"The Red" has, in the last decade, earned its place in the globe-trotting sport climber’s canon. The locals seem just as surprised as anyone else of the discovery of high quality corbine sandstone. The land was only good for pumping crude oil, and even then in modest proportions. It seems like a treasure of another sort has been found hidden in the forest.
Until recently all the tracks running through the Daniel Boone National Forest were designated oil pumping paths, leading from the highway to the pumps scattered in the landscape. Now with the wells drying up somewhat these tracks have been opened to the public, and the crag developers have moved in. There is a certain cyclical aspect—from the decline of one industry a novel way has been found to enjoy the habitat. The clearings in the forest where disused oil pumping paraphernalia stand are being reclaimed by the forest.
Although it contains in excess of 2500 routes already, the area continues to grow and realize its potential. In the campground there are tales of vast caves with only a handful of routes on them, unknown to the public and still with access restrictions. As oil tracks are opened, new crags continue to be found. The Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition (RRGCC) have done an impressive job with paths, bolts and perma-draws, but compared to European crags, the Red still feels in its infancy. "Classic" routes are sometimes no older than five years old, and there are obvious big gaps dying for routes to be created even at the well-travelled crags.
The place has sure character; some would argue the term "Red-neck" is reserved for the kind of folk who live in the Red. Lee County, where many sectors lie, is a dry county. One must go over the county border to the Beer Trailer King to quench that thirst. Miguel’s Pizza, where most climbers camp for just $3 a night, can resemble a music festival more than a campground. Koops is an unremarkable gas station that doubles as the local’s hangout. But they seem to now be slowly embracing this shift in purpose, with more campsites, bars and so on opening up.
What makes the Red unique is the quality and quantity of the rock. Bullet-hard pocketed sandstone, with sculpted iron deposits running through it like the rings in an old oak’s trunk. The angle goes from pleasantly slabby to the sickeningly steep, making the climbing just as good in the easier grades as the hard ones. This means that anyone can have a very good time here, with the highly featured nature of the rock as well as the friendly bolting.
The other unique thing about the Red is the local climbing community, from nearby Lexington or other minor cities in the county, who are as agreeable as the sun is warm on a fine October day. Loud and encouraging, they are happy to meet traveling climbers who come to sample the same treasure as they.
But every treasure must have its blemish, and with the Red it’s the conditions. Particularly in hot weather when humidity is high, the rock can become condensed and all but unclimbable. This is particularly an issue in Spring when there’s more rain fall. However, as the temperature cools down leading in the late Fall months, one can be treated to long spells of blue skies and crisp conditions.
With tales of gun-toting hicks, over-sized pizza portions and immaculate sandstone cliffs from returning friends, I decided to make the pilgrimage myself. I spent the month of November climbing until the prints wore off my fingertips. Sometimes I would going to two or three crags in a day to take best advantage of shade and favorable conditions, sometimes dedicating a week to one cave to finish off a project. I can wholeheartedly confirm that it is some of the best bolted sandstone to be found anywhere, in one of the most unlikely places. What I found was pure Red gold.
Jerome Mowat Climber and writer. Based in Sheffield and London.