Home, Sweet Home: A Return to the Southeast at Red River Gorge

Home, Sweet Home: A Return to the Southeast at Red River GorgeRight now, I’m sitting outside to write, and the air in my lungs is so thick I could drink it. Everything smells like wet grass, and the scenery surrounding my picnic table consists of rolling hills carpeted with trees, old wooden crates stacked with empty Ale-8 bottles, and folks milling about while saying things like “thank you ma’am,” and “pleased to meet ya.” For dinner, we’re cooking black eyed peas and collard greens – and all of this can only mean one thing:

I’m back home – in the southeast.

We drove 20+ hours from Colorado to get to Kentucky, and every moment since our arrival at Red River Gorge has been a whirlwind of me thinking “man, I am so happy to be back in the south.” Climbers here always say hello at the crag (unheard of in Colorado, yeah, I’m calling you out on that), people speak with slow drawls at the grocery store, and I can finally ask for corn nuggets at a restaurant without getting funny looks.  To say I am content would be an understatement – I am elated, overjoyed, impossibly satisfied with where I am at this very moment.

The Red River Gorge is a particularly special place for climbers. We were torn between here and Tennessee as our official “return to the south” destinations, but I’m glad we chose Kentucky. This picnic table I’m writing from is situated under a pavilion at Miguel’s – a legendary pizza and camping spot where climbers from around the world gather. In the parking lot, there are cars from Oregon, California, Tennessee, New York, Washington, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Florida.

When I haven’t been inhaling fat slices of Miguel’s pizza or chasing pups around the campground, I’ve been reintroducing myself to the stone that sparked my love for climbing: southern sandstone. Oh how I missed these exquisitely exposed chunks of pristinely composed sediment, all spritely colored and begging to be gripped. Even when I’m on the verge of tears trying to will my body to move up to the next bolt, my love for this sandstone is unwavering. Southern sandstone is just the best damn rock in the world.

Niko crushing Scar Tissue (5.12a) at The Zoo in Red River Gorge, Kentucky.We’ve spent the past few days revisiting familiar crags and climbing new lines with old friends. My first climb of the trip was at the wall in Muir Valley where I first climbed at Red River Gorge a few years ago – it truly felt like a homecoming. The last time I was attached to a rope on that wall, I was trembling, shaking, hysterically crying on my first big-girl lead climb (I still flashed the route, which almost makes the scene even more shameful). This time, I pulled on the holds with confidence, I clipped the bolts with ease, and not a single tear was shed. It felt good.

As usual, Niko has been crushing and his psyche is sky-high as he climbs old projects and explores new lines. It was great to watch him work Scar Tissue (5.12a) and relive the memories of our last trip out here in May 2012.

Niko and I have been saying the same thing for the past seven months since we left the southeast, and now that we’re back after touring the country, it rings as loudly as ever: We belong in the southeast, and there is nowhere else we’d rather be. 

Trip Report: Southeastern Climbers Coalition Trail Day and Climbing at Boat Rock

During the planning process of the Simply Adventure trip, Niko and I felt strongly inclined to explore the ways we could make our adventure more than just a climber “vacation” – we wanted to give back to the climbing community. After meeting the two fellas of the Access Fund’s Jeep Conservation Team at Red River Gorge last spring, we realized the most obvious way we could contribute: trail days.

While the Simply Adventure journey will take us across nearly every state in the country, our hearts and souls will forever remain in the southeast – so we wanted to kick off our year of trail days with our local climbing organization, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition. This weekend, we loaded up the van (for its first climbing trip ever!), and headed out to the Atlanta area for a trail day at Boat Rock.

After a night spent sleeping in a Walmart parking lot, we arrived to an empty gravel lot at the base of the Boat Rock crag. Within minutes, the entire lot was filled, and cars overflowed along the streets beside it. I had envisioned a dozen or so dirtbags lined up with shovels, but the scene I was greeted with was far more impressive: Upwards of 30 kids showed up to do their part in preserving Boat Rock.

It was incredibly humbling to witness the community spirit that was demonstrated during the Boat Rock trail day. Young people lined up with buckets to shuttle an enormous pile of mulch up to the boulders, and they eagerly tromped through the woods filling up garbage bags with half-decomposed trash – including two rusty tires, a broken mirror, and heaps of discarded metal.

What had been planned as a lengthy trail day turned into an affair that only lasted a few hours – the dedicated crew of trail day goers managed to accomplish hours’ worth of work in half the time. It’s absolutely amazing what a group of hard-working climbers can accomplish when we rally together and focus on cleaning up our crag.

After running out of mulch to haul into the boulder field, I joined Urban Core Climbing’s Emily Taylor, and her impossibly adorable daughter Milo, for an impromptu tour of the crag – and we were hard-pressed to find even a single piece of litter leftover. With nothing left to pick up, I enjoyed meandering through the woods and snapping way too many photos of adorable little Milo. 

The crew gathered for a gear toss, with swag provided by event sponsors like Access Fund and REI, then we settled down for lunch before the group dispersed into the crag for some much-earned climbing.

