Rock climbing is a great workout that challenges both your mind and body, often in beautiful outdoor settings. Fortunately for Tennessee residents, there are plenty of opportunities to climb here, whether you’re looking to pull on some plastic in a gym or throw down a bouldering pad outside.
In fact, the state is known by rock climbers around the country for the quality of its crags and bouldering areas, making it a great place to get started in the sport or to crush some hard routes. From the sheer vertical challenges of Foster Falls to the easier routes at Denny Cove to the boulder fields of Little Rock City, the sandstone of the Cumberland Plateau offers something for everyone. If you’ve been thinking about learning to climb in the Volunteer State, we put together a few suggestions to make your first time a little easier, as well as where to go.
Start at the Climbing Gym
If you’re nervous about getting started, don’t worry! You don’t have to be a strongman (or woman) to get up the wall. And with today’s technology, climbing doesn’t have to be scary, either. Ropes and hardware are very safe—your typical new climbing rope has a break strength of several thousand pounds, and when correctly used, hardware seldom (if ever) fails to protect the person attached to the other end.
A first-time climber can pick up crucial knowledge by visiting a climbing gym for a lesson or finding a friend with some experience whom you can trust. They can teach you the basics about holds, positioning, and equipment, saving you tons of time and frustration. For example, some people think that climbing requires a ton of upper body strength, but that’s just not so. Learning how to use your legs, rather than depending on arm strength, will result in longer days on the rock (especially when you are just getting started).
A Few of the Climbing Gyms in Tennessee
Most major cities in Tennessee have a climbing gym where you can learn the ropes.
In Chattanooga, High Point Climbing and Fitness in downtown offers 30,000 feet of climbing, as well as training classes and guided tours for all skill levels. This high-tech expansive facility has a wide array of climbing routes and even a self-belaying system to rope yourself into and lower back down to the ground from the top. High Point also has a smaller location in the Riverside neighborhood.
Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA) is a funky, comfortable, laid-back space in the St. Elmo neighborhood of Chattanooga. TBA offers 3,000 square feet of bouldering space with huge, cushy mattresses to fall into.
About 20 miles south of Nashville in Franklin is The Crag, with more than 65 routes and 50 boulder problems at any given time. The Crag can help you transition from climbing in the gym to climbing outside with their outdoor programs, and the owners are opening a second location in Nashville in Fall 2017.
Climb Nashville has two indoor climbing locations (one in East Nashville and one in West Nashville), and offers fitness and yoga classes in addition to youth programs and summer camps.
Knoxville is home to two indoor climbing gyms: Onsight Rock Gym and River Sports Climbing Center. Onsight has more than 12,000 square feet of climbing area, including 50-foot walls—great practice for getting used to heights! River Sports Climbing Center is super beginner-friendly, with 15-20 different top-roping areas.
Memphis doesn’t have many options, but Bridges offers open climbs several times a week.
What You’ll Need
You can rent any and all equipment at the climbing gym. You’ll need a pair of climbing shoes, a chalk bag with chalk (it keeps your hands dry so you can grip the holds better), and a harness and belay device if you decide to get on rope. In many cases, you can even rent your gear from the gym and take it outside with you for the day/weekend, too.
What Kind of Climbing Do You Want to Try?
We've enjoyed some great spring climbing days in the Obed this year!! The South Clear section is known to get a little too toasty in the Tennessee summer heat so we've been hitting it while we can. Here's a shot of Wendy heading up Best Seat in the House, one of the many routes in South Clear with a beautiful view!
Once you get at the gym and look around, consider what you type of climbing you might want to try. If you want to get on a rope, you’ll have to learn how to belay (manage the other end of the rope from the climber) and pass a short proficiency test. From there, you have some options.
Most beginners start with top-roping. The rope is anchored at the top of the wall and all you have to do is climb up, and then have your belayer let you back down. If you fall, there’s not much lag in the rope, so you aren’t going to fall very far.
In a gym, you can also lead climb. This requires different belaying skills and another proficiency test. As a newbie, you’ll probably want to take a course on how to do it. Lead climbing requires attaching the rope to quickdraws (or carabiners) on fixed anchors on the wall as you climb. If you fall while lead climbing, you can fall quite a few feet, depending on how far you are above your last anchor point. When you get to the top, you have to clip into the anchor before you can be lowered.
Outside, lead climbing is also called sport climbing. Bolts are drilled into the rock face, with short connectors called quickdraws clipped into the bolts while ascending the route. Just like indoors, you’ll clip your rope in as you go up.
Trad climbing (short for ‘traditional’) requires you to place your own gear, with names like cams and chocks and nuts, into cracks and crevices to hold the rope. You have to remove them (i.e. ‘clean the route’) when you’re done.
If you are climbing with an experienced friend outside, they can climb a route and set up a top-rope on the anchor so that you can just go up it and won’t have to worry about placing gear.
All roped climbing is rated on the Yosemite Decimal System between 5.0 and (so far) 5.15, with a beginner climb considered to be somewhere in the 5.6-5.9 range. This refers to the technical difficulty, and doesn’t usually include factors such as length of the route.
Of course, one of the most popular forms of climbing requires almost no gear at all. Bouldering is a form of climbing without a rope. The routes, called ‘problems’, range in height from a few feet to higher than 20 or 30 feet, and can be just as intense as a roped climb. All you need is a pair of shoes, chalk, someone to make sure you land on a crash pad if you fall, and an actual pad to land on if you are heading outside. Bouldering problems are rated from V0 (easiest) to V16.
Where To Go Outside
While there are plenty of climbers who stick to the plastic holds at the gym, many climbers train in the gym so that they can climb outside.
Most of Tennessee’s climbing is in the eastern and southeastern parts of the state, especially in and around Chattanooga. The Cumberland Plateau, featuring some of the most highly-regarded crags in the South, is less than an hour away from the city. This has resulted in a thriving climbing community in River City.
The newest climbing area in Chattanooga is Denny Cove). With a wide variety of routes, it’s perfect for beginner and intermediate climbers. Sport climbers looking for more of a challenge head to Foster Falls in the South Cumberland State Park. For those seeking traditional routes, the Tennessee Wall has climbs rated from 5.6 up to 5.12.
For bouldering in the Chattanooga area, Little Rock City is known for the quality and variety of its problems, ranging in difficulty from v0-v10.
Elsewhere in Tennessee, the Obed River climbing area is a little over an hour west of Knoxville. Obed has bouldering, as well as both sport and trad climbing, though mainly in the harder grades with a sprinkling of 5.6-5.8 routes. A little farther north is Fall Creek Falls, offering moderate (5.6-5.10) short roped climbs at the Palisades.
(Local Tip: Every Tennessee climber should own a copy of the Dixie Cragger’s Atlas. Chris Watford’s guidebook is chock full of all the essential info. you’ll need to go climbing in the Volunteer State.)
Support Those Who Work to Save Climbing Areas and Access
Every climbing area has people who love it and want to keep it open for everyone to use. Unfortunately, some spots are often threatened by development and/or liability issues, and with 60% of climbing areas on public lands, changes in policies and regulations can affect access. On the regional level, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition has been working on raising funds and awareness to enhance climbing in Tennessee and the rest of the South since 1993. The Access Fund, a national group which negotiates with landowners and governmental agencies on behalf of climbers’ interests, also has a strong presence in the region. Make a donation or show up for a work day at your favorite climbing area—it’s great to give back and a fun way to meet other climbers!
Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.