Outdoor Climbing

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Recap: Red River Gorge Beta with Dru Mack

If you’ve been climbing in the gym for a while, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve caught the outdoor climbing bug—after all, outdoor adventure is the root of our sport. But it’s not quite as easy as throwing your stuff in the car and driving to the Red River Gorge. Every climber should know some basic etiquette and ethics to enjoy all that the Red has to offer in a sustainable and safe way. That’s why we had the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition come out to Avondale on May 11 with pro climber Dru Mack to help us learn more about the do’s and don’t’s of climbing at the Red, whether it’s your first time or your 50th.

After the event, we had the chance to catch up with Dru to get his pro tips on how to navigate RRG crags. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Keep an Open Mind

Sometimes, it can be easy for more experienced climbers to negatively throw the word “gumby” around when new outdoor climbers make mistakes in etiquette. But new climbers are usually not making mistakes on purpose: “A lot of times more local climbers or people who have been climbing longer think people are messing up and they know better,” Dru says. “If you offer advice or help they’re usually more than willing to hear you out and make their process easier, as long as you don’t come across as a jerk.”

 

Manage Your Group Size

The Red is growing rapidly in popularity—and overcrowding can easily become an issue at a crag, especially with large groups who lock down routes for hours. “I’ve been to a crag where someone told me ‘there are 13 people in line for this route,’” Dru says, “but there weren’t even 13 people at the crag.” What’s the solution? “If you have a big group, spread out—go to different crags,” Dru says, “but if you’re all at one crag, make sure to let other people hop onto the route in between your whole group.” At the end of the day, communicating with other climbers is key to making sure your large group isn’t putting off negative vibes to the rest of the crag’s climbers.

Stay Within Bounds

In many areas at the Red (and in other crags around the world), climbing’s slotted into very predetermined areas. Outside of those areas, if a person or dog wanders around, erosion and damage to the landscape can threaten our access to those spaces. But that’s not just for out-of-bounds: Dru says keeping your pets and gear corralled is important for safety reasons: “It’s easy to be distracted, especially as a belayer,” Dru says, “and if someone’s dog is going through your bag, it’s really easy to look away and not give what you’re doing enough thought.” Keeping your gear and person within bounds leads into the next point covered: leaving the Red how you found it.

 

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace means exactly what it sounds like: leave it how you found it. “Our impact [as climbers] is one thing,” Dru says, “but leaving gear or trash or things out there has a negative effect on the area.” Most people aren’t intentionally littering, but it’s easy when you’re dealing with a lot of gear to drop some tape here, a wrapper there, especially with everything going on at the crag. But that stuff adds up whether you meant it or not—in both physical impact to the land, but also its beauty and the landowners’ willingness to tolerate climbers. It helps to pick things up even when it wasn’t yours. All climbers should make a point to pack out whatever they can to help keep the Red in great condition.

 

Get Involved Locally and Stay Educated

The RRGCC, who sponsored the event, is a great organization for climbers to get involved with if they want to integrate with the local scene and meet other climbers—on top of learning good etiquette and ethics. The best way is to contribute and stay up to date on new info: “Donating money goes a long way to maintaining the Red’s areas or buying new land, which can help spread people out,” Dru says. “But if you can’t donate your money, then donate your time,” like at trail days, where volunteers can maintain trails to the Red’s amazing crags.

It was a great event, and we’re so glad the RRGCC and Dru came out to talk to us. Follow them both on Instagram to stay up to date and learn more about outdoor climbing!

Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition: @RRGCC
Dru Mack: @drumack5

Climbing photos by John Wesley @lightningsnaps

Trip Report: Pete’s Lead, Jackson Falls

In this month’s trip report, Sydney Bock, FA Youth Climbing Team member, tells us about a trip to Jackson Falls back when she was only 9. She is now 11, and felt it was important to mention that 5.7 is no longer a difficult grade for her thanks to all the training she does as part of the Team. That is, unless there are frogs. Take it away, Sydney!

It was 2017, the same year our family took a trip to Jackson Falls. The same year I sent the climb “Pete’s Lead.”

My breath came in short ragged gasps, and the hot sun relentlessly beat down on my back. Which, fortunately, wasn’t as tired or cramped up as my arms and legs. The heat burned, almost as much as the aggravating itch from the mosquitoes that continued to hover around my face, even after my pitiful attempts to try and swat them away with my one free hand. Struggling so badly at only about two thirds of the way up this climb, didn’t make the possibility of me sending it a very likely outcome. I kept persisting however, and soon reached about where the three fourths mark would be, if there was one. After a quick thought, I decided to take a rest on a pretty big pocket just a little ways higher than I was at the moment. That way, I could get some much needed shaking out and chalk. Which was critical in my condition. Mind you, I was shaking with each movement and ninety-five percent sure I was going to fall at any moment now, so a rest sounded pretty nice.

