On many occasions, Sebastion (aka Sebs, aka Professor Crush) has suggested we make a trip to Kentucky’s Red River George. Though the RRG is the preeminent sport climbing destination in the United States, I always considered ‘sport climbing destination’ to be oxymoronic, usually keeping my bolt clipping local while building longer trips around intimidating trad destinations that shred both the skin and the nerves. But the RRG is on every serious climber’s bucket list and the prospect of a week climbing amazing sandstone with great friends was too enticing to let my idealism derail the fun.
I also knew that Sebs, who in his Chicago days spent many weekends roadtripping to the Red, would give a first class tour. So I sent the hang dog bat signal out and Tyler, Kevin and Andrew answered the call, joining us from Boulder.
After wasting most of the preceding week watching RRG climbing porn, I have to admit being a touch underwhelmed on Day 1. We settled in to an outcropping along the Chocolate Factory cliff band where the routes were punchy, but fairly short and discontinuous. Along the base, ground had been pounded to fine dust by the mortar and pestle action of thousands of steps. Climber erosion left tree roots damaged and bare and the hillside below the overhanging routes was rapidly receding as a result of the frequent scramble back to the base. But after a long trip and a morning visit to the Waffle House, it felt great to shake off the rust and reset my palate with a taste of the RRG sandstone. More importantly, my first visit to Miguel’s Pizza that evening didn’t disappoint, nor did the local brew.
Day 2 quickly erased any lingering skepticism. Though climber traffic was heavy at Muir Valley’s Sanctuary, the area was well kept and the climbs were truly unique. Sebs flashed the classic and techy Jesus Wept and I followed suit with a hard fought redpoint. The Boulder crew sampled a bunch of quality lines and as the evening crept in, we found a booth at Miguel’s and carved the day into memory, reliving our time on the rock with only slightly embellished tales over monster pizzas.
The next day, Sebastion and Ryan rested while the rest of us ventured into the fog for another round. My third day on, I planned to climb light, enjoy the company of longtime friends I rarely see, and explore the surroundings. The plan to ease off immediately dissolved in the rain. It may have been the smarmy weather, but Too Many Puppies (5.12a) was the only route I found to be sandbagged during the trip, spitting me off at the top during a hard fought onsight attempt. The route was too fun to leave it in an unsent condition, so I tied back in and powered up, officially wasting me for day 4, despite recovery pizza and beer.
It was the Boulder crew’s turn to rest on day 4 and I was spent. So naturally I tagged along with Ryan and Sebs. We climbed one of the most fun routes of the trip, Crown Of Thorns (5.11c), at Brightside. Great climbing leads into and then out of a gigantic hueco and a heartbreaker crux guards the chains.
The rain again kicked up, depositing a cloud through the forest and on the rock. Poor conditions came with the advantage of less traffic, as climbers decided it better to wait for crispy weather in the forecast. In the silence of a solitary atmosphere, the rain drew out perfect fall colors, which didn’t seem to fade in the grey light of stormy skies. Pizza and beer yada yada yada.
Day 5 the Boulder crew was back at it and we visited Drive By Crag, home to some of the best 5.10 climbing at the RRG. We were lucky to get an early start as the popular area quickly filled with several groups of climbers looking to try their luck on the classic moderates. Our good timing continued and we also snuck into a gap in the queue to climb the 4-star Check Your Grip (5.12a), with Tyler knocking off the pitch in calm and collected onsight fashion.
Basking in sending glow, we returned to the Left Flank, where several lines had caught our eye on a previous day. There we ran into a group climbing Mercy the Huff, a classic 5.12b. As we approached, distant sounds of Taylor Swift grew in volume until we arrived at the serenade. The climber on Mercy took a short fall then complained of an injured shoulder. Her dog at the base paced slowly toward us, growling through bared teeth. She looked down and yelled “Don’t mind her – As long as you don’t go near, she’s harmless.” We gingerly circled wide around the dog and dropped our packs.
With only three in their immediate group, we were optimistic that we’d get an attempt on the popular line. But they said others in their extended group might want to climb the route, putting the route squarely in the purgatory column. The climber fell again and lowered, lamenting her tweaked shoulder and speculating that she would need a couple days of recovery before she should try anything hard again.
I asked the belayer if I might pull the idle toprope on the neighboring line, Table of Colors (5.13a), to give the route a go. She agreed as long as I’d reset a second draw stick clip. Fortunes continued to improve when Taylor Swift was switched off and the dog, now resigned to our presence, rescinded into a more passive antisocialism.
The route was fantastic and I was pleasantly surprised to peel only once on the onsight attempt. With nobody lining up for Mercy The Huff, it looked as though Tyler could sneak in a go. But as my toes hit the ground, the climber with an injured shoulder decided she was sufficiently recovered and tied back in for another draw-to-draw session. Gradually the other climbers in their party materialized and at least 5 of them staked claim to a burn on Mercy.
Now with a stick clip on Table of Colors, the other climber announced to the group that she’d actually prefer a toprope burn and implored her friends to lead the pitch. When none of them answered the call, I said that I’d love a second go and would be happy to toss the rope up. Apparently this was the motivation she needed to take the sharp end and she curtly declined the favor.
Tired of being subject to the whims of their charity, and with a taste in our mouths worse than Waffle House cheese waffles, beer and pizza began to sound like a better option.
Day 6 was the Boulder group’s last before driving the 18 hours across the Midwest, back to the mountains. It was our final chance to visit a high priority, Twinkie. The 5.12a has the biggest buckets and steepest continuous angle of any climb at the grade I’ve ever done. To the right, a more difficult sister line, Fantasia (5.12d) ventured up the incredible formation. The memorable routes were a perfect way to end the trip and we said our goodbyes over huge pizzas.
At this point, pepperoni grease was beginning to seep out of my belly button and my pits smelled of pesto. But Day 7 was the last for Professor Crush, Ryan and I and after a long debate, we decided another round at Muir Valley would be a perfect way to end the visit. We were not disappointed. After six days on, I didn’t know what to expect, except for pizza, but I was surprised to tick a couple amazing lines, including a redpoint of Triple Sec (5.12d) and a flash of Peace Frog (5.12d). Sebs added a proud tick as well, flashing Triple Sec. The first crux involves cranking through four 3-finger pockets stacked diagonally on an otherwise blank face before a desperate lunge to a good ledge.
In the fading light, we ventured across the valley to an incredible route on an incredible cliff, Cell Block Six (5.12c) at Midnight Surf. I’ve never experienced a pitch like it. Big moves through giant rectangular huecos became a game of shake and throw. In the end I was too tired to thrutch through the crux. Sebs had no such difficulty and clipped the chains for a proud send to end an amazing day.
Though we could smell the pizza, we weren’t ready to stop climbing and we threw on our headlamps for another pitch. The big whips in the dark were conclusive evidence that we were sufficiently thrashed.
Despite all the great climbing, the highlight of the trip was a true rarity as we’ve all gradually been swallowed by the realities of adult life – spending a week with close friends and few day-to-day responsibilities or distractions.
Overall, the RRG experience confirmed both my hopes and concerns. Climber traffic is heavy and the competition for routes can turn an atmosphere of sharing into one of ownership and staked claims. But the area is huge and can absorb throngs of climbers. As the RRG continues to gain popularity and sport climbing continues to grow, it’s up to all of us who visit to tread lightly and play nice.
Thanks to Sebastion, Ryan, Andrew, Kevin and Tyler for an amazing trip. Hopefully a squeal is in the near future.