.12b next door, Forearm Follies, and got shut down hard. I didn't make it very far. I had to leave a bail biner after just a few bolts.
(Photo: Adrian leading Possum Lips (5.10d) at the Military Wall.)
We enjoyed two other routes at the Military Wall. Adrian and I both took a turn at leading Possum Lips (5.10d), a slab route with some thin, technical moves. Nothing pumpy about this one but it definitely requires finesse and good footwork. I was psyched to get the onsight.
And finally, we liked another less-popular route to the right, next to the archaeological closure: Danita Dolores (5.10b). The start over a low roof is described in the guidebook as "desperate." But I found it pretty doable. I campused up a few holds, got my feet on the wall, and cruised through the fun climbing up an arête.
(Photo: I'm almost to the anchor on Danita Dolores (5.10b) at the Military Wall.)
As we left the Military Wall and headed to the airport, I felt that we'd done a bunch of wonderful climbs in the Red and had a great experience. But the time had flown by and ultimately we'd barely dipped our toe into the metaphorical sea of climbing that was available.
We'd gotten just a small taste of the sport climbing life in the Red. We did some of the pumpy jug hauls for which the place is well-known, but really just a few. I liked these climbs. I would come back and do them again. If I devoted all of my energies to these sorts of routes I'd probably improve at them. But for now, doing just a few in any one day was enough for me.
I was pleased to see that, counter to the Red's reputation, there are other types of sport routes available. In our random sampling of the sport climbing in the Red we'd stumbled upon slabby routes, crimpy faces, and technical aretes. I really enjoyed these sorts of routes. I would love to come again to seek out the walls that are filled with these less pumpy, more technical routes.
As you might expect, I was happiest with the trad climbing we did. I don't think the Red's collection of trad routes is exactly world class, but what they have is certainly much more than you can do in a few days and is so different from what we have in the Gunks that it feels like a real treat. The Gunks just doesn't feature crack routes. Fingers, hands, fists, and off-width cracks-- the Red has them all, and on beautiful cliffs in secluded settings.
Over the course of our visit numerous people expressed shock and dismay that Adrian and I were spending half of our time in the Red trad climbing. But I'm glad we split the trip up the way we did. There was no way we'd get more than a small sample of what this massive area has to offer in one visit anyhow. I was pleased to get as many different little tastes of what was available as we could.
And anyway I don't think that a pure sport climbing trip would ever do it for me. I've previously written about my preference for trad over sport and I don't want to belabor the point again here.
But there were times during our trip when I could see the other side of the argument. At the Military Wall there was a young man trying like crazy to get the redpoint on a particular 5.12. While we were there he took four burns on the route, succeeding on the last try. When he finally nailed it his exhilaration was contagious. I was thrilled for him, and I was pretty impressed that he was able to reset, recharge and go after the route again and again the way he did. I don't think in my current state of fitness I could be so fresh on my fourth try at such a steep route. If I put in the effort and focused on this type of climbing I know I could have successes like that, and I'd probably be a stronger trad climber as a byproduct as well. It would be good for me.
But the trade-off would be doing less of the kind of climbing I love the most, so I probably won't.
It's one of the wonderful things about climbing: there are no rules. You get to set your own goals and choose your own level of adventure, taking your motivation from whatever source you like. Your path will be different from mine, and that's just fine.