It was probably the fall of 1992 and three of us, and all our gear were packed in a tiny black hatchback. Ice-T’s Body Count CD had been released earlier that year, and the track Cop Killer was now drowning out the road noise as we raced to the Red River Gorge.
This was probably our second trip to the area. We were in our early 20s, had few real responsibilities, and the Red River Gorge had the steepest rock we had ever seen. It was the trifecta of climbing motivation. We didn’t recognize it at the time, but a road trip to The Gorge would become a yearly ritual that we would repeat for more than 25 years. We initially believed that we were travelling there for the climbing. After more than two decades, we would realize we were wrong.
Saying that The Gorge was a different place back then is an understatement. There were no cabin rentals, Miguel’s parking lot could accommodate about 10 cars, and eating and dining options were significantly more limited (I miss Ernie’s Food Food Hot Food). But what the area lacked in amenities it easily made up in almost endless miles of steep sandstone. And solitude. Crags like Roadside, Torrent Falls, Military Wall and Left Flank were hauntingly quiet during the week, and you were lucky to bump into anyone even during the weekends.
Later in the region’s development, I remember climbing at The Lode, Hominy Hole and Pocket Wall without seeing another person. The Gorge was a magical place that we got to experience in a way that is difficult to comprehend when compared to how popular it’s become today.
When we would occasionally run into other climbers, they would often be the locals from Lexington who were responsible for developing the majority of the area’s classic crags. Perhaps it was the famous Southern Hospitality or the novelty of meeting Canadians who had travelled this far south to climb at what at the time was a relatively unknown climbing area, but these folks were surprisingly eager to share climbing information.
They were also quick to invite us into Lexington for food and drinks during rest days. Many of these rest-day forays would inevitably end up at Lynagh’s, an Irish bar with reasonable food and more importantly, cheap beer and bourbon. That final combination frequently meant postponing the drive to The Gorge until the next morning. Thankfully our new friends had plenty of spare couches we could surf.
Over the following years, as we continued to visit the area, the crowds got bigger, and the crags got busier. And yet our passion for climbing at The Gorge never faltered. We would frequently head down during the spring and fall seasons and stay in Lexington with our new climbing friends.
In the mornings, as they would be getting ready to head off to work, we would be getting ready for our commute to The Gorge. The evenings followed an equally domestic pattern; we would both return at about the same time for dinner and post-work/climbing conversation. Rest days would be split between Tekken tournaments and preparing dinner for our gracious hosts. These were truly sublime climbing road trips.
Since we started visiting the area, The Gorge has become a globally recognized destination. Every season climbers from all over the world come to sample the area’s steep sandstone routes. And I’m sure that the majority of these climbers feel the same excitement and anticipation that we felt over 25 years ago during our first visit. We still travel to The Gorge, and while we occasionally reminisce about those quieter and less crowded early years, we’ve come to terms with the reality that the area has changed.
Yet during this time, the one thing that’s remained constant is the pleasure we still get from visiting the friends we met when we first started coming to The Gorge. In our youth, we thought The Gorge was a special place because of the climbing. Only much later did we understand that it was the people and the friendships we formed that kept drawing us back to the area.
Gus Alexandropoulos is the owner of ontarioclimbing.com, former editor of Gripped magazine and route developer based in Hamilton, Ont.