Chattanooga: America's New Climbing Capitol

Chattanooga, Tennessee is the best spot to spend autumn as a climber. Here are 8 reasons to hop in your truck the moment the leaves start changing.
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Chattanooga, Tennessee is the best spot to spend autumn as a climber. Here are 8 reasons to hop in your truck the moment the leaves start changing.

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of our print edition.

Digital Media Specialist Kevin Corrigan finds something to like about his Blind Date (5.7). Photo: Andrew Burr

Digital Media Specialist Kevin Corrigan finds something to like about his Blind Date (5.7). Photo: Andrew Burr

Climbing magazine is headquartered in the world-class mega-dank community of Boulder, Colorado. Why? Well, because it has 300+ days of sunshine a year, the mile-high altitude keeps our hearts strong, and there are five gyms and about a bazillion routes of all types within striking distance of our office (which is why our emails are rigged with out-of-office replies almost all the time). It’s not too shabby here, so take us very seriously when we say that Chattanooga and its climbing scene might be even better. For real.   

In seven days of climbing, the Climbing staff visited six crags, and rarely have we been around more strong, fun, motivated, and egoless climbers. Our local guides for the week were John Wigul, co-owner and general manager of High Point Climbing and Fitness; Todd Clark, buyer at Rock/Creek Outfitters; and Chattanooga local Laban Swafford, a soul-climber if there ever was one. They brought us to the area’s most classic routes, hootin’ and hollerin’ the whole way.

Much of Tennessee’s best climbing is on the Cumberland Plateau, a 300-mile ridge stretching into Alabama and Georgia—and “Chatt” is smack in the center of it. The rock is hard, high-quality sandstone, and the terrain includes long cracks, overhanging jug-fests, and intricate face climbing. An astounding variety can be found across its world-class trad, sport, and bouldering crags. You’ll find climbers outside year-round, often in t-shirts in the middle of winter on south-facing crags like Tennessee Wall (aka T-Wall). Summer’s humidity stifles, but if you hop in your rig now—like right now—and start driving, you’ll arrive at the optimal time to climb.

The area attracts some big names, too. We ran into Will Gadd at the bar one night and Paige Claassen and Angie Payne at Stone Fort, the area’s best bouldering spot. I even ran into an old climbing partner I’d lost touch with and got to climb with him that week. The region is thick with climbers, and you’ll be welcomed into the community as soon as you arrive.

Editor Julie Ellison cruises Razor Worm (5.9-), Tennessee Wall. Photo: Andrew Burr 

Editor Julie Ellison cruises Razor Worm (5.9-), Tennessee Wall. Photo: Andrew Burr 

The Basecamp

The quickest way to get tapped into the scene, pretty much instantly, is to stay at The Crash Pad. This LEED Platinum–certified “uncommon hostel” opened in 2011 with the mission to combine the quirky luxury of a boutique hotel with the affordability of a traveler’s hostel—and more important, to connect climbers, boaters, and bikers with each other so we can all enjoy the mountains that much more. Everyone we met there was an instant friend and potential climbing partner.

“I’ve stayed in climber-centric hostels and campgrounds all over the world, and The Crash Pad is easily the coolest I’ve ever hung my rack in,” says our editor, Julie Ellison.

We stayed in the $30 per night bunks (each has blackout curtains, a fan, outlets, and lockable duffel storage underneath), but you can spring for a private room ($79-99), and each sleeps at least two. We threw our beer and food in the fridge and used the community kitchen to whip up omelets and crag food. The Wi-Fi is free, and the guidebooks and local beta plentiful. You can also borrow crashpads, lock up your bike, chill by the fire outside in the pavilion, and get a discount at the Flying Squirrel, the restaurant next door. It’s the rock climber’s version of a luxury resort. Stay there for at least the first couple days of your trip to get tapped into the awesome Chatt scene.

You can also camp near the T-Wall parking lot, or if you’re in a big group like we were, rent a cabin at Raccoon Mountain. It’s out of town, and you can have your own deck and campfire pit, two essentials for kicking back after a big day on the rock. 

The author finds some wiggle room on Nutrasweet (5.7), Tennessee Wall. Photo: Andrew Burr

The author finds some wiggle room on Nutrasweet (5.7), Tennessee Wall. Photo: Andrew Burr

Stone Fort

A bouldering area with a clubhouse? And a crashpad rack by the front door!? Well, sort of.

Stone Fort (also called Little Rock City) and its hundreds of boulders of solid gray and orange Cumberland sandstone are tucked into the forest right next to Montlake Golf Course, so climbers share a common entry with the golfing set (there’s a $6.50/ day entry fee). Bonus? The clubhouse sells chalk and tape and rents crashpads. In fact, Stone Fort is so popular that 2014 marked the first year that Montlake made more revenue from climbers than golfers. And really it’s no wonder: Stone Fort is world-class (it’s perhaps best known as one leg of the Triple Crown Bouldering Series, a popular Southeastern comp), while the golfing looks, uh, subpar. But we’ve only seen golf on TV, so what do we know?

