Thursday, August 3, 2017

On Top of Ol' Chimney

What follows is an older write up I did about my exploits on and around Chimney Top Rock in Red River Gorge...
Don't try this at home

 Chimney Top Rock is in the heart of the Red River Gorge. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the area, and, due to a short paved trail from the parking area to it's railed summit, is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Gorge loop drive. In high school and beyond, I, along with many of my friends, would venture out to the overlook during the full moon most months. I've encountered parties as large as twenty on the small, and safe, main summit. If you're lucky enough to catch the overlook vacant under a full moon you'll be rewarded with an amazingly peaceful and beautiful experience.
The trailhead is located at the northern terminus of a five mile long gravel road. From the parking area you walk west out a narrowing ridge until you exit the scrubby pine forest into the open, just before a manmade bridge across a five foot wide gap. On the far side of the bridge is a twenty foot by twenty foot area bounded by wood railing held in place by stone columns. If you're daring, you can climb over the far railing, carefully scramble down twenty or so feet to a ledge, and make the bold step across another five foot crack to the main "chimney rock." The trail ends just beyond.
When I was a teenager, the step across and step back hardly got my heart rate up. I even visited that airy perch under a full moon once with a friend who carried an electric guitar on the moonlit hike out. We sat for some time on the lonely rock passing the guitar back and forth and banging out random musical tidbits. On that visit I learned to fear the return move back to the real world from Chimney's summit. The funny thing is, to get over to the rock you must jump slightly down across the one hundred and fifty foot deep crack. To get back to the main ridge you have to make the leg-stretching jump back and up.
I grew up understanding the ominous history of that one doozy step: many young, and perhaps inebriated, people had failed to successfully visit and return from Chimney. In the darkness I didn't trust myself. Stephen bailed me out by straddling the great crack (guitar still slung over his shoulder) with his inhumanly long legs and pulled me safely across. I've only made the jump over and back a couple of times since that night. Discretion is the better part of maturity it seems.
Chimney Top, or Chimney Rock, or Chimney Top Rock—whatever you choose to call it, there is only one such stone in the Red River Valley—is best viewed from highway 715 to the north, just west of where the Sheltowee Trace crosses the Red River. There is a cut out in the trees on the south side of the road, and if you're careful as you drive the Gorge loop you can slow down and marvel at the northern aspect and profile of Chimney Top for a few brief moments. If you linger too long you're likely to cause a car wreck. But in those short seconds you can't miss seeing the massive crack that separates the chimney rock from the main ridge: one hundred and fifty feet from ground to sky and varying from three to maybe eight feet wide. If you know where to look and the light is just right in the southern sky you can see the glow through the tunnel on Tunnel Route in a parallel, but less striking, crack about fifty feet east of the more obvious fissure.
Before I began my official stint as a rock climber I often fantasized about climbing, not the cracks around the Chimney Top overlook, but, the wild exposed faces on the western end of the ridge. So when a friend from high school mentioned that he had "climbed Chimney Top" I believed he had clawed his way up the overhanging and exposed orange faces below the railing of the overlook, or perhaps one of the striking corners on the north- and southwest points below the overlook. At least, in my mind those were the only possibilities.
So one day Eric called and said he wanted to climb Chimney Top again, and did I want to go with him. Oh. Yes. The day was surreal. I don't think I was fully coherent through all of it. There are gaping holes in my memory of the experience, and I have to rely on a piece I wrote for a college composition class a year after the fact. I've included it here, intact and basically unedited. When I was writing it I was trying to get ahold of an idea, an image in my mind, of how it felt to be at that climactic point, that point of divergence that few people ever truly face, when one mistake, one error in judgment, one cramp in the calf would result in fatal disaster. I don't feel as if I captured the feeling even half as completely as I wanted to, and after the passing of so much time I am certain that I will never be able to consciously revisit that memory with enough clarity to recreate those heart stopping moments with the visceral simplicity they deserve.
