Growing exponentially in recent years, Chattanooga’s climbing culture is responsible for an influx of regular visitors, new residents, and complementary businesses.
By Nicole Jennings
(Above) Photo by Drew Bailey
The Explosion of Chattanooga’s Climbing Scene
(Above) Photo by Drew Bailey
Not too long ago, the concept of climbing elicited musings of mountainous regions like Boone, North Carolina, and Boulder, Colorado. With ample rock formations, thousands of potential routes, and an abundance of outdoor enthusiasts, these locations were logically considered the premier climbing havens in the United States.
Today the tides are changing though, and the nation’s adrenaline junkies are starting to see the pull of Chattanooga. If its food, arts, music, culture, community, and affordability weren’t enough, its top notch outdoor recreational amenities – mountain biking, paddling, and trail running to name a few – are shifting the pendulum in the city’s favor. But what’s really generating buzz is the sport of climbing. Not only has Chattanooga been dubbed “Best Town Ever” (twice) by Outdoor magazine, Climbing magazine named it “America’s New Climbing Capital.”
Photo Courtesy of High Point Climbing and Fitness
“Overall, we’re a pretty united community. It’s supportive. Everyone is working toward the same thing – finding new areas, developing new things, and making climbing a possibility for all.”
Everything from the weather to the variety of climbing routes melds together to create an ideal physical environment for successful climbing in Chattanooga. The rock around the area, comprised of high-quality hard sandstone, is quintessential. Sandstone makes it possible for unique, ergonomic features to be sculpted from hundreds of years of erosion, but it’s not soft enough to erode quickly, which would make it unsafe to climb.
The concentration of climbing areas here is almost unheard of across the country. A mere 25 minutes from downtown, Stone Fort is a boulder field in the woods beside Montlake Golf Course on Mowbray Mountain. You pay a fee, sign a liability waiver, and can spend the day climbing hundreds of boulders. At Stone Fort, it is not uncommon to encounter fellow climbers any day of the week, most any time of year, from all corners of the country and even overseas.
Tennessee Wall, or T-Wall, is a premier traditional, or trad, climbing area in Prentice-Cooper Wildlife Management Area, located about 30 minutes from downtown. These cliffs are south-facing with lots of sun, which makes them great for winter climbing. It is also one of the climbing areas in town with campsites available nearby.
A bit farther from downtown Chattanooga but well worth the 45-minute drive is Foster Falls in South Cumberland State Park. A stunning overlook of the falls and more than 130 established sport climbing routes of varying difficulties comprise this popular spot.
Regardless of the amount of time you have to dedicate to climbing on any specific day or the specific routes you’re looking to conquer, your options are vast and inviting.
For local climbers and area organizations alike, growing the climbing community in a sustainable, intentional, and responsible way is paramount. The nonprofit Southeastern Climbers Coalition, started in 1993 to preserve climbing for current and future generations, says public access is one of the biggest issues for the continued growth of climbing in Chattanooga. (There’s a lot of private property and climbing that’s not open to the public.) The SCC provides information to help climbers avoid trespassing and to be more mindful of the environment. “Climbing areas here are sensitive,” says Cody Roney, former executive director of the SCC. “I want climbers to do their research, not just assume every area here is open to public use.”
That sense of environmental responsibility is shared by many in the community who hope to see continued growth for the sport. While High Point Climbing And Fitness is primarily an indoor facility, Partner/President John Wiygul admits he sees the importance of protecting the land he grew up on. “I feel personally responsible for helping to protect the areas where I grew up and where I still climb today. I want to help, and have my business help, expand the community and climbing areas in the Southeast.”
Named “The Country’s Coolest Climbing Gym” by Climbing magazine, High Point Climbing And Fitness Downtown provides indoor and outdoor climbing for all ages.
Wiygul’s desire to make an impact comes from his belief that Chattanooga’s climbing community is inviting, friendly, and accepting. “It’s a social sport. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’ve got good intentions and you’re here to rock climb, you can make good friends easily,” he explains.
Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA), located in St. Elmo and opened in 2000, models a similar approach. The bouldering gym strives to create an environment of inclusivity throughout training. “We try to create an atmosphere that feels like a family,” says Ben Sutton, co-owner. “The gym is small and can be intimidating, but we’re all here for the same reason. No matter what skill level, everyone is trying to improve and motivate each other to reach their potential.”
Roney agrees that those in the community develop a true kinship. “Overall, we’re a pretty united community. It’s supportive. Everyone is working toward the same thing – finding new areas, developing new things, and making climbing a possibility for all.”
The city has become a perfect basecamp for not only local climbers, but visitors too. Following a long day in the elements, inexpensive lodging, entertainment opportunities, and delicious dining choices can help refuel the tank for the next day’s excursion.
