The crux of the matter: As passions for rock climbing rise, so do concerns about nature in the Gorge


As winter begins to recede and temperatures reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit, climbers from around the world begin their pilgrimage toward the Burt T. Combs Mountain Parkway east of Lexington to Slade, Ky. From there it’s a matter of minutes to the Eastern Kentucky hills that hold a plethora of climbing routes — the Red River Gorge.

I’m a mediocre climber, but I am an avid climbing photographer, and usually among those trekking to the Gorge, or the “Red,” as climbers affectionately call it. From the moment I leave the city, the landscape subtly changes from a cacophony of automobiles and exhaust fumes to a mellow setting: green grass, rolling hills and miles of white fences, horses and blue sky. During the short two-hour drive from Louisville, my mind sheds thoughts of depressing news reports, and the scenery always reminds me why I love calling Kentucky home.

At the end of the Slade exit ramp from I-64, either a left or right turn leads to a climber’s paradise. But a right turn leads to Miguel’s, a gourmet pizza restaurant, equipment shop and campground all in one. Climbers often converge there before heading to their favorite areas, to meet up with friends, fuel up with food or gather beta (climbing information). Most importantly, Miguel’s supplies ice-cold Ale 8 to climbers needing a pick-me-up, and provides a place to set up a tent and crash after a long day of climbing.

Beyond Miguel’s are 11 extensive climbing areas spread throughout the Red River Gorge geological area, which includes areas within the Daniel Boone National Forest and adjacent private properties. These areas contain more than 110 crags — rugged cliff bands — containing more than 1,300 climbing routes. These make Red River Gorge one of the world’s premier rock climbing destinations.

I have been involved with climbing, mostly alpine climbing, for years. For the past three years I’ve become increasingly involved with rock climbing by dangling from a rope and photographing climbers doing what they do.

A climb in focus
Last month, after shooting Daniel Martian of Toronto as he climbed his way up Transworld — a seemingly impossible climbing route at the Red’s Mother Lode crag — I found a new appreciation for climbers and their passion. Martian, 34, made his climb as I hung — with cameras — from a rope more than 100 feet above boulders, small rocks, dirt, trees and a small creek, where even the slightest breezes spun me helplessly in circles.

I watched as Martian scaled the cliff with intense concentration and painstakingly deliberate moves. I brought my camera to my eye and began shooting. His first move proceeded upward, as he clipped his rope through four or five bolts secured in the rock. He then moved effortlessly (or so it seemed), stretching his body to reach fissures with tiny rock overhangs that he gripped from below in a series of undercling holds. He then crossed one hand over another as he traversed to a point where he could secure himself by jamming his knee into a rock outcropping. This allowed him to briefly rest hands-free.

He followed with a few harder moves to the most difficult part of the climb, what climbers call the crux. At this point, most climbers are already pretty tired, and their hands feel arthritic. Now Martian had to navigate over two sloping crimps, barely graspable pieces of rock about half the size of the tip of an index finger. He moved to another one that was even smaller. The next move was more difficult, to a crimp that was temperature-dependent, meaning it could be slick from humidity and thus hard to hold onto. From there it looked like a completely muscle-straining struggle to a hold on with poor footing. Martian could spend only a half-second balancing himself while moving on through to a ledge with a decent grip.

Clipping the rope into the next two bolts was difficult, but not as difficult as the previous moves. The next several holds were on surfaces no wider than a dime and led him to a small indentation in the rock where he could take a short rest.

After his much-needed breather, Martian moved into the second crux. Yes, the second crux. This one involved a sequence of right-hand-over-left-hand fingertip-sized holds on his way to another microscopic fissure. This was about four feet to Martian’s left. He could only grab it in an undercling hold by gracefully sliding toward it and catching it while putting himself in a full iron-cross position (right arm and left fully extended). He then delicately brought his right foot over his left to a tiny foothold to balance enough to stay on the cliff. From here he made another right-hand move to a tiny sloping rail of a ledge that allowed Martian out of the crux. Another 15 feet up brought him to a big pocket in the rock, about 120 feet off the ground, where he could finally rest. He made the final push to the top by tackling a series of 15 moves that would challenge even Spiderman. After about 90 moves in all, Martian arrived atop a 160-vertical-foot accomplishment. Whew!

Solidarity on the rocks
While all climbers say climbing is what lures them to the Gorge, there’s more to it than that. Climbers from around the world say they seek out like-minded people who are passionate about climbing, friendship and nature.

“Once you fall in love with climbing, it can become an almost obsessive passion,” says Jason Forrester, a seasoned climber and Louisville native. “Only climbers or someone who trains for something every day can understand.”

Kyle Fisher, 23, of Louisville, says “the people, definitely the people” are a big draw, along with the sport’s invariable physical and geological challenges. “You are never really finished,” he says. ”There is always another route to explore that produces a whole new set of physical and mental challenges.”

This social aspect creates a tightly knit community, where members share years of knowledge and love for their sport. It all transcends national borders.

“What’s telling is not the numbers that come to the Gorge, but from how far they come,” says Bill Strachan, executive director of the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition, who’s been climbing in the area since the 1970s. He’s met climbers from Australia, France, Germany and Japan, and he says he sees a “constant occupation of the Gorge by Canadians.”

Dave Hinton, 34, from Waterloo, Ontario, was one of the “occupiers” last month. He comes to the Gorge twice a year. “I love climbing,” Hinton says, but adds that “if it wasn’t for the people I meet, I wouldn’t climb nearly as much.”

Martian and his climbing partner, Lorenzo Sasarean, both live in Toronto but hail from Romania. Both say the people they meet here is what brings them back to the Gorge.

