Absorbing some of the early morning sunlight, Rick Weber watches several climbers send their first routes of the day. He pulls a length of rope between his aged fingers and clips into his manual belay device.
A young man rises from his reclined position on his bouldering mat and approaches. “Hey Rick, you’ve got to let me install a fixed draw on Sunny Side,” he says.
Rick shuffles slightly toward the route, a 5.12, and examines the existing gear. “I’ll have Liz bring one up from the house," he says.
Rick stands with his hands on his hips surveying his and his wife’s land, all 350 acres of Muir Valley. Below him lies seven miles of cliff line, over 300 routes ranging from 5.3 to 5.14a. It’s hardly time for an early lunch and the large gravel parking lots are already full.
“When we formed Muir Valley and decided to open it up to the public we thought we’ll probably get a couple hundred people a year that come by,” Liz says. “We can handle that no problem. We had no idea that it would grow as fast and to the extent that it has.”
With over 30,000 visitors last year, Muir Valley has become the most popular climbing destination in the eastern half of the country. For eight years, Rick and Liz Weber have shouldered the property and developmental expenses as their gift to the climbing community. But, now in their late 60s and facing declining health, the future of the valley is unclear.
LOVE AT FIRST CLIMB
“You look at yourself and think, ‘How did I get this old all a sudden?’” Liz sighs, now 68.
Rick leans back with his hands on top of his head, gazing intently at his wife of 45 years. His tan Muir Valley shirt stretches over his shoulders, thick biceps framing his face. His wispy gray hair, bifocals, and delicate pattern of wrinkles are the only indicators of age.
After fruitful careers in the engineering industry and in their mid-50s, the Webers decided to try something new.
“I can remember teaching Rick how to belay and thinking at the time, ‘Wow, they are a little later in life to be getting started,” says Josh Thurston, previous owner of Bloomington, Indiana's Hoosier Heights Indoor Rock Climbing Gym.
After their first ascent the Webers were hooked. Together, they tried their new hobby in places such as the Devils Tower and Yosemite.
“When you’re up 2,000-plus feet and looking straight down, it’s breathtaking and it’s really exhilarating,” Rick says. “It’s not something that I’m doing as a daredevil, because if you’re doing it right climbing is safe, it’s a matter of enjoying the environment that very few people get to enjoy.”
Like the rest of the Midwestern climbing community, the Webers began frequenting the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.
One such visit to the Red changed everything. While taking a break from climbing, Rick and Liz were approached by a local landowner, a good ol’ boy with a ball of chew in his lip, who had purchased land in the gorge for selective logging.
“He drove us down the creek in his truck to some of the walls along logging trails,” Liz says. “We saw what looked like such phenomenal climbing that it just blew us away.”
After seeing less than five percent of the property, the Weber’s were convinced of its value. Liz, standing ankle-deep in the creek, negotiated the beginnings of Muir Valley.
“At noon we had no intention of buying anything down there,” Rick says. “We were just sitting there eating barbeque, and at three o’clock we had closed the deal.”
THE MAGNIFICENT MUIR
In the smooth gravel parking lot laminated signs direct visitors to the well-maintained trail heads, restroom, and spillover parking lot.
“We have the best infrastructure and it’s still getting better,” says Roger VanDamme, treasurer of the Friends of Muir Valley non-profit organization. “There are a lot of places that you can go in the Red where you are not going to have bathroom facilities or anything like that.”
Muir can also boast one of the most well developed safety systems of any climbing facility in the country. Rick, a certified rope rescue trainer with Rescue 3 International, teaches groups of volunteers who carry radios while climbing in the valley.
Every year there are an average of 40 accidents in the larger Red River Gorge area, most of which are not climbing related. In the past four years there have been 11 deaths, but only three were climbers. Out of the more than 30,000 visitors in 2011 there were only five serious accidents in Muir.
“If there is one thing that they should be commended for above everything else it’s their focus on safety and training people appropriately for climbing outdoors,” says Joe Anderson, owner of Hoosier Heights.
Upon purchasing the property, the first project the Weber’s undertook was the construction of the emergency road that runs the complete 2.5-mile length of the valley floor. They have also installed emergency stations throughout the valley with radios and first response medical instructions. These amenities directly lead to the survival of several injured climbers, one of whom free fell from the top of a 75-foot route and lived to tell the tale.
“Because of our emergency roads and our emergency communications, we were with these victims within four or five minutes and were able to treat, package, and get them to a helicopter in time,” Rick says.
While Rick belays a call comes over the emergency radio. He quickly snaps the unit off his belt and responds. Through the static comes Liz’s quiet voice, just letting Rick know that she is putting on a pot roast for dinner. Nothing to worry about this time.
CLIMBING THE CORBIN
Like a cowboy in a classic western blowing the smoke from his gun, Neal Sipahimalani gently blows the chalk from his fingertips. Approaching the base of Bundle of Joy, a 5.13a on The Solarium wall in Muir, he gently runs his hands over the pocketed surface of the corbin sandstone cliff face.
“The Red holds a kind of fascination because of the type of rock,” Rick says. “It’s just got so much character to it, even if you never climb it’s just neat looking stuff.”
Neal gracefully ascends the first half of the route. Pausing, he hangs from a few fingers on his right hand. Tightening his stomach, he lifts himself up to the next solid hold and proceeds seamlessly.
“You can actually have grip on some of the worst holds just because the rock has so much friction.” Neal says. “It opens up so many more possibilities in terms of what can be done.”
He tops out with a six-foot dyno, inciting a roar of applause from onlookers on the rock below. Meanwhile, on the Bruise Brothers wall, a beginner sends his first outdoor route, a 5.8 called Get on the Good Foot.
“As close as outdoor climbing can be catered to you, it is at Muir Valley,” says Sean Counceller, a competitor in the 2011 Moves for Muir competition. “There’s stuff easy enough for a first timer all the way up to people who have been climbing their whole life.”
FINDING A FINANCIAL FOOTHOLD
Rick and Liz ask nothing of the thousands of climbers that enjoy Muir Valley annually besides respect for their land, and the completion of a safety waiver. The rest of the weight they carry on their own shoulders.
“When we landed this we knew that we were going to be putting a lot of money into it, and we thought of it as a philanthropic prospect,” Rick says.
The property of Muir Valley is completely paid off and the only remaining expenses are that of maintenance and operations, averaging approximately $60,000 annually.
“This is our chance to give back to the climbing community,” Liz says. “But we don’t know how long we are going to live,” Rick adds. “It doesn’t do the climbing community any good to just be clueless as to what it takes to run a place like that.”
In 2004 supporters of Liz and Rick's work established the Friends of Muir Valley. Seven years later, FoMV began accepting donations and organizing fundraisers in an attempt to relieve the Weber’s of Muir Valley’s financial burden. This past fall, hundreds of Midwestern climbers gathered together to participate in the first annual Moves for Muir competition.
“Rick and Liz are great people, they work super hard, they give so much of their own time, money and I’m sure mental energy into this,” says Jordan Garvey, a finalist in the competition. “To be able to give back to them for all of the great climbing that they’ve given us is very worthwhile.”
The future of Muir Valley rests in the callused hands of the climbers who crave its cracked cliff faces. When climbers can no longer dip into the well of the Weber’s generosity they will have to step up and do their part to maintain the nation's most beloved eastern climbing location.
“I love climbing, but at some point it’s got to be more than that,” says Thurston. “Or I think major parts of the Red will shut down and close.”