The Best Crag in America by Eleanor Krause

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It’s the beginning of August, 2018. Two months earlier, I’d been fortunate enough to be working for a prestigious think tank in DC that offered what normal humans consider to be generous benefits and paid vacation time, but being an adult wasn’t much fun, and receiving a salary was spoiling me, so I left my job to romp around the Mountain West for the summer with my climbing friends who were never possessed with the outrageous urge to experiment with adulthood and careers and whatnot.

by Eleanor Krause (banner photo by Kevin Umbel)

This piece is published in Volume 14 of The Zine, now available 

I was having a pretty decent season in Rifle, and conditions were approaching something passable for fall temps, but for some godforsaken reason, I left Colorado two weeks earlier than necessary and drove 1,500 miles east to hang out in the tropical, swampy jungle that is the Red River Gorge in late summer. Still, I was relatively unfazed by the fact that the humidity rose to over 400 percent as soon as I crossed into the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and my massive dose of sleep deprivation was masked by a stockpile of adrenaline that had been building since this time last year.

Why all the psych? Naturally, because I was on my way to watch the most important basketball game in the world of rock climbing. The Red River Gorge Red Rockets were about to defend their title as the Best Crag in America against the New River Gorge Sock Monkeys (aka the Suck Monkeys) in the Gorge Cup, the annual basketball game that authoritatively determines the nation’s number-one climbing destination. Now, I grew up climbing in the Red, so I might be just the tiniest bit biased regarding the relative merits of rock climbing in Kentucky versus literally any other place on Earth. But last year, the Rockets beat the Suck Monkeys on their home turf, making the Red the official Best Crag in America, for at least one year.

Photo: Kevin Umbel

Now in its eighth year, the Gorge Cup would be hosted once again at the Red River Gorge’s one-and-only Miguel’s Pizza, the iconic restaurant/campground/gear shop/climbing mecca that serves thousands of Patagucci-clad college kids and Sprinter-dwelling Québécois on a busy fall weekend. Hundreds of vagabond climber souls have worked in the Miguel’s kitchen over the years, myself included, and walking through that rainbow door donning the wood-carved face with the wild yellow hair still feels like returning home year after year. Now, I don’t play basketball myself, but as the self-proclaimed cheerleading captain for the Rockets, I would make sure that the tequila flowed freely enough to keep the crowd raging long into the evening.

Hence why I found myself pulling into the Miguel’s parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a typically sweaty day in early August instead of imbibing any longer in the crispy(ish) conditions of the Rifle, Colorado, summer. Upon arrival, I was instantly greeted by dozens of familiar faces, all oblivious to the less-than-primo climbing conditions as they debated where we should all go punting for the day. Most notably was my platonic life partner/one-star-route choss chaser/basketball legend, Nik Summers.

After the typical two or three hours of deliberation, Nik and I somehow settled on climbing at some obscurity formally known as The Motherlode, or more colloquially as The ’Lode. I’d been there once or fifty times before, and I can’t say that I was bummed on where we settled on climbing because I am notoriously obsessed with the mindless grid-bolted tick-tacking The ’Lode has to offer that somehow remains vaguely chossy even after decades of traffic. It’s definitely four thousand times more fun to climb on than that thought-provoking, ego-destroying bullet sandstone in West Virginia. No question.

Photo of the author by John Wesely

But, let’s be real: This weekend wasn’t really about rock climbing. It was about basketball. And shit talking. And drinking. And camaraderie and community and whatnot. After we satisfied our typical climbing pitch quota (aka four whole pitches…and I’m pretty sure Nik didn’t even summit all of his), we headed back to Miguel’s for the Friday night exhibition games. Games are played three-on-three to either twenty-one or fifteen points (depending on how old everyone’s feeling in any given year) by two- and one-pointers on a half court. As per tradition, the Red Rockets and the Sock Monkeys each won one of the two exhibition games, making the final games all the more predictably unpredictable.

