Climbing at the Red River Gorge

It was four in the morning. My arms hurt, my car reeked, my dogs were restless, my girlfriend was frustrated, and we had picked up a smelly stray dog on the side of the road in rural middle-of-nowhere Kentucky. We were 500 miles from home, exhausted, with three dogs and two people trying to sleep in a muggy Subaru Outback. I thought taking my girlfriend on a road trip would be a good idea. I thought it’d be fun. I had made a sleeping platform, tried to think through all the potential hiccups, bought a memory foam mattress for my car, and planned the adventure far beyond the details I usually attend to on my solo endeavors.

Later that morning I called my dad to vent. I told him the trip was going disastrously and that Erin wanted to go home. He assumed that the quarrels were between the relatively new couple but I told him, “No, we’re not fighting each other. The world is fighting us.” But it did get better, and now that I’m home writing this, with a couple days to process, I can confidently say that it was one of the most fun adventures I’ve had yet.

We started our trip with a quick hop up to Northern Virginia to celebrate St. Patty’s day with Erin’s family in Fairfax. On Friday, while Erin and her mom were getting some last minute cooking done for the party, I got out of their way and hit up Carderock for a couple hours on top rope soloing on the slabby rocks. With a solid layer of snow on the ground from a storm a couple days earlier all my gear came home soaking wet and muddy. But it was a good time and it was nice to get outside on one of the warmer days of my spring break.

Rope soloing at Carderock
Rope soloing at Carderock

Beautiful day for a climb

Spring break had begun a week earlier but I spent the bulk of it studying indoors while the temperatures challenged the cold of the coldest winters in Richmond. I had blocked off a few days of the following week to go on a trip with Erin so I treated that like my break.

On Saturday we took care of some final touches for the party and then celebrated with Erin’s family and family friends. It was an awesome party that was sure to leave us feeling excellent for the 8 hour drive out to Kentucky the next morning.

The faces of a naive couple who has no idea what hellish non-vacation awaits them.

We made it to Kentucky with a couple hours of daylight left and hit up one of the crags on the drive in to climb a solid 5.9+. Then, after tearing our hands up on the sharp sandstone of the Red River Gorge, we grabbed dinner at Miguel’s pizza and drove to our campsite at Lago Linda’s.

All pretty mundane, normal adventure stuff. Happy to be there, happy to be climbing. But the real fun started the next morning when, on our first pitch, an easy slabby 5.7, the sky let loose in a downpour. Erin was on the wall following after my lead and was getting soaked. So I lowered her and then the rain stopped. I stood there, looking at all my gear up on the wall, figuring we should get it now since we’re already wet. So a few moves up the wall to clean and the sky let loose again on me. The holds were useless so I practically jugged up the rope to clean our gear. But once back down on the ground I was livid. The forecast had said the same thing about Monday all week: beautiful, sunny day. Everything we brought out with us was soaked. The rain was done, but the damage was done too.

Pre-rain happy belayer

We decided to pack up and head back to one of the inverted walls that we passed on our way in. Maybe one of those routes would be dry. 5.11d. That was our option of dry routes. I stood at the base of it a justified it by saying, “It doesn’t look that bad,” which Erin mistakenly interpreted as, “It looks good.” I translated later for her. If something isn’t “that bad,” what I really mean is it won’t kill me. If something is good it means it’s probably bad. If something is great you should start worrying. And if something is awesome, it means it’s a nightmare. Don’t ask, it’s just how it is.

So there I am, projecting an 11d (a really hard climb) after just climbing a 5.7 (a really easy climb). And I am wiggin out. My shoes are wet, the humidity is making everything slick, and I’m not climbing well at all. I make it up to an overhang and a few people walk over to check out the route. So I’m losing my sanity trying to get up this thing, and now I have an audience to witness the whole thing. And Erin’s 40 feet down with wet feet wanting no part in this whole ordeal. But we came here to climb and we were going to climb whether it was fun or not damnit. At least that was my thought process at the time.

I locked a quicklink in to one of the bolts less than halfway up the route and got Erin to lower me, sacrificing my gear to the climber gods.

Nothing like a 5.11d to get the trip started and steal your gear. You can see the faint glimmer of the quicklink and my pride just under the roof.

The sun was out now but it was still pretty chilly so Erin and I walked back to the car, took the doggos for a short walk, and then hopped in the car to warm up. After 30 minutes of sitting there hating everything about this trip we googled restaurants nearby and found a small climber joint a couple hundred yards down the road. We enjoyed infant sized burritos and with full bellies decided to try to salvage the day and head over to Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve for some hopefully tamer climbing.

But with a few wrong turns we turned the 20 minute drive into a two hour hunt for the crag. We both were navigating like a couple of goofballs, driving right by our turns, missing signs, convincing ourselves the directions were wrong. The dogs thought the whole thing was hilariously fun, but needless to say, Erin and I did not.

When we finally found it, Erin led her first climb of the trip and then we moved on to a 5.9 just down the way. I thought I could get my confidence and flow back and do something within my ability. But within the first couple bolts I could tell I had lost my chill. I was unwilling to commit to some smaller holds that normally wouldn’t have even phased me. And some good runout between bolts was getting a little nerve-wracking. By the time I made it 2/3 of the way up, I looked at the next bolt and couldn’t find any solid holds that I felt comfortable leveraging up on. I was at a slight lip in the rock and had to get my feet up and over. But the second I did that I would be risking a pretty solid fall and had terrible holds that didn’t inspire much confidence.

