Is This Our Best Bouldering Area? It’s Hard To Argue Otherwise.
“I’ve been scrubbing climbs that are V15 that I’m literally saving for when Jimmy [Webb] or someone comes back in town... There’s a lifetime of climbing here.”
Enjoy unlimited access to Climbing’s award-winning features, in-depth interviews, and expert training advice. Subscribe here.
It was the kind of day when low-bearing clouds covered the flat-top mountains. Mist weaved through the forests and nestled in the boulderfields, dampening the blocks with a fine layer of dew. My first-ever outdoor bouldering trip was a shutdown because of a Southeast story as old as time.
(Cue the rain…)
I’d been climbing at the gym in my college town of Athens, Georgia, for several months when a fellow gym member asked if I wanted to climb outside. “There’s climbing outside around here?” I’d asked. At the time, my knowledge of “rock climbing” was limited to Himalayan peaks and El Capitan. Surely there was nothing to summit this side of the Mississippi…
We met in a Kroger parking lot on the outskirts of Athens at 5 a.m. to drive three hours to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a group of folks I barely knew. Bleary-eyed, I struggled to stay awake in the car. As we left Athens, veils of fog covered the road and shrouded the barren trees on each side of I-75. Disregarding the steady drizzle, we continued north, hopeful that the mist would dissipate. After all, sun-kissed sandstone dries quickly.
At 8 a.m., we pulled in at the Stone Fort (aka Little Rock City), Chatty’s most famous bouldering area, situated in the Montlake Golf Course on the flat summit of Mowbray Mountain. A haze of clouds welcomed us, but at this point there was no turning back. And so, my first official outdoor climbing trip became a classic, Southeastern exercise in making do with poor conditions.
I was awestruck by the sheer concentration of boulders hiding within the trees bordering the greens. In spots, two-story cliff walls towered above, while other egg-shaped outcrops were only eight feet tall. The mazes of rock were dappled with sage-colored lichen and splotches of chalk, the problems tackling splitter cracks, protruding slopers, and blank slabs. I felt like I’d just entered an enchanted woodland.
We continued to tour the sodden boulderfield as my newfound friends joked about how wet each problem looked. They scoured the forest for something dry, which led us to the classic roof-capped and overhanging problems Midway (V7) and Super Mario (V4)—which were also soaked. The Super Mario Boulder’s looming, 25-foot golden face was pockmarked with pockets and sidepull striations. I was inspired, and after several return trips, Super Mario would become my first V4 tick.
The guys tried to send easier problems including Rail Rider (V4), hoping the slopey topouts were dry, although this proved only marginally successful. Sam dipped his boar’s-hair brush into his chalk pot and smeared chalk on Rail Rider. The chalk slowly turned into a gooey, cement-like glob.
“Oooohhh, would ya look at that mayonnaise!” Sam joked as he slathered on more chalk, trying to dry the holds.
“Yeah, man, sure is manky outside,” said another friend, Chris, as he rocked back and forth with his hands in his puffy jacket, giving no indication that he wanted to climb.
Mank. Mayonnaise. Two-Towel Days (as in, you need to bring two towels to dry off your sweat). As obscure as these terms sound, they’ve popped up regularly during my pebble-wrestling pursuits on Southern sandstone. To my amusement, even after nine years of climbing here, I still come across experienced climbers out West who have no idea what these terms mean.
Despite the epically bad conditions that trip, I was hooked on bouldering around Chatty. The volume of problems I’d seen just at Stone Fort shocked me—let alone the fact that every boulder looked unique and otherworldly. Back home I scrolled weather apps looking forward to crisp days outside to explore the area’s sandstone treasures. For a then-beginner climber like me, the boulderfields were an ideal place to cut my teeth. Stone Fort is where I sent my first V3, V4, V5, V7, and V8. Problems like Pancake Mantel (V2), Swingers (V3), Art of the Vogi (V4), Sternum (V5), Shotgun (V6), A Face in the Crowd (V7), Cleopatra (V8), and dozens more at the Fort kept me busy for years.