This is the closest major climbing area to town, and in the words of one of the managers at The Crash Pad, is “f***ing ridiculous.” It’s the perfect venue for your first full day. Mountain Project has beta for more than 200 problems, but the excellent guidebook (see Beta below) has close to 700. We had an evening session that went well into the headlamp hours as our crew took turns on the V7 crimp line Out of Africa/Face in the Crowd, hidden deep in the recesses of a jumble of house-size blocks. But one of the best days of our time in Chatt was our day dedicated to Stone Fort.

Our digital media specialist, Kevin Corrigan, noted there were 100 problems V3 and below in Stone Fort’s front area alone, so he and I set out to climb them all (I love a good silly, meaningless challenge). Many, like Fire Crack Flake (V1), were truly fun. Some, like Storming the Castle (V2), were moderately scary highballs. And others were so mossy and wet, who knows when they were last climbed. I split a tip, and we started losing count as the late afternoon PBR breaks became more frequent, but we ticked about 65 problems.

“That’s it?” said pro boulderer Angie Payne, who was hanging out that day. I still maintain it’s not too bad for a couple guys with office jobs. While we were ticking off the V0’s, Julie, her photographer boyfriend, Alton Richardson, and gear tester Paul Creme got distracted by one of the best problems in Stone Fort: Super Mario (V4) and a V6 variation.

Stone Fort is maximum fun beneath a beautiful canopy of huge deciduous trees. Explore narrow corridors and tunnels between humongous blocks to find amazing arêtes, cracks, and bulges. Here are 10 of the most classic problems.* 

Incredarete (V1)
"A confuzzling start of a tall problem."

Graham Crackers (V1)
"Climb straight up the arête, occasionally using crimps on the right side, with balancey, barn-door moves.”

Storming the Castle (V2)
"Best highball ever. Bring a chalkbag!”

Mystery Machine (V2)
"A stemming slab problem with gastons, underclings, side- pulls, and a jug finish? Mega!”

Super Mario (V4)
"Big moves, big pinches, bucket jugs, crimps, kneebars—this über-classic has it all!”

Swingers (V4)
"Great climb, cool moves, a solid V4.”

Sternum (V5)
"A must-do problem if you are at LRC for only one day. It has awesome moves for people of every size. Everyone does it differently, but everyone has a good time on it!”

The Wave (V6)
"Engineer moves to gain the ‘wave’ and finish to the top. Feels like V4 once you get the sequence right; it can be a good warm-up.”

Celestial Mechanics (V7)
"Jimmy Webb climbed this from a lower start (matched on the undercling), giving it V9.”

Grimace (V8)
"High-friction day? Hit this sloper-fest!"

Paul Creme scopes out his options on Wristlets (5.11c/d), Foster Falls. Photo: Andrew Burr

Paul Creme scopes out his options on Wristlets (5.11c/d), Foster Falls. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Gym

It’s true that we’re in the midst of a climbing gym boom in America. According to the Climbing Business Journal there are 365 gyms across the country, with many more planned for 2016. (Mountain Project’s gym listings, which include small, private, and university climbing gyms, total more than 900.) The phenomenon has been written about in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Men’s Journal (which asked if climbing was the “new CrossFit”).

Climbing gyms are clearly having a moment, and no one is more psyched than we are (the more smart and strong climbers the better!). But the role of a gym in a climber’s life is pretty much the same no matter where you live or how big and bright your gym is—you join to practice, to train, and to climb and hangout during foul weather. Chattanooga’s High Point Climbing and Fitness is that for sure, but it’s also much, much more. In fact, it’s a destination in and of itself.

High Point opened in early 2014 in downtown Chatt in an old theater with 30,000 square feet of climbing space. It has several distinct walls, organized by skills and discipline: beginner auto-belay walls, a toproping room, a lead climbing pit, and two bouldering areas. There’s also a Kid Zone with a bouldering area and multiple themed walls from speed climbing to buildering to a maze to the alphabet to foam-covered skyscrapers. The manager let us in after hours, and the Climbing staff had more fun inside a gym than any of us had had in our entire lives. We raged and challenged each other to silly dares and races until they kicked us out so the staff could go home.

Are you the more serious type, here to train? They’ve got campus walls and adjustable system boards, too. Not to mention pro climbers Lisa Rands and Wills Young as coaches and climbing guides. We think you’ll do just fine.

