Red River Gorge is often referred to simply as “The Red”. This is the nickname climbers gave it, which is pretty cool…but in writing, I prefer to shorten it to RRG. So in speech, you may hear me say “The Red” or “Red River Gorge” but for this post, I will be using RRG. Although I first heard about RRG through a backpacking friend, my climbing friends were louder and more prepared for a trip, so that’s what we did. I haven’t traveled to many (any) great climbing destinations, so I didn’t really know what to expect…and I feel I may have ruined myself for many other places, as RRG is world renowned for its climbing. Sandstone makes for amazing climbing, as it provides a monster amount of friction to grip, and RRG is a giant canyon system of sandstone cliffs, bluffs, and arches.
Anyway, RRG is located in and next to two parks: Daniel Boone National Park and Natural Bridge State Park. No clue how they got their names, but I suspect that Natural Bridge State Park may feature a ginormous sandstone bridge and that a man named Daniel Boone may have invented Kentucky. Although I’m sure they could have just as easily named it “Colonel Sanders National Park”.
We left around 4:30pm on Friday night, and the 8 hour drive (with time change) got us to the campsite around 1:15am. Lewis, Jeremy, Ben, and I were in his Jeep (we were basically like a Jeep commercial: 4 grown men throw their bags in the back of a Jeep and road trip to an adventurous land). Jack, Sara, Amber, and Zach drove separately and got there a bit before we did, with Sara and Amber wimping out in a hotel and Zach and Jack in their own tents. Upon arrival, our Jeep found Lewis’ friends Nick and Stuart set up on the edge of camp. We hopped out, got set up quickly, and immediately went to sleep. I had planned to sleep between two trees in my hammock, but the campsite was rather flat and clear so I just used my hammock as a tarp and slept on the ground.
That morning was an easy start for me, because the rest of the guys all brought stoves and cookware and set up a kitchen on a picnic table. They made skillets! Potatoes, bacon, veggies (my only ingredient contribution), and and eggs. Best way to start a day whether you woke up in a mansion or in a tarp. After fueling our bodies, we packed the ten of us into two cars and drove down to Muir Valley, one of the most popular climbing areas in RRG.
I don’t know how much detail I can go into about our 8 hours of climbing that day. I could write an entire blog post about every route I did, although most of it would just be me geeking out about it and saying that I tend to black out in a concentration haze and I barely remember getting to the top of the wall. I could also go on and on about how good it felt to be lead climbing outdoors on 70ft sandstone walls. I will never forget that feeling (mostly because I plan on going back over and over again and not allowing myself to forget).
Okay so sidebar. For anyone who doesn’t know what “lead-climbing” means. It’s basically where you attach the rope to the wall AS you climb. So as you climb, you pass these bolts in the wall that have little rings on them. You take your quick-draw (two caribiners attached by some webbing), and hook one end into the bolt. The other end dangles down, ready for you to clip your rope into. It’s hard to explain without visuals. Below is a picture of a bunch of quick-draws, and here is an in-depth animation of the general process.
Now I will take another minute to explain the rating system for climbing. I don’t know too much about the process for determining how to rate routes, but I do know that it’s a badass system. Instead of just saying “that route was wicker tough, bro!” you can say, “that route was wicked 5.11c, bro!”.
Stole this excerpt from a site giving a good overview of the rating guidelines.
5.0-5.7: Easy for experienced climbers where most novices begin.
5.8-5.9: Where most weekend climbers become comfortable; employs the specific skills of rock climbing, such as jamming, liebacks and manteling.
5.10: A dedicated weekend climber might attain this level.
5.11-5.14: The realm of true experts; demands much training, often working of a route, and much natural ability.
On routes over 5.10 grade, there are letters (a-d) assigned to indicate difficulty within that number range. For example, a 5.10d is easier than a 5.11b, and a 5.14d is IMPOSSIBLE.
A (+) or (-) can also be affixed to the number. A (+) indicates whether or not the route sustains difficulty throughout its entirety, and a (-) tells you that there are simply a few tough moves at that level, but the rest is easier.
My skill range is apparently in the 5.10-5.11 range, based on what I have done in the past. Note: I am scared to attempt a 5.12 because I am afraid of failure.
I was excited to get some more experience with this lead-climbing, because it’s far more badass than top-rope climbing but not as dangerous as free-climbing. Anyway…back to the actual story. After parking in the Muir Valley parking lot, signing our waivers, and forgetting all of my snacks in the car, we hit the trail. We lugged our equipment down into the gorge, along some bluffs, until coming to the first wall we wanted to conquer. As a group of ten, we had plenty of ropes and all the gear you could need, so we were able to set up multiple routes along this wall.
It was exhilarating. I’ve never climbed anything so high before, not like this. I was scared (I am scared of heights, falling, etc.) and excited and I had so much energy. Since this post is getting long, I will just do a quick timeline of the climbs we did.
Muir Valley: An area with a pretty cool climbing history, this piece of land was systematically bought up and eventually gifted to a non-profit company whose sole existence is to maintain the valley for natural beauty and climbing. Within Muir Valley, we climbed in two different areas:
Bruise Brother’s– First set of climbs got my blood pumping, that’s for sure. We had 4 ropes up at one point, ranging from 5.8 climbs to 5.11.
