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Finding The Motherload: New Book Tells Oral History of Red River Gorge Climbing

Over the last three decades, the Red River Gorge has emerged as one of America’s most famous sport climbing destinations, but climbers have haunted the region since the 1960s. A new book tells the oral history of climbing—and climbing access—in the Red.

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Author’s note:

Climbers have been visiting the Red River Gorge for at least a half century now with hopes of ascending its unique, gorgeous sandstone cliff lines. Early generations of climbers called it the Gorge, while more recent climbers simply call it the Red. Those cliff lines, eroded for eons by droplets of water jostling their way down the hillside, reveal a vibrant, unique, and seemingly endless concentration of overhung sandstone climbing that marks it today among the planet’s favorite climbing destinations. But understanding the Red’s climbing history is more than just the campfire stories of first ascents and climbing feats. This history goes much deeper, weaving in rapid cultural changes in climbing traditions, evolving responsibilities for public land managers, and the long-standing experiences of people living in the Red’s wet floodplain.

When I started this book, the history of the Red’s climbing community was largely minimal and disorganized. There was no central historical account of the community beyond a few standard pages in most climbing guides, a handful of articles in climbing magazines, and a brief description of the Red in Don Mellor’s American Rock, a book summarizing the history of American climbing communities. Much of the history out there mostly repeats ideas from John Bronaugh’s early guides and Ray Ellington’s profiles on local heroes. Chris Chaney also organized several climbing stories into his 2019 book on the Red River Gorge. Additionally, the online forums at redriverclimbing.com contained a lot of historical data mixed in among thousands of more mundane topics, such as lost climbing gear and near-constant online ribbing among friends. This small gathering of historical information created a simple outline of the community’s history but with a lot of flesh (and even a few major bones) missing from the overall body.

To fill in the many gaps in the literature, I began collecting oral history interviews with Red River Gorge climbers in 2017. By luck, nearly all the pivotal figures in this history were still alive and willing to share their stories. This soon began to add a clearer, personal picture of the community’s many historical events ranging from its earliest days right up to recent happenings. This collection also grew to include interviews with local residents (both current and former), regional scholars, business owners, and government employees to provide a more nuanced perspective on the region.

—Dr. James N. Maples

Margot Hayes climbing in the Madness Cave
Margot Hayes climbing in the Madness Cave. (Photo: Jan Novak)

Finding the Motherlode

Clustered throughout the Red and its surrounding region, climbing crags are gorgeous to behold yet indescribable on first sight. They overwhelm the senses with sheer size and their fantastic multihued stone coloring amid the hardwood trees and nearly impenetrable patches of rhododendron. Swirling iron deposits, compressed and twisted by time, pressure, and erosion pathways, provide almost psychedelic qualities to the rock. Those iron deposits also might offer a nice micro foothold to climbers. Running water creates long stains along some rock faces, whereas others are pocked with indentions, called pockets, which climbers often use to ascend to new heights. To first-time visitors, a trip to the crag is a visceral, life-changing event. Yet perhaps no crag here is so imposing, so awe-inspiring, as The Motherlode.

Although synonymous with the Red, The Motherlode is technically beyond the Red River Gorge itself. In fact, the bulk of climbing in the region now falls into this category. In some small sense, all climber-owned properties in the Red and surrounding region arguably have two common ancestors: The Motherlode and Military Wall. The issues with sport climbing and Forest Service regulations at the Military Wall crag [discussed extensively in the book] created a strong desire in the community to own their climbing destinations to ensure access, and The Motherlode represented an early example of expansion beyond the Red that could be privately owned. Today, Lee County (which is where The Motherlode is found) holds a great deal of climbing opportunities, nearly all of which are climber owned. The Motherlode also presents an early example of the myriad issues with climbing off public lands.

Chris Snyder recalls the story of finding The Motherlode:

I had the idea to go to the geological survey at UK on the campus and buy some geologic maps. I bought several quadrangles . . . and they color code the formations. The sandstone that we all climb on is called Corbin Sandstone and it’s got a specific color on the maps, and you could just look at these quadrangle maps and it was apparent that the region that’s known as The Big Sinking to the locals had a lot of rock in it, and even though it was August or July and really out of season in Kentucky, a friend and I went hiking down there.

Descending what is now called Bald Rock Fork Road and entering the Big Sinking oil field, Chris looked across the canyon and saw a powerline cut that offered an easier hiking path through the dense forest. “We bee-lined for that [cut] . . . we hiked just straight for that. . . . We looked at the rock kinda to the east of that, and it was okay. There’s routes there now, it’s called the Bear’s Den . . . and then we hiked to the west and stumbled upon that drainage that is The Motherlode. We were back the very next day.”

Chris decided to find the landowner of this natural masterpiece to ask permission to climb there. He scoured through the Lee County tax assessor’s records and got a lucky hit. The Motherlode was owned by Thomas Hall, then commonwealth attorney for Lee County. Chris visited Thomas’s Beattyville office to ask permission to climb there. His response, per Chris: “You wanna do what? You wanna climb on my land?” Chris explained the process of putting up sport routes and establishing user trails there. He explained that this was a fantastic climbing location with the potential for national, even international fame. Chris remembers the conversation like this:

Thomas: “You’re not gonna use any spray paint are ya?”

Chris: “No, we don’t do that.”

Thomas: “You’re not gonna grow any pot back there?”

Chris: “No.”

Thomas: “You kids do whatever you want.”

