It’s the stuff of legends. The parties, the dirtbags, the badass climbers that once roamed the South on a quest for sandstone perfection. In the late nineties, the Chattanooga climber population was small; there was awareness or "shadows in the woods," but no community, no connection between the rock monkeys.
Chattanooga didn't always have the tight-knit climbing community it is so known for today, and climbing gyms like the Tennessee Bouldering Authority bear a big part of creating that.
Chattanooga's longest running climbing gym celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. TBA has become a big piece of Chattanooga climbing history by being a hub where climbers can connect and build a community as well as hone their climbing power. According to Luis Rodriguez, TBA's founder, the idea behind the bouldering gym was the accessibility.
"You don't need gear besides climbing shoes and chalk, and we'll provide that for you. You don't need to pay exorbitant prices, you're not having to pay for six employees, you're paying for one employee that's going to freely give you beta and show you how to do this. Take away the fear of heights, the exposure, the element of danger, and falling and getting hurt. Take away all that stuff and you've got just climbing to focus on. Develop your climbing and develop a climbing community around you. That was the whole premise behind it. It's a much more responsible way of educating the climbing community," says Rodriguez who originally started the gym simply to have a place to train.
Growing up in metropolitan cities like New York and Atlanta, it almost seems unlikely that someone like Luis Rodriguez would fall in love with rock climbing. However, his athletic background made him no stranger to physical challenges, and rock climbing seemed like the perfect thing. Climbing for Rodriguez had its start at Southeastern crags like Little River Canyon and Sand Rock as well as other areas like the densely clustered boulder field at Rocktown. Spending the weekends outdoors and training inside during the week became the norm. However, quickly becoming aware of the lack of climber focused training at the local gym made it difficult to train, so Rodriguez, along with about 20 friends, decided to take matters into their own hands.
The original gym was a 600 square foot climber co-op in Atlanta, complete with a woody climbing wall, hang-boards, and campus-boards. Going by the name Power Alley, the co-op had a few good years until Rodriguez decided to make the move to Chattanooga to be closer to a higher abundance of real rock. Chattanooga was still mainly an industrial city at the time but Rodriguez sensed the potential.
Strategically placed in the St. Elmo neighborhood on the roadway to Rocktown, TBA took over an old wood-shop and opened its doors once again as a climber co-op. The logic for offering a bouldering-only gym was not only financial but part of Rodriguez's philosophy of training. "If you have power, you have endurance. Bouldering is where the energy was, particularly for the community building and camaraderie."
The dream was to create a place where climbers could hang out on rainy days, slowly build their grassroots community building, get pumped out and strong, and even to a lesser extent, party.
As Chattanooga's longest running climbing gym, it may seem as if time has stood still at TBA in comparison to the development of other gyms in the area. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
Each year, new additions have been added to the gym like the wave wall, 60 degree wall, campus board, and gymnastic rings. "It's always evolving and changing depending on the mood of the times."
Renowned climbers Jimmy Webb and Kasia Pietras came in early on and throughout the years have contributed to what TBA is today with their expertise and commitment to the gym and the community. In addition, Rodriguez is planning an expansion of TBA that will eventually bring the gym into a bigger space. The model for this change has been inspired by The Front in Salt Lake City where climbing-specific training is the main focus along with bouldering. Rodriguez plans to add showers, bigger workout areas, a dedicated check in area, and in general, he plans to make it more visually appealing. However, he also points out that it will take some outside investments to make all of this happen. "It's in the works," he says.
The 15th anniversary of TBA has been celebrated each day this April, except for Easter Sunday—with special deals like free climbing for everyone, extended hours, pot luck parties, and small climbing comps. Unsurprisingly, the anniversary has been celebrated in true TBA style where the community comes first and the love for climbing is celebrated and everyone is encouraged to participate.