I found out later, after I became a "real" rock climber, that the chimney Eric and I ascended on that day was named Chimney's Chimney and is rated 5.2 (easy) but is nearly unprotectable. So even if we'd had a rope it would have done little for the leader. On that day I was the follower, and a rope would have fundamentally changed the experience for me.
Red River Gorge, 1995
Last spring I danced briefly with the idea of rock climbing. I fell in love with a picture of myself I saw in my head where I dangled by my fingertips over an empty expanse of air. Never once did I slip on a climbing harness or tie into a rope. I had this romantic notion that it would be just me and the rock and the glory of nature around me. I felt that any colorful nylon accessories I might use would take away from my moment of spiritual glory as I hauled my self over the lip of a high sandstone precipice. There was an element of fear that existed, but for the most part that fear was but a shadow in a corner in a room in my mind while the awe and the beauty of the experience I sought would be a blaring light that quenched all fear.
One March day I found myself riding around with a friend of mine from high school named Eric. We were looking for some sort of adventurous diversion, preferably some rock to climb. Chimney Top was mentioned, and that’s where we decided to go. Eric had climbed the crack below the overlook back when we were in high school, and I was eager to try it myself. First we scrambled to the summit of Half Moon Rock which is across the hollow to the south from Chimney Top. Half Moon was an easy climb, and it warmed us up to what lay ahead. After studying our prime objective for a few minutes we made our way down and across the valley to the base of the south face of Chimney Top. The base is not quite vertical, but low angled and green, dotted with trees and rhododendron.
The first fifty feet were easy as we climbed up a gully to an exposed ledge. We traversed a few yards west to the big main chimney closest to the end of the ridge. It was the crack that ended below the overlook. Standing on the ledge, looking up through the chimney to the summit nearly a hundred feet above, I felt no fear. The room in my mind was bright with excitement. All the times I’d said that Eric was crazy for doing what we were about to do were forgotten.
I followed Eric into the crack, stepping across the three foot chasm as easily as I would a puddle. I looked up once I was inside the vast chimney and saw our means of ascent. On both faces there were many wide stepped ledges. Apparently all we had to do was find the path of least resistance. The wind shrieked through the crack cutting through my wool shirt, but I didn’t feel it. I hardly felt the cold sandstone under my hands. When I looked down through the crack, I couldn’t see the bottom for the darkness as the walls narrowed near the base of the cliff. We continued upward for a few uneventful moments.
Twenty feet from the top Eric stopped.
“What now?” I asked anxiously.
“You put your feet on one side and your back against the other.” He demonstrated by getting into position and proceeding to climb upward, his body spanning the gap precariously.
“Are you crazy?” I called to him.
“You wanna go back down?” he called back.
I didn’t. I couldn’t, not without Eric. Eric continued to ascend away from me. I carefully placed my feet against the opposite side of the crack. The room in my mind was darkening. I eased my weight fully onto my feet and hips and began to wriggle myself upward. I was suspended so high above the earth only by the outward exertion of force from my legs. They were beginning to shake uncontrollably.
Eric had made it to the top and began offering down words of encouragement, all of which fell unheard by me into the darkness of the crack below. The fear was driving the light from my mind. The darkness of my fear was making it harder and harder for me to move. I felt the cold intensely. My mind was becoming numb. And then suddenly I was less than a body length from the top. The crack widened above me, making it impossible for me to continue upward as I had been.
“What?! What now?!” I cried frantically at Eric.
“You’ve got to lean forward, find a handhold somewhere.”
He was so close, and he was safe, but I was so far from that safe ledge as blackness clouded my mind. I leaned forward as far as I dared, but my hands were still far from any conceivable handhold. My feet felt like they were slipping. I started to panic. The room was dark. I was blinded and afraid to move in the darkness. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back. My legs were burning white hot with exertion. I had to clear my mind. I had to find a way to continue. I stretched my legs out straight, forcing my body slightly higher. I reached again, still short, but I could not see a hold. I had to get closer so…I lunged.
