It’s autumn and as the reds and yellows appear in the leaves of the trees so do the neon pants and Sprinter vans of the annual rush of climbers to Kentucky's Red River Gorge. It’s an exciting time, seeing so much psych for your favorite area, but as a local climber it’s hard not grumble in October. It’s the best conditions of the year, but whether you are climbing 5.9 or 5.13, you’ll be waiting on most climbs located at all but the most overlooked crags. Today is the Saturday of Rocktoberfest, the biggest fundraising event of the year and perhaps the single busiest climbing day at the Red. To avoid the rush, I choose to go to Curbside, a crag in the popular PMRP but far from a classic wall. As I climb on the fingery pockets of Curbside’s premier route Wildfire 5.12a/7a+, I enjoy the sun coming through the slowly changing leaves, its rays each day becoming a little more acute as winter approaches. But despite the relentlessly-shortening days, summer seems to be lingering this year. It’s in the 70s, and while the air is dry, it lacks the crispness of autumn. The wind isn’t rustling the leaves, so the climbers are scrambling for their fleece jackets. It’s nice, but we still wait for those perfect fall conditions to arrive.
It’s winter and the conditions have come and gone, or at least they did for the road-tripping visitor. For us locals, however, winter is far from the desolate wasteland of snow and ice that it might seem. It’s a Thursday in January, and most of the world is inside at work. However, a forecasted high of 40 and full sun has prompted me to take a last-minute vacation day and make the early-morning drive to the Red. Miguel’s is closed for the season, and on a weekday like this there is little chance of seeing another climber, even at the popular Funk Rock City. Funk Rock is the ultimate winter crag: Fully south-facing with technical, vertical lines that beg be to be climbed in the cold. Mega-classics like the Infidel 5.11d/7a and Orange Juice 5.12c/7b+ bask in the low light of a winter sun, and climbing with a t-shirt even in the 40s (or even the 30s) is a joy. Accessed by a thirty-minute hike and a stream crossing (only sometimes bridged by a fallen tree), Funk Rock seems wilder and more isolated than many of the crags at the Red. Located on National Forest land, only lines established before the 1996 bolting ban exist, and while this certainly leaves much potential unbolted, it is also refreshing that almost every climb is a classic. Sixty feet up on Orange Juice I slow my breathing and clear my mind on the pre-crux rest. Above me a vulture calmly circles. Below me the orange streak that gives the climb its name descends into the grey forest, dotted occasionally with the dark green of the rhododendron bushes. And for a little while the winter doesn’t seem so cold or dark.
It’s spring, a balmy morning in April, and clouds sit on the bluffs surrounding Miguel’s. It’s not the rising winter mist, pulled into the dry air, soon to be chased away by the rising sun. No, these are clouds that have slumped into the valley, heavy with rain with nowhere to go. It’s not hot but it’s clammy and sticky. Thunderstorms are forecast for the late morning; is a heavy rain going to eliminate all chances of climbing? Spring is perhaps the time when being a local to the area is the most beneficial. With decent temperatures but wet and variable weather, the knowledge of what (if anything) will be dry is invaluable. The Red is certainly one of the best rainy-day locations in the world, with near-endless walls of overhanging sandstone. But even overhangs can’t escape condensation and seepage, the two mortal enemies of the springtime climber. On this day we make the easy choice to climb in the Bob Marley cave. Surely one of the driest locations in the Red, the cave also has a breeze that often keeps the condensation away when other crags are beaded with water. A light drizzle accompanies the approach, and as we warm up on the cave’s steep, juggy climbs, the rain picks up and we are suddenly reminded of the forecast as a peel of thunder rolls. The rain starts to pour and we can feel the temperature cooling by the minute. Counterintuitively, the rain takes some of the humidity out of the air and the breeze picks up. We’re in business! A cloudburst that anywhere else would have ruined all plans to climb brings relief at the Red River Gorge.
It’s summer in the Red, the true test of our dedication to outdoor climbing. I arrive at the crag sweating profusely, throw down my pack, and shed my already soaked shirt; I certainly won’t be needing it for the rest of the day. Unlike winter, summer at the Red is still bustling with other visitors. Hikers and campers, bikers and bicyclists, canoers and kayakers enjoy the steamy beauty of the gorge. As for the climbers, we survive. Summer is a time to have no expectations of sending, bring gallons of water to the crag, and above all, find shade. Today I am at Purgatory, one of the Red’s most iconic crags. Though the rock itself might not be the most breathtaking at the Red (this distinction is reserved for the yellow-and-black-striped Gold Coast wall), the surroundings might be. Before throwing pack and shirt to the ground, there is a moment when the scene captures me, even after many visits. A natural doorway in the rock opens like a portal onto a huge bowl-shaped depression. A huge amphitheater towers above, bisected by a waterfall cascading two hundred feet to the ground. Classic lines, one after another, greet you as you proceed left Gluttony 5.12a/7a+, Dracula ‘04 5.13b/8a, Lucifer 5.14c/8c+, Paradise Lost 5.13a/7c+), all gloriously shaded here in the early afternoon. I tie in underneath Dracula, literally staring face-to-face with the hardest moves on the route, holds that cry out for good friction. I’m not going to send; this would be impossible to expect. But that isn’t what summer is about. Summer is about being in this beautiful place, and about preparing for the future, for those dry, cool October days that attract climbers from far and wide. And in the heat and humidity of a Kentucky summer, I try to keep in mind just how lucky I am to live close enough to see all sides and all seasons of the Red River Gorge.
Climber and photographer living in Cincinnati, OH