Red River Revolution

By Justin Wise

The cold air stung my face as I trudged through the mud and tried my best not to slip on minimal traction.

“It’s cold…”


The Motherlode. Home to some of the Red’s most fitness intensive climbs.

RJ was a couple paces ahead of me as we made quick work of the short approach to the Motherlode. I had one objective- Send Convicted.

It’s my final day at the Red River Gorge. The final day of the longest outdoor trip I’ve ever been on. At this point, I’ve managed to tick the following over the course of 13 days of climbing (day flashes are climbs I had tried on previous trips years ago, and hadn’t been back on until this trip):

  1. 10d Fire and Brimstone (onsight)
  2. 11b King Me (onsight)
  3. 11b Trust in Jesus (onsight)
  4. 11b Laura (second go)
  5. 11b Up Yonder (onsight)
  6. 11b Fuzzy Undercling (onsight)
  7. 11d Velvet (flash)
  8. 11d The Return of Chris Snyder (flash)
  9. 12a Ro Shampo (dayflash)
  10. 12a Chainsaw Massacre (dayflash)
  11. 12a Way Up Yonder (flash)
  12. 12a Pine (flash)
  13. 12a Go Easy Billy Clyde! (flash)
  14. 12a Bettavul Pipeline (flash)
  15. 12a Tacit (dayflash)
  16. 12a Sluts are Cool (onsight)
  17. 12a Morning Wood (flash)
  18. 12a Eyeball Chaw (flash)
  19. 12a What’s Right with the underling? (Third go)
  20. 12b Gung Ho (flash)
  21. 12b Ale 8 One (dayflash)
  22. 12b Release The Krakken (flash)
  23. 12b Galunlati (second go)
  24. 12b Summer Sunshine (flash)
  25. 12b The Reliquary (second go)
  26. 12b Tissue Tiger (dayflash)
  27. 12c Where’s the beef (dayflash)
  28. 12c Wild Gift (second go)
  29. 12c Mirage (second go)
  30. 12c Soul Ram (onsight)
  31. 12d Tie one On (fourth go)
  32. 13a Appalachian Spring (third go)
  33. 13a Skinboat (second go)
  34. 13b The Legend (third go)
Sending “Tie One On,” 12d, Beer Trailer Crag. photo cred Eric Hirst

For the past three weeks I’d been exploring the gorge with good friends Brittany, Eric, and Jeff. We’d generally lucked out with favorable conditions, plenty of laughs and a lot of climbing. Also, probably too many puzzles.

Too many puzzles. Jeff and Brittany slowly losing their sanity in the Shakeout Lounge at Lago Linda’s, photo cred Eric Hirst

In terms of my personal goal for the trip, I didn’t send 5.14. I didn’t even TRY 5.14. I was having too much fun attempting everything I’d always wanted to try but didn’t have the fitness for in the past. I didn’t want to spend more than 3 attempts on the same climb; I wanted to explore the red with my new found skill set.

One week before this trip I sent my first 12c ever- and now I’m onsighting them. 13s were going down in a handful of tries, but most importantly I was finally outside having fun with my friends, and reaping the benefits of 8 months of hard work.

Jeff, Brittany, myself and Eric enjoy the beauty that is deep fried Oreos in rural Kentucky on Halloween. No more crazy dieting! Photo cred Eric Hirst

I hadn’t gone from 12b-14a, but I HAD gone from 12b to third go 13b. And that showed me that I’m on the right path.

I wanted to prove myself as an outdoor sport climber- test my rock reading ability on varying styles of classic Red climbs. This trip felt like a new beginning- a transition of my work on plastic paying off outside. 5.14 isn’t feasible YET- but this trip had shown me it was definitively within the realm of possibility. No longer just a pipe dream!

But the past three weeks had come at a cost. Despite a two days on, one day off schedule (sometimes more rest days depending) I felt wrecked. Camping in a tent the entire time and climbing as much as possible–my body hurt. I ached everywhere, my skin was beat to a pulp, and my psych was diminishing. I wanted a night of sleep on a bed- and one day of not slipping on mud!

Camp “Big Rod,” at Lago Linda’s. My humble abode for 3 weeks that somehow survived quite a few gnarly storms.

Today was the last day, and time for a final run on the only climb that managed to suck me in for more than 4 attempts: Convicted.

My thoughts were pulled back to the climb as we rounded the corner and saw that despite 30 degree temperatures and freezing rain, the route had a 5 person line. I’d have to wait.

Convicted (FA Jeff Moll, 1995) is a 75 foot 13a at the undertow wall of the motherlode with three cruxes separated with good rests and easier climbing. It’s notorious for being a test-piece with the hardest moves on any 13a at the lode.


Despite freezing temperatures, some of the local wildlife was still out and about.