More climbers and new dilemmas
Over the past 15 years, the popularity of rock climbing has grown at the Red and is evident to local climbers, especially Ray Ellington of Lexington, who’s been climbing there since 1992. “Climbing has definitely exploded,” says Ellington, the author of “The Red River Gorge Climbing Guide,” which was published last year. “It’s absolutely outrageous how it’s grown at the Red River Gorge.”

The popularity is part of the overall rise of rock climbing that’s been fueled by new climbing tools and technologies developed over the past 15 years. Rock climbing’s popularity peaked in 2002, according to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, which annually tracks Americans’ participation in human-powered outdoor activities.

 That year, more than 6.7 million Americans participated in natural rock climbing, and the industry counted another 870,000 as enthusiast rock climbers, or the most frequent participants in the sport. While the foundation’s most recent statistics show both numbers were lower in 2004, those who went rock climbing did so more frequently.

More people congregating to climb, of course, means more trash and disputes about access to climbing areas. This has happened in the Daniel Boone National Forest and nearby private properties.

A perfect example is Torrent Falls, a business that caters to tourists with a bed and breakfast and several cabins on 42 acres, including 7 acres of cliffs. For the past eight years, Mark Meyer, who owns Torrent Falls, has been kind enough to let climbers use his land free of charge. However, this spring he got fed up with people on his property leaving trash, urinating (even though he has a portable toilet for the public), letting dogs run loose and cursing loudly. He sent an e-mail message to climbing groups with a list of rules, which he had posted on his property, and a warning that if behavior didn’t improve by May 1, he would no longer give climbers access. By the deadline he had noticed a change and decided to continue letting climbers on Torrent Falls. But he will ban climbers if the old behavior returns. “You already had your grace period. Next time there won’t be a warning,” he says.

Rick and Liz Weber also own nearby private property. They purchased what they now call The Muir Valley in 2003 and made it into a nature preserve and rock climbing area, which operates under Kentucky’s Recreational Use Laws. Rick Weber says he understands Meyer’s frustration and his actions, but he doesn’t see the boorish behavior as a general characteristic among climbers. “It’s certainly part of the population overall, not just rock climbers,” he says. (He adds that visitors who use recreational vehicles inappropriately in natural areas cause many more social and environmental problems.)

The U.S. Forest Service has also struggled with the demands of protecting the environment of the Boone Forest and allowing climbers to use its nearly 700 climbing routes for recreational use. In 1993 it banned climbers from installing safety bolts in the forest’s cliffs before lifting the ban in 1996 and placing severe restrictions on creating new climbing routes. In 2005, the Forest Service closed several rock shelters and climbing routes because of over-use from all recreational users, not just climbers, and environmental concerns in sensitive biological and archeological areas. The trampling of vegetation that comes with use can lead to soil erosion.

“We are most concerned about archaeological resources and the rare plant White-haired Goldenrod,” says Tim Eling, who works for the Forest Service. He is coordinating a project called “Limits of Acceptable Change.” The project aims to protect the Boone Forest’s environment by developing new policies for recreational use with input from people who use the land.

Eling says he’s seen dedicated climbers commit to working with the Forest Service and other diverse groups, including archeologists, who use this federally designated wilderness area. He says while both climbers and archeologists were suspicious of each other at the onset of discussions, they now better understand each others’ interests.

“ have only surveyed 15 percent of the Gorge,” he says. “They are still piecing together the puzzle.”

The climbers have learned about archeological discoveries, including seeds found at rock shelters that indicate nearly 3,000 years ago inhabitants began domesticating plants and farming the land. (This was one of several reasons parts of the forest were designated a National Archaeological District in 2003.) The Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition’s help in securing a $10,000 grant in 2000 for an archaeological survey and climbing management recommendations in one area of the forest illustrates many climbers’ appreciation for the land’s heritage.

Despite the respect many climbers show for the land, Eling says that every recreation group has an “outlaw component,” adding, “and that’s a certain percentage that’s difficult to reach.”

Still, Strachan says the coalition is working to make all climbers aware of how their actions impact the environment and other people in forests, parks and places like Torrent Falls. He believes a lot of the climbers who cause problems are new climbers coming from gyms where they have just learned the basics.

“ don’t have the awareness of the actual climbing environment,” he says.

Several years ago, the coalition recognized that these issues could curtail its members’ activities, so they set out to purchase their own land with good climbing routes.

“As we got into these issues, we found that the only way to guarantee access was for the climbers themselves to own the land,” Strachan says.

In 2004, the group took out a mortgage to purchase the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve, which contains more than 350 climbing routes that are considered some of the best in the Gorge. That year it made a $350,000 down payment on the property and its first annual installment of $29,400.

The coalition was able to make previous payments with a generous $83,000 donation from its current board president Bob Matheny, but this year it required fund-raising. The group has already raised the $29,400 mortgage payment that is due by July. Contributions have come from climbers throughout Kentucky and beyond, including a $2,500 grant from The Access Fund, a national non-profit organization dedicated to keeping climbing areas open and to conserving the climbing environment, and $1,000 from a gym in Michigan. The coalition is now working on raising its payments for 2007 and the following six years (the last payment due in 2013). The coalition also plans to improve and preserve the land for all sorts of recreational uses, including but not limited to rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running, hiking and camping. All of these activities and their financial commitments prompted the group to attain 501c(3) status this year.

“With this purchase, we’re having to grow up and get big,” Strachan says.

So there is good news. Between the preservation of the beauty of the Red River Gorge and the coalition’s efforts, the future popularity of rock climbing seems to have strong footing in Kentucky.

Elizabeth Kramer contributed to this article.

Contact the writer at [email protected]