Every boulderfield in the area, such as Rocktown, Horse Pens 40, Dogwood, and Hospital Boulders, is jam-packed with moderates that are just as aesthetic, thought-provoking, and fun as the double-digit problems. This has made both Stone Fort and HP40 perfect locations for the Triple Crown Bouldering Competition, with stacks of problems for novice, intermediate, advanced, and open climbers to try within the seven-hour period of both events.
For many climbers, the notorious conditions dissuade them from ever sampling the Southeast. Annually, Chattanooga receives around 55 inches of rain, with an average monthly humidity of 75 percent. However, when conditions are good—meaning the rain holds off, the temperature is lower, the humidity drops, and wind cools the fingertips—Chattanooga boulders are among the best in America. On a perfect winter or spring day, in the words of Jerry Garcia, There ain’t no place I’d rather be.
Rumor Has It…
In the 1994 boudering-history book Stone Crusade, John Sherman writes that “for the most part the potential of the South is untapped.” When Stone Crusade was published, Rocktown and Horse Pens 40 were still largely untapped, and Stone Fort was closed to public climbing (it wouldn’t open until 2003).
Sherman and other boulderers from this era could see the intrigue of Southeastern bouldering, as well as its vast potential. “It seems likely that another boulderfield just as good [as Little Rock City] will be found, but when this will happen is anybody’s guess,” wrote Sherman. “This leaves the door wide open for a dedicated boulderer, or group of boulderers, to cash in on the Deep South’s bounty of stone.” At the time, the region’s infamous conditions and then-small climbing scene kept development sluggish: While roped climbing was in full swing at Foster Falls and Tennessee Wall, the boulders at Stone Fort and the base of Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain were seen mainly as circuit training for local trad and sport climbers.
The modern Chattanooga bouldering saga ramped up in the mid to late 1990s, with a crew of climbers including Ronnie Jenkins, Andrew Gross, Luis Rodriguez, Andrew Traylor, Adam Henry, Steven Farmer, and Sean Kearney, to name a few. For years, my own perspective was limited to the “Big Three” Southeast bouldering areas: Stone Fort, Rocktown, and Horse Pens 40. But as I became more immersed in the climbing community, my scope of bouldering opportunities and awareness of satellite crags flourished.
As I explored with friends and conversed with the locals, I learned of stacks of boulders on the sides of the Chattanooga mountain ridges of Signal, Lookout, and Mowbray, and mazes of boulderfields, or “forts,” on top of these Cumberland Plateau escarpments. I was starry eyed by the polished, sloping boulders among the rapids in every river and creek. Boulders even sat next to bustling highways just minutes from downtown, and hid behind apartment complexes and neighborhoods. There were boulders everywhere in Chattanooga proper and beyond.
While my original explorations were mostly limited to the Big Three, I now plied more than a dozen micro boulderfields within an hour of town, many only recently opened to the public. Here, a few examples: Hospital Boulders, an hour’s drive southwest in Alabama, and which was bought by the Southeastern Climbers Coalition in 2012. St. Elmo’s Old Wauhatchie boulders, a cluster of boulders smack dab in the middle of Chattanooga, opened in 2017 (see Climbing No. 383). Dogwood West boulders, 40 minutes north in Dayton, Tennessee, opened in 2018, and a neighboring boulderfield called Hell’s Kitchen also opened the same year. And then the boulders at Walden’s Ridge Park next to Signal Mountain, which are still being developed but will have their public debut soon.
A Modern Development Boom
About a decade ago, the local professional climber Jimmy Webb spearheaded the development of double-digit bouldering in areas outside the major boulderfields, along with other locals including Brion Voges, Rami Annad, Alex Brown, Chris Little, and Paul Whicker.
Whicker, originally from Memphis, has been developing boulders in and around Chattanooga for over 12 years. His first target was Big Soddy Creek, about 20 miles north of downtown, where he and his friends have established over 150 problems, including try-hard classics like Resilience (V10), Pacheco (V10), Dragon Ball (V11), and Reality in Motion (V14). Most of these house-sized boulders have spicy topouts that loom over turquoise creek waters. Resilience boasts refrigerator squeezing on polished slopers, while Pacheco and Reality in Motion are considered some of the region’s hardest technical vert boulders.
