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Rock climbing pushes his limits, keeps him grounded

RED ROCK CANYON in Nevada has been among the out-of-state climbs undertaken by Woodford County native Kenneth Johns. He spends most weekends at the Red River Gorge, which has an international reputation as "a premier rock climbing venue because of the type of rock climbing that it offers." (Photo submitted)

KENNETH JOHNS climbs a vertical wall at Indian Creek in Mohab, Utah. Indian Creek was his favorite rock climbing experience because it offers the type of traditional climbing he prefers. (Photo submitted)

News reports told the world about Alex Honhold's free-solo climb of Yosemite's El Capitan on June 3 following months of training for that singular achievement. Only a few climbers make headlines for scaling rock formations without ropes or safety gear. Most rely on a partner, rope and safety harness while pushing their own limits so they can enjoy the view at the top. One local rock climber says there's nothing quite like finishing a climb without falling - especially after three, four or five previous weekends of failed attempts. "You get angry" because you think "it's never going to happen," Kenneth Johns says. "... And then you get super-anxious because you want it to happen, so bad. Eventually, you've run through all these emotions. The only emotion left is happiness because you've made it to the top." A Woodford County native, Johns views rock climbing as a great weekend hobby for him because he likes the outdoors and has a need to stay active. Rock climbing challenges him - both physically and mentally - while keeping him fit and pushing his limits. Married with two children, 39-year-old Johns says, "I'm always aware that I could get hurt, but ... I wouldn't do it if I felt (rock climbing) was too unsafe." He says, "Everything that we do has a certain amount of risk involved - whether it's crossing the street or climbing the scaffolding on the side of the courthouse that's outside here right now. "Obviously, the more you know about climbing," he adds, "the safer it becomes." Johns also understands the dangers. If he and his climbing partner don't stay focused, injuries - even death - can happen. So before scaling a rock wall, he says a climber and his partner should always ensure knots are tied properly and other gear is fastened and secured for safety. "Eventually, you climb with people enough that they can read your body language," explains Johns. "...They can tell when you're struggling and when you're not struggling as you're climbing by the way that you're breathing, by things that you're saying" - or doing. When a climber has "Elvis leg" - his or her foot begins bouncing up and down like the King of Rock and Roll - while standing on a small foothold, a partner knows fatigue has set in. "If you're new to (climbing)," suggests Johns, "you want to try to hook up with people that are experienced, that are willing to show you the ropes - no pun intended." A friend invited Johns to go rock climbing at Red River Gorge around 1993 or '94. Still a student at Woodford County High School, he went along because "it was outside. It sounded interesting." The experience was not what Johns envisioned, but he appreciated the challenge of climbing a rock wall. "Once we got there and saw what we were going to do," he remembers thinking: "This is going to be hard. This could be fun." Johns went rock climbing a few more times with that friend. He moved away and sold his gear to Johns, who couldn't find a reliable climbing partner to go with him on a regular basis. He started going to a climbing gym in Lexington, but wasn't confident enough in his own abilities to ask more advanced climbers if he could come along with them. So he continued doing sporadic climbs while attending college. While considering whether to train for an adventure race in 2008, Johns instead became inspired to spend more time rock climbing. By 2012, he had time to devote to the sport and started climbing every weekend at the Red River Gorge. Johns has become more capable of climbing tougher routes and steeper grades over the past five years, but describes himself as an average rock climber. He partners most frequently with 52-year-old Arthur Cammers, but has other climbing partners he has come to trust over the last five years. "There are a handful of people that I always go climbing with," he says. That partner on the ground "keeps you from hitting the ground if you fall." Having been on climbs with women, Johns says, "It makes no difference at all whether you're a man or a woman." A route can be scaled using brute force or finesse, with really big or itty bitty moves. "It doesn't matter how you climb it or what holds you use. As long as you get from the bottom to the top without falling - you've successfully climbed the route," says Johns. Once at the top, he and other climbers take in a view only a few will ever experience. Although he enjoys rock climbing in other states, Johns says he appreciates living near Kentucky's Red River Gorge, which has an international reputation as "a premier rock climbing venue because of the type of rock climbing that it offers." The Gorge has rock formations, which lean back so "you climb the underside of the ladder," with your back "to the ground," says Johns. Other states - especially those out west - offer vertical climbs, but few offer so many opportunities to climb on the underside of a rock wall. In addition to completing nearly 500 different climbing routes in the Red River Gorge, with others still to conquer, Johns has traveled to Colorado, Tennessee, Utah, Yosemite and elsewhere to scale rock formations of different heights and levels of difficulty. His favorite rock climbing experience came at Indian Creek in Mohab, Utah, because it's the type of traditional climbing he prefers. Johns says he typically does three types of climbing. In "Bouldering," he uses a mat to prevent injury, but does not need a harness, rope or climbing partner. A test of power and strength, bouldering helps a climber stay in shape by doing "a series of really hard moves in a short distance (10 to 15 feet)," says Johns. "Sport Climbing" allows a climber to scale a rock wall with permanent anchors fixed to the rock - unlike "Traditional Climbing," which requires a climber to be responsible for placing all of his own safety gear to protect against falls, and having his partner remove the gear as they climb the route. As a whole, Johns describes the rock climbing community as "a great group of people," who are supportive of each other and their sport as it becomes more mainstream. Because of his dedication to rock climbing, Johns has learned to manage his time so he does his fair share at home too. "It's challenging to be a good father and husband, and a good rock climber," says Johns. "Rock climbing is something that takes a lot of time to be good at. You can't do it once and then come back in six months and do it again. You have to consistently do it all the time." When he's not rock climbing, Johns says he spends any free time away from work (as GIS coordinator for the Planning Commission) with his daughters and wife, his high school sweetheart.

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