 

Friday night came and went. Each crag’s B team went to bed psyched that they got some court time. The Rockets’ fans all managed to keep our hangovers in check, as we spent the evening making cardboard pizza circle signs declaring our love of the Red Rockets (and their vaguely phallic mascot) as well as undeniable facts and criticisms of the New, such as “The Cirque is Soft” and “Chop the Cirque.” The evening was filled with warm reunions, some light shit talking, and good old-fashioned basketball.

For all you Westerners who still haven’t quite grasped this whole Gorge Cup thing, perhaps a little more context is needed. According to Kenny Parker, co-owner of the New’s Water Stone Outdoors, it all started when Dario Ventura, son of Miguel and inheritor of the family business, showed up at the New River Rendezvous, and the two started talking cobranding marketing ideas.

According to Parker, “Not only did we already know that we were in the two best crags in America, but we were also two really similar businesses and very climbing-culture-oriented small family businesses. So we started kicking around some ideas.”

Naturally, the two settled on a basketball tournament. It would both determine which crag was actually the best in America and allow for some marketing and shit talking across state lines. At the time, hardly any locals from the New and the Red knew anyone from the other crag. That first game in 2011 was the first time that a lot of Red River locals had ever even been to the New. In what would become typical Gorge Cup fashion, the game was won by a last-second shot (scored, unfortunately, by the Suck Monkeys). But while the New lay claim to the title that first year, the Rockets proved that Kentucky could outdrink West Virginia any day.

As the years went on, the title went back and forth between the New and the Red, the hype increased, the crowds grew larger, and the after parties got rowdier. But the most visible change has been in the strengthened connections between the two climbing areas. As Kenny put it, “Everyone respects each other, we play good basketball, everyone knows we have the two best climbing areas in the country, and we’re psyched…The community relationship between the two has grown and grown…We hype the Red up over here, and I know they do the same over there. Everybody knows that you can send stuff here, but then you go over to the Red, and you feel fat, fallin’ off all that steep shit.”

 

Dru Mack on the second ascent of Southern Pump. Photo: Daniel Gajda

And now, back to 2018: the camaraderie continued into Saturday morning, as the Red Rockets and the Sock Monkeys contemplated the most crag-party-appropriate location to go punting for the day. Where could thirty climbers of varying climbing abilities comfortably hang out for the day? Which parking lot didn’t require some light off-roading, given that half the Sock Monkeys team was in a fifteen-passenger van? What was the shortest possible distance I would have to walk with a fifth of tequila and a few pounds of Sour Patch Kids? Answer: Military Wall.

Our sincerest apologies to the two other groups who were attempting to have a peaceful, nature-filled experience at the crag that day. Who knew that people actually climbed at the most polished crag in Kentucky midsummer of their own volition?

I tried my best to feed the Sock Monkeys some of my crag tequila in hopes that it would thwart their performance on the court later in the day, but for whatever reason, none of the players would take up my offer. Either way, the three feet of erosion underneath the base of Fuzzy Undercling that has given the 5.11 a V7 start over the years appeared to be fatiguing enough.

I was a bit worried about how the Rockets would fare for the big game later in the evening, given that all the players un-sent at least one rock climb that day. Fortunately, it turns out that there is very little correlation between climbing performance and basketball performance, and the latter was the whole reason we were all really here. Fame. Glory.

We rolled back into Miguel’s, took a team power nap, had a warm and fuzzy family dinner over insanely delicious pizza with the Sock Monkeys crew, and got ready for the big game. The players warmed up their shots as the rest of us warmed up with shots…I mean, we rehearsed some highly choreographed cheers, and everyone stayed very hydrated. Spencer Victory finally showed up with his megaphone, the anthem was sung, and the annual chug-off between team coaches Kenny Parker and Pete McDermott, which determines what team gets first possession, was about to begin. For seven straight years, this head-to-head beer-shotgun match has gone to the New, but in an unfortunate turn of events, a stomach bug kept Parker on the bench. Some JV backups did Parker and McDermott’s bidding instead, but somehow the Suck Monkeys got the ball first for the eighth year running. This game is so freakin’ rigged. One day I’ll finally convince them to promote me from cheerleading captain to beer chugger, and we’ll never be down to start again.

