One of the top five rock climbing destinations in the U.S. and top 10 in the world, Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest near Slade lures world-class international climbers and weekend rock warriors to ogle breathtaking eastern Kentucky mountain scenery while pumping adrenaline on sandstone walls and more than 100 arches on some of the best sport climbing routes in the country.
“People love to climb at the Red,” says Morgain Sprague, Lexington lawyer and board of directors member of the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC). “Many of us are extreme people who have trouble calming our minds down,” says Sprague. “Because of the nature of the Corbin sandstone, there are tons of pockets and ledges and slopey holds for your hands and feet. And you can climb upside down on the overhangs.”
You’ll want to work your way up to that maneuver.
Twenty-six-year-old Katie Brown, a petite professional climber who grew up in Paris, Kentucky, and now conducts climbing workshops, has done that. At 12, she began in an indoor climbing gym, and by 13 was scuttling up real rock walls at the Gorge. While a teen, she won the World Cup and prestigious ARCO Invitational, and was considered by many to be the “world’s best female sport climber.”
“I really enjoy moving on the rock,” she says. “Being up that high, you get to see the world in a different way.”
She advises beginners to learn at a local indoor gym before heading outdoors, and adds, “It’s the kind of sport that for many people becomes more than a hobby.”
Emilie Lombardo often climbs in a gym in her hometown of Toronto, Canada, and outdoors when she can, like traveling to Kentucky for a rock climbing weekend at the Gorge. “It’s nice to get away from the city every couple weeks and just climb rock,” she says. “I like the adventure. It’s a little bit scary, keeps you fit, and makes you feel good.”
Fellow Canadian Ben Iseman, who has climbed in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Cuba, likes “the sense of community among climbers.”
An early climber who installed many of the existing Gorge routes, when Hugh Loeffler begins to discuss climbing, his eyes glaze over.
“When you’re on a rock, you can’t think about anything else but feeling your body move, feeling the route, feeling how strong you are. It’s incredible,” says Loeffler.
“And it’s becoming more of a family sport in this country, as it has been for generations in Europe. It’s very safe. We’ve been bringing our 4-year-old daughter since she was a baby. As my wife points out, ‘When do you get to spend eight quality hours with your family?’ This is what we do on weekends.”
According to Tim Eling, recreation forester for the U.S. Forest Service in Winchester, several climbers began “bolting routes”—setting permanent bolts in rock surfaces that climbers can clip onto for safety—in the Gorge without permission in 1990. Concerned about protecting a federally designated wilderness area, rare archaeological finds, and endangered species, the USFS put a moratorium on bolting in 1995, grandfathering in routes already set.
In 1996, a few concerned climbers formed the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition to promote responsible climbing. Now 400 members strong, the organization works with the USFS, maintaining trails regularly, discussing new route sites, and helping educate climbers on where to climb and how to safeguard the area’s fragile nature.
A current USFS project, the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) hosts regular brainstorming meetings between the USFS and folks who play in the Gorge.
“The goal of LAC is to determine how to balance quality recreational use while protecting sensitive resources,” explains the LAC’s coordinator Eling. “On Forest Service land within the Red River Gorge, we have 60 climbing areas with over 700 individual routes. It’s important economically to keep the area open for climbing.
“The coalition is a good partner. Their members attend every meeting.”
A climber since the age of 16, Bill Strachan, RRGCC’s executive director, is still scaling rocks in his 50s.
“New climbers in the Gorge need to respect the environment and other people,” he advises, “and to educate themselves about area climbing: on our Web site (www.rrgcc.org), at kiosks at Miguel’s Pizza, Martin’s Fork Trailhead, in parking lots at the Pendergrass Murray recreational preserve, and at the Gladie Cultural Center.”
And anyone who climbs at the Gorge knows that Miguel’s is an institution, offering luscious pizza with a choice of 30 toppings, a variety of sandwiches and salads, overnight camping, and climbers’ community camaraderie. Don’t be intimidated: it’s not just for climbers. If you’re in the area, make sure and stop for a freshly baked pizza and enjoy eavesdropping or chatting with the climbers.
“We provide climbers’ basic needs,” says owner Miguel Ventura. “They come here from all over the world and think the Gorge is the most beautiful place there is.”
Beginners can learn the ropes at several area facilities.
Boasting a 165-foot waterfall and 90-foot cliffs, Torrent Falls Resort’s Climbing Adventure offers guide services, top rope climbing and rappelling, cabins, barbecue, and a family-friendly climbing route called via ferrata (Italian for “iron path”), a cable system with iron hand grips and footsteps.
“Our via ferrata is especially good for beginners,” says Kathy Meyer, who owns the property with husband Mark, chef at Mark’s Mountain BBQ. “A lot of people will begin in indoor gyms and come here before they go out on the rock.”
In addition to guide services and instruction, True North Outfitters features a gear shop, hostel, and restaurant.
Beginners can learn to climb at a decent level in two to three days, says True North guide Joshua Roe, who’s hooked on the sport.
“It’s exciting to be in an unnatural but relatively safe situation, like hanging on a rope 70 feet in the air,” he says. “It brings you into an intense focus on the present.”