For a split second I was free of the stone. I was unattached to the earth. Light flooded the room and all was clear.
Then my arms were snapped tight by the weight of my body as my fingers wrapped desperately around a hold and my feet scrabbled for purchase on the vertical stone. I held myself there only for a second, pulled up, swung a leg over the lip and then I was on top. I was sweating despite the chilling wind, and my legs felt transparent. The fear was gone, but the memory of the shadow would stay with me for some time. My room was alight with amazement at what we had just done and maybe fed by a little adrenalin as well.
Chimney Top was a major draw for early climbers to the region. Chimney's Chimney is an ancient classic; it's first ascent history lost in the flotsam and jetsam of antiquity. There are other classic and historic routes in close proximity to the popular overlook.
These days there is a ban on climbing within a certain distance of the main formation, which is terribly unfortunate, especially in light of the climbing policies of other federally managed public areas. Yosemite and Devil's Tower leap majestically to mind.
Early on in my climbing timeline I sought out partners for an ascent of Tunnel Route: a three pitch 5.5 just east of Chimney's Chimney. It terminated directly under the bridge over to the overlook from the main ridge and had been given a full three stars in the guidebook. Classic. Easy. Novel. If you can bear with me, I'll take you with me up that climb once again in memory.
Dave has tried to kill me twice. The first time was when we were kids; probably eight or nine years old. We were at a church picnic. Someone had brought a long thick rope to do a tug-o-war. The preacher at the time was a big guy, and there was another hefty dude in attendance. They were chosen as the anchors for the opposing teams. Us kids got to participate even, and after much heaving and dragging and heaving and dragging everyone collapsed in the cool grass laughing and resting. Both anchors had tied the ends of the rope around their waists, and as we all rested, perhaps for another round of tugging, Dave twisted a loop in the rope near the middle, dropped it over my head and around my neck and yelled "PULL!"
Both anchors were facing away from the middle, kneeling on the ground, and when they heard Dave's shrill cry they dug their feet in and threw their significant combined weight against the rope which immediately constricted around my skinny throat. Mayhem ensued. People screamed. I almost blacked out. An eternity passed before blessed oxygen was flowing back into my lungs and a circle of petrified mothers stood around me pawing at my neck and demanding to know which child was responsible.
"David," I croaked.
Two mothers flung themselves from the circle to hunt for their sons. Unfortunately for one of my friends, he shared a name with my would-be assassin. I tried to save him:
"Noo-that one!" I wheezed, pointing to the perpetrator.
I almost think both Daves had a closer brush with death that day than I did.
It was the middle of June, 1996, maybe fourteen years after Dave first tried to kill me. I called him up. He had climbed with me in the past, and without a second murder attempt I was comfortable being in the same county with him. I knew he would be up for a little adventure, so I laid out my plans to climb Tunnel Route. Dave was willing. He asked if he could bring another friend, Dan along. I said sure and told him my usual climbing partner and cousin, Dustin would probably go along as well.
While we were waiting for Dave and Dan at Miguel’s Pizza, the local climbers’ hangout in the area, we ran into Alyssum, a mutual friend of mine and Dave’s and we invited her along as well. After we waited for awhile we decided Dave and Dan weren’t coming and agreed that three was an optimal party for the ascent and headed off in the direction of Chimney Top.
We pulled into the parking area in the early afternoon. We had lost quite a bit of time waiting for our two stragglers. Just as we were ready to head off down the trail Dave and Dan arrived. Lost time was quickly forgotten and we redistributed the gear. We took three climbing ropes, a huge rack of other gear and various accessories for both fashion and function. I'd led much harder routes than the 5.5 we were going out to do, but some little voice kept telling me to be over prepared.
As we hiked out the ¾ mile paved trail to the overlook, each of the five of us carried a pack at least half full of some sort of gear. As we neared the overlook we dropped off to a ledge on the south side of the ridge below the trail where there was a massive rappel tree which would put us very near the base of the route. We decided at that point to stash some of our gear. We left three packs and one of the ropes and then dropped down to the forest floor; still seriously overburdened.
