The Red River Gorge is somewhat of a Mecca for sport climbers. Beautiful sandstone crags hidden in a forest, the area boasts some of the most stunning lines out there. A plethora of steep climbing on relatively good holds, it seems like everywhere you look there is a five star line.

The beautiful, never ending endure fest of Death By Chocolate (7c+)

Leaving Smith Rock behind, I flew to Nashville to meet up with Ethan and then we drove to the Red to join forces with Jerome and Alice. Lago Linda’s was our home for the next month and we quickly settled into a great rhythm of climbing-focussed living. Waking up to bluebird skies almost everyday, channelling the power of plenty of coffee we would head out to the forest to climb on some of the best rock there is, returning to cook by camp stove (Ethan and I had our dinner menu dialled almost more than the climbing), debrief on our experiences that day and then finish with Bengal Spice tea and, usually, a film. Repeat.

Morning much needed coffee routine
Dinner time at Linda’s

This was my second trip to the Red; my first was in 2015 with Katy (Whittaker). We had a blast on the previous trip but it had a very different vibe with injuries limiting play for both of us. As a result, I felt like this visit was almost like going to a new area, as a lot of the climbing felt more accessible.

Initially I had planned the trip with the idea of looking at Pure Imagination – this line really inspired me and I felt I would be in good enough condition to try it. A lot changed in the lead up to the trip that would change my perspective and needs but it took me a while to realise and so I started the trip in the Red with this still in mind.

Pure Imagination is a beautiful climb, a classic of the Chocolate Factory area, it takes a line through honeycomb rock, crimp after crimp, bouldery sections with reasonable rests, just my cup of tea! On the down side, it is pretty skin intensive with a lot of sharp holds, including one razor blade hold that makes up the crux of the route. Coming from Smith Rock with some established holes in my fingertips already, this was a less than ideal prospect. I taped up and carried on, making reasonable progress on the route, my main issue being a “stopper move” high up. It was manageable with a bit of climbing into it but I could imagine falling there A LOT from the ground!

Some serious skin management (I got really into using razor blades for helping remove skin so splits heal more flat). Photo Ethan Walker.

To cut a long story short, I put a few sessions in on the route but then realised it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. I had to take more rest days than I would have liked in order to grow skin and maintain strength for the harder sections of climbing and my heart was elsewhere. I was tired mentally of pushing myself in this way and I just wanted to climb lots! The Red is like being in a sport climbing sweet shop, it’s hard to project one thing when so many amazing lines surround you. My favourite days were the ones in-between sessions on Pure where I was onsighting or making quick sends of classic lines.

Letting go of it was interesting, it felt like failure initially (and I guess it was) but it also felt very liberating. Without really realising, I have spent a lot of this year trying hard projects and my time in the Red made me see how important it is to also spend chunks of time just going climbing, without the added pressure of a hard redpoint or long working process. Finishing a day having done a handful of new routes was so satisfying, whether they were 7a or 8a.

Trying hard on Kaleidoscope (8a+), photo Lindsay Tjian.

It also gave me an opportunity to work on a skill that I have always found hard: onsighting and flashing routes. This is something I have always struggled with, mainly because historically I got very scared if I ventured above my bolt not knowing what was to come. If I was redpointing I could be braver as I knew the upcoming moves, where I could clip from and usually what the fall might feel like. This, over the years has lead me to project more and more, ignoring an area of rock climbing in which I felt out of my depth and scared. Over time, this coupled with a sense of shame knowing that my ability to onsight was so far removed from where I felt it “should” be given my ability to redpoint at a reasonably high level. Fear of failure and ego then prevented me from tackling it head on; mid-range grades scared me more than anything! Onsighting requires the climber to be comfortable with the unknown and confident in one’s ability to problem solve quickly and efficiently, unhampered by the fear of falling or being exposed. Doing lots of routes in the Red really helped me and weirdly (considering my lead fall accident in August) I am the most confident I have ever been on lead and I began to really love onsighting. I feel like embracing this has opened up a part of climbing to me again, one that I have inadvertently neglected for too long.

Happy and pumped. Photo Ethan Walker.

So that was how a lot of my trip was spent and it was a perfect experience, one that has made me a better and more confident climber. I also felt a lot of gratitude over the duration of the trip; to be able to travel and climb like I do is a huge privilege on many levels and I am very aware of that and truly thankful for it. Although my injuries from my accident at Malham were (in the end) short term and relatively minor, it gave me a solid reminder to appreciate each moment and all it has to offer. There were times during that day when I didn’t know how bad things were going to be and whether I would be able to climb in the same way, physically and mentally. Bags of gratitude for how things turned out and to be back in the game again.

Massive thanks to Ethan, Jerome and Alice for being such fun to be away with and to all the lovely people we met during our time there. As always, behind the scenes there are people working to make these climbing areas accessible and in this case it’s the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition who buy land, protect access and drive environmental initiatives in the area. Thank you!

I would highly recommend Red River Gorge as a destination and I will definitely be back again.

Ethan in cruise mode on Thanatopsis (8b+/c), Photo Jerome Mowat

Golden Boy (8a), Photo Dru Mack

Black Gold (8a+), Photo Jerome Mowat

Enjoying the onsight of Gene Wilder (7c), Photo Ethan Walker.

Amazing rock formations on Elephant Man (8a) at the Darkside. Photo Jerome Mowat