Monday, January 4, 2016

On Being an Ascentionist

I once had a voracious appetite for rock climbing. As evidenced in my climbing journal I often climbed eight days a week. At the height of my bouldering days I literally climbed every day without taking rest days. I pay the price now with lingering tendinitis and other joint maladies that typical numbing agents barely touch.
I was young once, but now I'm older. Maybe I'm wiser, but I know enough not to proclaim my wisdom and let others point it out now. I spent years exploring the Red River Gorge. I spent years climbing as many different routes as I could. I sought out unpublished and unclimbed cracks, boulders, and potential faces. In a three year span I almost single-handedly put up five hundred boulder problem first ascents. I have a climbing notebook full of likely unclimbed trad crags.
Even before we moved to Colorado I had become burned out and run down. Twelve years of an obsessive pursuit of new routes had finally left me burnt out like a shorted out light socket. I gladly walked away from climbing and was reformed to the point that I didn't obsess over climbing in the Silver State when I knew I should have been pursuing Colorado crags at a self-destructive pace foregoing even my job and family to experience all of the Front Range classics I had fantasized about for all of my years in Kentucky.
We only climbed a few times. A couple of trips to Vedauwoo in Wyoming, a few short jaunts to the South Platte, and one real excursion to the Flatirons to climb one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs in North America” the Standard East Face of the Third Flatiron. I did a little bouldering at Flagstaff and we ventured up to Horsetooth Reservoir only once. Horsetooth was the Elysium I pined for when I was a hardcore boulderer. Alas...

Bean's first rock climb, South Platte

Boone at the top of Easy Listening, Jazz Dome area

Leading Kim, at Vedauwoo, Wyoming

Leading Edward's Crack at Vedauwoo

Mandy topping out on the Third Flatiron

Timidly sitting on top of Gill Pinnacle, Horsetooth Reservoir
It's taken three years of being back in Kentucky within sweating distance of the Red River Gorge to finally relapse. I asked for a new trad rack for Christmas. I got it. I have a nice beefy rack, new quickdraws, a bright and springy rope, and a voracious new appetite. What's even worse is that I keep getting dragged deeper into the scene. And now I have THE Gig.
I grew up near the Red River Gorge. I've always loved the area, and wanted to somehow be gainfully employed and contribute to society by working in the outdoor realm in or around the Gorge. I don’t do that.
I did do that for a few years working as a rock climbing guide, though it would be a stretch to call my employment at that time “gainful.” I’ve been a borderline semi-professional photographer who has minimally benefitted from images I’ve taken around the Gorge. I could (and intend to) leverage that more in the future.

My knowledge and experience of the Red has landed me in print in an Indianapolis magazine, as an interviewee on an Louisville radio show, and has made it possible for me to contribute photographs to the most recent (5th Edition) Red River Gorge Climbs North guidebook. I’ve contributed online content to websites for climbing and hiking as well as meager mountain biking resources in the area. 
I’ve written (free) articles about the Gorge for regional publications.

Other than my time as a guide I’ve never been paid for my knowledge of the Red River Gorge. This is mostly my own fault. I spent years developing an encyclopedic knowledge of one of the most popular outdoor recreation locations in the Eastern United States, and I have absolutely failed to capitalize on my own investment.

But even sitting on your laurels opportunity can find you. Recently a friend asked if I wanted to be involved in a GPSing project. He had intended to do the bulk of the work but needed someone to help with more obscure areas and if he was unable to continue once his “season” of work began. I said I was interested, and then he came back a few days later and said the gig was mine if I wanted it because he wasn’t going to be able to work on it before he had to go back to taxes.

Unfortunately walking below all of the climbs I once enjoyed frequently has only awoken a monster of obsession in me again. I took Bean up to Fortress Wall on Friday to GPS the approach. I showed her all the routes and told her some of the stories. At one point I said: “Mom and I spent many happy hours here...” and it struck me hard—a spear point to the heart—we had spent a lot of good days out under the sun at the crags of the Red River Gorge.

And I felt a strong desire to revisit those places and share those experiences with my kids. I miss those times. And there's no reason we shouldn't be climbers again.

The pinnacle of my climbing life was the first ascent of Dreams. Dreams is a boulder problem at Pistol Ridge. I discovered it after meeting Pistol developer Erik Farley at the wall to tour some of the unpublished lines Erik and his partners had pioneered at Pistol in days gone by. We walked past the last published route to the left of the wall toward more obscure lines, and I saw it. We walked through an airy rockhouse and centered in the chasm was a behemoth of a boulder.

I caressed the opposing slopey edges of the overhanging slab that threatened to crush you into oblivion. The line has a distinct human quality, or maybe resembles a thick flank of meat. Its thick and solid and begs to be grappled with. Erik asked if I was coming. I reluctantly followed him to survey mediocre trad routes.

As we walked back past the boulder on the way out I took a little longer to examine the line. Rubble for a landing. The top out was sketch. Oh, I would be back!

On a failed attempt
It took a little while. But in the late fall of 2000 I began working on Dreams. At first I went alone. I would haul my two crash pads in and position them strategically below the top out before sitting down at the base, reaching out in a stigmata pose, and them trying to tension and thrutch my way to a first ascent. One day of working turned into two. A third time I went back with my regular climbing partner and my wife and only managed a scary fall from the lip when I just went for the summit hoping a spotter would change things. But the moment of truth was a lonely experience for me.

Finally, in the depths of January of 2001 I went back up alone. I sat on my crashpad at the base of the boulder watching a light snow fall over the Indian Creek Valley. I was warmed up. I stripped off my jacket and gloves, dropped my fleece hat to the ground, and let my warm hands conform to the stone cold stone.

The moves fell away as I had practiced. I rocked my way up the opposing edges until quickly I was at the lip, a different hand on the only positive edge to be found, and my right foot settled onto a high foot, and before I knew it I was rocking over onto the top of the boulder.
Dreams. The name was a reflection of that moment in my life. I had married the girl of my dreams that previous summer. A good friend had played a piano arrangement of the Cranberries song of the same name as we left the altar in a scene straight out of a John Hughes film. Just a few short months later I pulled down my legacy climb. Route or boulder problem I've never found or sent a more notable and significant problem. People still say Dreams is one of the best problems in the Red and the best problem of its grade.

It's likely there will be no return to my climbing glory days. And that's probably a good thing. I don't recover like I once did. Old bones break easy as they say. But there's no reason I shouldn't spend a few more happy hours in the sun under the cliffs of the Red River Gorge before I die.

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