Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Macabre Mile

Raven Rock from Chimney Top Rock

Sometimes the obvious prize is easily overlooked.  I've found a dusky trail running gem in the Red River Gorge.  It's been staring me in the face my whole life.  I have a small history with this particular objective but nothing earth shattering.  Still, some monoliths inhabit a certain space in your mind and become unmovable by time or the erosive properties of memory.  Raven Rock is one of those pre-eminent monuments in my mind.  It is prominent in the Red River Gorge; towering over the river at a distinct bend just downstream of the Iron Bridge below Nada Tunnel.  It guards the takeout I sat at so many days back when we rented canoes on the river as Red River Outdoors.

Raven Rock has an interesting modern history.  In the fall of 1976 two hang glider pilots were killed flying off Raven Rock.  My parents took my two year old self to spectate on that day in September, and when we arrived one of the deceased had just been taken away.  The festivities had ended.  That ominous legacy is still fairly well known to Gorge-goers.

My mother tells of riding in the family car up the winding and steep paved road to the summit of Raven Rock when she was a girl.  The fee was $3.00, there was a poor bear in a cage, and topping it all the promise of a novel picnic site.  There were also unrealized plans for a restaurant on the top.  The railing installed by the private developer still encircles the tableau of Raven Rock, taunting the daring of this day and age to lean on them or tie their rappelling ropes from them.

J. M. Smallwood built the road.  He likes to tell of driving his bulldozer up the narrow crest of the ridge just below the summit with the ground dropping away steeply on both sides.  It truly is an inspiring feat of road construction.  J. M. is extended family for me.  He’s another one of those fixtures in my mind that have been there forever and will remain with me until I pass from this life.  As many times as he’s told me the story I always listen with rapt attention.

The narrow spot in the road

Richard Brashear, a local climber and long time Red River Rescue Team member talked often about how climbers in the 1980s would frequently do the first two pitches of the enigmatic Nevermore and bivy on the big ledge. 

In the mid-nineties I made my hiking pilgrimage up there for the first time clutching Ruchhoft's Land of the Arches.  In the early aughts I hiked up to the base of the impressive east face with aspirations to climb Nevermore with a friend who had previously taken a spectacular fall from the crux pitch.  Neither of us screwed up the courage to finish it that day and I've never stood under that imposing line since.  It is on my bucket list still, an ink smudged line ominously taunting me from the page.

A couple of years ago I thought to ride my mountain bike up the old road, but I've not gumptioned myself up there...not knowing the condition of the road or remembering its potential bikeability has kept me away.  But then this trail running obsession took over and Raven Rock has lurked in my mind as a potential running challenge; a wicked hill climb; a dangerous obstacle to peace of mind. 

The opportunity recently presented itself so I took off for Raven Rock.  I had parked at the Iron Bridge to avoid having to pay five bucks to park and ran on the paved road to pick up the old dirt forest road that runs along the river to the north side of the ridge.  It was muddy but flat.  I made good time and was shocked that I hadn't remembered just how steep the road is right off the bat.  From the river bottom it climbs like a wall.  The old pavement section begins right at the very nadir of the climb.  From the base three hard switchbacks guard the upper flat section along the east slopes before the final ridiculous upper road.
With our goat-like Forester Gump (if the road were in pristine condition) it would be a crap shoot whether I could drive up it today.  It’s nauseatingly steep for a road.  I think it would make Cobhill weep with envy.  The vision and madness it took to conceive of a road to the top of one of the Red River Gorge’s most imposing promontories was profound.
What remains today is a hardly visible crumbling veneer of asphalt under a carpet of leaves, pine needles and moss.  There was a thin crust of snow and a sheen of ice making it difficult to descend from Raven with any kind of speed.  My knees said a silent prayer of thanks as I held back the reins.
But the climb!  Let’s not forget the glorious climb!
The first mile past the FS gate carries you along the river and under the wild east face of Raven Rock.  With the leaves off and the early morning sun bathing the face you get the full effect of its grandeur.  It seems to be taller than it possibly could be.  Then the nature of the route changes.  Upward you climb, steep as sin right off the deck.  Like a rocket you ascend heavenward if you have the guns.  There is no reprieve after the first switchback.  But at the second a short section of flat allows some recovery before the third grinding turn.  The road levels gradually and contours back around to the northeastern slopes where a full on recovery is just about possible before the final leg and lung incinerating climb.
The final ridge is the true crux.  First starting off as a sweeping steep climb it quickly kicks up into an insanely steep and narrow wall to gain the last couplet and a half of switchbacks: a hard left followed almost immediately by a hard right and finished off with the last world-tilting left switchback that gains the incredible final rocket ride into the sun.

J. M.’s story of riding his bull up the ever crumbling narrow crest of the north ridge of Raven Rock—at least to me—is one of those stories that border on folk tale.  It’s a tall tale for sure.  But then there is that narrow, tattered ribbon of pavement that continues beyond the narrow spine of the forested rock that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that someone built a road into the sky on Raven Rock once.
Car to car I made my ascent of Raven Rock in fifty-five minutes.  It involved an incredible six hundred and sixty feet of vertical gain in just under a mile.  That’s an average 12% grade. 
I’m not thumping my own chest here.  I was shocked I pulled it off, and I realize there are a lot of stronger runners out there who could do that climb much faster.  I’m old, fat, and falling apart.  So here is my challenge: do it faster!
Beginning at the Forest Service gate near the $5.00 parking the time to beat is 44:34 for the 3.6 mile out and back tag of the summit.  I ran a counterclockwise loop around the perimeter of the top of the rock as well.  There is a distinct user defined trail that parallels the old rusty railing.


  1. Having just done this hike last weekend during an adventure race, I loved reading your experience and especially the history around Raven Rock. Wonderful pictures, too! I hope you don't mind, but I linked to this post in my blog post (which I'm currently still working on) because I found it so interesting. If that's a problem please let me know and I'll remove the link.

    1. Sorry I didn't reply sooner...YES! Feel free to link. Thank you!