Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Musings of an Old Fat Dad or: I Used to Be Cool!

I moan about getting back into climbing rather frequently.  When we moved away to Colorado I had been quit of climbing for a couple of years and was happy to be so.  I was somewhat burnt out, disillusioned, and overuse injured.  When I found myself living in Colorado within spitting distance of Eldorado Canyon, the Flatirons, and the magnificent and mysterious granite slabs of the South Platte I marveled at my lack of interest.  I should have been giddy to be so close to climbing areas that I had read about for years and years and had dreamed of visiting.  I wasn’t.  I didn’t go straight out and start ticking off the classics I had pined for from afar.
My life as a boulderer went something like this…
As a new climber I found myself unsatisfied at the end of many days at the crags and would climb around unroped near the ground.  I knew this was an activity in and of itself.  Early on some friends had directed me to a boulder traverse at Tower Rock to help me get into climbing shape.  Bouldering was an outlet for my gumby frustrations.  Over time it developed into an end unto itself, but it took about five years before I started seeking out bouldering opportunities over roped climbing.
In 1999 my cousin and I began developing the easy and moderate bouldering below the cliffs of the Emerald City climbing area.  We also spent a good bit of time traversing and wallering around at Torrent Falls.  This was around the same time Chris Redmond had finished developing the Cove and the Coffee Shop.  He had also found and promoted the Junkyard and a few other areas.  His controversial bouldering guide came out at the same time I had a couple of guide type articles published in a grungy little free outdoor adventure zine called Extremz.  In addition to my own efforts and those of Redmond and his posse Scott Rennak was wandering around the Red and putting up some quiet problems.
I ran into Scott at Vedauwoo in 2010
He had a sprained or broken ankle and his wife was pregnant.
But we reminisced of the good ole days in the RRG 
While Dustin and I continued to explore and find new areas to clean and climb I would frequently do single and double circuits at Emerald City and Torrent Falls.  When I lived in Slade I climbed eight days a week without an intentional rest day for the better part of a year.  At that young age I tasted the pangs of tendonitis.  Finally the pain shut me down.  I decided to stop bouldering altogether and go back to roped climbing.
Stylishly sending Hierarchy at Lower Small Wall in 1996

That was when I fell in with a bunch of traddies and began climbing cracks almost exclusively.  Mandy and I climbed a lot in those years between 2000 and 2004 or so.  But in 2003 we had our first child and then our college careers began to get serious.  Climbing took a back seat.  Our backcountry climbing friends started to drift away…or climb sport…and life kept us out of the woods more than in.  I wasn’t ready to let that happen so any time I could steal a couple or dozen hours I would run to the woods with two crashpads and my dogs and explore.  I had dialed in how to find potential boulders from perusing a topo map and during my second round of obsessive explore-clean-boulder-promote I found a few substantial areas and had a grand old time frolicking on the smaller stones.
At that time I couldn’t drum up much interest in bouldering in the RRG area.  I mainly went out by myself with the dogs.  I suffered unsuspected and definitely undiagnosed depression during that time as well.  My wife thought I was trying to avoid her.  I didn’t know why I was so desperate to escape into the woods all the time myself.  And eventually I suffered a recurrence of the tendonitis.  Finally, it was too much, and I gave up bouldering supposedly for good.  It was heart wrenching for me to trade off my crashpad for a tent.  I knew even if I would ever get back into bouldering that I needed enough time off that it would be justifiable to buy a new pad someday.  By October of 2002 I was quit of bouldering seemingly for good.  In 2006 I laid off roped climbing for an extended hiatus.  Was I burned out?  Yeah.  Did I need to catch up on growing up and finding my place in life?  Yeah.  Did I really need to stop climbing to accomplish that?  Not really.
We moved west in 2008 seeking opportunity.  Five years in Colorado did finally incite me to dabble in climbing again.  I made a couple of trips to Vedauwoo and had a lot of fun.  I took the kids climbing in the South Platte.  We visited Eldo a couple of times.  The last roped climb we did while we were in the west was the Standard East Face of the Third Flatiron.  It’s one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.  But all-in-all we didn’t climb much.
Edward's Crack, Vedauwoo

In my element on Jazz Dome, South Platte

Mandy summiting the Third Flatiron
One Christmas I asked for a new crashpad.  The first trip out I took the kids to the Flatirons.  Mandy and I made a day trip up to Horsetooth Reservoir a few months later.  I had wanted to visit Horsetooth for more than ten years.  It was bittersweet.  I was out of shape and weak and was unable to do more than brush dishpan pink hands across the holds of Eliminator and Pinch Overhang.  I wanted to go back, but I was averse to the feeling of disappointment I knew would come even stronger.
Goofing around under the Flatirons

Bittersweet at Horsetooth Reservoir
One of the struggles with bouldering development in Kentucky was the lack of recognition of bouldering as a standalone activity.  Another was the commonly held misconception that “there’s no bouldering in the Red River Gorge.”  I will admit that the Red will always be known for roped climbing and it will never truly be a destination bouldering area like Hueco Tanks, Horse Pens 40, or the Boone, North Carolina area.  The truth about bouldering in the Red River Gorge is that high quality bouldering is dispersed and mostly undeveloped or unpublished.  The USFS has a lot to do with the lack of print with their overly fascist “management” of recreational uses on the Daniel Boone.  The lack of development goes primarily back to the sometimes toxic climbing community and The Misconception. 

