In last month’s issue, I wrote an article on the Red River Gorge and the history of climbing access there. Researching and writing that piece allowed me to relive the weeks I spent at the Red as a college undergrad – young(er), more clueless (if you can believe it), but totally enchanted by everything that was and is the Red River Gorge. It was our outdoor program’s go-to fall break spot, but I hadn’t been back to that little slice of Kentucky heaven in nearly three years.
Last weekend, I decided, was a good time to change that.
From Asheville, N.C., I drove five hours northwest until I came to the small town of Slade, Ky. Aside from single lane roads, a couple diners, and a handful of gas stations, there’s not much in Slade (except, of course, some of the best Corbin sandstone in the world). It was here at Miguels Pizza that I met up with the crew – Adam, Dave, and Roberto. These three guys first met in Davis, W.Va., years ago where both Adam and Dave still reside. Climbing, ski patrolling, trail maintenance, road trips to Veracruz…these guys have shared quite a few good times together. After a few slices of pizza and some beers to wash it down, it was time to head back to our camp in the National Forest.
The weather for the weekend could not have been more perfect for climbing. Sunny and sixty degrees was all the forecast called for from Friday thru Sunday. Knowing this, and knowing the crowds that would likely swarm to the Red on Saturday, we decided to hit up one of the most popular climbing areas in the gorge – Muir Valley – first.
Over 400 acres in size and with more than 350 routes of varying difficulty, it’s no wonder Muir Valley is such a hot spot. Moderate climbers (ah hem, me) flock to the Bruise Brothers and Sunny Side walls while the Sharmas head deeper into the property to try their hand at any number of 5.12+ projects at the Solarium or Midnight Surf crags.
When you arrive on Muir Valley’s property, chances are you’ll either be greeted by Rick and Liz Weber, the owners of Muir Valley, or Roger VanDamme, the Chairman of the volunteer organization Friends of Muir Valley. Warm, welcoming, and smiling, these three friendly faces are the brains behind Muir Valley. Trail maintenance, fundraisers, emergency training, heck, even stocking the soda machine with Ale-8-1, whatever it is that needs doing, the crew at Muir Valley is on it.
It’s that dedication to a quality climbing experience that makes Muir Valley unique. Rick and Liz, now well into their seventies, have committed the past two decades of their lives to expanding and improving Muir Valley. Their love affair with the area shows, too, and after a quick walk around the property with Liz at the lead, it was obvious to me that their passions have paid off ten-fold. Beginner and professional climbers alike know of the Webers, and everyone we passed acknowledged Liz by name and thanked her profusely for “what you guys do.”
Liz is a sharp cookie and could easily out-climb me, despite our nearly half-a-century in age difference. She knows Muir Valley the way you know your childhood home, and as we walked along the trails, she versed me in the ways of Big Leaf Magnolias and the troubles of erosion. I had interviewed Liz for the article I wrote last month without ever having met her, and after spending just a couple hours with her on my final day in the Red, I realized that everything I ever hoped to be in life resided in that fiery-sweet pistol of a woman. She’s strong, she’s smart, and she settles for nothing but the best (especially when it comes to her beloved Muir Valley) – that’s why she was quick to express her disappointment that I had not mentioned the Webers’ intentions to gift Muir Valley (that’s right, gift, as in a Christmas gift) to Friends of Muir Valley, an act that would require the volunteer organization to raise $200,000 in 2014 to prove that the group could cover upcoming operation and maintenance costs through 2015.
If you’ve ever climbed at Muir Valley, you’ve likely noticed how well-maintained the place is, how nice the facilities are, or the fact that they have loaner stick clips available for visiting climbers. Though there are hundreds of other crags to climb at in the Red, you likely won’t receive such a thoughtful experience anywhere else. With Roger and his volunteer crew at the helm, this place operates like a well-oiled machine on even the busiest of weekends. If you want to help these passionate people keep Muir Valley as such, then donate now. Every dollar counts.
We thought about getting up early. That idea did cross our minds at some point the previous night. But the fact of the matter is, we were more bent on breakfast burritos and perc coffee than beating the crowds. Consequently, we were on the crack-of-noon club that Saturday and opted to check out Military Wall and Left Flank by Nada Tunnel instead of exploring deeper into Muir Valley and risking spending the day doing more waiting than climbing.
One of the best things about climbing at the Red is the diversity of folks you meet – from Cincinnati gym rats to European rock stars (no pun intended, maybe), people will travel halfway across the world if they need to, just to climb at the Red.
Sometimes I forget how lucky we are to be so close to such quality rock climbing. As I hung in my harness at the top of Sunshine, snapping photos of Adam leading and listening to tidbits of a conversation our neighboring climbers were having in Italian, I was reminded of how unique of an experience this was, to be in the heart of Kentucky amid a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds and ideals. Even some of the hippest cities lack that thread of diversity, and the coolest part about it all was the shared love of climbing that united people from all walks of life.
We climbed until dark that day, ending the night with a stop at another climbing hub – Sky Bridge Station. We drank IPAs on empty stomachs and fueled our aching bodies with quesadillas. We helplessly defended ourselves in a game of darts and chatted with the locals who gave us hand-drawn maps and climbing beta. The energy was visceral, the vibe tangible, and (apparently) we closed the place down before returning to our quiet corner of the woods, the guys to prepare for another day of climbing and I to return back to Asheville.