(Featured Image: Scoping out "Omaha Beach" (5.14a) and "Transworld Depravity" (5.14a) at the Motherlode
on a cold day.)
Most of us need to exert extra effort to find the wild. Our communities of concrete, electricity and pavement often keeps us closed to the harsh beauty of our environment’s more organic forms. Yet, Eric has been an outdoorsman his whole life. When most 10 year-old kids were inside on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons and eating Captain Crunch, he was climbing mountains. When winters were cold, and some were playing video games, Eric was snowshoeing and hiking. And the only reason I know this is because I was there next to him. Fourteen years of scaling mountain summits side by side convinced me that there was more to the friend I’ve known than a stick-to-it attitude and an obsession with self-inflicted leg pains. So, when Eric asked me to come rock climbing with him, I figured it was an opportunity to learn from someone who’s been climbing as much as most people tie their shoes. And sure enough, after years climbing all kinds of rock walls, Eric didn’t take me to another plastic climbing structure. Instead, we drove out to the side of a cliff by the Interstate, with more than a hundred pounds of climbing ropes and equipment, and he helped me climb a 90-foot pitch carved into the side of a mountain. Something I'd never done before. When it comes to rock climbing, you can’t find a better expert than a diehard enthusiast, and Eric Chung is no exception. As a member of the Real Jungle Humans Project, Eric wanted to tell a story of climbing life completely about the fun of climbing itself. Below, he looks into his most recent adventure: climbing one of the celebrated destinations in American rock climbing, as only a real dirtbag can tell it.
As I stood on a pyramid shaped boulder, looking at the jump start to "Toker" (5.11a), I begin feel my throat clenching. Looking up at the shadowy, overhanging face filled with pumpy (lactic acid buildup in your forearms, tires you out!) movements into bomber plates and huecos (natural pockets commonly found in sandstone) I swallowed hard, more excited than nervous. This is by far one of the most aesthetic, yet challenging lead climbs I've attempted yet. This was also our last day of climbing before a 13-hour drive back to New York, so it was my last chance to send (climbing a route clean, without falling) this route that has been on my tick list for months.
Of course I was scared. Not necessarily of falling, but of failure. One of my goals down at the Red River Gorge was to flash (sending a route clean in 1 attempt) an outdoor 5.11 climb on lead. After a year of dedicating myself to an intense, endurance climbing-specific training regimen, I have noticed an increasing sense of confidence in myself. But that confidence didn’t just come upon me in a single moment. Committing to a big move 70 feet off the ground has months -sometimes years- of preparation, and all that training builds confidence. Confidence in my abilities as a V6 boulderer to pull this crux sequence.
While resting on a jug (comfortable hold, uses whole hand) at the fourth bolt, I look at the steepest part of the climb which just so happens to be the crux. After clipping one more bolt, I will be at the anchors, a mere 20 feet ahead. The transition into the exposed final overhanging headwall involves reachy moves into slopey huecos with a couple of decent crimps (small holds using first pads of your fingers) mixed in. Figuring out the beta (specific sequence for a climb) for the crux will pretty much guarantee a clean send of the route. But it’s just a beta, and nothing can completely prepare you for the real thing.
(Below: Entering the crux of "Toker" (5.11a), Bob Marley
Crag, Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve)
I enter the crux. The uneasiness of the sheer exposure and the raging pump in my arms make this sequence a whole lot harder than it actually is. As I clip the last bolt, I knew that if I try chalking up I will ultimately pump myself out. My only option was to muscle through the final 10 feet to the anchors. Grunting out the big moves on nice jugs, I am now within clipping distance from the anchors. In sport climbing, a climb is considered finished once the rope is clipped into both quickdraws or carabiners attached to the anchors of the climb. I clip the first quickdraw, but my pumped-out arms give way as I fall at the last move.
Now some people will consider this a clean send, but for me clipping the second quickdraw at the anchors is the true way to finish to a sport climb. I would consider this a failure even though I did pretty much climb the entire route. Call me a perfectionist, but I can’t call it a flawless victory if I lose control.
"Toker" became the most memorable route I climbed during our trip despite the fact that I fell at the final pivotal moment. The whole route is just pure fun as you are surrounded by the stunningly textured sandstone at the Bob Marley Crag. That one fall actually gave me new purpose: now I have a project to send clean for my next visit to the Red!
This drive for sending projects is what we as climbers use to motivate ourselves to train harder, and you can find that same drive. Falling from something as simple as clipping a quickdraw could have been prevented by managing my endurance better. The same idea is true for anything you fail at in the weight room or out in the world. Before my next trip down to the Red, I now know to center my focus on more circuit and campus board training in addition to the usual cardio. It’s about adjusting your attitude now so you can develop for the future.
We use these thrill-seeking projects as a reason/cover for making the annual pilgrimage to Miguel's Pizza (the real star of the show). Conveniently located 10 minutes from the huge sport climbing areas of the Southern Gorge, this lonely little pizzeria quickly became popular among local climbers as a hangout and eventually expanded into a large campground with a fully stocked gear shop. For $3 a night of camping, the young, free-spirited climbers of the Red can trade their organic flax seed muesli recipes while sharing beta with climbers from all over the world. After a hard day of sending, we would grab a pie (strongly recommend the chorizo and ricotta pie) with an ice-cold Ale-8-One, a local ginger and citrus soda found in almost every brick-and-mortar establishment in Kentucky. Despite being in a dry county, be sure to pick up a 30 rack of cheap Blue Ribbons at the Beer Trailer for hydration at the crag and most importantly, shotgun shotguns, where whoever sits in the front seat of the car must shotgun a beer. Adventures need sustenance!
(The pizza and Ale-8-One fueled climber commune of Miguel’s Pizza, Slade, KY)
I didn't drive 13 hours just to send my projects, I did it for the experience. This being my first trip down to the Red, especially with twenty of my good friends from the UConn climbing community, the memories I made were incredible. While they may not actually be so memorable from all the fun things we consumed, the mutual draw to go out into the world and challenge ourselves while having fun is something that’s just chemically good for you (all that dopamine is a serious boost in accounting class for weeks after). Dirtbagging in the backwoods of Kentucky is certainly a one of a kind adventure, filled with a sense of free will with a little touch of southern hospitality. With a lifetime of climbing and hiking opportunities within reach, the Red River Gorge is certainly a hidden gem in Eastern Kentucky that's totally worth a visit. The key to a great trip shouldn't all be about reaching tangible personal goals, but rather enjoying the company of close friends in some really cool places doing an activity you all love. We should not focus our sights on the end result, for the worth is found in experiencing the journey.