Southern exposure at the Tennessee Wall
The sandstone bluff Tennessee Wall, or T-Wall as it’s affectionately known, defies comparison. But here’s one anyway: the Indian Creek of the South. What my comparison lacks in imagination, it more than makes up for in, you guessed it, sandstone splitters, though T-Wall’s stone is diamond hard (almost quartzitic), blockier, and more featured. You could even say a few million years of geological inbreeding separate the crag from its Mormon second cousin twice removed, though geologists might wince at the comparison.
Actually, the amorous name bestowed by the Chattanooga, Tennessee, locals makes good sense, describing many routes perfectly: you climb up the stem of the T (often a dihedral) to a roof before topping out. The stiffer climbs, like Hands Across America (5.12c), tackle the roofs head-on; the moderates, like Passages (5.8), circumnavigate them. Featuring nearly two miles of climbable cliff band, half a ropelength tall and divided Civil War-style into north and south, the T-Wall works you till the chains with vertical to monster-overhanging dihedrals, arêtes, and thin-face (sometimes all three in a given route). The Technicolor stone is swathed in autumnal orange, yellow, and grey, and just when you think you have the place dialed, you’ll find a move that slows your progress to a proper Southern pace.
In fact, even a 5.9 here can feel sandbagged — a Southern tradition as spicy as the BBQ sauce on a roadkill possum. But unlike Foster Falls, 30 miles up the road, T-Wall is decidedly, proudly, resolutely trad. Just fiddle in a piece in these pro-gobbling cracks and off you climb. It’ll usually hold. The south-facing crag’s reputation as a winter destination is evidenced by the medley of license plates from Colorado, Alaska, California, and yes, even Utah. But it wasn’t always so hopping.
The ‘Nooga legend Rob Robinson, 49, the man perhaps most responsible for developing T-Wall, began coming in 1984. Back then, he dared not drive up the road climbers use today because it was rife with bandits. The robbers’ method, says Robinson, was to pass you with one car and then slow while another came from behind, boxing you in. If you found it prudent to roll down the window, you’d probably already decided to hand over your loot . . . and not ask for Beta.
On a recon mission to Raccoon Mountain, opposite T-Wall, Robinson knew he’d hit the sandstone jackpot, “but it took awhile for the winning number to come up,” he says, citing the Deliverance-flavored access issues. Still, the sight of so much potential spurred Robinson and his longtime partners Arno Ilgner, Peter Henley, and Roger Fleming to bushwhack up from the road, highway robbers be damned. What they found little resembles the T-Wall of today. Copperheads, skinripping brush, and dirty cracks greeted the FAers, who quickly took lessons in “vertical gardening in the T-Wall orchard,” says Robinson. The crew began plucking the most promising fruit, and by 1986 there were more than 200 lines. With twice that number today, Robinson figures there’s room for another 400. Now, “the Tennessee Wall is regarded as one of the finest crags in the United States,” Robinson boasts, “sandstone or otherwise.”
Despite T-Wall’s popularity, a certain wildness prevails. Bald eagles and vultures thermal the cliffline, and aside from the beat-in climber trail and welcoming rap anchors, T-Wall still offers Southern trad just as nature intended it.
Climate: Autumn through spring are best. T-Wall faces the sun, and even on winter days the temps can be downright pleasant. In summer, the fabled Southern humidity makes crack climbing seem like you just dipped your hands in pig lard.
Getting There: From downtown Chattanooga, it’s about 25 minutes. Drive over the mighty Tennessee River, heading north on Highway 27. Exit Signal Mountain Road and whiz between a tractor factory and Wal-Mart. Left on Suck Creek Road takes you along the river and past a huge concrete factory. Take a left again, after the bridge, onto River Canyon Road (marked only by a sign pointing to a Baptist church), and follow this about seven miles until you see a pullout on the left and climber cars everywhere. Go slow! Watch for loose dogs, loose kudzu, and loose trailer homes.
Camping: You can sandwich in for free between the parking area and the Tennessee River. Goes without saying, but leave no trace.
Huntin’ Season: T-Wall sits in the Prentice-Cooper Wildlife Management Area. Management, in this case, means turkey hunts — land managers often close the cliff to everyone but the well-armed on certain weekends. (Check with the Southeastern Climbers Coalition — seclimbers.org — for closure dates.) Wearing camo, an orange cap, and slinging a BB gun over the rope bag won’t cut it. Expect a Cheney wannabe mistaking you for a turkey, which is exactly what you’ll be if you defy the rules.
Guidebooks: Rob Robinson has released his new guidebookThe Tennessee Wall: A Rock Climber’s Guide ($27.95, tennesseewall.com) at it includes every route up there as well as loads of mouthwatering photos; to get your hands on the book, order it at southernsandstonepublishing.com.The Dixie Cragger’s Atlas: A Climber’s Guide to Tennessee, by Chris Watford ($30, dixiecragger.com) also includes the T-Wall and other areas throughout Tennessee. Find guidebooks, local Beta, and gear at Rock/Creek (rockcreek.com), with two Chattanooga locations.
Food: Carnivores can lick their chops at Shuford’s Barbeque, on the right before you turn on Suck Creek Road. Unfortunately, herbivores must settle for a Veggie Delite at the Subway next door. Omnivores will find a whole range of dilemmas in downtown Chattanooga.
Rest-Day Entertainment: Chattanooga has numerous tourist traps, such as this country’s tallest underground waterfall, at Ruby Falls, and the stone gardens of Rock City. If towing and salvage is your thing, the city is home to the world’s only such museum. Also, take a trip up to Lookout Mountain and soak in Civil War history. Careful though: good climbing lies below the perches Confederate soldiers used to watch the “War of Northern Aggression” unfold. So much for rest days. . . .
Gear Tip: Full rack of cams (heavy on medium sizes), with doubles depending on the crack. Nuts are bomber. Long slings are handy for the wandering climbs and tying off the occasional feature. Most routes sport rappel/lowering anchors.
Nutrasweet (5.7) — suh-weeet hand crack up a left-facing dihedral
Golden Locks (5.8+) — bouldery start leads to splitterest of splitters up golden rock; very popular
In Pursuit of Excellence (5.9) — 90-foot dihedral featuring laybacking and straight-in crack
Cake Walk (5.10a) — fingers to a small, tricky roof; step around and be greeted by perfect hands
Finger Lockin’ Good (5.10b/c) — route name gives away the plot; better for smaller-fingered suitors
Moon of the Crow (5.11a) — classic line on the less crowded T-Wall South; takes you up a beautiful corner to a roof seam
Hands Across America (5.12c) — idyllically adjacent a waterfall, this route leads out to a massive roof with a splitter; the quintessential Southern-sandstone testpiece