The 5th class approach gully went fast, and I belayed everyone up to the base of the tree pitch. It was crowded, but we were moving pretty fast for a party of five. I took the sharp end again and launched up the curving and thinning branchless tree that choked the severely overhanging chimney/dihedral. For protection I girth-hitched three shoulder slings around the tree at equal intervals. At the top of the trunk where the angle eased up I yarded on huge buckets (very large handholds) and flopped into the infamous tunnel. It is essentially a wide section of a vertical fracture that completely splits the narrow ridge just under the footbridge that connects the overlook to the larger ridge.
Me, leading the second overhanging pitch
After setting up my belay I hauled the packs up to the tunnel. I was clearly conscious of the fact that I could not retreat easily from my position and the hour was getting late. I was worried that one of the other four might have problems getting up the tricky pitch, but soon we were all crowded into the tunnel and happily moving through the ridge to the next belay.
The belay at the beginning of the final pitch is one of the best in the state. There is a sidewalk sized ledge that goes straight out of the tunnel and dead ends at an airy dihedral. The last pitch follows the dihedral through an exposed bulge and out of sight above. We could not see more than fifteen feet of the pitch and we knew we had at least forty more feet to go to the summit. Once we reached the belay we could not ignore the fact that the sun was quickly creeping toward the horizon. Red sunlight bathed the tunnel behind us. I quickly, but carefully, made my way out to the crack.
I was still at a stage of development in my climbing where I wasn’t completely comfortable with heights and exposure. Intellectually I knew that the route was 5.5 and well within my ability, but my mind fluttered with thoughts of broken ropes and blown cams. I got in a good piece of protection and explored the first few moves with my hands. I discovered a massive bucket hold just out of sight from the tunnel, and after I got onto it I plowed right on up the fun and exposed slab above. I could not believe how good the rock was and how easy and fun the moves were. I began to enjoy the exposure. But the joy was short lived.
I made my way into the dark gully below the footbridge above and opted to belay just below the bridge. I lost even more time trying to build a good anchor. As most other beginners, I lacked the confidence in my gear anchors and tended to over-protect. Finally I got something I was comfortable with and belayed the next climber up.
As Dustin appeared over the slab below I realized that the gully was much darker than it had been when I first climbed into it. By the time the last climber in our group was in the gully below the bridge it was almost completely dark. When I turned to take the rope up the final ten or twelve feet to the summit I realized I had made a bad decision. We didn’t have a single headlamp in our expedition, and it was very dark in the gully. I felt my way like a blind man, conscious of the fact that we would be in serious trouble if I fell and broke my ankle. I made it to the bridge with my heart pounding in my chest and belayed the others up much relieved.
Once we were all back on top we still had to retrieve our gear from the ledge where we had stashed it near the rappel tree. None of us were willing to go over the side back to that ledge without some sort of light. Dave volunteered that he had two flashlights in the trunk of his car so he and I set out in the dark to get them while the others hung out in the trail near our cache.
We met them on our way back, they had decided to walk on out as we had, and we passed them one light. We kept the other. I found the side trail that led to the rappel tree easily and took the lead with Dave behind holding the light.
When I came to a short step down to the ledge I slid over the rounded lip without giving the action a second thought. Dave began to scream. I turned in time to see his light retreating back up toward the main trail leaving me in complete darkness. Was he trying to kill me again?
“Dave! What’s going on?” I said.
“Snake!” he screamed.
Dave is absolutely terrified of snakes. I once watched him pound a small copperhead into oblivion with a large rock. He kept pounding on it long after the snake was rendered harmless. I looked back the way I had come and sure enough there was a copperhead, slithering up the trail toward Dave.
“It’s coming at me!” he screeched.
“Well, get out of its way.” I calmly advised.