I lowered down to Erin to reevaluate. Here we were, sun setting, and I’m on my second climb of the day where I might have to lose gear. Oh, and one of my dogs decided it was a perfect time to sit at the base and incessantly whine at me. Really added to the vibe of the day. Pissed off and disappointed would be an understatement. We decided to try to stick clip that next bolt from the lower bolt. I would clip in direct to the lower bolt, pull the stick up, and clip the higher one. Don’t judge, I was desperate. The problem was, there weren’t any sticks long enough so we had to tape two flimsy sticks together. Once up there, the sticks were so flimsy that I couldn’t get enough leverage to open the gate on the biner. So I resorted to swinging the stick clip at the bolt hanger. After probably twenty tries and a gradually weakening stick threatening to shatter, the biner clipped and we were back in business. I jugged up the rope and climbed the last few bolts to the top, cleaned the route, and we peeled out of there. The next day I googled the route basically asking the interwebs, “what the hell was that?” Back came a whole host of people exclaiming similar things as me. Flippin awesome.

Should’ve walked past it.

We beelined to a place we always know to bring happiness after a rough day: the small town Mexican restaurant. But upon ordering our first round of margaritas we were informed that we were in a “dry county”. UGH LORD ALMIGHTY. Whatever, some fajitas would have to do.

We enjoyed the dinner despite the lack of a post climb beverage and started working our way back to the campsite.


Sidenote: I feel like this day was just a whole series of “and then it got worse.” Some of it was kind of humorously bad, some of it pretty devastating. This last part wasn’t funny.

So, and then it got worse. As we were driving out of town, there’s a dog standing in the middle of the road on a busy stretch of highway on a very steep winding road. And it’s really, really dark. I stop the car, and get it to go see if she has a collar. No collar but I see that she’s seriously pregnant and severely limping. Fan-freaking-tastic. Thankfully she was a huge sweetheart and walked right up to me once I started talking to her. Erin brings me the leash from the car and I walk her down the road to a driveway and Erin swings the car around. Safely off the road, Erin calls the dispatcher in the town to get someone to come up to take the dog.

Poor sweet old preggers Betty.

And then it got worse. The dog catcher is out of town for a few days at his daughter’s graduation and in typical small town fashion, has arranged absolutely nothing while he’s away. The dispatcher, in her sweet Kentucky accent is trying to be helpful but I’m looking for her to eventually say she’ll take the dog for the night. Nope. I remind her that we’re from out of town and we are staying at a campsite and already have two dogs in the car. Nope. So I guess we’re taking this dog for the night.

Once back at the campsite we arrange for Betty (she looked like a Betty), a spot in the passenger seat for the night. Sam slept in the driver seat and Rosie came back into the back with us. Betty was a very well fed dog but wasn’t much taken care of with regard to personal hygiene. Her odor was suffocating in the small car and within an hour of us laying down she started whining. Then she tried crawling back into the back with us. When I woke up with her 80lb self trying to crawl back onto us it smelled so bad that I thought she had pooped in my car. Erin got up to take her out but Betty, understandably confused after having been abducted by some strangers, started wandering off. We figured she was sick of being cooped up in the car so, after Erin had rounded her up, we made a little bed for her outside the car and tied her to a tree. But within minutes the whining began again and with other campers waking up, we realized we couldn’t stay there anymore. We rounded Betty back into the car and drove the 45 minutes back to Beattyville.

The dispatcher had left me a voicemail saying she thought she knew whose dog it was. I googled the lady whose name the dispatcher had given me and first thing I found was her arrest record for trafficking methamphetamines. Wonderful. So Erin found the lady’s address and we drove back there. We figured maybe Betty would walk back home but instead she walked right by the house and headed back up the hill where we originally found her. I walked with her for a mile or so before Erin and I agreed she was just wandering and with cars speeding by, it was no longer safe. At this point it was about 4am and we had slept maybe an hour.

We rounded Betty back up and drove to the Estill County Animal Shelter (please donate to this wonderful organization) which was to open at 8am. At the shelter we tied Betty up to the wheel and made her a bed and laid down to hopefully get at least a couple hours of sleep.

And then right after we had laid down, the school bus driver who also works at the animal shelter shows up to start his bus route. He turns on his bus, which was parked at the shelter, and leaves it running for over 30 minutes to warm it up. And now, trying to sleep with the bus running, I feel like I’m losing my mind. Of all the things to happen that day, whether by chance or our own doing, that one thing I think may have set us over the edge. Understandably he didn’t expect two strangers to be sleeping in his parking lot, but at that point we just came to understand that nothing was going to go our way.

But he finally left and when the shelter opened some employees came over the see what we were doing. Erin woke up and tried to wake me up to no avail. I think I had fallen into a coma. She took Betty into the shelter where they told her that they weren’t supposed to take her because she was from the next county over. But they decided to take her and her who knows how many puppies that are soon to be delivered.

Erin came back to the car and was rearranging some stuff when I finally woke up. There was no life left in either of us but she managed to rally enough energy to drive us back to the campground. She took a shower as I cleaned up the car and came back and asked me, “So, what are we doing?”

I asked her what she meant and she said, “I want to go home.”

I looked at her and said, “I don’t want to talk about this right now. I’m not getting in that car for 8 hours right now so let’s decide what we need to do. Do you want to sleep? Do you want to get breakfast?”

She told me she wanted to sleep and she passed out for 2.5 hours while I took the dogs for a walk and vented to my parents about the hellish day. When she woke up we both agreed to stay in Kentucky and give the trip a second chance. But if anything, literally anything bad happened, we were going to be out of there quicker than Betty off the leash.

2 thoughts on “Climbing at the Red River Gorge”

  1. Sounds like a rough day, wow. Thanks for sharing. I like your effort with the memory foam mattress. Wonder if the dog ever made it back to her owner.

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