A survey of city “hot spots” reveals an emerging community and culture centered around this rocky pastime.
By Brian Beise
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It may have been a long time since the Tennessee Valley was considered a wild frontier, but when it comes to climbing culture, Chattanooga has only recently been settled and civilized. Pilgrims are pouring in these days, looking for epic climbing experiences and camaraderie, and what they find is a wealth of natural resources and a growing community of climbers.
The boom “I knew this day would come,” says Rob Robinson, managing broker at Metro Real Estate who has been climbing in the Chattanooga area for decades. “Back when I first started climbing I realized what we have here and knew that one day the rest of the climbing world was going to catch on. There was going to be a collective ‘Aha!’ moment about climbing in Chattanooga.”
Robinson was a world-class climber in the 1980s. He’s appeared on the cover of Climbing magazine and written several guidebooks on area crags. He first started climbing in Chattanooga in ’75. “Back then, the weekend would roll around and I’d be looking for a climbing partner, and sometimes it just didn’t happen. That is a huge contrast with today, of course. We have a burgeoning community that’s growing exponentially.”
“What people are coming to find out, and what I learned as a young climber is that we have a huge amount of truly world-class sandstone rock climbing,” Robinson says. “The only other place in the U.S. with these kinds of assets near a metropolitan area is Boulder, Colorado.”
Among the many climbers now settled in the area is Lisa Rands, one of the world’s most accomplished female rock climbers. Lisa moved here with her husband and coach, Wills Young, and together they run High Point Climbing School which operates out of High Point Climbing and Fitness downtown. She describes her first visit to Chattanooga 10 years ago. “One of my sponsors had sent my husband and I to Chattanooga to give a presentation at Rock/Creek Outfitters,” she says. “We both fell in love with the place. Everything about it was exciting: the city center was fun and the outdoor community was lively. But the most incredible thing was that the surrounding hills were stacked with some of the best climbing in the world!”
An international climbing scene insider, Rands says Chattanooga’s reputation is growing even among the world’s best. “When world-traveled athletes like Tony Lamiche from France and climbing gurus like California-based Peter Croft rave about the world-class climbing in Chattanooga, I know we are truly fortunate,” she says.
Cody Averbeck, a Chattanooga native and experienced climber, sums up the outdoor attraction of Chattanooga simply: “Boulder is the Chattanooga of the West.”
Accommodating the crowd The increasing popularity of rock climbing in Chattanooga is promising news, considering the key role that outdoor recreation—including climbing and its associated expenditures—has played in the economic vitality of cities like Boulder. The city is widely recognized as the national leader in the outdoor sector and home to a growing cluster of successful companies like Sea to Summit, Scarpa North American, and GoLite that pumps cash into its economy. Forbes has named Boulder among the “Best Cities for Business and Careers” on more than one occasion, and Bloomberg Businessweek has named Boulder “America’s Best Town for Startups.”
If Chattanooga is only recently being considered Boulder’s eastern sister when it comes to outdoor amenities, it only follows that more outdoor-based companies and businesses may be in store for its future.
These projections are supported by the growth of outdoor recreation even during one of our country’s worst recessions. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, U.S. outdoor recreation (which includes both bouldering and climbing) grew approximately 5% annually between 2005 and 2011 – a period when many sectors contracted.
Just ask out-of-town climbers Dan Rose and Max Poppel, who moved to Chattanooga in 2011 to open The Crash Pad, an “affordable boutique hostel” on Chattanooga’s Southside. The Crash Pad is now a hub for Chattanooga’s outdoor community. On any given night, you might find climbers, white-water rafters, or cyclists gathered around a stone fire pit nestled between the hostel and its sister business, Flying Squirrel, a trendy, full-service bar and restaurant. Or take the fact that just last month, Gander Mountain, one of the nation’s largest outdoor retailers, announced a new 50,000-square-foot store on Highway 153 in Hixson.
Of course, the amount of outdoor-related business we already claim is impressive.Chattanooga has long been the home base for sporting goods retailer Rock/Creek Outfitters, one of the “Top 25 Outdoor Retailers” according to Outdoor Business. It also has three indoor climbing gyms: Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA), Urban Rocks Gym, and High Point Climbing and Fitness. The newest, High Point Climbing and Fitness, is the largest climbing gym in the center of a metropolitan area in the country.
UTC has also recognized the attraction of climbing and now boasts its own climbing gym, climbing club, and climbing team (“Chatt Nasty”). The club has about 90 students, 25 of which regularly compete in USA Climbing’s Collegiate Climbing Series.
Hot spots The sheer number of beautiful and challenging rocks to climb in the Chattanooga area is staggering.“Sunset Park on Lookout Mountain is one of my favorites,” says Rose. “It’s 10 minutes from downtown, a 10-minute walk in, and has all the classic Chattanooga attributes: a high concentration of classic routes on excellent rock in a beautiful river gorge setting.”
Averbeck mentions others. “Some of my favorite places to climb include the Tennessee Wall, Deep Creek, and Castle Rock.”
Another huge pastime among climbers in recent years is bouldering, which is essentially climbing but on lower surfaces without ropes. The Outdoor Industry Association now puts total participation in the sport in the U.S. between 4.7 million to 6.9 million people. Bouldering has become so popular that it’s even being considered for the 2020 Olympics.
“You just climb up the rock maybe five or 10 feet,” Robinson explains. “The opportunities are immense here in Chattanooga. In fact, one of the most popular bouldering areas in the United States is Stone Fort up on Mowbray Mountain. ”
Rands, who has bouldered around the world, can only speak praise for local bouldering sites. “Whenever I go to Rock Town and Stone Fort I feel like a kid in a playground!” she says.
“What I love most about the climbing culture here is how emergent it is,” says Averbeck. “Rock climbing in Chattanooga and the Southeast has developed way later than other regions of the country. There’s also just so much rock in this area. Those two facts have left the current generation of Chattanooga climbers with a massive inventory of rock to explore and develop.”
Robinson agrees. “We have the largest inventory of world-class cragging in the United States,” he says. “I don’t think any climbers would dispute that. You could move to Chattanooga and say, ‘I want to do only new routes the rest of my life,’ and you could do that.”
The climb goes on When asked about the future of climbing in Chattanooga, Robinson sees no limits. “Business speculators are involved now,” he says. “They see the potential of what we have here, as evidenced by the $6 million investment in the new climbing gym downtown. There will be climbers in Europe booking tickets here just to climb. The climbing here really is that good. It may be that in 10 years Chattanooga is one of the major climbing centers in the world.”
Of course, only time will tell. But from the climbers’ vantage point, the Scenic City’s got what it takes for a quick ascent to the top.