America’s Best Climbing Area: Red River Gorge
It took the spotlight of the Petzl Roctrip to show what the locals already knew: The Red River Gorge is America's Best Climbing Area.
What likely started as a small flame in the engine of an overheated truck erupted into a massive fire at Red River Outdoors.
RRO is just minutes down the road from Miguel’s Pizza, the humming campground, restaurant and climbing emporium of the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. Matt and Amy Tackett had successfully cultivated RRO, a breakfast, Internet and guide-service boutique, into a staple of the geographically diffuse but tight-knit climbing community that calls the Red home. But on Tuesday afternoon, April 24, while Matt was out climbing, Amy had just enough time to escape the fast-moving fire and watch from afar as their future burned to the ground.
It didn’t take long for the climbers milling around Miguel’s in typical rest-day lethargy to show up on the scene.
Amy was standing outside, barefoot, says Dario Ventura, son of Miguel, so I brought her a pair of La Sportiva sandals from the store. Ventura’s gesture was one among many as people gathered at the scene to help inventory lost items.
It was amazing, Michelle Ellington, wife of the local guidebook author Ray Ellington, said. Within hours [Amy] had more clothes than she’d had to begin with.
By the weekend, word of the disaster had spread. On Friday night, it looked like a Woodstock festival, says Bentley Brackett, a local climber from Tennessee. Despite the grim situation, Brackett says it was a happy time.
Everything that could be salvaged from the fire was sitting on the front porch, he says. This included the Tackett’s wedding photo, now crumbled and brown around the edges, but intact nonetheless.
The fire had claimed mostly material possessions, as well as the Tacketts’ beloved dog, River. But if anything, it illuminated how strong the local climbing community really is.
Gear donations from outdoor companies, a pancake breakfast at Miguel’s, and a Paypal account set up on www.redriverclimbing.com brought in enough funds for the Tacketts to get their business rolling again.
They even raised $500 for a dog, says Ellington. Imagine that.
Unfortunately, the RRO fire is one of a few catastrophes to have stricken the Red in recent years. Guidebook author and prolific Red first ascentionist John Bronaugh died of a heart attack in autumn 2004; his son Alex was killed in a car accident only months later. Then, in 2006, Jeremy Petrovitch, an incredibly strong, talented climber from Ohio, was paralyzed in a car crash when he was hit by a drunk driver. The community responded to these unbearable events by raising money for the Bronaughs and to help offset Petrovich’s medical costs. One of the many newly discovered crags was named in honor of John and Alex.
Here, says Brackett, if something happens, you know you’re going to get taken care of.
The Red River Gorge is a complex landscape of dense forests, rivers and overhanging sandstone hollows. For climbers, it is like a chubby kid’s pants: Treats are stuffed in every pocket. And with 750 acres in the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve alone, the possibilities for finding the tasties are practically endless.
Thick drapes of oaks, rhododendron and magnolia trees hide the cliffs from view most of the year, but locals take advantage of the winter visibility to search for new crags by starting atop known crags and walking along the cliff line. Kenny Barker, from Columbus, Ohio, has pioneered many of the new crags in recent years. His outstanding Purgatory is home to the Red’s first 5.14c, Lucifer, first sent by Canadian Mike Doyle, in 2006, and many other five-star 5.13b’s and a few excellent trad lines.
There’s endless cliff line on [the PMRP] alone, Barker says. Roughly 34 crags have been discovered in just the past five years, and that’s not even counting those still unknown to the general public. On a cold, rainy afternoon in the fall of 2006, Barker and Doyle unearthed the newest area gem, the Chocolate Factory. The crag, Barker and Doyle decided, would be the perfect place for the Ultimate Routes for the Petzl RocTrip, when a team of mega athletes would visit their home area.
This rare type of freedom for the Southeast®to have a wealth of rock that’s perfectly suited for climbing at your fingertips, and to be permitted to find and develop it®came slowly, only after years of labored efforts by local climbers in love with the region. Hugh Loeffler, longtime Red local, remembers the Murray property discovery in 1994/95.
