Black Diamond Athlete Babsi Zangerl is well established as one of the best trad and big-wall free climbers in the world, doing standard-setting firsts and notable repeats from Yosemite to the Alps to Pakistan. But Babsi recently took advantage of an extended trip stateside to visit Kentucky’s Red River Gorge—one of the United States’ biggest and best sport climbing areas—where she made quick work of some of the hardest and most aesthetic lines in the area, including Pure Imagination (5.14c), 50 Words for Pump (5.14b), The Tube (5.14a), and Golden Boy (5.13b). Read on to hear Babsi’s recap of her trip, along with some great images from photographer Francois Lebeau.
During my recent trip to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, I was accompanied by my friend and climbing partner, Lara Neumeier. Despite having visited the place 10 years ago with Jacopo, I was eager to return, curious about the new climbs and to see the place after such a long time. On my previous travels I always went on big wall climbing or trad climbing trips. It felt really simple and refreshing to focus on sport climbing this time.
Instead of opting for a fancy cabin, we decided to stay in an old trailer in Stanton for our three-week trip, which was a bit rundown and sketchy but it definitely had everything we needed and on top it offered us the full Kentucky experience. The best part was that it was situated far out in a serene location, which felt almost too remote without a proper locking door and no cell phone service.
Our stay in the trailer proved to be quite an adventure. We were visited daily by a friendly dog and a curious cat who quickly became our companions. We named them and ensured that they were fed whenever they stopped by. It was lovely to have these furry friends around.
Our primary goal of the trip was to climb as much as possible and just enjoy ourselves, but after the first three days, we discovered some classic lines like Pure Imagination (5.14c) and the Bob Marley Cave that inspired us focus on attempting more challenging routes. Personally, I was inspired to try The Tube (5.14a) a hidden gem somewhere in the woods. Unfortunately, we couldn't locate it on our first day of searching, so we shifted our focus to climbing other routes.
Pure Imagination was a real classic test piece, about 30 meters long, with very sustained climbing on small crimps and pockets. It was an absolute eye-catcher, and it was easy to get motivated to invest some time to work on it. The move from a razorblade crimp to a pocket up at the 4th bolt was the crux of the line. For me personally, the hardest part was a reachy move on the upper part of the wall, especially with pumped forearms. It felt super tricky to catch that hold. My first small goal was to do some longer links on the line before I could give some proper tries from the ground. I focused on that route for a while before I was finally able to clip the chains. It was a massive fight to not fall off at the very top, and it was a great feeling to complete such a unique Red River Gorge classic.
Lara had to give up on Pure Imagination after a couple of days as her finger started to hurt. She shifted her focus to the Bob Marley crag, which had bigger, slopier holds and was less painful for her finger. Her main goal for the trip became Southern Smoke (5.14c), and after I climbed Pure Imagination I felt very happy to climb on bigger and less painful holds in this cave.
I wanted to check out 50 Words for Pump (5.14b), which offered a great challenge to me. It started with a hard boulder problem up to the 4th bolt, and after that, I had to fight the pump on a long journey to the top. After a couple of days, I found myself on the last big jug at the very top, which was almost as big as a seat. I had a massive pump and almost fell off holding that big jug in my hands. It was quite an experience.
Lara also had some very strong attempts on Southern Smoke, passing the crux but falling off on the very last hard part. We were both excited to come back for Lara’s next tries.
I have to say some days at Bob Marley we felt like real climbing gumbies. Local climbers showed us how to use a proper stick clip—of course after multiple not promising tries with a bent branch—and we got to know what it is all about to climb with kneepads tuck taped on our legs.
We definitely made some new friends and enjoyed the climbing company at Bob Marley.
Overall, meeting old and new friends in the Red River Gorge made our trip even more special. We were grateful for the opportunity to spend time with them and hang out for dinners and sharing days climbing together. Francois Lebeau came to visit as well. Francois is an incredibly talented photographer, and he spent several days with us capturing some cool moments on and off the rocks. It was such a joy to have him with us, and we had a blast spending time together.
On Lara's rest day, we decided to give it one last shot to find The Tube, and we finally found it. I was thrilled to give it a try and Francois was psyched to take some pictures. The Tube was quite different from most of the climbs we tried in the Red River Gorge. It was definitely more technical and it also required some time to clean it from the dirt and figure out the best beta.
It turned out to be a perfect day. First it took me over an hour to get to the top to fix a line for Francois (sorry Lara for the long belay)…it was so hard to hold on dirty holds and the bolts were far apart…and then I had to clean it. On my second go I worked to find the perfect beta, and on my third try I was really lucky and very surprised to clip the chains.
After that we had a couple of days left before our trip was over, so Lara got ready to give it all on Southern Smoke. Again she fell after the crux on the very last hard part of the route. Heart breaking attempts in the heat. It was 84 degrees—obviously not the best conditions for her final day.
So close and finally we ran out of time. But a very good reason to come back!!