But the real eye candy is the transparent climbing wall, built on the outside of the building, overlooking the city. It’s backlit for night climbing, and has two speed climbing routes (tip: sit outside at Big River Grille and Brewing Works and watch the comps with a beer in hand). It’s an architectural wonder.

High Point had 650 members just three months after opening and has continued to grow rapidly. It’s a model they plan to expand throughout the South, saying they could open as many as 10 gyms in the next 10 years, including one in Miami, which could actually make us want to go to Miami.

Even the warm-ups at Foster Falls aren't gimmes, including this 5.10b Narcissism. Photo: Andrew Burr

Even the warm-ups at Foster Falls aren't gimmes, including this 5.10b Narcissism. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Tennessee Wall

Among classic eastern U.S. trad areas—think the Gunks in New York or Whitehorse Ledge in New Hampshire—T-Wall is a kinder, gentler place to develop or refine your trad skills. It’s primarily single-pitch and south-facing, making it a stellar winter and shoulder-season crag (it’s a sauna in summer). The best part, though, is that there’s something here for leaders of all stripes, and gear placements feel plentiful. A rack of nuts, Tricams (if you’re that type), and cams up to 4” is standard, and most routes have anchors and rap rings.

T-Wall was first developed in 1984, but new routes still go up today, especially at T-Wall West. Learn to climb trad here, and you’ll have enough routes to keep you busy for the rest of your life. Our schedule limited us to one day, and that was the greatest injustice of our trip. Single-pitch trad cragging is unique and a great way to drill down on gear and your lead head. As a group we ticked a handful of routes from 5.7 to 5.12, and when we head back, we’ll target some of these classics below.

Nutrasweet (5.7)
"This is a great first lead for anyone new to T-Wall. The route is rated true for the area. Fun climbing and easy to run out!”

Jay Walker (5.7+)
"This was my first ever lead about 11 years ago, and I’ve climbed it several times since. Nice stone, mega-easy to protect.”

Prerequisite for Excellence (5.8)
"Fun moves with good gear."

Golden Locks (5.8+)
"Beautiful splitter crack with exposure above the Tennessee River, the most popular and perhaps the most sandbagged route.”

In Pursuit of Excellence (5.9)
"Excellent hand jams. I thought the first 25 feet were the crux because of the pump factor!”

Cake Walk (5.10a)
"Classic. Sustained, beautiful climbing. Get a rest before you hop on this ’cause it’s a long way until you find a rest on route. The finger crack crux is awesome.”

Stepping Stone (5.10a/b)
"One of the best single pitches you will do anywhere. Easy and well-protected terrain leads to a committing situation on the arête, at which point you’ll want to channel your inner sport climber by firing for the top like you really mean it.”

Sugar in the Raw (5.11a)
"One of the best single pitches you will do anywhere. Easy and well-protected terrain leads to a committing situation on the arête, at which point you’ll want to channel your inner sport climber by firing for the top like you really mean it.”

Mrs. Socrates (5.12a/b)
"This line is perfect for those breaking into the grade. I crimped a lot on the upper face crux. Fantastic route.”                   

The Sport Cragging

Julie Ellison avoids the spray on a cold day for Grace's Buckets (5.11d), Little River Canyon, Alabama. Photo: Andrew Burr

Julie Ellison avoids the spray on a cold day for Grace's Buckets (5.11d), Little River Canyon, Alabama. Photo: Andrew Burr

We love a nice long, remote alpine moderate, and we’d take unpaid leave to spend more time in Eldorado Canyon. But sport cragging trumps all. You and a group of friends trying hard in a high-fun, relatively low-risk environment. This is (yet another) area in which Chattanooga really shines. If you designed a climber town from scratch, you couldn’t do much better. We visited Foster Falls and Castle Rock, both impeccable, and there are at least seven other sport crags within a stone’s throw.

Foster Falls, a major destination in the South, has more than 100 challenging sport routes in a super-scenic gorge. The majority of the routes are 5.9 and up. It gets little direct sun, making it a good destination for temperate days. I wore four jackets and a beanie while climbing on a 32° day there.

We spent our last day in the sun at Castle Rock, where a sign tells you to text the make and model of your car to Ms. Phillips, the landowner. She texted me back promptly wishing us a good day. Southern hospitality. The climbing at Castle Rock was full of sidepulls, slopers, and technical sequences on slabby to slightly overhanging rock. There were coarse pebbly bands that gave great friction though threatened death blows to our already-reeling skin. When you plan your own trip to Chatt, consider focusing on sport climbing, then throw in trad days to scare yourself and bouldering days to chill.

Saturated (5.8)Foster Falls
"Long and fun jug-haul. 5.6 climbing to a 5.8 roof.”

