Rock climbing booming in Kentucky as sport debuts in Olympics

Posted at 8:35 PM, Aug 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 09:26:46-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Sport climbing makes its debut in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The games combine three disciplines of climbing into one competition. Olympians must get the highest combined score in speed, bouldering and lead climbing to win the gold.

Before the sport was thrown into a global spotlight in Tokyo, athletes fell in love with it outdoors.

For years, rock climbers have been pushing their limits hundreds of feet in the air one handhold at a time.

Kentucky is home to a world-renowned climbing spot.

“People don't really know there's a climbing mecca tucked away in eastern Kentucky,” said Billy Simek with the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition.

The Red River Gorge can be found deep inside the Daniel Boone National Forest. The area is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

It is home to hundreds of rock climbing routes and is known for its steep climbs and sandstone rock.

Many routes are overseen by the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition, a group of volunteers that work to make sure there is always open access to climbing. They also work with the local community to ensure climbing in Eastern Kentucky continues to be sustainable and beneficial for all parties.

“With leave no trace ethics and things like that, we can continue climbing and the sport can continue growing,” Simek said.

Climbers will travel to Kentucky from all corners of the world to climb at the Red River Gorge.

Some local climbers moved to Central Kentucky because of the opportunities it offers to climb outdoors.

“At the end when you reach the top of the chains, it’s just this sense of accomplishment unlike anything else and I think everybody should feel like that at least once in their life,” said Ryan Smith, who moved from Florida because of Kentucky’s climbing community.

Rock climbing contributes about $12.5 billion to the American economy every year, according to a report by the American Alpine Club.

Climbers spend $8.7 million annually in the Red River Gorge alone, according to a report by Eastern Kentucky University.

Easy to imagine when you meet people as passionate about the sport as Blake Clarkson.

“For those that really get addicted it becomes a lifestyle. We basically revolve our life around climbing. It’s all about traveling to go climbing or when can I go climbing this weekend?” Clarkson said.

Over the years, rock climbing evolved and indoor climbing gyms like L’Escalade Fitness (LEF) in Lexington gained popularity.

“We have a saying that if you can walk, you can climb,” said LEF manager Mitchell Miller.

Miller said indoor climbing gyms are a great way to introduce people to the sport because they can test out multiple styles of climbing and the staff is also there to educate newcomers on safe climbing practices and etiquette.

“Rock climbing, inherently, is a dangerous sport. As an indoor climbing gym we try and take all the precautions to minimize and reduce the risk as much as we can,” Miller said.

First-time climbers at LEF are taught how to maneuver around the gym, how to safely put on a harness and fall from auto-belays, and encouraged to build confidence and have fun.

LEF also offers classes to help climbers learn skills necessary for more advanced climbing styles, including how to belay partners for top-roping and how to clip in for sport climbing. Many of these skills can translate to allow people to climb outdoors at spots like the Red River Gorge.

How busy the gym gets depends on the weather, but Miller said they average 250 people daily.

“There’s a really good vibe when everybody’s completing problems,” Miller said.

Those problems are constantly changing. A team of route setters dedicates hours every week to crafting puzzles on the wall to challenge beginners and experienced climbers alike.

“You give a lot of variety. You help people actually build skills so if they want to climb at the Red River Gorge, they can come here and they can develop the skills necessary to go climbing,” route setter Shaun Corpron said.

To find out more on how to book a visit to LEF Climbing, you can go here.

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