Receive $50 off an eligible $100 purchase at the Outside Shop, where you'll find gear for all your adventures outdoors. Sign up for Outside+ today.
Jamming in the center of the sandstone universe
Somewhere between the Red River Gorge, New River Gorge, and Tennessee Wall is the center of the Sandstone Universe. Unassuming road-trippers that happen upon this epicenter might suddenly stop and idle their rig on the shoulder, overwhelmed by a powerful vortex of Deep South climbing styles. Premonitions of Southern slopers may cause boulderers to puzzle over the anxious beads of sweat now softening their calloused fingertips, while visions of wildly overhung caves may trigger lactic acid–induced twitches from deep within sport climbers’ forearms. And for trad climbers, a full-blown fit ensues as they fumble for their racks, ready to throw jams into the original and most powerful force of them all: the Southern Hand Crack.
Red River Gorge
On your search for Red River Gorge hand cracks, orient yourself with the Motherlode, stop, make a 180-degree turn, and drive in the opposite direction until you reach the Lower Gorge Region, tucked deep within Daniel Boone National Forest.
Lower Gorge cliffs, including the Indian Creek Crag, have been called the “anti-scene” of the Red River Gorge because of the abundance of backwoods trad routes. Here, high-quality hand cracks, like Crack Attack (5.9), abound. Described as the only “true” straight-in hand crack at the Red, Crack Attack has seemingly been cast, sanded, and beveled to achieve 80 feet of maximum hand- and foot-jamming comfort.
Next, make your way around the corner and test the technical stemming side of your skill-set as you keep driving hands into the beautiful arching corner of Jim’s Dihedral (5.10a). From here, step out from the security of perfect hand jams for thinner and wider crack endeavors on Cave Cricket (5.10c) or Another One Bites the Dust (5.9+).
And while you’re in the Lower Gorge Region, stop by the Purple Valley and sample its namesake route, Into the Purple Valley (5.8). While many Red River cracks come with flesh-eating iron striations, Into the Purple Valley transitions from smooth splitter hands to a small roof, and then back to velvety hands, before topping out with one of the best overlook views in the Red River Gorge.
For the open-minded crack climbers who can appreciate a single, heaven-sent hand jam on a climb with many more features, consider routes with mixed crack sizes and styles. Handjob (5.9) at Middle Small Wall involves a fist-to-offwidth section and good jams above a roof. Or try the classic trio of Autumn (5.9, hand crack in a flake), Rock Wars (5.10a, fingers to tight hands), and B3 (5.11, perfect hands to varied climbing) at the Long Wall. Finally, the consummate RRG test of style and endurance is The Inhibitor (5.11a) at Eastern Sky Bridge Ridge; a pumpy, thin-hands crack takes you to a chimney, then into a fist and forearm crack to the top.
Season: Fall through spring; during summer, you’ll be fighting bugs and humidity instead of crowds.
Camping: Don’t miss Miguel’s Pizza (606-663-1975). Unique pizza creations, a laid-back climber-friendly atmosphere, and many accommodations make Miguel’s a popular (and often crowded) hangout. Camping is $2/night. For a quieter experience, try Lago Linda Hideaway offering primitive camping ($5/night) and cabin rentals; lagolinda.com.
Guidebook: Red River Gorge Rock Climbs, by Ray Ellington; wolverinepublishing.com
Rack: 60m rope, standard rack
Access: Before visiting, review redriverclimbing.com for up-to-date cliff closures or issues.
New River Gorge
A malicious climber with a dull spoon could handcarve an Indian Creek splitter, but doing the same for a New River Gorge crack— now that’s an improbable proposition. With upwards of 98 percent quartz content, New River Nuttall sandstone has a closer relative in your marble countertop than your typical sandstone outcropping. For this reason, the crack climbing here requires expert jamming techniques to overcome the sometimes “glassy” nature of New River Sandstone.
With so many hand cracks to sample in the New River Gorge, you’ll have a hard time deciding where to start. The Junkyard Wall is a northeastern sector of the New River Gorge that offers easy access, convenient toproping, and a high concentration of well-protected leads. If you’re just off the bus, go sew up New Yosemite, a textbook 5.9 crack system with excellent protection. Then check out the stunning Stuck in Another Dimension (5.11a), whose varied climbing will take you from overhanging flared hands to a vertical squeeze, and then finally to a section of fun hands along a roof.
Then head to the Bridge Buttress. With a five-minute approach, you’ll quickly find routes like Agent Orange (5.11d), which offers up a fierce Southern whoopin’ hand-served from flaring jams.
Often described by locals and visitors alike as “pure fun,” Endless Wall’s Fantasy (5.8) is one of the best straight-in jam cracks in the region. After an initial roof maneuver, Fantasy lessens in angle and takes on 80 feet of water-polished hand jams. Next on your list should be Remission (5.10b), with continuous flared hand jams and a finish high above the New River canopy.