One more move, just another move, you can do it; one move and you’re practically done. The words that continually coursed through my thoughts as I made my slow, and not-so-steady ascent towards my resting pocket. Now that I think about it, I kinda feel bad for my belayer. I must have taken a bajillion years getting up that rock. Just a few more holds…. finally! I stuck my hand into the pocket as a mixture of triumph and relief washed over me, but just as quickly recoiling my hand when I feel something soft and slimy at the back of the hold. I peek in and am caught by surprise when I see the form of what looks to be a frog, but whether it’s dead or just sleeping, I can’t tell. I don’t want to startle it, but what else is there to do? I can’t use the hold if the frog stays in there, and I can’t continue on the climb if I don’t rest on that hold. Finally after a few minutes of contemplation, I come to the conclusion that the best course of action is to – or at least attempt to – awaken the frog, hopefully without scaring it too much. So, I slowly stick my index finger into the hold and lightly touch the frog again. Its response was not what I was expecting. As soon as my finger came in contact with its body, immediately it jumped out so fast that I didn’t even realize what had happened until it had almost reached my shirt. It never got the chance to land on me though, only because I was able to move out of the way fast enough to where it landed on the rock instead. This action almost made me fly off the climb because of a mixture of my surprise, reflex, and tiredness, but by some miracle I managed to stay on, clinging onto the rock for dear life.

The rest of the climb, luckily, was straightforward and easy so I was able move up much more quickly and efficiently than before. Soon enough I was matching both hands on top of the ledge and looking out across the vast and rocky landscape. A view that had taken so much effort to see, made me appreciate it only ten times more. As I gave the signal to lower, and passed by the frog who was still hanging out on the rock, I realized that I wouldn’t remember this climb because it was fun or had a weird name. I would remember it because of my encounter with this very frog. This little guy had startled me so much that I almost fell off the climb, yes, but the uniqueness in meeting it had made this trip so much more fun and special. I watched on as the little frog hopped up the rock back to its pocket, and I sent it my well wishes.

I would like to dedicate this story to a few special people. Firstly to my mom for being so kind and generous, and making sure that I always feel supported. I love her so much—thanks, Mom! To my brother Austin, for making me laugh and teaching me that no matter what, I should always play LEGOS with him. Though he can be pretty annoying at times, he is still my brother and I love him infinitely nonetheless. To the frog for pushing me to finally reach the top and for making Jackson Falls so much more memorable. Finally, to my dad, for introducing me to climbing in the first place, and being so supportive of my passion. Thank you guys so much, it really means a lot to me.

How to Navigate the Crag Series

To help support your gym to crag transition, we’ve created a set of 5 guides for newer gym climbers interested in starting to climb outdoors for the first time: How to Navigate the Crag. Though it came in five parts, each with their own sets of details, the information contained in these guides is really pretty simple.

Those who’ve spent time in the outdoors, whether hiking or pursuing other sports, may have heard some of this before – particularly part one. For others, it might all be new. Take a look through the series below for the need-to-know topics about climbing outdoors for the first time.

Click the heading name to view that entry in the series. Enjoy!

Part 1: Leave No Trace

What’s Leave No Trace? It’s a seven-principle manifesto, codified in 1994 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, that equips adventurers with the skills to use the outdoors ethically and responsibly. Adopting the Leave No Trace Seven Principles makes it possible for others after you to enjoy the spaces we travel to in order to pursue our sport, and helps us maintain access to the beautiful spaces in which we climb.

Part 2: Crag Etiquette

When you first start to climb outside, you’ll realize there are no instructors hanging out, ready to correct your etiquette or skills – so to stay safe and conscientious, you need to show up educated and attentive. The new climber who shows up at a crag ready to watch, listen, and learn from more experienced climbers, but already well-versed and educated in the basic etiquette for being good climbing citizens, are the people who grow as athletes more quickly, integrate more deeply into the community, and have the most fun.

Part 3: Learning Local Style

The safety and local practices you should know when you go to a new crag are often referred to as the local “ethics.” Without knowing local ethics, you could still have a great time, but you’d likely end up violating some local access rules, making crag maintenance more difficult, or possibly endangering yourself or others. Plus, a huge part of growth in climbing is about building up your repertoire of skills to become more adaptable as an adventurer and athlete. Be sure to know local ethics for the crag your visiting, or go on your first trip to that climbing area with someone who does.

