Kentucky Alpine

Seeking first-ascent trad lines in America’s sport climbing capital

For most climbers who dig long approaches, loose rock, mandatory self-rescue skills, and a high commitment level, it means booking a flight to the Bugaboos, Baffin Island, the Cascades, Rockies, or even Patagonia. For Kentucky native Heath Rowland, it means hiking into his backyard.

Rowland has spent the last three years scouring topos of the Red River Gorge in pursuit of first ascents, but not the well-bolted, short-approach routes that make the Red popular with sport climbers. Rowland’s discoveries routinely begin where the guidebook ends. A typical day involves three miles of bushwhacking through drainages, wrestling rhododendrons, fighting copperheads, trundling car hood-size blocks, rapping from trees, and leaving trad gear on overlooked cracks in the deep recesses of a sandstone gorge. “There are a ton of folks who won’t even call me anymore when they come to the Red,” he says. “They just want to come and vacation climb, which I get…I guess.”

At 16, Rowland went to the Red for the first time when he ditched school to rappel at Half Moon Rock. After 10 years of “sport rappelling” with a static line and some carabiners, he sold a few guns to buy a sport climbing rack (seriously). “After a couple of years schlepping around the Red, I realized I wasn’t into crowded crags, dogs, and knucklehead college kids,” he says, “so I started building a trad rack and took to the woods.”

Now 35, Rowland lives with his daughter and their adventure dog Maisy in Frankfort, where he works as a sales representative for several outdoor brands. “I started my own agency and called it Ground Up Sales because of my love for ground-up, traditional climbing,” he says. “I also feel like my efforts in starting a business correlate to my climbing style…onsight and oblivious to the outcome.”

Tell me about the first ascents you’ve done in the Red.

My first FA in the Red was in 2012, with Adam Broughton. We climbed some short crack on the side of the road way down in the Southern Region. We named it Take That, Larry Day, as a play on The Motherlode’s Take That, Katie Brown. Day has put up a prolific amount of first ascents in the Red. Any trad climber in the area knows who he is. Our route was 5.4—TTKB is 5.13. We thought that was funny. To date I have put up about 75 FAs in the Red. Most of the routes are single-pitch lines varying from 20 to 35 meters, but we have put up a few multi-pitches. Most of the routes are on good stone, so splitter and clean they never shed a stone, but there have definitely been some turds. We’ve broken a million footholds and trundled rocks that range in size from softballs to car hoods. We do our best to clean the routes up after we climb then, so the next party will have a better experience. But sometimes we just hit ‘em and quite ‘em.

Any memorable experiences?

On a ground-up effort in the Lower Gorge, I placed a #4 behind this giant flake then I pulled on it and watched the cam lobes expand…. This 5’ x 6’ x 3’ flake was completely detached! I pulled my #4 and delicately traversed around the block and had to run it out about 20 feet to a ledge. Scared the block might go, I untied so it couldn’t rip me off with it. I then crawled across the narrow ledge, 60 feet up, with the rope in my mouth, until I could establish a belay. Desperate to retrieve his rack, my friend Steve followed the pitch with the death block overhead, repeated the traverse, then trundled the thing once above it. He pushed the giant piece of stone off the face with one foot. We called it Thunder Trundle (5.10-).

Do you think your lines will see much traffic?

There is one crag in the Lower Gorge, The Kentucky Wall, that I suspect will become a destination. The approach is only 20 minutes, and mostly on a trail. I would be psyched to run into another party down in the Mariba drainage, but I don’t see that happening. Other than the handful of goons that I run with, most folks just won’t go in there. That drainage is three miles long and a cliff-line the entire way, so finding a specific route is pretty tough. The adventure has to be your primary goal, the climbing secondary. My partner Geoff Ris and I are currently working on a guidebook titled, Backcountry Climbs of The Red River Gorge: 100 Routes You’ll Probably Never Climb. Hopefully this will help folks find their way around the jungle that is the North Gorge. The book will come with a fold-out topo with the routes pinned. We are also thinking about doing a scavenger hunt in the book to try and lure people into these deep locations.

What does the future hold for route development in the Red?

The way things are structured now, future development will look like two things: A push farther south with bolts, and a push deeper into the wilderness for gear lines. There is still a bolt moratorium in the Red River Gorge area, which restricts the addition of any new bolted lines. I would like to start working with the Forest Service to open up some areas for bolting, especially some of the faces we have found in the backcountry. There is so much stone in the area, it will take decades for it to get climbed out.

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