Words and Photos by Kenny Gamblin, All Mountain Ambassador
Kenny is a climber and Content Producer living full time on the road. Whether on-mountain or in-studio he seeks to find something universally true in the heart of human beings. Kenny is currently pursuing artist representation and remote video editing work to sustain a life of total immersion into the important stories he seeks to tell and experience.
Years ago I heard tales of the Red River Gorge. I heard of a Pizza Shop in the middle of the gorge that hosted rock climbers from all over the world on its backyard campground. I heard of the endless overhung sandstone crags, of coming back to camp and sharing pizza and beers with happy climbers.
Our group would spend Saturday morning of Memorial Day Weekend at Secret Garden in the Miller Forks climbing area. My friend Dave and I climbed hard on Friday and wanted to save our strength for Sunday. We’re both from the south and have almost zero experience climbing cracks, so a 5.7 on trad feels like more like a 5.11 to us.
Dave lead his first 5.9 on trad that day, destroyed his hands, and fell on his gear for the first time. We made the decision to beat the crowd to the showers and head back to Miguel’s early at about 3pm. We leave the rest of our climbing party behind and make the short hike back to car. As we are squeezing the car through the crag parking lot that’s packed like sardines, our other friend, also named David comes out of the woods and into the lot shouting “Kenny!” He’s changed his mind and also decides to take the rest of the day easy.
As we drive slowly down the dirt road in our friend’s beige Volvo XC70, we notice that there’s a line of Super ATVs behind us. They’re spending the day overlanding in the red and can handle the roads much better than our little car. We pull over to let them pass. A few go around us before one of them pulls up to our window and turns off his machine. He’s what you would imagine as classically-Kentuckian.
“Y’all climbin’ some rock?” We exchange niceties and tell him where we’re from. “Y’all want some beer?” I look to my left to Dave in the driver’s seat. He raises his eyebrows, and I quickly switch my head back and exclaim, “YES”.
“All we got is Natty-Light. That alright with y’all? We would offer ya whiskey but she done drunk it all, look at her”. The tank-topped woman in the passenger seat smirks and nods her head in a circular motion. We all laugh hysterically as I pass ice cold Natties to the Daves. We chat with the good folks for a few minutes as we happily drink our beers until they turn their ATV back on. We allow 4 more to pass by and we continue on.
A couple of minutes later we pull up to a wide sandy clearing to find about 15 ATVs parked in a giant circle. The same man that so kindly hydrated us was walking across the way, waved us down and shouted, “Y’all stop in and have another beer!” Again, I look to both the Daves and all of our eyebrows sit high again and we laugh and happily oblige.
We get out of our Volvo and walk around to the hatch. I situate my sun hat and some sunglasses I found in the car and hear, “Hey! Ya’ll want some-a-this? I look up and see Tony, a happy, long-bearded, sun-red man with dancing eyes, shake a mason jar full of clear liquid over his plastic windshield. Again, “YES!” I’d never had genuine moonshine and didn’t even consider turning it down.
We make our way over to the cluster of happy and hydrated Bourbon Country workers. Towards the back of Tony’s ATV stands what I would guess to have been a 65-year-old man wearing glasses and an industry trucker hat pinching a joint with his eyes clinched tight and lips pursed. “The old man loves to get high”. I take a swig of the shine and a man that we’d later find out was running for Mayor said to me softly, “Now thats a sippin’ drank.” “Oh I see”. I take one more cautious sip and pass the jar along through the crowd.
Dave was a Psychology major so I deem him a good person to vet the moment and I ask him if he thinks Tony would mind If I made a photograph of him. He says he doesn’t think Tony would mind. I walk to Tony and tell him that I’m a photographer and that I love the moment and would love to make a photograph of him. He kindly obliges. By the time I walk over to the Volvo, grab my camera and head back to Tony, he’s walking across the clearing and a kind, loud, motherly woman called Anne, who reminded me of my family in Georgia was shouting and gathering everyone to take a group photograph.
Next thing I know, I’m standing on top of a Polaris. “On three everyone just lose your minds! 1, 2, 3!” A shout goes through the crowd and I see the Daves tiny heads in the back of the group happy as I’ve ever seen them. Anne gave all of us another beer and we soaked in the moment. At one point I look at Dave and we know we are both thinking the same thing, I can’t even remember if it was him or me that said it, “This right here, this is what life is about.”
The Mayor hands Dave a gallon sized plastic bag packed full of mini bottles of bourbon and rum as everyone speeds off into the woods.
It’s Monday afternoon on Memorial Day and the rest of our climbing party heads out to get back to Atlanta. It’s just the Daves and me and we head over to check out one more crack climb. Its an 80ft 5.7 and we plan to climb it multi-pitch style, meet on the ledge at the top and end the day taking in the great view of the valley and a sandstone cliff on the other side.
Dave leads the route and sets up his belay station. David and I agree on the ground that I’ll go next. As I pull the first fist-jams of my life I look closely at my hands in amazement that it’s even possible. When I’m about 20ft from the ledge, out of nowhere, a torrential downpour dumps from the clouds.
In moments, I’m covered in mud, my rock are shoes soaked and my chalk is pointless. I place another fist jam and hope my feet don’t slide off the dripping sandstone. The moment just felt epic. I screamed as I cranked on my fist. I reach the ledge and carefully scramble up a 45 degree slosh of mud and pine straw for about 15 feet and go in direct to a tree we were using as an anchor. Dave is into the rope on a clove hitch on the edge of the cliff. It’s pouring. There’s thunder and lightning and we have a shouting conversation about whether or not David should follow us up. I shout that I don’t think it’s wise and that we should bail. Dave agrees and we begin to coil either end of the rope to set up a rappel. It’s a mess.
In my mind, rope was everywhere. It’s brown, soaked and covered in brush. We finish coiling and Dave begins to scramble up the slosh. He’s made it about 10 feet towards the tree and loses his footing. It’s exactly like a movie, a perfect cinematic moment. His feet go and he frantically claws at the mud. I notice streaks from his fingers in the mud, how far away he now is from them, and we lock eyes. He continues to claw, and continues to slide towards the edge of the cliff. I’m about to watch my friend die. I take a step forward and grab the two pieces of rope attached to my harness and hope it will stop him. We never break eye contact.
He stops, about five feet from the edge of the cliff. I don’t know how. He was still on his clove hitch. He was safe the whole time. But something about that moment felt so severe. He stops and we each take two more breaths, still looking at each other. I scream. He screams. Laughter erupts. We set up our rappel and head down. It’s pouring but at the base of the climb we’re under a large overhang protected from the weather. We cant get a weather report but we do have cell service so I make a phone call to my mom and find out it’s going to keep raining for another hour. We make a dash to the car and head back to Miguel’s for pizza and beer.