Looking Toward a Better Beattyville: Margarita Martínez's Life in the Red River Gorge

By Sarah Anne Perry and Tom Smartt

Margarita Martínez climbing  Ale 8 One  at the Motherlode on her 60th birthday. Photo by Marty Vogel.

Margarita Martínez climbing Ale 8 One at the Motherlode on her 60th birthday. Photo by Marty Vogel.

Anyone who’s frequented the Red River Gorge or Maple Canyon in recent years has no doubt witnessed Margarita Martínez cheerfully crushing with a smile. But to the rest of us, her name made the rounds last year after a TrainingBeta profile highlighted her 2016 send of Maple Canyon's Whole Shot (5.13d) at age 58. Whole Shot is a ridiculously long and unforgiving endurance route with a heartbreaker crux at the chains. Few climbers possess the temerity and try-hard to venture out this Utah roof.

Margarita's climbing story, however, begins farther east — in Ohio. The Puerto Rico native started gym climbing there in the early '90s. A retired ballerina, she was no stranger to movement. Still, she was afraid of heights. "I thought it would be a nice thing to do to get over my fear of heights," she says. She loved it: "I thought it was like dancing, which I'd done all my life, only straight up and down rather than vertical."

Six weeks after that plastic introduction, Margarita took her first outdoor climbing trip to Sauratown in North Carolina. Not long after, she visited the Red River Gorge for the first time.

The Red may be a world-class destination to climbers everywhere, but for Margarita, it's become home. "I think that it has more of an emotional attraction than even the physical attraction," she says. Margarita met her husband, René Keyzer-André, at the gym in Ohio, but they began dating at Miguel's Pizza. Finally, René proposed at Military Wall.

René had just sent Thirsting Skull and was swinging in and out as he cleaned the draws. "All of a sudden, he swung all the way in. I joked with him because he went all the way to his knees," Margarita recalls. "I said, ‘That’s how I like to see you, on your knees and begging.’ And then all of a sudden — he had a Verve chalk bag which had a little zipper on the back — at that point he pulled out the ring and proposed.”

Margarita and René saying their vows on belay in 1993. Photos courtesy of Margarita Martínez.

Margarita and René saying their vows on belay in 1993. Photos courtesy of Margarita Martínez.

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The pair wed in '93, on belay at a Cincinnati gym. They remained in Ohio while their children grew up, frequenting the Red whenever they could. They kept a trailer at Lago Linda's, a quiet campground near Beattyville. This was their home away from home while they lived in Ohio, and later when they moved to Richmond, KY. Wherever they've lived, they've built indoor woodies in small spaces. Each iteration of "the Shop" has been both a home training facility and a hub for the local climbers.

The Red is obviously one of the world's best climbing destinations, Margarita says, but "it's just a matter of weather. In order to climb at the Red all the time, you have to live at the Red." When René scored a remote job three years ago, the couple could finally do just that.

They never planned to buy a house. Initially, they parked their camper by a friend's place, hooking up water and electricity. That was enough for their happily ever after, surrounded by friends and minutes from the world's best sandstone.

One day, though, a house on Rock of Ages Road caught their eye. But it wasn't for sale, and Margarita wrote it off until hearing a knock at the trailer door. It was the homeowner. "I heard you wanted to buy a house," she said.

Margarita training in “the Shop” at her home in Beattyville. Photo by René Keyzer-André.

Margarita training in “the Shop” at her home in Beattyville. Photo by René Keyzer-André.

It was an emotional sale for the elderly woman, who had lived there with her husband until his death. She wouldn't sell to just anyone, but "she knew that we would take good care of the house," Margarita says.

The house connects Margarita to Beattyville and its past. "The whole foundation of the house had to be blasted with dynamite — because that street's called Rock of Ages for a reason," Margarita says. "And the previous owner watched it happen in 1967."

She still visits sometimes, to see what René and Margarita have done to the house. "We're still good friends to this day," Margarita says.

Margarita truly loves living in Beattyville — not just for the climbing, but for the town and its people.

Standing beneath the Red's otherworldly sandstone, it's easy to forget the poverty, isolation, and dearth of opportunity that have shaped the surrounding cultural landscape. The communities in closest proximity to the South's best climbing often feel overlooked by industry and the government. Folks in towns like Beattyville are looking for change, and they're not always on the same sociopolitical wavelength as travelers passing through.

Many visiting climbers find the local color charming, but some raise their noses in judgment. "People have said to me, 'Why are you supporting them?'" Margarita recalls. "And I say, 'I support society, I don't support a political thing.' They're people, and regardless of their beliefs, they're people and that's what I support."

It's easy for visitors to laugh at unfamiliar accents, scoff at "hillbilly" culture, or assume the worst of strangers. For Margarita, though, it's important to narrow the scope. "They're not treating them like individuals," she says. "And I don't care, they're individuals. They do everything that I do on a daily basis, from waking up to going back to sleep, and they're worth a lot to me as individuals regardless of what their political beliefs are."

And, Margarita says, she understands those beliefs. "I don't shut them down, because I understand the choices that they made," she says. "Whether it's what I believe or not."