He was frantic until it left the trail and moved off into the dark where it could find some peace and quiet. He had joined me on the ledge and then told me that I had slid right over the snake; it had passed between my hands and feet. We retrieved the gear and headed back to the parking area.
Once there we parted gear and then parted ways, all of us heading back to our respective homes…one more route under our harness belts. I'd survived another climbing adventure with Dave, so I was getting a bit complacent. He made one (hopefully) final attempt to kill me a few months later as we were heading back to the car at dusk after a day of climbing at Dip Wall.
I was walking under a dead tree, a widowmaker as they're called, and Dave grabbed the tree and gave it a good shake. The top three feet broke off and penciled straight down into my head, gouging out a chunk of skin at my hairline.
"I'm okay," I said, somewhat stunned.
Dave walked over, and in the dim light looked at my head, which at the time was covered in shoulder-length hair.
"It looks okay," he said, feigning concern.
Then I looked down to see what had actually hit me. I felt something warm slide down my forehead and Dave began screeching like a murder victim. I was bleeding like a stuck pig. I survived another attempt, but I've been more wary of Dave ever since; even when he officiated my wedding. I kept one eye on him the whole time, just in case he tried to finish the job.
I climbed Tunnel Route at least one other time. The last time I climbed it was in a drought year, and the helpful tree had become a dangerous obstacle. It was no longer safe to use as a climbing aid, nor for protection.
I found out soon after that the route was part of the blanket closure of the area. It seemed unfair and unnecessary. Despite the route's historic, and classic, nature few people ventured out to do the climb on any given weekend.
Prior to the blanket closure I climbed a third route on the formation with friends Chris and Alexis. Chris was a big guy, I think an ex-football-player, and Alexis was a slight, but scrappy, creature with a shocking mane of red hair. There was a route on the north side of the ridge I wanted to do called Chimney Direct. I'd scouted it from the base, and it joined Tunnel Route for the latter climb's last pitch. The route was a direct line from the ground up to the tourist bridge; hence the name. It was also listed as 5.7 in the guidebook.
When Chris, Alexis and I stood under that wide crack looking summitward I was a solid 5.9 climber with many routes under my belt. I was confident the route would go easily, and I was looking forward to ticking off another Red River Gorge classic. In the back of my mind two little flies buzzed. First, I had enough mileage, and had talked to enough local climbers, to understand that a route that was first climbed prior to 1980 and graded under 5.10 was probably sandbagged; that meant that the 5.7 listing in the guidebook could be off as far as two letter grades. The other annoying fly was in regards to the width of the crack on the first pitch. It was wide. Really wide. To this day my weakness is wide cracks. And steep sport climbs.
Interestingly enough, my choice of partners for a climb was often directly related to the composition of said partner(s)' rack of gear. Chris and Alexis had a lot of big gear for protecting wide cracks. I figured it was an even trade. I knew how to get in and out to the base of Chimney, and few people had that first hand knowledge. Chris and Alexis were suffer-mongers like myself, so it was a good partnership. I roped up and Chris put me on belay. I was laden with all of the duo's large gear. I probably had thirty pounds of aluminum hanging off my harness as I chalked up and then gazed into the sky, half obscured by Chimney Top.
It might seem counter-intuitive that climbers will weigh themselves down with a lot of hardware before beginning a climb, but in an ideal situation the climber will only take exactly what he or she needs and leave it behind, piece by piece, as they climb upward. While the leader bears the mental brunt of the load, the second climber ends the climb with the most weight gained.
Wide cracks put a quiver in my heart. I preferred hand sized cracks, or fingercracks, or better yet, low-angled faces with large holds. The wide crack of the first pitch of Chimney Direct was located in a dihedral, an inside corner, so my intended strategy was to stay out of the crack and stem my legs between the two walls that were 90ยบ apart. The faces looked well-featured, and the crux, the business, the maw of the beast, seemed to be halfway up the initial seventy foot pitch where the faces weren't as well featured. Piece of cake.