“It’s the most mentally challenging and humbling sport I’ve ever participated in,” says athlete Jason Pierce, who climbs at Eastern Kentucky University’s student, faculty/staff-only indoor climbing wall several times a week and at the Gorge three times a month in season. “I’m fairly strong but some of the best climbers are scrawny little guys.”
Gorge regular Pete Canfield also climbs. “You never know what you’re getting until you’re up there,” he says. “Every route is different, with different types of movements and holds. It’s awesome.”
Climber Matt Tackett agrees. With wife and climbing partner Amy, he owns Red River Outdoors, a climber’s resource for gear; guided hikes, climbs, and rappelling; hearty breakfasts; and an Internet café.
“We started technical climbing 10 years ago,” he explains, “and the sport became our life’s passion. Climbing has given us a great excuse to travel all over the world. The physical exercise keeps you fit, and it’s one of the best nonprescription stress relievers available.”
Lest you harbor a fear of heights and think him crazy, climbers swear the sport is safe if you get good instruction and practice often, know your capacities, make smart choices about the type and difficulty of routes, and prepare before you go. Safety equipment is activity-dependent but can include: a helmet, harness, sturdy boots or rock climbing shoes, protective pads, and technical gear such as ropes, descenders, and carabiners.
Once you have some climbing hours under your harness, check out Muir Valley, a 400-acre, privately owned rock climbing and nature preserve in the Gorge area that Josh Roe calls the
“perfect outdoor gym.
Adventurous? Kentucky State Parks is offering the Adventure Series in 2007, and by participating you could actually take home a $25-$100 park gift card, depending upon which adventure you choose and how many you complete. Start now…you have the rest of the year!
The Backcountry Adventure Series is designed for those who want to experience Kentucky’s great outdoors. There are four types of adventures to choose: the one-day excursion, an overnight backpack trip, an overnight canoe camp, and a two-night backpack or backpack/canoe combo trip.
For example, Natural Bridge State Resort Park is offering Beginner Backpacking, a guided two-day, overnight adventure, which includes all gear needed, and Exploring Arch Country, a rugged, naturalist-guided, 6-9 hour excursion into the cliff lines and arches of Natural Bridge and Daniel Boone National Forest.
Participate in three of the four types of excursions offered and each adventurer will receive a $50 park gift card. Participate in all four types of trips and each adventurer will receive a $100 gift card. Gift cards can be used at any Kentucky State Park for lodging, dining, camping, gift shops, and more.
Upon arriving at your first adventure, the naturalist guide will give you an Adventure Passport that you will keep and must take with you on all trips. This will be stamped as your verification of participation.
Other parks offering the Backcountry Adventure Series include: Barren River, Blue Licks Battlefield, Carter Caves, Cumberland Falls, and Greenbo Lake.
In addition to the Backcountry Adventure, there is a Family Adventure Quest and a Kentucky History Adventure Quest, both of which offer scavenger challenges on your own and rewards.
The cost varies for each adventure. Registration is required and there are participation limits on each Backcountry Adventure, so sign up early. To learn more about the Kentucky State Parks Adventure Series and to download registration forms, go to www.parks.ky.gov and click on “Choose Your Own Adventure” at the bottom, or call (800) 255-PARK for more information.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ROCK CLIMBING
The Red River Gorge Climbing Guidebook, by Ray Ellington (20% of profits benefit Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition), www.redriverclimbing.com.
Rock and Ice magazine, great climber’s reference, http://www.rockandice.com/.
YourClimbing.com, the online voice of the climbing community. Check out Katie Brown’s blog on this site, www.YourClimbing.com.
CLIMBING THE GORGE RESOURCES
• Gladie Cultural Environmental Learning Center: climbing maps, books, Gorge information; (606) 663-8100
• Miguel’s Pizza: hearty food, climbing info, climbers’ camping; (606) 663-1975
• Muir Valley Preserve and Rock Climbing Area: no-pay, privately owned climbing area; (606) 668-9066, (317) 291-0354, or www.muirvalley.com
• Natural Bridge State Resort Park: meals, overnight accommodations; (800) 325-1710 or http://parks.ky.gov/resortparks/nb
• Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition: nonprofit promoting responsible climbing at the Gorge; www.rrgcc.org
• Red River Outdoors: guided climbing and rappelling, gear shop, Internet café, hearty breakfast; (606) 663-ROCK or www.redriveroutdoors.com
• Torrent Falls Resort Climbing Adventure: climbing instruction, guided climbing and rappelling, via ferrata, overnight accommodations, Mark’s Mountain BBQ; (606) 668-6441 or www.torrentfalls.com
• True North Outfitters/Crazy Climbers Café and Hostel: guide service, climbing instruction, European-style hostel, gourmet meals; (888) 637-6148 or www.truenorthoutfitters.com
• United States Forest Service: climbing maps, Gorge info, Stanton; (606) 663-2852; www.fs.fed.us/r8/boone
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: GET ON A ROCK
To learn what other climbers say they love about the sport of rock climbing, click here: rock climbing