According to 2016 figures from Data USA, the median income for a Beattyville family is $15,058. This is $40,264 less than the national median. Fifty-two percent of Beattyville residents live below the poverty line, compared to the national average of 14%.

The tiny town has lost a lot, Margarita says. Its grocery stores, car dealerships, clothing companies, and mining industry have dwindled over the last decade. "So people have had to get jobs further and further away and travel in and out," Margarita says. "There are very few good jobs in that area."

Margarita frequently promotes Beattyville businesses and real estate on social media, and she'll definitely sell you on its non-climbing wonders. "People think it’s only just climbing, but it’s more than just climbing," she says. There's horseback riding in Whisper Valley, paddling in the Kentucky River, waterfalls, fishing, and underwater caving. "So tourism should be what they explore more. And they’re trying to."

Climbers and other outdoorsfolk can play a part in strengthening Beattyville's economy. By spending our time and money in town, we contribute to Margarita's vision of a stronger, healthier, more prosperous community. She also hopes her Dry Pointe shoe will someday provide jobs in Beattyville. "I want to help," she says. "It's a great place to live; the community is very, very good to each other."

The weekend of October 5th — during Rocktoberfest — the Lee County Recreational Center will host the grand opening of its new climbing wall. The facility will promote health among Beattyville residents and connect them to the sport that draws so many travelers to their town.

The wall will have three bouldering walls at different angles, as well as an LED-lit moonboard. René helped with the design, but local climber and economic development advocate Audrey Sniezek has headed up the project. Support comes from the government, the local church, and donations.

It may seem silly to build a climbing gym 20 minutes from the Red. "Well, it's a big investment," Margarita says, especially for families living far below the poverty line. "When that is your income, do you really have the ability to buy a harness and a rope and shoes and all that and not know whether you're really going to like it? So this is why this is going to be really good."

Margarita wants the wall to get more Beattyville residents psyched to buy gear and climb outside. More importantly, though, she hopes it will improve health outcomes for local kids. "Usually in places that are as poor as Beattyville, the food that is cheapest to them might not be the best for them," she says. "So I think the wall will provide youth more outlets. They can learn how to climb there and then take it outside — and have a more healthy body and mind."

Margarita hopes visiting climbers will join locals at the wall when rain ruins their plans. "They have to come and shelter someplace to do some kind of climbing," she says. "It will be used by everyone, not just the community in Beattyville."

Margarita and René have spent the last four summers in Utah, maintaining order in a thankless job as the Maple Canyon camp hosts. Next year, though, they'll stay in Kentucky to finish some home projects, volunteer at the new climbing wall, and otherwise deepen their Beattyville roots. "It's really hard to explain how amazing a place it is," Margarita says. "Not that [Maple] is not amazing. I have a really good community here too, but [Beattyville] is where I can make more of a difference."

Margarita and René are also investing in climbing's future. They have mentored many younger climbers, freely offering climbing beta, insight, and hospitality.

For Michaela Kiersch, Margarita is "a mother figure." They met when Michaela was 13. "I instantly admired her, and have considered her a role model ever since," she says. Michaela is unsurprised by how her mentor champions Beattyville: "Margarita is a leader in every community that she is involved in. She is passionate, insightful, and ambitious, which leads her to contribute enormously to her surroundings."

Dru Mack also met Margarita and René as a teenager. They took him on his first big climbing trip, helped him find a decent car, and have been a fixture in his adult life ever since. Dru admires how they've built their lives around climbing. "It's cool that Margarita has found her different way to be in the climbing community — through ballet, through her own climbing, then wedding cakes, and now Dry Pointe," he says. "There’s probably a finite amount of time to be top level as far as performance, as a professional climber, but there is always a way to be a lifer and climb forever."

René and Margarita may be RRG super locals, but their position as mentors extends far beyond the crag. Perhaps the greatest significance is how they are willing to take on this role for whomever — regardless of how well they know that person.

Dru thinks so. "[It's] not even on purpose, just because they know so much and have so much experience," he says. "They’re able to offer a lot to the climbing community and to individuals and be role model and mentor figures, both of them."

And, says Michaela, their words have weight: "I think that Margarita is one of the wisest and bravest people that I have ever met. When she offers her advice, it is best to listen.  Ultimately, if we are not good people to ourselves and others, we lose value in our lives."

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That's a lesson Margarita loves to teach. For all her climbing acumen, she cares more about being a good human than sending hard. "I don't believe climbing should define you," she says. "I think you should be defined by other things. Like for me, it's more important to be defined as a good mother, a good person, and good to others."

“Nobody cares about your send,” Margarita says. "Climbing is so selfish. You are the only person who cares whether you did whatever," she insists. "Others only care about that moment. They'll say, 'Oh yeah, great, good job, you did this.' But a year later, they're not gonna remember. So if you do something, you do something. But if you don't do something, so what? There's another day — but it's more important that you are a nice person."

So next time you're in the Red, let Margarita inspire you. Try hard on your project, then buy your groceries at the IGA. Check out the Beattyville library, and chat with locals at the laundromat. Ride a horse, explore some caves, or paddle the river on a rest day. And when it inevitably rains, join the community at the rec center climbing wall.

communitySarah Anne Perry