Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 16, 2014

Tim Preston: Overcoming the impossible: 02/16/14

Tim Preston
The Independent

RED RIVER GORGE — At 49 years old, with a spare tire the size of a Santa impersonator and a trick hip full of titanium, I’m the last guy in the world who should ever try to climb a rock wall at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge.

I struggle to get up the stairs at the office on good days. And, on bad days, I sometimes struggle to get down the darned things. Combine that with a hard-wired fear of heights (complete with instant overwhelming vertigo) and you get a guy who isn’t likely to be pulling himself up a sheer rock face unless there is some kind of zombie wolf chasing him there.

Apparently, however, I’m also one of those people who is capable of becoming highly motivated when faced with the concept of “impossible.”

Standing at the base of a climbing route called “Sweet Jane” in the Muir Valley section of the Red River Gorge, I explained my physical limitations to Ashland native and rock-climbing expert Clifton Gifford after he’d strapped me into a climbing harness and clicked my gear onto the rope leading to the top of the sandstone wall. I’ll never know if he was being blunt and honest or was actually challenging my very manhood, but Gifford considered what I’d told him, then looked me right in the eye and said, “This just might be impossible for you.”

In my mind, he put a little extra emphasis on the words “just might be,” and I immediately decided I had to at least give it a try.

We had spent a little time educating me about the sport that has fascinated Gifford, as well as business and climbing partner Brian Gillespie, also of Ashland, for many years. I learned the “Sweet Jane” route has a difficulty rating of 5.8 — a walk in the park compared to some of the other nearby routes with equally interesting names such as “The Chocolate Factory,” “Jesus Wept,” “Bruise Brothers” and “Prometheus Unbound.” Gifford explained the Red River Gorge, and Muir Valley in particular, “is just a Disneyland park for climbers” with literally thousands of established climbing routes. With pride, he noted we were climbing in a place recently voted the nicest privately-owned sport climbing area in the entire world, crediting owners Rick and Liz Weber for their dedication to the 400-acre Muir Valley area and its seven miles of clifflines.

Before making the drive and short hike to the base of “Sweet Jane,” we grabbed special climbing shoes while gearing up at Gifford and Gillespie’s shop, Kentucky Rock and Adventure Guides in Pine Ridge. The guys explained the shoes had almost magical properties, and we weren’t to wear them at any time other than while climbing. We also had lightweight helmets strapped onto our heads, with Gifford providing a collection of stories based on his personal experiences to reinforce the reasons why you should always wear head protection while enjoying this sport.

While hanging out at KRAG HQ, which is also home to a cozy little beer bar and gourmet hot dog restaurant known as Sky Bridge Station, we also had the pleasure of meeting photographer and climber Michael “Kirk” Kirkendall. Kirk said he got really lucky sometime back and landed a place to live in Muir Valley. He also said he began rock climbing on his 50th birthday.

“How old are you now,” I asked, and he replied “51.”

I had just watched Kirk practically scramble up Sweet Jane and tow up a camera bag when Gifford said the challenge “just might be” impossible for me. Inspired by Kirk and too darned bull-headed for good sense to take effect, I decided the least I could do was give it a try. My only goal was to get a few feet up before declaring defeat, so I turned the little video camera on my helmet to “record” and began my slow assent on “Sweet Jane.” The first few feet were a mental battle filled with questions: What if you get up here and something breaks? What if Clifton has to call his rescue squad buddies to get you out of here? What if Clifton has to climb up here himself and pick your terrified self off this wall?

What I did not count on, was Gifford’s confidence and encyclopedic knowledge of this particular patch of rock wall. As he maintained the rope I was attached to, he told me exactly where to find each hand and foot hold, and gave me all the time I needed to adapt the task to my particular limitations. Early on in the climb, I remember he pointed my left foot toward a toe hold that was completely obscured from my view as well as his, and I wondered how he could possibly know I needed to lift my foot exactly two inches to find it. I lifted my foot two inches, however, and the toe of the climbing shoe found a perfect indent to make the next step.

At other points he told me to reach over a ledge and feel for “that chicken head,” or pointed me toward a “jug,” or nubbin of rock, I could use to lift myself yet another step closer to the carabiner at the top of the route. Those climbing shoes really come into play here as well. Gifford and Gillespie had explained the shoes seem to provide a grip even if you can find only a tiny spot to work from, and I was astounded at the truth of the observation. I’m not sure if it is the type of rubber used or what, but those shoes provide almost super-human skills when applied to rock surfaces.

I would love to say I took off up the face of that cliff and climbed Sweet Jane like some kind of spider monkey, although the truth was just the opposite. I had to carefully pick my way up the route, often pausing to pant for my breath after ascending only a few inches. I fell at least twice, although Gifford’s expert belay work (using his own weight and a rope-braking device to prevent the climber from long drops with sudden stops) made the short falls more of a mild heart attack than anything else. Even as I managed to slowly put more distance between myself and the ground, there were a couple of times I wanted to give up, but Gifford simply told me where to find the next hold. I paused, got a grip on myself and the rock and pushed on upward.

After the first 20 feet or so, I also had my personal “scared of heights” issues kick in, and realized I hadn’t even mentioned this gripping phobia to Gifford. All I could really do was apply the old adage “Don’t look down,” and keep climbing. Oddly, I found myself repeating the little fish’s “Just Keep Swimming” song from “Finding Nemo” as I climbed.

Somewhere well beyond the halfway point, I also developed a bad case of what climbers call “Elvis Leg” as I tried to use my weaker appendage to leverage up to the next spot. To explain, Elvis Leg is what happens when a tired muscle starts to spasm up and down, mimicking a stage move made famous by the king of rock and roll. I felt a little better about getting Elvis Leg the next day when Gifford had it happen to him while climbing a considerably more challenging route called “Super Best Friends.” Speaking of muscles, I also began discovering you have them in places you don’t realize, especially when it comes to gripping, climbing and keeping yourself flat against a big rock. Those muscles yelled at me for at least three more days.

To my own shock and disbelief, there came a point when Gifford’s tone of voice changed entirely as he told me to smack the metal carabiner at the top of the rope and then just enjoy the ride back down. The last few feet of the climb had really taken a toll on me and I didn’t even realize it when the goal was literally within reach of my fingertips. I smacked the ring, let go of the wall, kicked back and rode the rope slowly down in a whirling blur of satisfaction and accomplishment that I can hardly hope to describe with any degree of accuracy.

There was no motivational speaker or gold medal at the end, but I didn’t need one. I’m not overstating it when I say the experience instilled a degree of confidence that has since become a part of my deepest being. Months have passed and I’ve encountered many situations some people, including myself, would have said “just might be impossible.” Without exception, in each of those circumstances, I’ve thought about that climb up “Sweet Jane” and applied the lesson learned. I didn’t make it all the way every time, but got a lot further than I expected. You really can’t know what is possible, or impossible, unless you try.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.