In 2003, Northeastern climbers Max Poppel and Dan Rose read about a three-part bouldering competition and elected to make the trek to participate. The visit introduced the duo to the incredible climbing opportunities Chattanooga had to offer, and they knew immediately they wanted to relocate, officially making the move in 2005.
It wasn’t long before they realized there were few inexpensive lodging options and no place for outdoor adventurers to congregate. “We didn’t start with this grand vision; we wanted to be here and then saw a need,” says Poppel.
In 2011, they opened The Crash Pad, a boutique hostel on the Southside. “The idea started as a climber hub, but then we decided we wanted to open it up to all outdoor enthusiasts. A hostel was the best vehicle,” explains Rose. Today, the pair sees The Crash Pad as an overall Chattanooga experience resource for their guests. “What’s awesome about Chattanooga for all adventurers is that it has all these outdoor experiences in an actual city. It’s not remote like a lot of adventure hubs,” Rose says.
Striking gold for a second time just two years later, Poppel and Rose recognized the need for additional food and drink offerings for travelers and locals alike and opened Flying Squirrel in 2013.
The two feel the climbing culture here is an embodiment of the larger Chattanooga culture. “People here do what they can to help you. It’s true Southern hospitality, and they’re genuinely nice,” says Poppel. “We like being a part of this community. They’re the best people,” Rose confirms.
“What’s awesome about Chattanooga for all adventurers is that it has all these outdoor experiences in an actual city. It’s not remote like a lot of adventure hubs.”
(Above) Photo by Jacob Reid Wuertz
With the recently announced partnership between USA Climbing and ESPN, climbing competitions are growing in popularity. In addition to local competitions, both High Point and TBA host climbing competitions for USA Climbing, the national governing body of competition climbing. These highly competitive events are held indoors and largely aimed toward climbers at or younger than the collegiate level.
Outdoor climbing competitions are more of a grassroots affair. Often, they serve as a way to raise funds for organizations dedicated to maintaining climbers’ access, like the SCC and Access Fund, a national climbing conservation effort.
First run as a three-part series in 2003, Triple Crown is an annual bouldering series held each fall beginning with Hound Ears in Boone, North Carolina, then on to Stone Fort here in Chattanooga, and concludes at Horse Pens 40 in Steele, Alabama. It brings in climbers from across the Southeast. Supported by local names like Rock/Creek, High Point, and TBA, it’s also got sponsors like Black Diamond, The North Face, and many other well-known climbing brands.
Chad Wykle, president of Rock/Creek, moved here with his wife, Rebecca, in 2001 for the climbing. Wykle was instrumental in securing access at Stone Fort for the Chattanooga portion of Triple Crown. In addition, he worked with the landowners at Montlake Golf Course to develop a format for ongoing access to Stone Fort, not just for the competition. “Triple Crown was a catalyst, and Stone Fort was a lynchpin and launching point for additional climbing access,” says Wykle. “It helped us develop real relationships with landowners and guidelines for climber usage of these areas.”
Dr. Drew Bailey, Ph.D. and associate professor of health and human performance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was a driving force behind a report that tracked the significant impact climbing tourism has on Chattanooga’s economy.
With experience on both the recreational side and the research side, Bailey understands how there can be confusion around the impact climbing is having on the city. “I think the report provides legitimacy to climbing. Climbers have a different style when it comes to traveling and participating in activities, but a climber provides the same economic impact as a visitor coming to the city for another event,” Bailey explains.
The report, published in 2016, found climbing brought in more than 16,565 non-resident visits in the 2015-2016 climbing season. The report also identified that climbers had a total economic impact of just under $7 million on Hamilton County. Furthermore, the estimate excluded regional climbing areas that were more than 30 minutes away from downtown Chattanooga, like Foster Falls and Rocktown. When included, the reported potential impact was $10.3 million.
Beyond the financials, the report identified that on average, climbers spend two days per trip in Chattanooga and travel here 4.7 times per year, which is equivalent to about nine climbing days a year. This statistic suggests that climbers return to Chattanooga more frequently than those in many other tourism categories.
“Obviously, some of these people like climbing in Chattanooga so much they move here and contribute even more,” Bailey explains.
(First) Photo by Drew Meyer, (Second) Photo by Sutton Photos
This past year, two full-length climbing documentaries were released in theaters nationwide. Indoor gyms and training facilities continue to pop up across the Southeast and beyond. And for the first time, climbing will be an Olympic sport in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. With the sport becoming more mainstream, continued growth seems an obvious part of its future.
But what does the future hold for Chattanooga climbing? Likely, continued growth, continued education, and continued advocacy and stewardship of the land. Chattanooga’s climbing is adored for more than just the bulletproof rock quality and endless amounts of stone. It’s beloved for its friendly, inspiring, welcoming, unpretentious culture.
The Crash Pad’s Poppel sums it up best: “Come try it, and if you think you can’t do it, just remember, if you can climb a ladder, you can climb some boulders.” CS