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Rocktoberfest: Kentucky Straight Climbing Festival

Seventeen hours down; three to go.

Growing up as a climber in East Tennessee in the 90s, I was pretty removed from the mainstream climbing scene, to the extent that climbing was mainstream at all at that point. Even more removed was this little area further north in Kentucky. Some of my friends would head up there on weekends and come back with stories of unrelenting forearm pump. By the end of the decade, folks mostly knew about the Red, but despite the images of massive waves of pocketed sandstone, a really good local pizza joint (who would also let you sleep in the yard!?), and a sixteen-year-old girl who was quietly cruising her way up every hard line there, it was still a pretty off-the-map location.

A rarely quiet moment at Miguel’s Pizza.

Well, that has changed. Even though I’ve witnessed the Red’s explosion in my climbing career, I was startled out of the blur of the twenty-hour drive from Boulder as I pulled off the Mountain Parkway into a veritable city of campers, tents representing various climbing companies and organizations, and even a crane, all for the Red’s biggest event of the year: Rocktoberfest.

Rocktoberfest began twelve years ago as a fundraiser event for the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition, a local affiliate organization of the Access Fund. In those twelve years, the event has grown to become one of the best-attended climbing festivals in the U.S. With sponsorship from over thirty top climbing companies, this year’s event included live music from 23 String Band, a presentation by Emily Harrington on her trip to Everest, competitions (climbing, crate-stacking, and arm wrestling, to be specific), clinics by professional climbers, great food, and plenty of good ol’ Kentucky rock climbing fun.

We did manage to squeeze in just enough time between events to fall off some rock climbs. Because the rock is so steep and pumpy, falling off is often more fun than climbing.

The RRGCC has been highly active in preserving access to numerous crags throughout the Red River Gorge region. Unlike many large climbing areas in the American West, the climbing in the Red lies in a complicate network of public, private, and privately leased land. Most notably, the RRGCC purchased the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve through a loan from the Access Fund. The preserve is home to nearly 1000 rock climbs, many among the very best of the Red and growing every day, and the establishment of it has secured access to a significant portion of the climbing resource in the area. The first of its kind in the U.S., it is publicly owned and managed by the RRGCC for the purpose of recreation, particularly climbing. The main event of this year’s Rocktoberfest was the RRGCC’s final payment on the loan from the Access Fund, making the PMRP completely climber-owned and the access to its climbing secure forever.

The weekend event brought hundreds of climbers to the area, many of whom will stay there for a few more days, even weeks and months (including yours truly), to sample more of the immaculate Corbin sandstone. Certainly, the Red isn’t what it used to be. In the last two decades, it’s gone from being a backwater crag to a proving ground for climbers from around the world. Admittedly, the crags were a bit busy over the weekend, but the extensive and well-established climbing and general positive vibe made it easily overlooked. Ultimately, Rocktoberfest is a celebration of a truly world-class climbing area and a fun way to support the RRGCC, the steward of it. The Red draws foreigners and locals alike together and gives them a great medium to share the beauty of rock climbing. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

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