As the official Gorge Cup finally began, fans, weekenders, and unsuspecting tourists circled the court, cheering for their favorite crag or simply staring at the entire scene in discernable confusion. The Red pulled out the first game with an easy victory, but the New retaliated in the second game to tie the series one to one. Both wins took me a bit off guard because I was just ever-so-slightly distracted trying to lift the noise level of the insanely inaudible Rockets fan section by offering them an endless stream of liquor. The alcohol was clearly taking its time to sink in, because half the crowd remained relatively subdued as the New easily won game three.

I was nervous. The Suck Monkeys were playing a pretty sexy game while the Rockets kept punting as hard as Dario Ventura earlier that day on Gung Ho at Military Wall. If the New won the next game, they’d take home the title. Totally unacceptable. I couldn’t bear the thought of giving the New, with its bullet sandstone situated alongside the lovely Summersville Lake and the enormous and picturesque New River Bridge, anything more to brag about. The Rockets were down midway into game four, but that tequila clearly finally hit the fan section because the crowd heated up alongside the Rockets. Nik Summers must have locked eyes with some attractive college-aged ladies on the sidelines, because he finally started sinking shots as effortlessly as we were. He hit a game-winning two-pointer, and the crowd finally went wild.

It would all come down to game five. The winner would be crowned Best Crag in America, while the loser would have to survive knowing that they were second best (for at least one more year). The stadium lights glared, Spencer’s megaphone roared, we finished off the tequila, and six sweaty dudes entered the court. To be honest, I don’t really remember the details (shockingly), but I do remember some seriously sexy two-pointers coming from the hands of Jordan Garvey and Mark Ventura. In the end, Nik Summers reminded everyone that he is way better at basketball than he is at rock climbing, and he hit another game-winning two-pointer. It’s moments like these that remind me why I platonically married that man. The championship was won. Victory achieved. The Gorge Cup determined. That sweaty choss pile tucked into the backwoods of Eastern Kentucky that we all loved so much would be the official Best Crag in America for one more year. The Rockets fans rushed the court. Bubbles were everywhere. Dancing ensued. Another Gorge Cup for the history books.

Lynn Hill flashing the third ascent of Gun Club, New River Gorge. Photo: Brooke Sandahl

History is written by the victors, which is totally unfair but also the reason why we get to celebrate morally questionable holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. The account above is factually accurate according to my very biased and slightly alcohol-clouded memory, but I recognize that the Suck Monkeys do reside in the nation’s second-best crag and are therefore owed a certain amount of respect, even though they lost. So, I asked Maura Kistler—longtime Fayetteville resident, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, dedicated community leader, number-one Sock Monkeys fan, and total badass—a few questions about the relative merits of the New River Gorge and why she looks forward to the Gorge Cup every year. She had a few too many nice things to say about our archrivals, but I’ve only lightly edited her responses so that you, the reader, can be assured that you’re receiving fair and balanced reporting from The Climbing Zine.

Q: What makes the New River Gorge one of the top two crags in America? Why did you choose to call it home?

A: The New is the Best Crag in America because of the quality of the rock, the plethora of routes, and the ridiculously beautiful setting. The bridge is definitely also part of the equation. We have variety, no crowds, great climbing/swimming options…as well as a cute, welcoming little Norman Rockwell town with some damn-good restaurants and shops.

We [Gene and I] started climbing here in ’85 and moved here in ’91 temporarily. We never left and never can see leaving. We didn’t know what we were looking for, but we found it here. It’s small, laid back, friendly, outdoorsy, and down to earth. West Virginia is completely challenged but completely awesome—perhaps that’s why we relate well to the Red River Gorge crowd—it’s pretty much the same scene but in Slade: challenged but awesome. Both areas can also celebrate the fact that climbing and outdoor recreation are slowly but surely strengthening the local economies. That is proud!

Q: What is your favorite part of the Gorge Cup? The camaraderie? The glory? Spencer Victory’s megaphone?

A: The best part? Hmmm…there are so many good parts. The camaraderie is definitely at the top of my list. We never had any idea it would end up being this much fun, this exciting, this cool, or that the bridge we would build between our areas would be so strong.