As it turns out, Kentucky laws are actually quite friendly toward outdoor recreation land use. Kentucky statute 411.190 (Obligations of owner to persons using land for recreation) states that “an owner of land owes no duty of care to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for recreational purposes, or to give any warning of a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity on the premises to persons entering for such purposes.” The noted purpose of the statute was “to encourage owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes.” This wording allows for both “directly or indirectly” inviting persons onto the property for recreation, which creates a loophole for scenarios where the landowner essentially looks the other way or simply doesn’t know. In other cases, private landowners can explicitly ban climbers or require a permit (as is today the case with Graining Fork Nature Preserve) or limit climbing access to paid guests staying at cabins on the property (such as Torrent Falls). However, the statute explicitly excludes situations where the landowner charges admittance that would place the risk of liability on the landowner. Instead, landowners can choose to allow for donations or charge for parking.

Having secured permission to climb, Chris still had a big problem: physical access to the site through dense forest. Coincidently, Thomas sold the timber rights to the area soon after his conversation with Chris. Seeing the potential for good fortune, Chris talked repeatedly with the timber crews to ask that particular trees be removed, which helped ease access. Meanwhile, the bulldozers in the valley also helped to clear parking and passages. Before long, a small trickle of climbers could regularly be found in the valley.

Development happened quickly at The Motherlode. Chris’s first route at The Motherlode was “Stain,” a 5.12c sport classic. The following year he put up “8 Ball” (5.12d), “Cutthroat” (5.13b), and “Hot for Teacher” (5.12c). In 1994, Chris and other climbers added a total of 15 routes in short order at The Motherlode, and the following year climbers added another 31 routes. In two short years, The Motherlode had 46 routes, putting it in the same company with locations like Military Wall (but with the distinct climber benefit of not being under Forest Service policies). Moreover, nearly every one of those routes at The Motherlode was a sport route, taking advantage of the intense overhang available at spots like Undertow. This includes several 5.13s that were among the most difficult routes in the region. The area remains one of the most popular climbing destinations in the Red.

Thomas occasionally visited the area to see the developments occurring there. Chris said that about five years after the area had been developed for climbing, Thomas visited with his entire family. They made a day of it, watching the climbers. Looking at the license plates from around the United States, Thomas realized it was now “world famous.” Chris recalled, “It was so fortunate that [Thomas] was the guy who happened to own it, and a lot of the credit for that place can be given to him.”

One looming issue overarched the rapid gains at The Motherlode: land ownership. In those days, climbers were allowed to access the space due to the good graces of Thomas Hall, with support from Kentucky state laws, but this was contingent on Hall remaining the landowner. And at some point, the property was sold to another party. Climbing continued, but there was always the risk that it could be closed. Ray Ellington noted in his third-edition guide that The Motherlode is “privately owned. Although there have been no access problems reported recently, its inclusion in this book does not imply that climbers have the right to climb there.”

To put this in perspective, numerous climbing areas have closed in recent decades over concerns about protecting public lands, minimizing environmental impact, or even fulfilling the owner’s prerogative to limit access. That sense of risk would stick around the Red. Yasmeen Fowler explained it as such: “If it’s not owned by climbers, private property is kind of this loose hopeful verbal agreement between the few climbers that have the landowner’s permission and the landowner. . . . That’s where the motto comes from: ‘If we own it, they can’t close it.’ ”

Making things even more confusing, landownership in Appalachia also includes issues of owning the rights to extract resources. Mineral rights are often released to extraction companies interested in accessing the supply of oil beneath the region. Today, walking around The Motherlode area, one can often hear, see, and smell the sounds of well activity. The wells are slow producing but certainly active and must, on occasion, be emptied. In fact, this created a conflict with climbers, as extraction trucks would occasionally arrive to find cars parked in front of wells. The cars would often be towed, creating further conflicts and even fisticuffs. Bill Ramsey explained, “That was always a concern that we had because there was always this uncertainty about Charmane Oil at the time. . . . There was always this kind of sketchy relationship with them where some of the people who were working for Charmane seemed okay with the climbing, where others did not.”

Despite the odds, The Motherlode is presently secured for climbers. In 2011, the Ventura family (who also own Miguel’s Pizza) purchased the property above The Motherlode, while in 2017, the RRGCC purchased the property below The Motherlode. This effectively keeps the area in the climbing community. The RRGCC area is now known as Bald Rock Recreational Preserve (BRRP). The RRGCC (on September 7, 2017) signed a conservation and recreation easement with Access Fund. The easement ensures that the BRRP portion of the property cannot be developed in the future.

Reflecting on climbing history in the Red, securing The Motherlode was certainly a milestone achievement. Its protection also guarantees that climbers will continue coming to Lee County and the surrounding region for the imaginable future. But this result belies the difficulty of coming to that momentous event. In fact, it took climbers approximately five decades to travel the journey. The path was decidedly uphill and required wading through a long history of politics, generational poverty, and flooding to get to their destination.

*

Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge: An Oral History of Community Resources and Tourism is available for purchase from its publisher, the University of West Virginia Press, and various other online outlets.

Dr. James N. Maples is Director of the Division for Regional Economic Assessment and Modelling and Associate Professor of Sociology at Eastern Kentucky University. His work examines the economic and environmental impacts of outdoor recreation and sustainable tourism with a focus on climbing. James received his PhD from The University of Tennessee in 2012. He is an Eagle Scout, Girl Scout dad, hiker, and metal detectorist. James was raised in East Tennessee and now lives in Berea, Kentucky.