That's not to say there was no community, or that nothing good came out of that premillennial explosion of bouldering activity in the area.  Redmond, Rennak, myself and other guys like Nick Rueff and Rhett Fulkerson had a passion for seeking out and climbing those rare bouldering gems in the temperate rain forest that is the Cumberland Plateau for their own sake, and not as a diversion from roped climbing. 

Redmond left the state not too long after his guide hit the stands.  I never wrote another article promoting bouldering the in Red after being raked over the coals by Redmond and others for my two Extremz pieces.  Every time I mentioned bouldering in the forums on KY Wilderness or Red River Climbing the snide comments or crickets deafened me.  As a younger man I took all of that as slights to my values and personhood.  I'm a little thicker skinned these days.
Recently Kipp Trummel, a voracious route developer in the Red, discovered and began developing and promoting a new bouldering area.  Not so long ago a guy named Tommy Wilson and his friends began quietly developing boulders around some of my old haunts.  And I moved back to the state.  Maybe it’s time the Red River Gorge saw its first bouldering renaissance.  Wonder where Redmond is these days?
Kipp’s area is fantastic.  Located at the very headwaters of the Red River it’s not technically within the Gorge area.  But then again neither are most of the popular roped climbing areas of the past fifteen years.  Most of the mainstream climbing development has occurred in the Kentucky River watershed unbeknownst to most climbers.
Anyway, the BMW Boulders are surprisingly good.  People are raving about them.  When I first saw photos I knew they couldn’t be in the Gorge proper.  I know my geology.  They didn’t look right.  Then I found out “BMW” stands for “Breathitt-Magoffin-Wolfe.”  The area is located near where the three counties come together.  It’s private land, but climbing development has occurred with full-knowledge and support from the non-climber land owner. 
But when Kipp described them to me I knew that my three most favorite areas within the Red proper were similarly formed.  See, the BMWs (and my Area 51, Muscle Beach, and Greek Boulders) are essentially smaller cliffbands on the crests of ridges.  They aren’t slump block boulders that tend to be soft and overgrown.  Neither are they the uber-high quality slump boulders that have fortuitously managed to stay sheltered by the towering cliffs of the Red.  But they do exist and provide for fantastic unroped climbing opportunities.
In the last days of my bouldering disco I was exploring based on topographic maps.  I would find a ridgeline where the large cliff ended and further out the rockless spine another outcropping would occur.  I had finally come to the conclusion that between the main rock outcroppings and the lesser isolated ones was the terrain most likely to provide quality concentrated bouldering.
Quality will always be debated, but I found my concentrations.  While the naysayers persist, the Red River Gorge does have bouldering in quantity and concentration.  Kipp has shone light on that fact and has not only shown the climbing world, but he’s also given me the final bit of justification I needed to come out of the shadows.  He and I share a similar philosophy of climbing: that the journey is as rewarding as the route you end up climbing.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to begin roaming the earth as a Red River Gorge evangelist.  But it does mean that I’m coming out of the closet.  Yes, I once bouldered in the Red and it was a good thing.  I don’t know if I will ever be a boulderer again.  I hope I can overcome my tendonitis and get back on the short stones as well as go back to hanging ropes.  For now I am merely hopeful.  For now I live mostly in memory as a climber, but those memories are so rich and bountiful.
I took my seven year old Bean bouldering a few days ago.  She had a great time.  She was so proud of herself for sending the downclimb on the Shelf Life Boulder at Emerald City.  While I was somewhat despondent that I couldn’t send the area classic: Shelf Life, a mere V0+, I was happy to be out in the woods with one of my kids and sharing with them the joy I used to find roaming out under the sun amongst the rocks and trees of the Red River Valley.
Bean tickling the starting holds of Shelf Life

As an addendum, and what I think is going to be terribly ironic and frustrating is that once I get myself fully back into climbing and being so into running now that at some point I'm going to look back on the epoch we lived in Colorado and be like: "I wasted those years on cycling!"


  1. "I wasted those years on cycling!" - Not possible.

    1. Oh, I know that, but having started out life as a climber, having lived in Colorado and hardly climbed: I should be hung for treason.

      My hope is that I'll end up being that weird guy who rides his bike to the crags.

  2. I hope to see you out again, Chris.

    1. I hope to see you out again too! Got some trad lines to show you if you're interested :)