One summer day in 2006, then 17-year-old Greg Kerzhner arrived at the Motherlode in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, looked around, and saw no one he knew to ask for a belay. Spontaneously, he decided to climb without one, up BOHICA (5.13b).
Located in the Madness Cave sector of the Motherlode, BOHICA is one of the steepest and most sustained routes at the Red, zipping up 110 feet of severely overhanging finger jugs.
The Motherlode is a standing tsunami of sandstone rearing up suddenly out of the Eastern Kentucky forest. The Madness Cave lies at the innermost reaches of the crag, reposing at more than 45 degrees past vertical over a massive, boulder-strewn hole excavated by the waterfall that pours over its lip. It is littered with positive holds, which, being sandstone, can break. Kerzhner later repeated the solo for a photographer.
Kerzhner is young, 18 as of May. His parents, Jews from the Ural Province of Russia, won the green-card lottery, and jumped at the chance of emigration to avoid religious discrimination and requisite military service for their sons. Kerzhner was 10 when the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio.
The first day of school, speaking no English, he went attired in pink Capri pants and Velcro Power Ranger shoes, and was for the rest of the year dubbed “Power Ranger shoes” by his witty fellow fourth-graders.
As soon as Kerzhner’s older brother, Mike, got his license, he began driving himself and Greg six hours south to the Red River Gorge to go climbing.
“My parents were both busy at work and let me do whatever I wanted as long as I paid for it and kept my grades up. I may have done a few things younger than I should have, but I would not have my childhood any other way,” says Greg.
Last summer, having ticked the whole Motherlode, including Thanatopsis (5.14b), and most of the Red’s testpieces, Kerzhner drove alone to Rifle, Colorado, where he redpointed Zulu (5.14a), Living in Fear (5.13d) and Simply Read (5.13d), all in short order. He started at Duke University in the fall on a full scholarship.
Q&A with Greg Kerzhner
How did you start climbing?
I was 7 and Yekateringburg, where I was born in Russia, was still recovering from Communist rule. The government organized sports to allow the people to mingle, one of which was a youth climbing team. I got into it and trained with them until we moved to America.
How long did it take to become fluent in English?
Probably two years. They put me in these ESL classes, so while the other kids learned addition and did science experiments, I was coloring in pictures.
Now you’re going to Duke on an almost full ride.
I was really lucky to be one of eight winners of this scholarship. I just have to pay for books and food. There are 19,000 applicants [about 4,000 are accepted] to the college, then 34 of the people attending got picked to interview for the scholarship.
How many times had you climbed BOHICA before soloing it?
Well, I was working the extension to BOHICA—Last of the Bohicans (5.13d). There’s a really long move up there and I fell on the extension maybe 15 times, so I had climbed BOHICA that many times plus the 10 or so tries it took me to do BOHICA the first time.
Were you scared?
No. I had gotten it to the point where I wouldn’t really get pumped on it. I could sit and rest on the anchor-clipping hold. I just had it super dialed. Before I soloed it I even did it barefoot.
Just to see if I could.
What time of year did you do it?
It was summer. I was living at Miguel’s. It was actually really hot, like high 80s and humid. I’d climbed the day before and that day I wanted to go out to the Motherlode and work on Take That, Katie Brown (5.13b). I got there and there wasn’t anybody I knew to belay me.
Do your parents know you soloed BOHICA?
My parents don’t know anything about it.
Was there anybody else at the cliff?
Yeah, actually. There was a kid with his parents and he saw what I was doing. That night back at Miguel’s, the kid’s father tried to ream me out. The kid was with the USA climbing team or something. His dad was one of the coaches.
What did he yell at you about?
How irresponsible it was. He just kept going on, but I was being a dick and not taking in what he was saying.
Do your parents know you’re sponsored?
Oh, yeah, I only tell them the good stuff. Otherwise they’re pretty disconnected from my climbing. My brother knows about the solo. Not the older brother, just the middle one. He sent me a really angry e-mail after he heard. He said it was really irresponsible and how our parents would be really sad if I died.
How do you feel about it today?
Pretty good. It was definitely a good experience. I wouldn’t do it again, though.
I already did it twice.
Can you explain the nickname “Doublebag”?
After your solo, Migeul gave you a free large pizza as a reward. What are some other ridiculous things you encountered at Miguel’s?
Countless nights of fueling the fire with gasoline, and one night of watching the fire evolve into a giant circle that spread to Miguel’s basement. Also, Kentucky Joe once convinced a group of Harvard kids to get naked in a cave. The list goes on.
How is College?
College kicks ass.