The warmups at undertow were mostly taken. Feeling confident, I opted for Resurrection, 12c, which ended up being a terrible decision. I bolt to bolted the entire climb, fingers numbing out between sections. Psych was low, but it was the last day I would get to try Convicted for probably a year or maybe longer.

I put myself in line.

Staying warm felt like an impossible task; the line moved especially slowly because most climbers fell at the low crux their first attempt, were lowered to the ground and immediately tried again having slightly warmer fingers. This happened up to 3 times per climber, and was mutually accepted by all of us in line because we knew the odds of sticking the low crux while cold were puny.

I was doing stupid human tricks to try and stay warm; pistol squats on a rock, jumping jacks, small grip toys to try and get blood following. All with minimal results–it was just too damn cold.


Attempting to stay warm at the base of Convicted, 13a, Motherlode region with RJ. Photo credit to Kyle Somers

Crux one comes at the third bolt, which is a lurpy lockoff-not-quite-dead-point off a very small left hand crimp to a decent side pull pinch. Shortly after, a knee bar rest presents itself for an excellent recovery opportunity.

Crux two comes closer to the end. It’s a deadpoint to a juggy pinch yields a solid rest and shake before crux 3, the boulder problem.

The boulder problem is made up of eight moves on slopers and bad crimps through the steepest section of the wall (probably a 30-degree overhang). On its own it would probably clock in at around V5. Which isn’t bad, but it’s not easy when you’ve been climbing for 70 feet.


Climbing behind a waterfall on a flash of “Release the Kraken,” 12b, Roadside crag. Photo cred Eric Hirst

The boulder problem guards the chains and thwarts many climbers’ otherwise solid attempts since most of the climbing until this point is more or less in the mid 5.12 range. For the past two days, I’ve watched as most style the first seven bolts, only to be brutally smacked down at the 8th–myself included.

Since Convicted is progressive in nature, it sucks many climbers in; hence the big line. The rests between each crux are extremely good so each attempt lasts about 15-20 minutes, sometimes more if the climber takes multiple attempts to warm their fingers on their turn.

RJ was next in line. RJ and I had met at sky bridge station several nights before. I recognized her from an article on fear that she wrote. She mentioned working convicted, and I was in; Jeff had left the gorge a little early leaving us in a less than ideal group of three. Since RJ was solo, partnering up for Convicted was a win for all of us.


Eric Hirst on an attempt of “Morning Wood,” 12a, Beer Trailer Crag. Photo cred Brittany Goris

Initially falling on crux one, she hopped back on with warmer fingers and floated the first two cruxes and rested for an extended period of time at the 7th bolt before the boulder problem. Then, she blasted off toward the chains.

Since RJ and I are smaller, we use different beta than most. We utilized a much, much smaller left hand crimp with a great thumb catch that most other climbers initially skip, only coming back to it later as an intermediate, or ignoring it entirely.

RJ stuck the left hand easily and looked solid coming into the right hand, but fell. Upon returning to the ground she was flooded with waves of pain as blood started to enter her forearms again.


Brittany at the base of “Release the Kraken,” 12b, Roadside Crag, standing in the freezing waterfall. Photo cred Eric Hirst

The rock gets so cold in the sub freezing temperatures that all the blood withdraws from your extremities and heads to your core resulting in numb fingers and whitish yellow toes. The numb toes aren’t as much of a problem for the climbing, but the fingers are.

“Numbing out” happens when your fingers go fully numb due to the cold, resulting in zero sensitivity on the rock. Is your hand in the right spot? Maybe. Maybe not. You have no way of knowing. This is especially problematic for the cruxes of the climb that are dependent on solid hand placement on bad holds.

Hand warmers, heated chalk bags, and desperately pawing at the back of your neck for warmth are your only weapons against numbing out. At each rest, you can watch climbers do their best to get any sort of feeling back in their cold fingers.


Everything I brought to the Red- packing the night before I left. The heated chalk bag was a MUST for the last week- props to BD

My turn now.

At this point, the line had dwindled. After each climber attempted, they decided it was just too cold and too numb so they bailed. Only Sam–a fellow climber working the line–was lucky enough to just barely eek out a send; the rest of us were struggling with the conditions. Then just RJ and I remained. Why? Because we’re crazy.

I barely made it through the first two cruxes. My hands were numb and my body hurt. I forced myself to believe that I was warm as I shook out at the 7th bolt, staring down the boulder problem. I stuck the bad left hand with numb fingers, feeling nothing at all, and slipped coming into the right hand. Once again, the third crux had defeated me.

Upon my return to the ground, I was greeted with waves of pain as the blood came back to my hands and feet. I felt depleted with low energy, and low morale.


As the weather turned, the trees started to change and lose their colors. Winter was coming.

Once the pain subsided, RJ geared up for a second attempt with a split bleeding thumb and little to no warmth. As blood returned to my system I began to feel warmer, and thought that maybe there was a chance after all. I’d try it again after RJ since the line has subsided. But only one final try.