Jeff Moll, Chris Martin and Gene Hume had already been climbing at Drive-By crag, says Loeffler. At the time no one cared who owned it. We were still in the infancy of responsibility.
However, in 1996, after Loeffler and fellow locals had explored the property beyond these emergent crags and stumbled across lines that would later become A Clean Well-Lighted Face (5.14a) and Skeletor (5.14c), he wanted to know who owned it. I knew just looking at it that it was world-class climbing and the most aesthetic lines I’d ever seen. I knew people would come if they found out.
Loeffler tracked down the owners, first by asking around among the oil workers that were manning the rigs in the area. As he recalls, relations between climbers and the oil workers at the time were pleasant.
Using the workers’ information, he contacted James Paul Murray, an insurance adjustor who lived on Fixer Road. Loeffler said to Murray, Look man, here’s the deal: We want to climb on your land, and if we climb there we are going to bolt some routes. You have world-class property. If you let us bolt there, you will have lots of people climbing on your land.
He says today, I wanted to be able to sleep at night knowing I had given him full disclosure. When Loeffler returned a few weeks later, Murray told him, You can climb all you want, but I don’t have to know about it. Murray said he would be happy for people to enjoy his property, and gave Loeffler and his fellow climbers a go-ahead.
The climbers were not the only ones with their eyes on the land. These rocky hills are pregnant with natural gas and infamous black gold, and Charmane Oil, the predominant company, had not only been drilling the land, but was always looking for new reserves. So when the land was put on the market in 2004, the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC) and Charmane Oil were both interested in investing in land that, in very disparate ways, held great wealth and potential.
The RRGCC, penniless when compared to Charmane, missed the original deadline to make a payment for the property, and the oil company stepped up and told Murray that it not only had the down payment, but was ready to buy the land right away. Yet because climbers had shown such congeniality to Murray, he told Charmane, Over my dead body, and moved the deadline back.
With efforts from Dr. Bob Matheny, current RRGCC president, and a $15,000 grant from the Access Fund, $83,000 was initially secured in December 2004.
The RRGCC successfully purchased the 750 acres of property, and named it the Pendergrass-Murray Recreation Preserve to honor Murray’s mother and family. This was the largest land purchase ever made by a group of climbers, and every year the RRGCC is tasked with coming up with $30,000 in mortgage payments, money raised entirelyby communal donations and fundraising events such as the annual Rocktoberfest (joined this fall by the Petzl RocTrip).
At first, coming up with the cash was difficult and grim. In 2006, three months before the initial mortgage payment was due, the RRGCC had less than $3,000 in the bank. The coalition needed $29,000.
This time, under the aegis of Michelle Ellington, the community took over and raised the money though raffles, shirt sales, an online PayPal account and postings on various websites. In less than five months, the community brought in $27,000.
Having previously relied on private funding, Morgain Sprague, who later became RRGCC volunteer and fundraising coordinator, and Bentley Brackett, now director of corporate fundraising, visited the hothouse of industry members, the annual Outdoor Retailers trade show, in August 2006.
No one [from the RRGCC] had gone to the outdoor industry for support, says Brackett. Here I was, fresh out of college, having never been to the Show, having never attempted fundraising, trying to get support.
Regardless of Brackett’s lack of experience, many companies-®La Sportiva, FiveTen and Petzl, to name a few®signed on for Rocktoberfest in 2006. With their backing, and a keyed-up community, the 2006 event surpassed everyone’s expectations, once again ensuring that the PMRP, which at last count contains a whopping 40 percent of the Red’s sport routes, would be kept climber-owned and protected from the oil companies.
Still, oilrigs are not an unusual sight. At Drive-By crag, the slow, undulating churn of the oilrig rings just 50 yards down from the cliff line (just adjacent to the PMRP property). Most crags are reached via old oil roads, and at one time, oil workers and climbers butted heads when increased traffic to the crags began wearing out the roads. Relations grew tense for a while as the two sides harbored feelings of resentment that sparked arguments and, in one case, a temporary, unauthorized road block.