Whicker also found one of Chattanooga’s proudest lines, Wookie Charms (V12). This steep cream-colored face has square-shaped bands etched into the rock, with a few seams and slopers that make the boulder barely climbable. Shortly after the discovery, Whicker sent coordinates for the boulder to Webb, who established the problem in 2017.
“Wookie Charms is maybe the best V12 in the world, and it’s just some boulder on a cliff line in the middle of nowhere,” says Nicholas Milburn, a Louisiana native whose family would take holiday climbing trips to Chattanooga throughout his childhood. Milburn fired numerous high-end rigs like Southern Drawl (V15) and Mind Shift (V14) when he lived in Chattanooga from 2017 to 202, and established Ravings of a Madman (V13) and Chicken Strips (V12) three years later.
Other notable recent ascents include the roof line Euphoria (V13) by Davis Stewart, a Stone Fort problem in the Back Nine area called Rust (V13) by Ben Burkhalter, and Brass Knuckles (V14) by Zach Galla at Dayton Pocket.
“I’ve been scrubbing climbs that are V15 that I’m literally saving for when Jimmy [Webb] or someone comes back in town,” says Whicker. “There are endless possibilities—it’s the gift that keeps on giving. There’s a lifetime of climbing here.”
“There are so many projects in Chattanooga, I’ll probably have something to climb there every year until I die,” says Milburn. Some that he’s most excited about include recently scrubbed boulders near the North Chick Blue Hole. The mile-long, trail-less approach with a tricky creek crossing has discouraged climbers for years, but Milburn and other locals are motivated to initiate a new development phase.
Whicker agrees that one of the major struggles of getting strong climbers psyched to visit is not only the unpredictable weather but also the lengthy, bushwhacking hikes. “All the newer climbs that are V14 or harder are in the backwoods,” he says, “and you don’t hear about them as much because no one goes back out there.” With so much dense undergrowth bristling with thorns cloaked in poison ivy, it’s nearly impossible to explore the Southeast backwoods during warmer months. Most development occurs when the foliage is dormant, and even then, layers of dead leaves that can be several feet thick make it difficult to navigate the forested hillsides.
Ain’t No Place I’d Rather Be
For many bouldering destinations, quantity does not necessarily equal quality. That is, for every massive cluster of boulders, you may only find a few four-star lines. However, as Whicker points out, “In Chattanooga, the quality will be a lot better per boulder” compared to other areas, including even South Africa’s Rocklands, where he has established myriad problems.
“Chattanooga is the best—everything pales in comparison. It’s not an opinion; it’s a fact,” says Milburn, who has bouldered at Hueco Tanks, Squamish, Fontainbleau, and Joe’s Valley. With so many unique features like iron rails, chickenheads, bulbous slopers, steep roofs, and colorful streaks of gold and red etched into the bulletproof Southern sandstone, it’s hard to disagree.
Fontainebleau is considered by many climbers, including Milburn, to be the only place in the world that closely resembles Chattanooga bouldering. “But if you’ve been to Font, you should still go to the Southeast because the sandstone and style are a little different,” says Milburn. “The South is more about knowing how to move your body, not necessarily about how hard you can grab holds.” Consider the slopey, finicky testpieces Bumboy (V3) at Horse Pens 40 and Space (V8) at Stone Fort, and you get the idea.
Everyone should plan an autumn or winter trip to Chattanooga for a couple of weeks (to ensure you’re guaranteed a handful of dry days), but don’t let the other seasons’ subpar conditions deter you. Even though you’ll feel the thick humidity dampening the air and handholds, a riverside bouldering session in late spring or a summer night’s session by headlamp at one of the labyrinthine boulderfields is worth the trip.
In fact, some of my fondest Southeast climbing memories include gathering around a five-star problem in the woods on a dewy evening as an orchestra of crickets chirped in the shadows. The scene is complete with a floor of crashpads, battery-operated lights, and chilled beverages at hand. Flailing is inevitable—as is hollering the words “mank” or “mayonnaise” between falls and fits of laughter. But these sessions are fun regardless. After all, we’re climbing 10 feet off the ground on portable mattresses. There’s no need to take things too seriously.
Elaine Elliott is a freelance copywriter with a soft spot for Southern sandstone. In her free time, she directs climbing documentaries and coalition fundraisers through her media brand, Steep South.