Niko and I gave a few folks a little tour of our van, then threw our new Stonelick pads on our back and trekked towards the climbs with a fellow trail day participant, Jordan, who would become our guide for the day.

Let me tell you, Boat Rock is easily one of the most humbling crags I have ever climbed at.

Suddenly, V3s feel like V5s, arêtes lose their edge, and it’s nearly impossible to find a top-out that includes actual holds. And foot holds? What foot holds? Boat Rock don’t need no foot holds. Climbing at Boat Rock is both frustrating and empowering. You don’t ‘get’ sends; you earn them.

Our first stop was the Spiderman boulder, one of the ultra classic climbs at Boat Rock. This hunk of rock also happens to be one of the few with features and deep holds – so don’t let it fool you. After sending every line on the stand-alone boulder, we headed for Paint Can, a V5 climb that flows like butter until you hit the barren, bulging top. I watched a few locals run through the problem, and was quickly discouraged when I attempted to pull myself up on the “crimpers” the fellas had tugged on – there was literally nothing up there.

I quickly abandoned any attempts at sending problems at my limit, and refocused my efforts on finding sweet problems that suited my style. This led me to discover my new favorite style of climbing: cracks. Jordan suggested that I hop on a sweet V3 finger crack called “Lost Digits,” and after a frustrated series of attempts, I nailed the most bomber foot jam of all time – and was instantly hooked.

We immediately hiked over to another easier climb called “Blues Crack,” which I may or may not have climbed three times in a row. There’s just something about the methodical nature of climbing a crack, and that satisfying moment when you’ve locked your fingers into a solid section, or jammed your toes perfectly into the wedge of rock. It’s an entirely unique style of climbing; and I’m obsessed. 

Have I mentioned yet how much I love climbing cracks?

Next to Blues Crack sat a funky problem aptly named “Tough Guy.” It was one of Jordan’s projects, so we all got stoked on working out the beta. It’s rated at a V3, but I’d easily give the top-out at least a V4. As with most climbs at Boat Rock, the key is to trust non-existent foot holds, and make hand holds out of nothing. Jordan and Niko made it look easy, while I ended up spending no less than five minutes on the top-out – but it was a send, folks.

We ended the day at Yellow Arete, a towering boulder problem that offers inviting features until you get to the committing top-out. Naturally, Niko crushed it effortlessly, although even he admits that the finish was bleak. It was one of those climbs that’s tall enough to force you to finish the problem, purely because you really, really don’t want to come back down.

Jordan hopped on Yellow Arete next, projected it until his fingers were ready to shred, and then our little trio hiked back to the parking area to conclude our day.

As Niko and I fueled up for the drive home with instant mashed potatoes and avocado, we reflected on the impact of our first trail day. Yes, we had pitched in to help ensure that Boat Rock access is preserved for climbers – but far more importantly, our eyes were opened to the vital future of the climbing community. The kids from Urban Core and Adrenaline Climbing are setting the stage for the next generation of climbers. These young people aren’t just getting into the sport of climbing; they’re fully embracing the lifestyle and responsibilities that accompany the true meaning of being a climber.

I think we all could learn a thing or two from the kids who came out to the Boat Rock trail day – and I hope the Simply Adventure journey can continue to spread the hopefulness and genuine appreciation demonstrated out at that Georgia crag. I had a blast with everyone who came out, and will be posting the complete set of photo on the Simply Adventure Facebook page – so stay tuned!

Did you hear? I’m the new voice of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition’s revived Twitter account! I don’t think it’s rocket science to calculate that Niko is much more helpful during trail days than I am (c’mon, he could carry 10x more mulch up a cliff than I can), so it is truly meaningful to me to be able to use my social media skills to help the SCC. Give @SEClimbers a follow, and send us a Tweet!

Want to help the Simply Adventure team successfully spend a year traveling around the country to spread the good tidings of land conservation, and work with local climbing communities to preserve the future of our crags? 

Donate to the Simply Adventure fundraiser – and help equip us with the tools we need to make our mission a reality. We’re running out of time, and still have over $4000 to raise within the next two weeks. 

It’s finally here – the Rocktown Guidebook has been released!

Back in December, I announced exciting plans that would finally create a guidebook for the Georgia crag called Rocktown. Until the fruition of this guidebook, climbers relied on “topos” that lacked a comprehensive understanding of the entire area. I remember toting around a few sheets of printed climbing guidance in my backpack, and always ending up missing a few pages or spilling water all over the darn thing. Basically, it wasn’t really working. So the news of a proposed guidebook brought excitement to the entire southeastern climbing community.

Until we heard the crickets.

Months passed, and so did the alleged release date of the book. It was promised to be in print by March, and yet as April passed, we began to lose hope. I had contacted the publisher in hopes of snagging a few copies to give away during the Save the South bouldering compeition I organized at the end of March, and his “we’ve hit a few snags” e-mail was the last I heard about the guidebook.

But here is it, folks – the Rocktown Guidebook has been released!

[Read more…]