I meet Tommy Morrison on time, and he is eager to climb. A tall, skinny kid with a mop of brown hair as big as his heart, Tommy spent a number of years living on a nuclear submarine, which has given him a cool head under pressure, as well as an affi nity for water. He points out his project on the 600-foot-long, 100-foot-tall wall of pearly white limestone called Hunter’s Bluff, below Chattanooga’s futuristic Hunter Museum.
Tommy walks down to the water’s edge in the golden morning light. From my optimal vantage point atop a bridge, I watch as a massive log floats downriver a few feet away from the cliff face, and reconsider the safety of deep water soloing. Tommy gives me the thumbs-up and heads out on his project, approached via the first half of a 600-foot traverse first climbed by the famed Chattanooga climber Jerry Roberts in the 1980s.
This pump-filled journey (with questionably legal access) follows water-sculpted holds 20 feet above the fast-moving and murky brown waters of the Tennessee River. After 350 feet of exposed traversing above the current, Tommy starts up a steep, right-facing corner that leads to a blunt arête 50 feet above the water.
He climbs up under a roof, but makes a mistake and falls. The swift waters quickly carry him down the cliff, but after 40 feet he manages to grab a slimy hold and avoid being sucked out into the main current. He climbs up through the waterline muck and makes it back to where he fell. This time, he manages to get onto the arête and to the crux, a series of tiny crimps on overhanging rock. Chalkless, with wet shoes, and the humidity at over 90 percent, Tommy explodes off the wall, cratering with a big splash. He swims with the current back to his starting point, gathers his belongings and makes his way back up to the bridge.
“That was frightening, man,” he says. “I felt like I could’a smacked my head on the way down. Ha-ha.” The last time I climbed with Tommy, he wanted to do a route called Wai Lulu, a striking 5.13a bolted line up the brown sandstone cave beneath DeSoto Falls in Little River Canyon, just across the state line in northern Alabama. The climb overhangs the pool below the falls, and Tommy’s plan was to solo it.
The fall was running low that day, trickling into a 10-foot-deep pool of stagnant brown water. A steep thrash brought us down into the canyon. Near the base of Wai Lulu, I saw a thick-bodied snake slither off a log and into the water. It swam with half its body out of the water, and I recognized it immediately.
The water moccasin, or cottonmouth, is the only poisonous water snake in the United States. At about three feet long, this hefty snake was mid-sized for the species. Extremely territorial, these large, brown-olive pit vipers chase down their prey, and will advance aggressively on humans. They have cat-like eyes, and deliver a potent hemotoxin that breaks down tissue by destroying red blood cells, causing excruciating pain.
After crossing the pool, the snake ducked and disappeared into some submerged talus near the beginning of Tommy’s climb. I called out, “Hey! I think there might be moccasins in the water!” Tommy replied, “Yeah, probably. I guess I should get off the ground then! Ha-ha!”
As Tommy and I reunited atop Walnut Street Bridge, a passerby in an army surplus jacket and camo hat sidled up to us and said, “Saw y’all were climbin’. Y’know it’s illegal.”
We nodded and waited.
“Seen some big ol’ gar gators splashin’ down there, too.” The man was just looking out for our well-being. Earlier in the summer, when a group of us went bouldering in Canyon Mouth picnic area, on the Little River, I had my first encounter with the infamous alligator gar.
Often referred to as a river monster, this 100-million-year-old giant can exceed 10 feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds. Its dual rows of inch-long razor-sharp teeth, alligator snout, and large diamond-shaped scales make it look like a cross between a northern pike and a dinosaur.
I was photographing Julie Barnum on a tall slab called Splash Out that climbs directly over deep water, when a nervous Mexican kid scrambled up behind the boulder in his wet socks and alerted me to the presence of a fish.
“Tengan cuidado. Hay un manso pescado allí abajo,” he said. “Dígale a la chica que no se caiga.”
The festive families grilling out to ranchero music on the shore had become disturbingly quiet, and a crowd of spectators had formed near the shore. Julie was just entering the crux at 20 feet and seemed a bit shaky.
“You got this, Julie,” I said. “Just make the moves.”
“Why is everyone looking at me?” she asked.
“Don’t think about it, just make the moves,” I repeated.
A large snout broke the water surface not far away and quickly submerged. The kid pointed down toward an eight-foot shadow that had appeared beneath us.
“¡Señora, no se caiga!”
“What’s he sayin’?” Julie asked.
“Just don’t fall,” I replied.
“He’s freakin’ me out. He looks scared,” she said with a quaver in her voice. Then she looked down. “What the hell is that!” she screamed.
I looked for something to throw, but found nothing. Just then, two oblivious, beer-bellied guys floated by on flower-patterned blow-up mattresses and scared off the fish. “Y’all need a beer or somethin’?” they called.
“Yup, jus’ take care with them gar critters,” the man on the bridge says in a friendly voice.
I lean over the rusty railing and spot two kayakers battling upstream 90 feet below. “You think it’s possible to die jumping from here?” I ask the man.
“Hell, I don’t know… probably. Why you asking?” he replies, and spits down at the kayakers.
“No reason. I’ve heard of people diving from 170 feet. Some people even do belly flops into 12 inches of water from 30 feet or something,” I say.