Holy War (5.9)
Foster Falls
"Argued to be the best of the grade at Fosters, and I agree. The climbing is interesting with a wide variety of moves— crimps, jugs, flakes, even a mono pocket!”

Ankles Away (5.9+)
Foster Falls
"A don’t-miss route. It got its name from an incident on Dihedral, a trad line just to the left. When the leader leaned back on his gear, the piece pulled and the rest zippered; the resulting fall broke both his ankles.”

Hurts So Good (5.10a)
Foster Falls
"A long, sustained route with a bouldery start followed by a very thin finish with lots of jugs in between.”

Orange Peel (5.10b)
Castle Rock
"All guidebooks rate this 10a. It is a hard 10a and is not a giveaway. There is a lot of looking around for feet!”

Something's Always Wrong (5.10d)
Foster Falls
"Best 5.10 at Foster’s! Move left after the roof for a good rest before you tackle the overhanging face at the top.”

Streaker (5.11b)
Castle Rock
"Pumpy sidepulls and small ledges lead to an easy mantel and one more bolt of moderate climbing to the anchors.”

Wristlets (5.11c/d)
Foster Falls
"This is probably the smoothest line I have ever climbed. Every move is fun and interesting.”

Predator (5.12c)
Castle Rock
"Predator is the line on the Predator Wall. The brilliant orange rock is perfect, the line heads straight up the center of the wall, the moves are flowy, and all the holds magically appear where you need them.”   

Darkie the Bum Beast (5.12d)
Foster Falls
"A fun and engaging route with a regrettable name.”                

Chatt local Laban Swafford styles his way up Wristlets (5.11c/d), Foster Falls. Photo: Andrew Burr

Chatt local Laban Swafford styles his way up Wristlets (5.11c/d), Foster Falls. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Food

In Chattanooga, you’re never far from an epic meal, be it a hipster-foodie quality venue such as The Flying Squirrel (right next to The Crash Pad) where you can nosh on duck tacos and wash ’em down with a barrel-aged Negroni, or a roadside BBQ shack like Shuford’s near T-Wall, with melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and gallon jugs of sweet tea. But we had the meal of our lives at Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken, and this is where our ode to Chatty cuisine begins. (Ed. Note: Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t like meat, gluttony, cheap beer drank in excess, or fried foods of more variety that you knew existed.)

“What’s for dinner?” asked our senior contributing photographer, Andrew Burr, as we piled into the van after an especially cold day of sport climbing at Foster Falls.

“Fried chicken and forties!” I said enthusiastically. I had a hot tip from our local buddy Laban that Champy’s would be right up our alley—I think he sensed that we were the type of refined clientele who would appreciate a super-sized Miller High Life and food served on the finest Styrofoam modern science can manufacture. The beer even comes with its own custom 40 oz coozie. This is a classy establishment, after all.

We found a table and gazed at the walls as if we were in a cathedral, then ordered a family dinner of fried chicken, fried jalapeños, fried green tomatoes, fried dill pickle spears, french fries, baked beans, cole slaw, and mashed potatoes and gravy. We replaced our calorie deficit by at least a factor of 10, and all look back on that meal as the perfect end to a stellar day of climbing in one of America’s best regions for rock. A word of warning: This meal is often followed by a (very) high-gravity day. Best to indulge prior to rest days.

Chatt's must-stop photo opp: the doughnut mural near Koch's Bakery. Photo: Andrew Burr

Chatt's must-stop photo opp: the doughnut mural near Koch's Bakery. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Insane Variety

Nowhere in the South (and perhaps nowhere east of the Mississippi) is there such a high concentration of life-list climbing areas as here. Within just an hour of downtown, you have eight crags, each with a lifetime of potential for most climbers. During our November trip last year, we had a couple rain and snow days, and we were still able to look at NOAA maps for pockets of sun, call the beta experts at The Crash Pad, and target crags in those areas. There’s that much climbing here! On our final day, beaten down from a full week on rock and too many beers to count, we trudged to the airport. Someone in the group suggested moving our office to this Southern paradise. We all agreed, half-joking—but not really joking at all.       

Beta            

Chattanooga Guidebooks

The Dixie Cragger’s Atlas ($27) for select routes in the Chattanooga-metro area. Pick up Stone Fort Bouldering ($26) for Stone Fort. For T-Wall, find the new Tennessee Wall guide ($28). And for the sport crags, Chatt Steel ($40).

Where to Buy Gear

Forget something? Need another #4? Head to Rock/Creek Outfitters, the area’s best specialty retailer. There are six locations, with one right next to High Point Climbing and Fitness.

Hire a Guide

If you’re just breaking into climbing or simply want to maximize your crag time on a short schedule, take a class or hire a guide at highpointclimbing.com.

*All classic lists are derived from Mountain Project star rankings