Cold Kentucky Climbing

By: Jake Mansfield

Photos Courtesy of Josh Gonzalez

From September through mid-December, climbers all over the country descend upon their favorite rock-climbing destinations for their fall trips. This is widely considered “Climbing Season”. This means everywhere from your local crag to Yosemite National Park will be at its highest volume of climbers all year. This time of year is optimal for climbing because colder temperatures mean better friction between your hands and the rock, not overheating, and the rubber in your climbing shoes working the way it was designed. These factors can make all the difference when making the last attempt of the year on your elusive project. The lower temperatures bring the benefits of better climbing, but also the discomforts of cold weather camping and hiking.

If you don’t have the proper gear and know-how, cold weather conditions can quickly turn into a miserable experience. It all comes down to planning for the conditions you could encounter and bringing the right gear for the job. Knowing how to stay warm and dry can make the difference between having a great trip with friends, and having sleepless, shivering nights between climbs.

This November, a group of staff from Kendall Cliffs and Appalachian Outfitters took a climbing trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. We set the dates for the trip a few weeks out, so we had no way to know that the conditions would be in the 40s and rainy pretty much the whole trip. Wet conditions meant that we were restricted to climbing in overhung and protected areas, while also making camping a bit more interesting. As we watched the weather forecast, we started to prepare our gear for the worst. This meant we had to pack spare clothes, waterproof gear, and lots of wool on top of our normal camping and climbing gear sets.

When we arrived, it had been raining in the area for hours and showed no signs of letting up. This dashed our climb we had planned for our first night, but we had planned ahead and found a backup list of dry walls that we knew would be protected from any rain. I am a big supporter of guidebooks for this reason. Not only does it give you insider knowledge about the areas with the best climbs, but it also supports local access efforts in the area you are climbing in. We postponed setting up camp and set out to find our first climbs in the hope that the rain would stop.

Every member of our crew was prepared with rain gear. Hard shell rain jackets, water proof boots, and backpack rain covers deployed as soon as we exited the cars. Rain is always a bummer on climbing trips, but the feeling of being prepared and dry in a downpour is pretty great. We had a successful first day of sport climbing in “The Zoo”, which introduced some of our party to their first long and overhung outdoor routes that The Red is famous for.

When we finally checked into Miguel’s Pizza (the center of all climbing in Red River Gorge) it had stopped raining and we could set up camp. Choosing a flat and high up spot to set up our tents was a huge key for staying dry. Once camp was set we took shelter in the pavilion and broke out our camping stoves. Premade backpacker meals are extremely helpful for trips like this. It’s very easy to just boil water and pour it in the bag. It saves time, weight, and allows you to easily make food at the crag.

The next morning, we got a crisp 7 a.m. start. We did our best to get out ahead of the swarms of climbers that were also there, knowing all of them wanted to get on the same classic climbs that we did. We set out from Miguel’s for Muir Valley, one of the best taken care of and easiest to access climbing areas. I knew the grades there ranged from 5.1 all the way to 5.13+, so I knew there would be plenty of variety for everyone. The hike in helped to warm us up and we made sure to do a few easy climbs to get everyone warmed up and used to the feel of cold real rock.

I lead our group around the valley and showed them a lot of my favorite climbs, along with some classics I had never been on before. Throughout the day we made a huge loop of the area, hitting Bruise Brothers Wall, Sunnyside, Tectonic Wall, Johnny’s Wall, and finally to the Hideout. We hit everything from 5.7 to 5.12b that day and got many of our staff members their first 100+ foot climbs. We took plenty of whips and even more pictures. We mostly had success, with a few rare climbs that we will have to return to complete all the way.

Sore, scrapped up, and tired, we made it back to Miguel’s for dinner. There are some nights after climbing when boiling water and pouring it in a bag seems like it would take too much energy. This was one of those nights. We sat in a busy Miguel’s and enjoyed pizza and Ale 8 as we poured over the guidebook for our next day of climbing. We reminisced about that days climbs and compared scrapes and beta. We enjoyed some stretching and yoga, then finally a few half-hearted games of chess in the basement before returning to our cold sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning was very similar to the first, besides the destination. This time we went to one of the newer areas, Miller Fork Recreation Preserve. This time we had a mission in mind, a new route to project. We hiked out to a massive cave area nicknamed The Infirmary. Being the first ones there let us set up on our main event route of the day, Last Rights, an intimidating hundred foot 5.12c that catches the eye immediately when you walk into crag. Those of us who were crazy enough to try this beast geared up. We had one member of our group actually complete this climb, who added some extra flair by hanging by only his feet and then taking a huge whip off the top.

We finished the day by hiking out and running our Subaru through some rivers and muddy spots nearby. Satisfied and tired out by our climbing adventures, we returned to camp to gather up our gear and say goodbye to The Red. We packed in as much climbing as the daylight and weather would allow on that short weekend, and plan on making a return trip in the Spring to conquer any climbs that shut us down the last time. If you plan on going climbing outside anywhere, make sure you prepare for any and all situations, gather all the information you can about the area, and bring only gear and people that you can depend on.