Learning to Climb Again – Rocking the Red River Gorge

It’s been humbling to face the prospect of relearning to climb again.  I’ll be brief…primarily to spare those around me who have been by my side during this trying period.   I tore my ACL in a random snowshoeing accident in April 2011.  Normally, the post-ACL reconstruction surgery is a painful and consuming 4-6 month process.  My medical team flippantly remarked that I would probably bounce back faster than normal because I was “young, fit, and compliant.”  However, by November, I was still struggling with constant pain, inability to walk with a normal gait, and the frustration of feeling like I was inhabiting a stranger’s body.

My annual trip to the Red River Gorge near Lexington, Kentucky was fast approaching and I wasn’t sure I would be up for technical rock climbing.  Keeping my fingers crossed that the knee would be far enough along by then, I reached out to Red River Outdoors to request my favorite guide, Kennan Connor.

I really dug Keenan’s vibe the last time I was in the Gorge.  He was very mellow, even keeled, and unassuming despite some of the serious and record-breaking climbs he has accomplished.  I thought I would be coming back to work on lead climbing with him, something I hadn’t really been attracted to as I’m a big weenie about leader falls.  That would definitely have to wait a while because I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to top-rope easy routes!

Keenan belaying me on a tough start at The Shire in 2010

I met Keenan and Rae at the Red River Outdoors meeting spot a couple of miles from the infamous Miguel’s Pizza.  Rae was a young women who aspired to become a guide and who would be shadowing us.   Thankfully Keenan remembered me and asked “So, how has your climbing progressed over the last year?”

I chuckled and explained how much everything had slid backwards due to the injury…one year older and yet no progress.    He reviewed the areas and the routes we climbed last year, inquiring what kinds of climbs would be most appropriate for my current condition.  I truly did not know whether I would try to make one move on the rock and suddenly turn into a beached whale floundering about…but I REALLY wanted to try and definitely felt like Keenan’s mellow encouraging way would be positive.

All three of us climbed into Keenan’s beater (I was surprised to still see it kicking!) and drove out to the Southern Region area.  Keenan decided to first go to an area called Left Field with some easy 5.5 and 5.6 climbs as a test.  I still needed my poles for balance on uneven terrain and walked slowly on the trail, thinking to myself that it was probably silly to test my knee in the vertical world when it was still challenged in the horizontal world.

Hiking in the Southern Region

Keenan did a trad lead (where the leader places gear in natural features of the rock for protection) to the top of a set of anchors that would serve two routes – Return to Zoe (5.6 35ft) and Flee the Fixer (5.5 35ft).  I chose to try Return to Zoe first which was a dihedral (corner) as I tend to enjoy this kind of route – it uses a lot of balance and opposing forces versus muscling straight up a route.

I was very nervous as I put my harness on and tied into the rope on a figure-eight knot.  I hoped I would not turn into that beached whale or worse, hurt my knee, but I was trying to keep my expectations extremely low.  I stepped up to the rock face, asked Keenan to keep me tight, and took a deep breath.  I could feel the sharp crystals through the skin of my fingertips and feel the connection with the earth as I took hold of the rock.  I stepped onto two small footholds and mentally crossed my fingers as I stood up on my feet.  They held!  And no pain!

I very slowly and deliberately planned my moves and carefully balanced on each new foot placement.  As I ascended the dihedral, I began to use opposing forces with my legs, stemming out across holds.  I had never needed to be so deliberate with my movements before and I found it actually felt more fluid and effortless than the year prior.  I was absolutely elated to reach the top of the climb and not feel tired at all.

Reaching the top of Return to Zoe (5.6 trad)

Keenan lowered me and had to ask, “Which leg was it again?”  He said he couldn’t tell that I was favoring either side.  So far so good!  I then climbed Flee the Fixer, a more slabby climb which was tougher, but I also made it to the top without resting.  Rae led a sport climb just to the right (Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft – climbers are definitely good for colorful route names!!!).  This was one I had climbed last year so I could make a direct comparison, and it was MUCH easier than the last time.  Maybe there is something to being more deliberate with your movement!

We headed over The Shire where I had also climbed before.  I really struggled to walk down the small hills, leaning on my poles because my left knee couldn’t bear to be loaded downhill.  How bizarre that I seemed to feel better in the vertical world than the horizontal world!!!

Climbing over a bulge on Audie (5.8)

We climbed Peewee (5.7 35ft) and Audie (5.8 35ft), two slightly tougher routes that were more vertical and with a few bulging sections.  I had to rest once on Audie as my lack of fitness and rock-climbing endurance was kicking in, but I was still stoked to complete both climbs.

I remembered one really nice long 5.8 that I saw last year, but we had run out of time.  We donned our packs and hiked over to the area called The Gallery and I climbed a 65ft 5.8 called 27 Years of Climbing. Due to rope stretch, I could have hit the ground if I fell on one of the first moves, the crux of this climb, but I just stayed focused on not falling and pulled through.  I had to rest twice toward the top, but was flying high as a kite by this point.

Up high on 27 Years of Climbing (5.8)

Finally, we walked around The Gallery to the Volunteer Wall to hit a challenging climb that I completed last year.  Darwin Loves you is a strenuous 5.9+ 50ft climb.  I was starting to feel a bit more tired by this point and conscious that I shouldn’t push too hard on my first day back on the rock.  I got through the first moves off the ground, one of the cruxes, and then became exhausted about 25ft off the ground.  My forearms became so pumped that I couldn’t hold on any longer and I called it a day.

My support crew for the day, Keenan and Rae

Keenan, Rae, and I left the Southern Region of the Gorge as the light was beginning to fade from the sky, and I was immensely grateful for their support and to be back among this wacky tribe of people that are compelled to climb.

Route highlights

Wall Route Rating Height
Left Field Return to Zoe 5.6 35ft
Left Field Flee the Fixer 5.5 45ft
Left Field Sandy’s A$$ Cherry 5.5 45ft
The Shire Pee Wee 5.7 35ft
The Shire Audie 5.8 35ft
The Gallery 27 years of climbing 5.8 65ft
Volunteer Wall Darwin Loves You 5.9+ 50ft

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