Last week, I returned from six days at the Red River Gorge. The “Red”, as it is affectionately known by the climbing community, is a massive climbing area in eastern Kentucky, and is somewhat of a sandstone mecca to both sport and trad climbers alike. Much of the climbing consist of long, overhanging jug hauls, but there is a fair amount of options for those that prefer slab or crack climbing as well. I first visited the Red last June, and while I spent only 3 days climbing, I was enchanted by both the immense amount of climbing, the kindness of the locals, and the breathtaking beauty of the region. I was dying to get back.
My friend Laura and I had initially planned to attend the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival in late March, and climb in Bishop, California for a week or so. When the registration for the festival sold out in less than a minute however, we settled on a backup plan to climb at the Red. While the festival would have been a cool experience, I honestly couldn’t care either way which place we climbed and was stoked for the chance to climb at the Red again.
Since it was late March and still cold at night, Laura and I opted out of camping and booked a small cabin close to the Skybridge Station restaurant/bar, which ended up being a total treat! The cabin was pet-friendly, had nice warm heat, and was surprisingly super affordable at $70/night.
We left Richmond at 4:30am on our first day and drove the 7.5 hours to Kentucky, arriving just after noon. Though both Laura and I were running off of only 3 hours of sleep, there was a chance of bad weather halfway through our trip, so we wanted to take advantage of a warm sunny weather day whenever possible. We drove straight to the Left Flank climbing area, which is an area we had previously visited and were familiar with. It had also snowed in the Red the day prior, and Left Flank gets lots of warm sun, so we presumed that it may be dry by early afternoon. We also hoped that because it was a week day, that it wouldn’t be too crowded and we’d be able to get some easy mileage on some moderate climbs. Luckily, we were in luck, and Left Flank was pretty dry and empty!
The first route we hopped on was called Face Up That Crack (5.8-). It is listed as mixed route in the guidebook, but really is listed that way as the route is run-out for about 15 feet through a hand crack section. Laura, fearless as usual, led up the climb, and I followed her (I was definitely not ballsy enough to lead without a #1 or #2 cam to stick in that crack for protection, lol).
The next route we did was Brother Stair (5.9+). This climb, only 40 ft, is a short climb, but surprisingly steep. Like many climbs at the Red, the hardest part was below a high 1st bolt, which required a couple of heel hooking moves. Most sport climbers at the Red do not hesitate to carry around a stick clip; in fact, it is encouraged. I led up first, followed by Laura. I also ended up TR-ing the climb a second time as well to clean it.
Next, we led up the mild, slabby Mr Bungle (5.8). This route is a super fun warm-up route and great for any beginner leader. Besides a tricky start, it is a juggy climb that follows an arete. I ended up climbing it twice. The first time to lead it; the second to clean the anchor, lower, and set a top rope anchor onto an adjacent climb, Maypop (5.11a).
Both Laura and I just toproped Maypop (5.11a), as we both were exhausted from lack of sleep/driving all morning. The moves didn’t seem that hard for an 11a, but the climb was still pretty crimpy. After one burn each, we cleaned the route and headed towards our cabin for check-in. We were proud of ourselves for being pretty efficient; only 3.5 hours of climbing and I had gotten to climb 6 times.
We checked into our cabin, and then headed straight to Skybridge Station (only 1/4 mile away) for some beers. Skybridge Station actually ended up being one of our favorite places on this trip; the restaurant has a good selection of local craft beers, live music, and is owned by rock climbing guides. Of course, I had to try the sour beer on tap!
Next, we went back to the cabin, cooked dinner, and waited for Laura’s boyfriend, Liam, to arrive shortly before midnight and join us for a few days of climbing.
Liam had never been to the Red before, so was excited to check it out. Friday (Day 2) also happened to be his birthday! The day looked to be sunny and in the 50s, so prime weather for some hard sport climbing. We started off in the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve, or PMRP, which is a huge area about 25 minutes from our cabin. To illustrate how much climbing there actually is at the Red, the PMRP, which is just one climbing area within the Red, is approximately 700 acres, and includes over 300 routes in 20 different crags. It is a destination in itself! Last time we visited the Red, we spent 2/3 of our trip climbing in the PMRP, as it is both dog-friendly and less crowded than other climbing areas.