And finally, complete your journey by stopping by Beauty Mountain, whose namesake landscape won’t let you down. At Beauty, the cracks are smooth, splitter, and close together, making the cliff ideal for bagging routes of all difficulties. Start with the ultra-popular Super Crack (5.9+), which follows 100 feet of corner jamming up the sunburned south face of the Thunder Buttress. Then make your way to the fun and traversing Wham, Bam, Thanks for the Jam (5.10b). Finally, test your newfound NRG crack skills on the 120-foottall Welcome to Beauty (5.11b)—easily one of the best crack lines in the entire gorge—starting with twin hand cracks, then jugs through a roof, and a finger crack finish.
Season: Fall through spring
Camping: American Alpine Campground (coming soon; americanalpineclub.org). Chestnut Creek Campground (304-574- 3136) $10/camper per night.
Guidebook: New River Gorge Rock Climbs, by Mike Williams; wolverinepublishing.com
Rack: 70m rope, standard rack
Access: Before visiting, check newriverclimbing.net for updates.
The Tennessee Wall, or T-Wall, has the highest concentration of five-star hand cracks found in the Sandstone Belt, which runs through Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. It’s a bold statement, considering the cliff’s regional company, like the Obed, Sunset Rock, and Sandrock, but a walk along T-Wall’s 100-foot-tall cliffs will leave you cross-eyed from visions of stellar hand cracks tracking across your vertical line of sight, like persistent sunspots. T-Wall is a very traditional area, with fewer than 20 sport climbs. Come here expecting to sink jams and cams, not clip bolts.
In 1985, sandstone bloodhounds like Rob Robinson and Forrest Gardner sniffed out, cornered, and eviscerated most of the Tennessee Wall’s now-popular routes. During your visit, immediately head east to the Orange Blossom Walls for Golden Locks (5.9), whose ergonomic jams are scored to the texture of finishing-grade sandpaper. (Consider a spot from your belayer on the bouldery start.) Next, bury your hands to the hilt on vertical jamming classics like Precious Orr (5.10a) and Crackattack (5.10b), both of which require a variety of crack climbing techniques. Then graduate into more technical and powerful outings like Points O’ Contact (5.10c) and Electric Rats (5.10c), where you’ll find flared jams and negotiate scrappy roof maneuvers.
For those ready to prove themselves as trueblue sandstone brawlers, T-Wall serves up high-gravity jam cracks that hand-deliver you into the horizontal realm. Rack up the hand-sized pieces, gas up the forearms, and get horizontal on the cryptic roof of Up in Arms (5.11c) and the sublime Only on Earth (5.11d), both of which might drain your tank with their mandatory roof maneuvers. And if you’re feeling really bold, head to T-Wall’s most intimidating route, the triple-tiered roof-crack masterpiece, Hands Across America (5.12c). Just don’t forget double ropes to prevent heinous rope drag.
Season: Fall through spring; the south-facing cliff is too hot in summer.
Camping: Camp for free next to the parking area (with a pit toilet), or find fee sites further down River Canyon Road. For added comfort during your stay, check out The Crashpad, a new hostel in the heart of nearby Chattanooga. crashpadchattanooga.com
Guidebook: A Rock Climber’s Guide to the Tennessee Wall, by Rob Robinson; southernsandstonepublishing.com
Rack: 60m rope, standard rack to 4” (consider doubles of hand- and finger-sized pieces)
Access: There are several hunting closures in the fall; check tn.gov/agriculture/forestry/stateforest07.shtml for specific dates.
Local Hero: Rob Robinson
Rob Robinson discovered the Tennessee Wall in 1985. Many would say that this is his greatest climbing legacy, but I disagree.
“Discovering” something as large and visible as a rock face is a questionable claim. The true discovery of T-Wall was less a physical accomplishment and more a metaphysical achievement of taking something dormant in the natural world and bringing it to life through climbing.
In this sense, Rob’s legacy is not in how many cliffs he found, but, in part, it was more his unprecedented ability to stand at the base of a potential route, interpret the cliff, and ascend the line in a ground-up, traditional style that achieved some of the most daring and difficult routes of the day, including the South’s first 5.13, Super Nova, as well as Wrectum Wrecker (5.12c) and Breaking the Waves (5.12 X).
Off the cliff, Rob complemented his 30 years of climbing achievements with an altruistic drive to preserve and share the Southern sandstone way of life. He helped found the Tennessee Climbers Association, which would later become the Southeastern Climber’s Coalition. He was instrumental in early access achievements like preserving Sunset Rock above Chattanooga. He’s also authored multiple Southeastern guidebook editions and contributed to various rock climbing journals.
Nowadays, you have a greater chance of running into Rob on whitewater or at a real estate closing than you do at T-Wall. But he has never left Chattanooga, and he can never stay away from Tennessee Wall for very long.