“That’s just stupid,” he replies.
I think about Tommy soloing 45 feet above a shallow pool of water and his 50-foot fall this morning. I think about Julie climbing a 25-foot rock slab above an alligator gar. I think about my own antics.
“Yeah,” I say, “isn’t it great that we have the freedom to be stupid?”
My cell vibrates—it’s Lee, and he’s out on bail.
Tomás Donoso is a Chilean-born freelance photographer and climber based out of the greater New York City area. He would like to give a big shout out to Lee Means and Tommy Morrison for their Southern hospitality.
Tommy Morrison enters the crux section of Wai Lulu (5.13a), below DeSoto Falls, Alabama. This radically overhanging route consists of long reaches on solid sandstone above a shallow pool of water, and is usually led as a sport climb.
(Somewhat) Recommended Chattanooga-Area Water Scrambling
NICKAJACK LAKE Nickajack Lake, on the Tennessee River below Chattanooga, is well known for its magnificent scenery. Prior to the construction of the defective Hales Bar Dam in 1913, this section of the river was seen as an extreme navigational hazard, due to strong currents, unpredictable water levels, and objects like boulders and fallen trees. The Hales Bar Dam and its subsequent replacement in 1967 by the Nickajack Dam not only made year-round navigation on the Tennessee River possible, but by raising water levels it had the unintended side effect of opening up the riverside cliffs to future generations of climbers.
Easy to access by kayak or motorboat from a nearby boat ramp, Nickajack Lake offers stellar moderate climbing on slightly overhanging and vertical black-and-white limestone over 30- to 40-foot-deep, jet-black water. The climbing is technical and difficult to decipher, and the general absence of chalk on the wall lends itself nicely to a more adventurous experience. The holds can be a bit brittle near waterline, but the rock higher up is mostly bomber, offering an assortment of ribbed tufas, the occasional hueco, and plenty of slopers on fine-grained limestone. At its highest point, the cliff is approximately 45 feet tall. Several marinas on the lake offer boat rentals.
Getting there: From I-24 westbound, exit 158. Follow signs to Nickajack Dam Reservation/ Shellmound Campground. To access the cliffs, launch at one of the boat ramps and head east, away from the dam, back toward I-24. In approximately one mile, you will see the cliffs on your left.
LITTLE RIVER CANYON Little River Canyon, located in northern Alabama about 70 miles from Chattanooga, is a beautiful sandstone gorge choked with surreal-looking boulders in a rugged and forested setting. Best known in the climbing community for the sandstone sport climbing on the bluffs, the 25-mile-long canyon’s most adventurous climbing is found among the thousands of boulders littering the streambed at areas like Canyon Mouth, DeSoto Falls, and the Hippie Hole.
CANYON MOUTH DAY-USE AREA: Located in an easy-to-access section of the Little River National Preserve, this popular picnic area is dotted with large grills and tables, all within viewing distance of some really enjoyable deep-water bouldering.
Getting there: Coming from Fort Payne on Route 35, make a right onto Highway 273. Make another right at County Road 275 after crossing Little River. Stay right and continue to the gate; stop at the fee booth ($3). No camping. The boulders are located downstream from the picnic area.
DESOTO STATE PARK: Once called home by the Cherokee, DeSoto Falls is ironically named in honor of the Spanish conquistador who penetrated some of the deepest parts of Alabama, bringing disease and violence in search of gold and a passage to China. An abandoned dam built in the 1920s sits on top of the falls, and in the summer the shallow-water soloing here can feel more like true soloing.
Getting there: Coming from Chattanooga on I-59 southbound, take exit 231 for AL- 117 south. Turn right toward CR- 89/DeSoto Parkway. Make an immediate left onto DeSoto Parkway, and take the first right onto CR-613. This becomes DeSoto Falls Road and takes you into the parking area. Cross the top of the dam and follow the obvious trail that leads to the base of the falls.
THE HIPPIE HOLE: If Canyon Mouth is the preferred spot for families, then the Hippie Hole is the alternative for a sketchier crowd. The smell of cannabis wafting through the air may be a bit distracting, but the maze of boulders is what will get you really high. If you walk downriver from the main entrance to the park, you will find one of the highest concentrations of cool-looking lines in Little River Canyon.
Getting there: Coming from Fort Payne on Route 35, pass the Little River Canyon Center and cross the bridge above the main Little River Falls. Make a right at the second parking lot and follow the trail down to the river. Walk up- or downstream: the boulders are everywhere.
MOWBRAY MOUNTAIN: BLUE HOLE
Blue Hole, located at the base of Mowbray Mountain, is named after the cool, mineral-rich waters of North Chickamauga Creek. More a place for locals to cool off in the cold river water than a true climbing destination, it hosts a smattering of high-quality boulders along the riverbed. Blue Hole makes for a cooling diversion for climbers visiting nearby Little Rock City and Leda during the summer months.
Getting there: Take US-27 north from Chattanooga. Exit at Thrasher Pike and turn left. Turn right at Dayton Pike, and left at Montlake Road. In approximately a mile, make a left-hand turn onto a dirt road— park where the road dead-ends. Follow a trail upriver, and climb whatever looks fun.