Part 4: Choosing Routes

Knowing how to choose the right routes to try on your first trip can be tricky. The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best-rated routes of that grade. But it goes even deeper than that – check out the article for more guidance on projects.

Part 5: Planning Your Trip

Plan carefully: If you show up unprepared, without enough gear, or even without a partner on the same page as you, it’ll be tough to climb what you want to climb. If you’re not using the right vehicle, it might be difficult even to access the routes you want to try. Beyond the basic camping gear (or whatever you need for your lodgings), here’s how to plan your first trip to a new crag.

Remember: climbing outdoors is a privilege that it’s up to the climbing community to responsibly enjoy. If you’re ever unsure about proper safety protocol, etiquette, ethics, or logistics, talk to other climbers, or contact the climbing coalition or club closest to the area you’re visiting. We wish you all the best as you enjoy the exceptional beauty and raw adventure of outdoor climbing. Climb on!

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 5: Planning A Climbing Trip

This is part 5 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag EtiquettePart 3: Learning Local Issues, and Part 4: Choosing Routes, so you’re up to speed.

If you’ve read this far in our How to Navigate the Crag series, you’re now up to speed on how to play outdoors ethically, how to follow the local style effectively, how to be a good climbing citizen, and how to pick a few routes you want to try. The final step is to plan your trip and, most importantly, go! Plan carefully: If you show up unprepared, or with a partner who in unprepared, it’ll be tough to climb what you want to climb. If you’re not using the right vehicle, it might be difficult even to access the routes you want to try. Beyond the basic camping gear (or whatever you need for your lodgings), here’s how to plan your first trips to a new crag:

1: Gear

Pro tip: create and follow a checklist of gear while packing for your next trip. You can even create a different checklist for each destination you frequent. When you decide to go to the Red, you can pull your list out of your phone or wherever you keep it, and run through that list to pack.

This is also your opportunity for a classic Instagram post: the ubiquitous overhead gear shot we see all our heroes post. This is the perfect moment to both ensure you’ve got all your climbing gear, and make your debut as a social media influencer.

One common mistake newer sport climbers often make: showing up to the crag with too few quickdraws. You’ll want to make sure to scope out the beta for the projects you want to climb so you can bring at least enough draws for your longest route’s bolts, plus the anchors.

2: Transportation

Make sure to think through the means of transportation available to you on your climbing trip. Certain areas can be too hard to access in low-clearance cars – think of Bald Rock or PMRP at the Red. Without four wheel drive or AWD and a touch of ground clearance, those trailheads can be very difficult to access – especially if the area’s seen any recent precipitation. A Civic probably isn’t going to cut it.

The best solution for low ground clearance: set up a carpool or finding a new partner (perhaps with a Jeep or SUV) in the Greater Chicago Rock Climbing Community on Facebook, or make appropriate vehicle plans with friends at FA. If you’re really lucky, a friend or family member might be convinced to lend you a capable vehicle – just make sure to fill it up the tank and run it through a car wash afterwards. There’s no worse way to say thank you than to return a car that needs to have mud cracked off the door handle and scrubbed out of the carpets.

3. Weather

Unchecked weather can completely shut down an otherwise great trip. Heat and humidity can kill your excitement for a climb, particularly if you’re in the sun the entire route. Colder is often better for climbing, as humidity is decreased, which will improve skin and shoe rubber friction and make it easier to stick to the holds.

If it rained recently, it’s ill advised to try to climb at some climbing areas, even if you drove all the way out. It can even be destructive. On certain types of sandstone, for example, rain weakens the rock such that climbing on it can accelerate its erosion. Don’t be the person who ignores those ethics. In other places, like the Red, it’s possible to climb in the rain, on certain overhanging routes. You’ll find no shortage of climbable routes in Kentucky during a light rain, but don’t forget to consider whether or not the muddy road is passable.

4: Food

Sometimes, planning food is easy – Miguel’s Pizza at the Red will set you up with everything you need, and at least for this writer, eating anything but pizza at the Red is not easy to accomplish. For weekend warriors, food is critical – you won’t generally climb enough to not be fairly sore and tired after your first day, so eating right plays an outsized role in making sure you last longer than a day working your projects or ticking off classics. Climbing Magazine put out a great, simple guide to cragging food for most climbers.

