Monday, July 7, 2014

A Return to the Big Country

“You know what I hate about Powell County?”  I called down to Mark from the top of the Shield.  He was getting ready to start climbing the last pitch of the obscure, semi-classic easy multi-pitch route Big Country at Long Wall in the Red River Gorge.

“What’s that?” he replied.

“There’s nothing to do around here.”

Mark following the last pitch
I’ve written extensively about the easy multi-pitch rock climb Big Country elsewhere.  I’ll not recount the saga of a little climb I once made a big deal about.  What’s significant about Big Country is that it’s a fun adventure climb.  It’s not hard (clocking in at a mere 5.5 on the Yosemite Decimal System), it’s not remote (overlooking North Fork road), and it’s not overly committing.  You can easily downclimb or rappel from the top of the first pitch.  You can easily rappel from the top of the second or third pitches or even top the climb out and walk off the wall to the west.

Mark and I chose Big Country as our initial adventure bikecragging destination.  He and I have both biked to climbing walls in the past.  So the idea, while novel, wasn’t exactly revolutionary.  I’ve been out of rock climbing for too long.  I needed to ease back into it.  I had no illusions that I could step back into the stream at the same level of ability I left.

What was more than surprising to me was how inflexible I am now.  I can’t pull off those high step moves with the same kind of power I used to.  I don’t have the strength in my knees to press them out.  The next morning I felt as if I had been run over by a truck.

Timed selfie below the Shield before we headed up
The Long Wall trail is 18 miles from my house.  On the sporty-sport bike that would be a cool hour’s ride.  So it took more like an hour and a half to get to the trailhead on Saturday riding the Cannonball.  The weather was fantastic.  It was unseasonably cool for early July.  So the slower pace was actually quite nice. 

After we stashed the bikes cabled to a tree we started plodding up the trail.  Long Wall is a steep approach.  I forgot how steep.  And I realize why I used to stay so skinny and fit: I did a lot of that kind of hiking with a climbing pack in my 20s and 30s. 

The trail is more overgrown than I remembered.  As we hike along under the towering and colorful Long Wall I tell Mark how my climbing partners and I used to frequently say—after a full day of climbing elsewhere—“let’s go do Big Country!” and run up to catch the fading sunlight from the tree ledge on the Shield.  Sometimes we’d even wait until full darkness and climb the route by moonlight or headlamps. 

Mark shakes his head as I recount some of my past exploits on the climb.  In my younger years I had a deep familiarity with the route.  I could do the entire 160’ climb without a rope or climbing gear.  I was comfortable self-belaying myself on the climb at night.  I knew every move, every hand and foothold, every gear placement. 

It had been years since I’d climbed much of anything, even Big Country. As we sat on the tree ledge, Mark taking in the view while I sorted my gear, I verbalized those years.

“I bought some of this stuff when you were seven,” I laughed.  The fact that some of my climbing gear is twenty years old has a lot to do with my delayed return to the activity.  I need to replace much of it.  And so I am limited to what I can safely do. 

Mark and I moved one pitch at a time up Big Country. By the last pitch my muscles were remembering the moves.  The handholds were like old friends I hadn’t seen in ages.  It was a reunion of mind, body, and stone.

We sat on top of the cliff overlooking the lower Red River Gorge.  We could see the backside of Raven Rock, Auxier Ridge, and the huge and obscure eastern cliffs of Long Wall from our isolated perch.  Finally it was time to head home.  We had two rappels and an 18 mile bike ride to get back to Stanton.  My belly told me it was time to move west.

My body told me it was time to get serious about getting in shape or retire to the couch.  Nine years gone from regular rock climbing has left me weak in limb but strong in desire.  My choice is to condition joints and muscles to perform or live forever in memory, recounting those days when I been climbin’.

Throughout the day as we traveled to and fro and climbed and descended an old favorite rock climb of mine we talked about other places.  I told Mark stories of big climbs in North Carolina and Colorado.  He asked if I had ever thought about climbing in the Tetons or the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  I had to smile to myself.  The floodgates of memory had truly opened at that point.  It was climbing Big Country and other Red River Gorge routes that I tempered dreams of big western mountains.  It was on the larger cliffs of North Carolina where I practiced my mountaineering skills and acted out those dreams.  And for a few years I lived in Colorado and got to touch mountains bigger than I could have ever imagined. 

Mandy on Block Route, Table Rock, NC

Summit of Square Top Mountain, near Guanella Pass, Colorado

The Teton Range, Wyoming
I’ve never made it to climb in the Tetons or the Wind Rivers.  The Winds are where the Rocky Mountains got their name.  They are jagged, rugged, and remote mountains high along the spine of the country in the middle of western Wyoming.  They’re a long way from Big Country in miles, but connected through memory and dreams inside me.

We’ve cooked up a scheme to do a certain few climbs by bike this fall.  I need to climb more before then.  It’s not the cycling that’s going to hold me back.  

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