Stay Off the Radio Jeff!: Grade- 5.9+. On the interwebs, people voted that this route is actually a 5.10a. Whichever it is, it’s fun and it was my first route. Got stuck on the crux, but finally committed to the move and I didn’t die.
CH4+Rising=Methane Rising: Grade- 5.8- and 5.11a: This route is actually two routes. CH4 is the first 25 feet of the wall, which leads to a roof. The roof is called Rising. CH4 is the chemical compound for methane, hance the name. Anyway, I got halfway through the roof section but couldn’t swing my feet up, resulting in a fall. I should have tried it again, but since it was so early in the day, I didn’t wanna get too pumped climbing the same route.
The Offering: Grade- 5.7. Easiest route of the day, but a lot of fun. Basically every single move is “up-and-to-the-right” so you end up almost on the other side of the wall from your belayer.
A-Beano: Grade- 5.7. I did this short, easy route to test my new skill: cleaning! Lewis taught me how to clean routes, and I figured I should practice on a short
Critters on the Cliff: Grade- 5.10d. Fun route, only one or two really tough moves though. This was the first really hard route I led, and it was pretty scary for me. Felt great the whole way, got zoned in on what needed to be done, and killed it.
Return of Manimal: Grade- 5.10d. Awesome route, like the name suggests. This route used to be considered a 5.11, but was downgraded to the most difficult grade in the 5.10 range. Also…it’s 85ft tall! Terrifying, but I remembered to never look down.
Rat Stew: Grade- 5.10a. I think this was the last route I climbed in this area. Beginning was slabby which made me afraid to fall cause I would just scrape down. Fun route, though, great views from the top!
Land Before Time– After Bruise Brothers, we decided to hit up another few routes that were closer to the parking lot. Lewis also took a lot of his time here to teach some of us how to clean routes, huge thanks to him for making us all better climbers.
Sabertooth: Grade- 5.10c. My only failed route. I made it to the first clip (BARELY) and the second I clipped in, I hear Lewis whisper, “you backclipped.” I groaned, and fell. Too crimpy of a start for me to do at the end of the day. Someday I will go back and kill this one.
Rynosaurus: Grade- 5.9. Easy way to end the day for me, and gave me some of my confidence back after failing hard at the 5.10 Sabertooth route.
Famished, we hit up the famous Miguel’s Pizza (a pizza place that doubles as a campground). Incredibly decent pizza for a southern state. Lotsa toppings.
After pizza, we hit the pro-shop to check out the gear; Sara ended up buying some really slick looking quickdraws. On our walk back to the car, we noticed the wind was picking up. Picking up tents. Miguel’s campsite is mostly field, and the wind swept across the open field impeded only by flapping tarps. Many tents were flattened or flipped, and it was actually pretty hilarious. Until we got back to our campsite and found that 3 out of the 4 tents set up were broken. Shattered poles ripped through the roof and rain fly of Lewis’ tent, Zach’s poles were splintered something fierce and his rain fly blew off, and Stuart/Nick’s tent poles also broke.
Sara and Amber urged Zach, Jack, and I to join them in the motel, but the rest of the guys stayed behind to sleep in our campground’s airplane hangar (of course they had an abandoned airplane hangar). The motel was awesome because it wasn’t 30 degrees and windy. It also had a shower.
The next morning we woke up at 6am for some reason. Zach went out to the parking lot and cooked some breakfast on his campstove. Like a boss. Thanks for the meal, man, although I was looking forward to eating waterlogged hummus!
We had to leave the hotel early so we could get out to the gorge and get climbing…Jeremy’s hockey team made the playoffs so he had to be back in illinois by 6pm. No problem. We could still get a few hours of climbing in before making the 8 hours drive back home. This time, instead of going back to Muir Valley, we hit Left Flank, which is in the Gray’s Branch Region.
Gray’s Branch Region
Left Flank- To get to this section, we drove through an awesome sandstone tunnel through and parked 3/4 of a mile away. Very steep hike along the last stretch to get to the wall!
To Defy the Laws of Tradition: Grade- 5.10a. Although there is a no-hands rest halfway up, the beginning section is difficult and the end section gets you pumped fast. The rock was freezing and I NEEDED the no-hands rest to warm up my hands. Loved this route, I felt extremely accomplished. Plus, it’s just a sick route.
Fast Food Christians: Grade- 5.10a. First move can be pretty difficult, especially when the rock is wet. I slipped putting my feet on the wall at first, but once I committed to putting all my weight on the foot with the wet hold, it was an easy swing to the next move and it was cake from then on.
The routes were close together and the rock was freezing cold, which created a sense of urgency when climbing. I only did two climbs this morning, but To Defy the Laws of Tradition was so much fun that I didn’t even care. I belayed Zach on a route called Mr. Bungle, but we didn’t have time for much else. We only climbed for an hour or so before hiking back to the cars to depart.
Not much else to talk about here. Go climb, I’ll see you out there!
Note: if you notice anything wrong about the climbing information, I either misspoke or I misunderstand, feel free to correct me…or hold it against me!