5: Take care of yourself

If you really want to stay fresh, you’ll have to lay off the campfire whiskey. But let’s be realistic – something about sleeping outside after a hard day of climbing makes a person want to sit around a fire or picnic table and pass around a flask a couple of times. We’re not here to judge, since that can be fun –  and for some, that’s just how you unwind at a campsite or in the outdoors generally. Just make sure you’re smart about it, drink plenty of water, and try to get at least 7 hours of unbroken sleep before a big climbing day. That goes doubly for weekend climbers – who wants to feel hungover in a tent? Take care of yourself before you climb and you’ll notice the difference.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

How to Navigate the Crag, Part 4: What to Climb

This is part 4 in our 5-part series How To Navigate The Crag. If you missed them, be sure to read Part 1: Leave No TracePart 2: Crag Etiquette, and Part 3: Learning Local Issues, so you’re up to speed.

Before you go to the climbing gym, you don’t plan your routes. Outside, you have to.

One of the first things you’ll think about when you first start planning to climb outside in a new area is what routes you’ll do. You have limited time, after all – maybe a couple days, at most, before you pile back into the car to make it back in time for work the next day. Maybe you’re paging through a fresh new guidebook, combing through hundreds of routes based on a couple of lines of description and rating alone. How do you pick what to climb when you’re new to climbing outdoors? Nothing’s labeled, of course, but routes are often far apart enough to merit careful choice in selecting where to go for a day.

The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best rated routes of that grade. In many cases, because difficulty occurs naturally outside based on the rock itself, you’ll find a number of similarly graded routes near each other, with a couple routes considered high quality “classics.” Head there. Keep in mind, though, that these crags are likely to be the most popular areas around, so plan (and time) your visit accordingly. They’re well-trafficked for a reason – fun movement, non-chossy routes – so there will be tons of beta for new outdoor climbers getting used to movement on real rock.

Once you’ve knocked out some classics over a few trips, though, you might feel the urge to pick an exciting and challenging project to work over the course of a weekend. That creates some strategic necessities you’ll want to consider before you head out:

1: Avoid burnout and injury: have more than one project at first

Here’s a personal anecdote: A few years ago, I was climbing at Smith Rock in Bend, Oregon, and found myself fixated on a 5.12a with one move that required pulling on a one finger pocket – maybe two fingers at most. With few breaks between attempts, I tried and tried on that route, for probably 90 minutes. I never sent it. Want to guess what stopped me?

I strained a tendon from that pocket. I could have prevented that in part by taking my time, trying other routes with different, complementary movements periodically, and just generally being more strategic about my approach to sending a route I really wanted to finish. My point is this: Keep a few different routes in mind, in case your “single project” turns out to be too much, too fast for your skill level. You’ll get your project done eventually – probably much faster if you try a few different routes than if you single-mindedly punish yourself on a single climb. That leads to the next point:

2: Don’t stretch yourself too far in one push

Ultimately, it’s no fun to throw yourself repeatedly at a route that spits you off over and over. Plus, like I did at Smith Rock, you run the risk of injury. Stay modest if you’re new to outdoor climbing. It’s more fun in the long run to grow in wisdom, experience, and great stories, rather than pure strength and a steady uptick in redpoint grades (i.e. the grade you can typically complete not on the first try but after multiple attempts working the moves). This sport is a lifelong journey anyway, where youthful strength is only going to be an arrow in your quiver for a few years. Choosing the right routes for your body and skill will keep you in the game for longer.

Remember that gym grades are not equal to outdoor grades. You might have heard the term “sandbagging” – grading a climb with a lower, easier grade than what it actually deserves. Well, compared to indoor climbing, a lot of outdoor grades feel sandbagged, at least from a gym climber’s perspective. One reason outside routes feel harder: you will spend a significant amount of time route finding outside. Because the holds aren’t marked for you, you’ll need to search for the holds and the best way to hold them, figure out whether the route goes left or right, etc. Route finding takes time and energy, so your on-sight grade (i.e. the grade you can typically complete the first time you try it) will inevitably be lower.

3: Seek fun climbing, not fun sending

Especially in the beginning, as you’re getting used to outdoor climbing, it’s important to pay attention to the routes that are the most fun to climb in the moment, rather than fun to talk about later when you’re telling your friends. There’s a place in the world for Type II fun – after all, those kinds of experiences often enrich the soul most – but in the beginning of your climbing career, climb for fun in the moment rather than fun talking about the achievement. It’s okay to decide at a certain point that you really want to push your skills even if it takes difficult and concerted effort, but for now, make sure you’re having enough fun on your projects to come back out and do more! After all, the more partners we can find at First Ascent, the better.

In the next (and final) installment of the series, we’re covering climbing trip logistics: How To Navigate The Crag, Part 5: Planning A Climbing Trip.

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

Photos courtesy of Ed Yu and Chris Rooney.

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