I made three good, solid moves upward and stopped at a rest stance to put in my first piece of protection. The only piece of gear that would fit was the largest piece of gear we'd brought. I placed it, put a shoulder-length runner on it so the rope wouldn't get sucked deep into the crack and looked up. The crack only got wider. I looked down. With the two foot sling attached to the camming device I could only climb about a body length above it before I would be facing a ground fall. Any fall from higher would result in the same. Chris and Alexis both laughed nervously when I shared my observations. They'd seen my predicament as well. But I felt good. I was in good shape. I felt strong that day, and the promise of the summit above beckoned me upward.
My conclusion was that perhaps as I climbed upward, possibilities for smaller protection would reveal themselves. My partners agreed, but didn't sound convinced. I moved a foot up. Cake. I moved the opposite foot up. Chocolate cake. Rinse and repeat.
The walls leaned out a little, but the smaller surface features kept appearing as needed, sucking me upward. I kept three points of contact, moving only one limb at a time; getting higher and higher up the route. No one said anything about the lack of protection. Within only a couple of moves after setting the single camming device I was effectively off belay. The only thing Chris could have done for me if I'd fallen was try to catch me in his arms. I think we all believed he could do it, too.
Memory fades, and I apologize, but I believe I managed to place another piece of gear between the ground and the crux moves I had purposely avoided thinking about. If I did, I am certain it was junk, and wouldn't have held a falling butterfly, much less a stubby hunk of climber like myself. Regardless, I went into the crux moves facing a long fall onto a rocky patch of sand, guarded only by a burly dude that, from thirty-five feet, appeared about as big as a golf ball to me.
The positive rock features ran out. My feet were pasted to the gritty rock only by the sticky nature of my climbing shoes. I pushed hard to maintain counter-pressure between the two walls of the dihedral. I searched in vain for some kind of handhold in the crack or on the faces in front of me. The clock was ticking. Lactic acid crept into my calves. Terror tickled the back of my brain. Sweat slimed up my hands and face. It didn't matter how many times I checked the gear loops on my harness, I could not find that magical piece of gear that would span the wide crack and give me something to clip the rope into. The nature of the climbing to that point was such that I couldn't easily employ my master downclimbing skills. I was quickly running out of options.
The silence was deafening. My calves burned as if on fire. My feet vibrated like guitar strings wound beyond their breaking points. A fall...from that high...hurt bad...rescue difficult...wouldn't be able to climb...long time.
"Can you try getting into the crack?" Alexis called up.
#@$& NO! I thought. Reaching my mental breaking point, but not crossing it, I explored that possibility. I knew I sucked at climbing offwidths (wide cracks), but if I could get in the crack I might just gain a much needed rest and the feeling of security being wedged in a crack can offer. But from my wide stemming stance I couldn't get enough of my body into the crack to hold myself in place before losing too much oppositional force and falling out of the dihedral.
In frustration I planted myself firmly back into the body-splitting stem I'd left. I had only a few seconds til doom. I think both of my friends were trying to give me counsel, positive reinforcement, advice, last rites...when I decided up was the only way out of my predicament.
It mattered little if I fell from thirty-five feet or forty or forty-five. Just a couple of body lengths above me the dihedral relaxed and there seemed to be a "thank-god" ledge not too far over my head. Upward I climbed. With movement came relief from the pumped feeling in my legs. With movement came confidence through action. With movement came the predicted "thank-god" ledge. The cry went up: a three-part harmony celebrating my deliverance from certain maim-ment.
A short, easy romp led me to a flat belay stance where I built an overzealous belay anchor. I belayed my friends up and let them lead the way to the top, having expended my poke full of fairy dust that day. My close call should have been enough to convince me I needed to learn to be comfortable climbing offwidths. And to invest in some wide gear of my own. I must admit, it did not. I think I both amazed and frightened my friends. They watched me basically free-solo what amounted to a 5.10 climb. But I didn't do it with style, or grace, or intelligence, or intent. Some people only learn lessons the hard way. I might be one of those people.
Chris and Alexis after topping out

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