I stepped out of the car and despite my apprehension, a seemingly normal looking man stood before me. He rushed over and gave me a hug, his voice dripping with a southern drawl. I wasn’t just in America, now I was in Kentucky.
All seemed well and with no other option, I followed him and his buoyant, chubby black lab into the massive house behind. Bright yellow walls and an exposed wood kitchen welcomed us. The house was more than big enough for a family of six. He led me down the stairs into a basement. I hadn’t seen a house this big in years. ‘And this is my freezer, where I keep all my meat, ’ he said with a smile, red packages glinting as he snapped the door shut. But tiredness blurred any worry and I sleepily said goodnight, watching the many bottles of Jack Daniels lining the shelf near the ceiling slowly shrink.
I lay down in extremely soft bed, my eyes jumping to the lock on the door, thinking of the stranger just a few steps away in his bedroom. And in that moment, I felt the complete emptiness of being alone, thinking how different things would have been if my partner had been here. If I didn’t have to trust this stranger, when all the signs pointed to ‘Run-away!’ But despite the nagging reminder of the deep freeze in the basement, I felt I had no choice. And in a bold moment of trust in the moment, I even left the door unlocked, finding sleep as the morning promised a first day climbing.
The next day as I sat in the front of the black truck and made small talk, I did my best to remember the gravel-covered roads and church signs marking the way to one of the main areas in the Red, the PMRP, Pendergrass–Murray Recreational Preserve.
It was 25 degrees Celsius and sweat poured down my back ans mosquitoes bit my legs as I tried to stay positive. But it really wasn’t hard taking in the sweeping sandstone pockets and massive overhangs, the signature of the Red. I offered to belay first, quickly deciding that I would scope out my unknown partner and host. But then he was quickly down and it was my turn. No more excuses to be had.
My heart started to beat faster and I tied in, careful to show that I knew what I was doing. I stripped off my top; it was too hot to climb with proper clothes. My armpits dripped and palms were soaked. This wasn’t climbing, this was survival. It was only a 6b but my biceps and forearms burst with the pump, but I couldn’t fall off. I didn’t know this guy, but not only that; I had a reputation to live up to.
Before I arrived, I had been included in a group message telling all these Kentucky locals that I was a 7c+/13 climber and above. A message obviously shared to let them know I wasn’t going to sketch them out with a dodgy belay. But in turn I felt under pressure to live up to these claims. They’d made assumptions and heard rumours and then I’d arrived, not knowing how my body would feels but I felt I to perform. And here I was on the other end, not knowing the climber holding the grigri, but where was the pressure on him? I felt I had to perform but did he?
I had never been in this position before – under the pressure, again to perform, but in a different way. This time it was to ensure the other’s safety and to live up to the words said about me before. I had to onsight this 6b otherwise they might think me a hypocrite, a poser, a liar.
But the nervousness made me even more pumped, and as my forearms exploded from the holds, the rippled open-handed jugs, burning into the bottom of my forearms, I quickly learned why the Red was famous for shutting people down.
My heart fluttered the whole way to the top but I sent it. I had to. Then I battled through a 6c and a 7a+ to follow, but the adrenaline left me exhausted, skin shredded, and callouses torn from my palms in the heat and humidity. I’d gone climbing, but I couldn’t be sure I was having fun yet.
I stayed another night, but the next day I thanked my host and packed an on-lend rope & draws that he’d graciously offered. I decided it was time, time to head off into the unknown, and I finally headed to the infamous camp-site at Miguel’s Pizza, what some call the Camp Four of the East…