Story and photos by Stuart Peck
On an oppressively humid Saturday in June, Roger VanDamme walks the trails of Muir Valley. He’s not looking for a route to climb but instead making his rounds to see what work needs to be done. The valley is kept in pristine condition, and trails are maintained and bridges and staircases are designed not only for climbers to access the towering sandstone walls but also for rescue crews to get to injured climbers if there’s ever a situation. Every detail has been thoroughly thought about, every possible scenario played out in the heads of the owners of this crag. Now comes a new hill to climb—the changing of the guard from the longtime owners of Muir Valley to the nonprofit group that will oversee this venue into the future.
Ten years ago, Rick and Liz Weber stepped into Muir Valley, a hidden wonderland, nestled in the hilly region of eastern Kentucky that sits at the doorstep of the Daniel Boone National Forest. What they saw amazed them beyond belief and they immediately set out to buy the property.
“We were overwhelmed by the combination of a blank canvas of wall after wall of incredible Corbin sandstone cradling a valley of natural beauty,” said Liz Weber.
With hundreds of routes conveniently packaged in a highly maintained, natural, rock climber paradise it’s no wonder the valley sees tens of thousands of visitors each year. Muir Valley’s popularity isn’t slowing down. The number of people hiking the trails and roping up at the crags is growing exponentially, and the Webers realize they won’t always be able to act as the keepers of the valley. That’s where Friends of Muir Valley (FOMV) enters the scene. A nonprofit group formed in 2004 (not long after the Webers bought the valley) was created to maintain and manage the operations of this world-class climbing area.
“This valley is a tremendous resource for entry level climbers, and that community of climbers is growing quickly,” said VanDamme, the chairman of Friends of Muir Valley. “Muir Valley is one of the rare places where you can go park at a single parking lot and access 30 climbing walls without shuffling your car.”
This year, Friends of Muir Valley, along with the Webers, announced their intention to transition the property to the ownership of the nonprofit group so it could remain in climber-friendly hands for future generations to enjoy. The transition comes with a few stipulations, the largest being FOMV must raise $200,000 to cover costs of maintaining the valley to the high standards the Webers have put into place. A fundraising campaign began in March and the funds have to be raised by the end of the year in order for the transfer to take place.
“It was always the Webers’ idea, when they bought the property, to eventually turn it over to the climbing community,” VanDamme states. “The support has been fantastic from the climbers. I’m confident we’ll meet our goal.”
Friends of Muir Valley has tapped into the expertise of the Access Fund to help with the transition. The national group, which works to ensure access to climbing areas around the United States, has helped with grant proposals and used their vast network to get the word out about the transition.
“Climbing on private land is a privilege,” says Joe Sambataro, director of access for the Access Fund. “We have so much to be thankful for to Liz and Rick Weber for opening up Muir Valley to the public to enjoy over the last decade,” Sambataro said. “Across the United States, climbers have lost access to other cherished areas due to a variety of circumstances. As a climbing community, we can never take access for granted.”
Sambataro recalls first climbing in Muir Valley in 2004, while still in college. Like many others who visit the valley or call Muir their home crag. He didn’t realize the land was a privately owned area that had been opened to climbing through the grace of the Webers. VanDamme says that’s one of the big challenges: educating the community of climbers about this treasured outdoor destination.
Raising $200,000 is a formidable challenge and already the organization is well on their way to reaching that goal. As of publication, Friends of Muir Valley has already received over $60,000 in donations, most of which is directly from the climbing community. FOMV, with the help of the Access Fund, has also submitted a grant to the Conservation Alliance, a powerful group of outdoor-minded businesses, in hopes of receiving a sizable dollar amount to add toward that goal.
In the eyes of VanDamme and the rest of the board of directors, lowering the standards of Muir Valley to save money is not a viable option. The group is getting creative with ways to raise money and all options for future fundraising are on the table, according to the board chairman.
“If the climbing community continues to support [Muir Valley] through donations the way that it has, there’s no reason to change anything,” he said. “We’re not accepting a gift from the Webers and then changing the dream. It’s our mission to carry on their dream.”
UPDATE AS OF 3.1.2015! The FOMV has reached their goal and will be taking over ownership and operation of the Muir Valley property beginning in March of 2015. Congratulations and here’s to many more years of climbing in the Valley!