Or that shit talking was so much fun. It took us a couple of years to adjust to Kentucky-style competition: mean cheering, direct-fire roman candles, tackling, biting, and generally a more wild and crazy approach to just about everything. [EK: To clarify, there has only ever been one incidence of biting, and I defer to the judgment of my tequila-guzzling-partner-in-crime Amanda Anderson for the unwavering dedication she demonstrated toward defending the Rockets’ megaphone.] It felt kind of like mild-mannered beer swillers in the face of bourbon-handle-toting, freakin’ wild people—not to mention, y’all had bigger crowds over there. Intimidating at first! But we figured it out and got to the point that every time we heard “Suck Monkeys,” it just warmed our hearts.

I also never expected the level of play to be so high. Never. I didn’t know a thing about basketball; now it is all we talk about here in the office from June to August. Seriously. Ridiculous. It has been great that, until your back-to-back wins these past two years, the trophy has rotated almost every year, and other than year two when you cleaned our clock, the teams have been equally matched.

And the shit-talking videos! They have not gotten credit for their superb dark humor. Remember the Saw-inspired diorama? Or the black-and-white where your players were only wearing tighty-whities as they shoved the Sock Monkeys into their drawers? Or the one where we shot your mascot all to hell? Or the time Graham kidnapped your mascot and brought it back, and we hung it (with x’s over its eyes) off the roof of Water Stone? I mean, that was such twisted and hilarious shit! I still laugh over this stuff…

It is just awesome getting to know everybody and how they play or cheer or talk shit. I love that the guys play their guts out, hard and rough and no-holds-barred, and get right up against the line where you think they are going to deck each other, but they always figure it out. And it is like a potlatch. You guys take great care of us when we come over—and I mean great—and we do the same for y’all.

Q: How are the Suck—I mean, Sock Monkeys going to redeem themselves next year? Any hidden tricks up your sleeve?

A: We have one clear strategy for the next two years. Win. We are laser focused on winning the next two years so we can even up the score to a nice five to five. That would be perfect. We will win because we will have all our best players on the court…we may even practice more! But you never know about that. Mark is scary. We may just have to kneecap Mark. That would be a good strategy. We probably should do something about Nik, but he is player emeritus, and he just flat demands respect. So we will leave him alone. Our other strategy is to try to get our smokers to ease down on their habit. That might help us out. Coach Kenny may resort to shaming and name calling if people don’t get their shots together.

Q: What is so special about both the Red and the New? Why do we get to monopolize all the glory?

A: Why do we get all the glory? Well, we all managed to put teams together, for starts. North Carolina is supposed to be basketball heaven, and weak-sauce climbers from around the state have threatened to get a team together to no avail. We heard that Lander is making noise about a team. At one point Chattanooga was…no motivation I guess. How much more shit do we have to talk to shame some other area into playing? Perhaps our ongoing Red-versus-New rivalry prompted us to find a creative way to settle all of that. Perhaps rivalry is the requisite condition? What are other famous area rivalries? Are there any? Maybe we just know how to have more fun here in Appalachia ’cause we are generally more broke and more isolated. But honestly, I don’t think people understand the caliber of ball that we are playing. Yeah, the royal we. Which kind of sums it up for me: We are all in this together 100 percent.

***

Will the New redeem themselves next year? Doubtful. Their players will probably be too busy rafting or deep-water soloing or bouldering or doing some other really fun activity that we can’t do here in the Red all year. See, in Kentucky, there’s nothing else to do but punt and play basketball and shit talk and drink. Hell, we can’t even smoke cigarettes because we get enough carcinogens from our tap water already. But, as Maura said, it’s always a close competition, and being the Best Crag in America can get a little tiring after a while. We’ll all just have to wait until next summer, when the New hosts the ninth annual Gorge Cup, to see if the Suck Monkeys have upped their game at all. Until then, my old Kentucky choss pile will continue to bask in the sweaty glory of being number one.

Eleanor Krause is currently procrastinating adulthood as a PhD student in Boston, a city that she finds entirely too cold and far away from Kentucky. If any prospective employers are reading this article five years from now, she swears that she doesn’t actually drink all that much tequila and is very dedicated to conducting quality and impactful economic research.

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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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