Thankfully, today the oil companies and climbers live in relative harmony. Just recently the RRGCC paid Charmane nearly $2,000 for road repairs. Paul Vidal, regional Access Fund rep and local Red climber, says, There’s no doubt these repairs were needed, it was still mainly an act of goodwill and diplomacy. The RRGCC hopes to mollify Charmane, but there will always be that underlying understanding that if the RRGCC misses a payment, Charmane will attempt to swoop in.
As a former local of the Red River Gorge, I’m no stranger to the hordes of weekend warriors that pour into Miguel’s every Friday night. Endless lines across the parking lot to order pizza are hardly a sight worth mentioning, but when Petzl decided to bring the sixth annual RocTrip here on October 12-14, 2007, and join forces with the Red’s annual Rocktoberfest event, people flocked to the Red like the Mecca that it is.
For months prior to the event, the community was anxious to see how the Red would stack up in comparison to the international crags that these well-traveled athletes have visited. Everyone, for example, was wondering whether Thanatopsis (5.14b), the hardest route at the Motherlode, could or would be flashed. Their question was answered a few days before the event kicked off as the young Sean McColl, of Canada, not only became the first person to flash Thanatopsis, but onsighted White Man’s Shuffle(5.13d) the same day.
The Red is one of North America’s premier climbing destinations, says John Evans, marketing director of Petzl America and member of the Access Fund board of directors, and having been there, I knew the athletes would be psyched to spend time there climbing and supporting the cause. Evans knew there would be a good showing, but what he had not anticipated was the enthusiasm of the community, and the amount of help they offered: volunteers were practically falling out of the sky.
The Ultimate Routes at the Chocolate Factory were specifically bolted for the occasion, and bottles of bourbon and cases of Ale-8 made their way to Miguel’s newly expanded dining area to welcome the event.
With Miguel’s back goat field now open to accommodate extra climbers’ tents and cars®and shuttle services to run the thousand-plus attendants to and from Miguel’s, the Red River Outdoors venue, and the Flash Rally Comp®people came from all over the country to see the most read-about and heard-of strong-arms in the sport.
Hundreds of spectators packed into the Motherlode like sardines just to get a glimpse of the Flash Rally. By all accounts, it was one of the biggest outdoor climbing events ever in the United States. Cars lined the road all the way to the Drive-By parking lot a mile away.
Morgan Burton, local Lexington climber says, The Motherlode is now four inches lower, because the whole place got pulled down!
Perhaps more impressive was the Petzl Bounty Route comp, which included six Ultimate Routes of unsent projects or first female ascents and raised $2,500 for the RRGCC. Most notably, Mickael Fuselier made a quick two-day first ascent of Fifty Words for Pump (5.14c), previously undone for nearly a decade. By the first night of the event®with the help of the community and the $10,000 grant awarded by the Petzl Foundation to match the first $10,000 raised®the RRGCC secured the $30,000 payment for 2008, almost a year in advance.
But not only was the community psyched to see the athletes crush for their cause, the athletes themselves were blown away.
I was nervous [the athletes] wouldn’t like the Red, says Sprague, laughing, but all the athletes loved it. Other than Joe Kinder and Said Belhaj, no Petzl athletes had previously been to the Red.
This is some of the best quality rock I’ve ever seen, says Dave Graham, who decided to extend his trip past the event. Cedar Wright, who hosted a slideshow and book signing with Katie Brown in Louisville, Kentucky, that raised $5,000, says, [The Red] is the only world-class climbing area in the United States.
It had been over a year since I last visited the Red and much longer since I’d lived there. But as soon as I stepped into Miguel’s one-room shack, packed wall to wall with gear and people, I was bombarded with hugs and old friends shouting, Whitney, long-time no see!
And when I finally made it back outside, amidst a sea of loitering climbers, physically wrecked after another killer day, someone stood atop Miguel’s picnic table and screamed, Long live the Red!
And we all shouted back, Hell yeah!
Whitney Boland, once a Red local now living in Colorado, became very homesick after writing this article. So she flew to Kentucky, at once.
John Evans, a voracious photographer, donated the proceeds from the photos in this article to purchase an RRGCC/Access Fund ad, to run in the next issue of Rock and Ice.