Plastic to Classic: Outdoor Climbing in Knoxville

Jesse Baker
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The gym is dank with sweat, the air is thick with chalk dust, and just once you’d like to finish a route and look out to see mountains and rivers and trees instead of another shirtless climber-bro schmoozing some poor girl trying to return her rented harness. You’ve got to get out of the gym.

Don’t get me wrong, the gyms in Knoxville are great. The Climbing Center at River Sports has some stellar routes that are updated regularly, and the Vol Wall at the University of Tennessee has a great community vibe with free entry and gear use for students and faculty. But plenty of climbers at these gyms are aching to get outside. And let’s be honest, the transition to real rock can be kind of intimidating. First, there’s the considerable cost of buying a rope, belay device, quick draws, and all the other little things you know (or don’t know!) you need for a fun, safe time outside. And what about finding someone to climb with? You sure don’t want to put your life in the hands of a random dirtbag craghopper with a cruddy belay and short attention span.

Well, gym rats rejoice! We’re here to help with a few pointers on transitioning smoothly into the world of outdoor climbing.

Jesse Baker

Get comfortable belaying with the device that you’ll be using outside. An ATC is the most common device found at gyms and amongst beginners, because it’s relatively cheap and simple to use. However, the GriGri  is becoming more and more popular amongst indoor and outdoor climbers alike, and you don’t want to soley master ATC belaying at the gym just to get outside and discover the only device at your disposal is a GriGri or some other unfamiliar device.

Practice Leading. Both of the main gyms in Knoxville have lead walls where you can practice lead climbing. You especially want to learn how to hang quickdraws without back clipping, how to set-up and clean top rope, and how to lead belay (it’s a little different). Even if you’re going out with an experienced partner, it’s still good to get these basics down in the relatively safe and controlled environment of the gym.

Take a Whipper! If you lose your grip on top rope, you really only fall the stretch of the rope, assuming your partner has a tight belay. But when you lead climb, your highest point of contact with the rock is the most recent clip, so if you fall on lead, you plummet the full distance down to that clip plus the stretch of the rope. In the climbing world, this kind of fall is called a whipper. I know: terrifying. But the truth is that if you live in constant fear of whippers, you’re never going to climb your hardest on lead. So why not practice falling inside on a totally vertical wall (that way you don’t really hit anything on the way down) with padded floors?

Jesse Baker

Go With a Group. If you’re a UT student, you’re in amazing luck (per usual). The University of Tennessee has several all-inclusive climbing trips throughout the year, and all you need to do is show up ready to play. If you’re not a student, don’t sweat it. The National Park Service offers no-cost outdoor climbing at the Obed for entry level climbers once a month through their “Coffee and Climb” program . Both programs provide a great way to temporarily appease your outdoor climbing bug while you prepare to strike out on your own.

Get the Gear. You can cut some corners on non-safety gear like shoes and chalk bags, but you need to make sure the gear suspending you dozens of feet off the ground isn’t second rate. We recommend buying your gear from local and regional gear shops like River Sports and Blue Ridge. These providers don’t just sell gear, but serve as a hub of outdoor expertise and culture in the area, and many of the staff contribute valuable assets and wisdom to our outdoor community.

But wherever you choose to go, my best advice for saving money is this: Don’t Shop Hungry. If you passionately believe you need to be out on the rocks, fully equipped by tomorrow, expect to either pay full price on everything or make some stupid and potentially dangerous purchasing decisions. But if you can hang in the gym or go along on some of the group outdoor climbs while slowly accumulating affordable discounted gear, you’re probably going to be way better off financially, learn a good deal of patience (a valuable commodity for outdoor climbing), and make some great friends along the way. Who knows, you might even find the perfect climbing partner.

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