We started off warming up on some fun juggy routes at the Shire. This area is pretty popular for good reason; there is a 5.7, 5.8, 5.9, and 5.10b all in a row! We got lucky again and were the first to get to the crag that morning.
Liam first led up the 5.7, appropriately named Pee-Wee 😂. Laura and I had led up this route last time we climbed at the Red, and had been a little scared of a tricky section at the top. This time, however, we cruised right up the route, no problem, which goes to show how beneficial it has been that we both have been leading a lot in the gym for the past year.
Next, I led up the route beside it, Audie (5.8). This route was similar to Pee-Wee, but a little taller and more dynamic. It was super fun and I felt confident setting the route. Liam and Laura both led this route as well.
The route beside Audie was Miranda Rayne (5.9). Laura and I had also climbed this route before, but both on TR. It is 60 feet and requires a bit more endurance than the other two, hence the harder grade. For some reason, a run-out section after the 3rd bolt spooked me a little, and I ended up TR-ing this route. In hindsight, I should’ve sucked it up and led it. The run-out section was super easy, while the route was well-bolted higher up during the crux moves. However, there were climbers waiting for the route at this point, so I cleaned the anchor after I climbed.
Laura looking strong on Miranda Rayne (5.9)
We ate a quick bag lunch and decided where we wanted to climb next. We had wanted to check out the Gallery so Liam could climb 27 Years of Climbing to commemorate his 27th birthday, but another climber told us it looked pretty crowded a couple hours prior. Liam and Laura, luckily, were down for anything, so we decided to change things up and head to a nearby wall, Chica Bonita.
Chica Bonita isn’t that popular of a crag at the Red, as it is mostly short routes and slab climbing. Liam, however, preferred slab to overhang, so he was happy about our decision. There was one route we really wanted to try, Brown Eyed Girl, but a pair of climbers were already on it when we arrived.
While we waited, we hopped on Ridin the Short Buzz (5.9). I set the route, which was only 35 feet, but had some fun and interesting movements. The moves before setting the anchor were super fun; I had to climb out from under a roof to place the draws.
Next, we climbed Raindancer (5.10a). Like mentioned before, many routes at the Red are graded a certain way due to moves required below the first bolt. This route started off with a V2/V3 boulder problem, but then eased up to easier, pocked climbing above. This route was also pretty short at only 30 feet. I was happy to lead up my first 5.10a at the Red though, so didn’t care in the least bit if it was only rated 1.5 starts on Mountain Project, lol.
Finally, we got to climb Brown Eyed Girl (5.10a). This route is taller at 70 feet, and entails climbing up a slabby face on good edges. Liam set the route, and I led up second. I loved this climb so much! The moves were interesting and involved a lot of high stepping to reach crimpy edges. Being a shortie climber, I like to say that high-stepping is my secret weapon in climbing, so needless to say I was in heaven on this climb. I reached the chains so happy! Another 5.10a in the books!Liam ended his birthday climbing sess leading up a tricky 5.11a, Size Doesn’t Matter. While the 11a we had climbed the day before had felt a little soft, this route definitely didn’t! It is a very technical slab climb, and the one piece of info that Mountain Project gives about this route is: “tough to onsight.” Needless to say, with only 1 fall, Liam led up the route successfully. I tried it next (on TR) and was definitely impressed by Liam’s performance. This route was hard as crap! The best part of the climb was towards the beginning, when the climber can take a pretty good rest inside a hueco. After that, the holds thin out considerably, and the climber basically had to find minuscule crimps for hand holds and smear their feet on microscopic edges. I was not inspired by this climb, but it was still fun to try something hard.
Liam tiptoeing his way up Size Doesn’t Matter
After that we were all pretty pooped. My fingers were definitely hurting from the last climb, so I was happy to hike back to the car.
We ended the day with beers and live music at Skybridge Station. After a few beers, we started trying having a pull-up contest on the mounted hangboard in the bar 😝…. Overall, it was a super fun day and I think Liam had a birthday that would be hard to top! On Friday night, my boyfriend, Dustin, was set to arrive following a 10 hour drive from eastern Washington DC. He ended up arriving about 1am, but due to drinking activities, we were still awake to greet him. Dustin, committed as he is, was actually only staying for 2 nights, and had hoped to get some good climbing in, but the Red had other plans in mind….Stay tuned for the second part of my trip report to come!