Crown Jewel of the Red River Gorge
Rick and Liz Weber - Founders of Muir Valley
Interview of Rick and Liz Weber - March 2013:
Q: "You guys have been rock climbing only since 1999. Why did you get started so late in life?"
R & L: Well, if we would have started in our late teens—as do most young climbers today—that would have been in the 1950's. With the wide popularity of climbing today, it is hard to imagine that in the 50's, there were only a handful of "rock climbers" in the U.S. And they were wearing leather sole boots and pounding pitons into rock. This is called aid climbing and was pretty much how a few daring souls moved up vertical faces until 1970 when trad climbing with removable gear got off the ground. Sport climbing with bolted hanger brackets came along in the late 1980's. By then we were approaching our fifties—not the ideal time to enter the sport.
Q: "So how did you get into rock climbing and how did you come about buying Muir Valley?
R & L: After we had retired and on a lark, we tried out sport climbing at the Hoosier Heights Climbing Gym in Bloomington, Indiana and quickly became hooked. Around 2000, we made our first trip to the Red River Gorge where we were introduced to climbing here by a young guide by the name of Blake Bowling. Blake, who is now a Red River Gorge Old Timer himself, showed us a fantastic time. We fell in love with the area and returned frequently over the next three years. The "kids" in the climbing community down here were always very friendly and helpful in making our trips <adjective>.
On one trip in mid 2003, a friend showed us a deep gorge hemmed in by steep rock walls. To say that we were enchanted with this place is an understatement. The same day, we negotiated with the property owner to buy it, and he accepted on the spot. Even though we had viewed only a tiny fraction of the property that day, what we did see convinced us that this was, indeed a very special place. It was virgin wilderness with no structures and none of the thousands of feet of cliff line that ringed the valley having any developed climbing routes. It was resplendent with cliffs, waterfalls, caves, rock shelters, and spectacular flora and fauna. Aside from the rock climbing possibilities, this place was a nature lover's paradise... that is it could be a paradise after literally several hundred tons of trash was removed.
Sadly, like many areas of Eastern Kentucky, the local residents had little regard for its places of natural beauty and instead regarded this Valley as a convenient hole in the ground to fill with trash. During the first two years, we mounted a major effort to remove years of trash. With the aid of many tireless volunteers and a Superfund cleanup grant, Muir Valley is now pristine as it was, when settlers first arrived.
Due to a complex real estate purchase—somewhat common in this area where everyone seems to die in testate with no wills, resulting in property ownership by a passel of relatives—It took until January of 2004 before the deed was signed.
Q: "The obvious question here is 'why on earth did you buy this land?'"
R & L: The previous owner, before we made him an offer, was planning to split up the land into parcels and develop it into a community of rental cabins. As climbers, after visiting some of Muir's virgin rock cliffs, we we visualizing—vague as it were at that time—something quite a bit different. First, we wanted to see the natural beauty of this little valley remain virgin and protected from development. And, as climbers, of course we hoped that the crags within the property were of the quality that the many friends we had made while climbing in the Red might enjoy developing into a few routes and climbing here with us. We honestly thought at that time that we might even see a couple hundred or so visits in a year. Not in our wildest dreams would we have guessed that by 2013, Muir's annual attendance would grow to over 35,000 visitors!
Q: "What actually happened that first year you purchased the property?"
R & L: Well, as soon as the ink dried on the deed of the first parcel in January of 2004, we immediately opened Muir to the public and invited our friends to help us explore the area and see what climbing routes might be established. I guess to say that all of us who explored the many rock faces within Muir were stunned by the quality of rock we found there. Not only was much of the rock suited for climbing routes, climbers predicted many would become spectacular classics. This prediction came true, as we now see climbers come to Muir Valley from all over the U.S. and the world specifically to climb the its crags.
Shortly after purchasing this land, we were fortunate to purchase another adjoining parcel that was about the same size as the first parcel. The two were combined into about 350 acre tract that now comprises Muir Valley.
Q: "Why did you call it 'Muir Valley'?"
R & L: We chose the name, "Muir Valley", to honor the memory of a great American. John Muir is revered as the "Father of the National Parks." His reputation as a conservationist has overshadowed his achievements as a rock climber. The climbing community recognizes him as the greatest climber in America during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in terms of first ascents and technical skills. His achievements are especially impressive in view of the fact that he free soloed his climbs and did so without the benefit of modern climbing equipment.
Muir discovered that climbing rock provided him with an enchanting perspective of the natural beauty around him that viewing from the ground could not. Many of us who climb have been fortunate to make this same discovery. We believe, as John Muir did, that responsible rock climbing in places of natural beauty is altogether fitting and proper.
In 1890, when Yosemite Valley was set aside as a national park, largely due to Muir’s efforts, the land was scarred by logging trails and tree stumps. With much work and the natural healing effects of time, Yosemite has grown into a wondrous place for all lovers of nature — flatlanders and rock climbers alike. On a much smaller scale, we are faced with similar challenges and hold hopes that this little Kentucky valley, with its waterfalls, caves, and breathtaking cliffs will grow into a place that old Muir would have enjoyed climbing in and sauntering through.
Q: "Why don't you charge an admission fee?"
R & L: It was never our intent to operate Muir Valley as a business. Because we opened our land to the public at no admission charge, we are protected from liability lawsuits under the provisions of the Kentucky Recreational Use Statute.
Q: "How do manage to run a place with 35,000 annual visitors with no revenue stream?"
R & L: We are very fortunate that Muir Valley has a huge support group of volunteers - most of whom are part of the "Friends of Muir Valley" organization. These volunteers, coupled with generous donations from visitors help us keep the Valley open to climbing.
Q: "What are your plans for the future of Muir Valley?"
R & L: It's clear we are getting on in years. We would very much like to see Muir Valley continue as it is into the future. And, for the past few years, we have been working closely with the Access Fund and the Friends of Muir Valley organization to find a way to keep Muir Valley open to climbing in perpetuity.
Rick is a graduate of Purdue University, and was founder and manager of several companies before retirement. In truth, Rick is only semi-retired, as he is an active AMGA-Certified Single Pitch Instructor and an Instructor for both Rescue 3 International and the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management in Technical Rope Rescue. He also developed a rescue training facility at Muir Valley and has provided rescue training for many volunteers and professionals working throughout Kentucky. Rick recently wrote and illustrated a book on technical rope rescue, which is now being used internationally by Rescue 3. And his latest publication is the Muir Valley Pocket Guide, which he wrote and illustrated. This guide provides Muir visitors with up-to-date and accurate information about the Valley's climbs, something that has been much needed for years.
Liz has a masters degree in engineering from Purdue and an MBA from IU. She worked for forty years in the aerospace industry and retired as an engineering chief with Rolls-Royce Aerospace. Although “officially” retired from climbing, Liz still gets in a few climbs as time and circumstance permit. Her most recent ascent was the 16-pitch Royal Arches wall in Yosemite Valley in the fall of 2012. You will usually find Liz in the Muir Valley parking lot on weekends greeting and chatting with visitors or down in the Valley hiking around.