RJ looked good. Despite her tattered and worn skin, bleeding thumb, and freezing temps, she walked the first two cruxes, resting strategically at spots to keep her fingers as warm as possible.

As she left the 7th bolt rest, she easily stuck the left hand bad crimp…then the right….and completed the boulder problem! Only four moves remained between her and her first 13a at the gorge.


Brittany making her way up “Inhibitor,” an 11a off-width. Hands down the scariest belay of my life. Photo cred Eric Hirst

She took her time, methodically shaking each hand, resting, breathing, sinking into her feet, and with full confidence she fired the final moves and clipped the chains.

The lode was filled with her screams and whoops of success in disbelief of herself and the bad conditions, and relishing a well earned victory. The mood had changed–there was electricity in the air. I fed off of her send energy and put on my popsicle like shoes.

Last go, best go.

The first crux was sloppy; I barely stuck it as my hips sank far away from the wall. I overgripped to save myself, burning extra energy. I re-focused to the present and left the mistake in the past, being aware of the now and taking each move one at a time until I found myself back at the 7th bolt rest again.


Mammoth Caves- we went and checked out the caving system on a rest day. Well worth it!

My fingers were numbed out. I couldn’t feel them despite grabbing a hand warmer in my heated chalk bag, the feeling wasn’t coming back. In fact, I couldn’t even really tell how pumped I was because I had no feeling in my hands and forearms.

I stared down the boulder problem and was immediately filled with self doubt and the following thought entered my mind without invitation before I had time to stop it:

What am I doing up here?

I was 70 feet off the ground in 30-degree weather with freezing rain. Everything hurt. I’d fallen on this move three times and I felt worse on this attempt than I did on any of my previous attempts. I was tired of sleeping in a tent during storms. I felt exhausted and beat down.

I didn’t need the send. I wanted the send. I wanted to crush my self doubt, and prove to myself that I could do this. If I can make it through 8 months of training–if I can make it through the transition from Baltimore to Reno–how hard can grabbing these little holds be?

I can do this. I didn’t travel across the country to not believe in myself. I didn’t diet and train for 8 months, sacrifice many weekends and many more nights just to be thwarted by eight moves.

“You got this Justin, sink low, use your feet!”

RJ’s voice shattered my thoughts and brought me out of my head and back onto the rock. I was here in the now, and I had to do this thing before my fingers became any more numb. My window of opportunity was closing. I could hear the freezing rain trickling off the top of the undertow wall.


RJ taking the classic knee bar rest after the first crux of Convicted. This attempt was obviously on a much warmer day…photo credit to Kris Ugarriza


I entered the boulder problem. Bad left hand crimp, deadpoint to a sloper. Couldn’t feel my hands; didn’t matter. Left hand sloper, right hand sloper, deep breath as I moved my left hand to the crux hold of the boulder problem and thought, “here we go…”

I couldn’t feel anything; I was too numb. I had no way of knowing if I was in the right spot on the hold or not. I was filled with rage. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream. The last day of the trip and these were the conditions? The last go and my hands were totally numb?


I didn’t allow myself to feel; it wasn’t over yet. I squeezed the hold as hard as I possibly could, set up my right foot and stuck the right hand crimp.

I felt my hips swing out far–farther than I should be able to stay on the rock, but I envisioned myself squeezing the holds so hard that they crumbled into dust. I reeled my hips back in and stuck the last move of the boulder problem, arms chicken winging.

8th bolt clipped. Don’t punt now! Emotions were building up, and as much as I tried to block them, I felt my heart rate increase sharply. I focused on my breathing and stayed present, picking up my right foot and committing to the final dead point guarding the finish jug.

I stuck it. I clipped the chains, and erupted in victory.

This send, this is the one. This meant the most to me out of any climb of that trip that I sent because it was about overcoming my biggest obstacle: myself.


Celebrating like the idiot that I am with RJ post send train on Convicted.

I can’t control the weather conditions or lines. But I can control how I react to less than ideal circumstances. And that skill in itself is what will bring me into the 5.14 realm and beyond. Not some fancy diet or training method, but my love of the sport and the ability to stay psyched and never say die. Because the reality is you can’t train, you can’t diet, you can’t do anything unless you are the master of yourself first.

If I had let my self doubt overcome me, I wouldn’t have sent. And that was the crux of the climb- not the boulder problem at the top, but the ability to go into that boulder problem feeling like shit and still believe in myself. We’re capable of a lot more than we realize, and sending Convicted on the last go of the last day in those garbage conditions showed me that.

When I returned to the ground I celebrated with RJ and we got the hell out of the frigid lode, sharing our experiences on the climb and hiking out in the freezing rain and snow.

As we loaded up the car and drove out of PMRP, I pulled up my tick list and added the final climb of the trip:

13a Convicted (fifth go)

I’ll be back, Red River Gorge. As always, you did not disappoint.



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