Is Chattanooga the Best US City for Climbers?

Hard to say. But here's a compelling argument for the Dirty South.
Jonathan Brandt © Andrew Kornylak
By Michelle Hurni

It may sound bold to call an old industrial city in the south the "Best Outdoor Town Ever." But Outside Magazine did it twice. So what makes Chattanooga, Tennessee, better than any other outdoor metropolis? For one, there’s world-class climbing, hang gliding, mountain biking and paddle boarding. And if adventure sports like these don’t do it for you, the progressive city also boasts a world-class aquarium and nitro-cold beer.

Yet climbing in the area can be stickier than the humidity, from lack of public access to gun-wielding locals. Local legend Jimmy Webb has traveled the world to boulder, but he can’t be lured away from the sandstone in Chattanooga (or the southern fried chicken). We tapped him and a few other local climbers for some beta on why Chattanooga is the best place to find your new favorite line.

The guidebook only tells part of the story

Climbing in Chattanooga is summed up in one phrase: word of mouth. As Webb says, "If you’re a traveling climber in Chattanooga, you won’t see even a quarter of the rock that’s actually there. But if you befriend some locals and they start taking you places, you’ll start to see how much climbing there is that no one really knows about it. It’s an awesome place."

Jimmy Webb © Andrew Kornylak

Welcome to southern hospitality

The locals are down to share their land, "as long as you are respectful and being mindful of what you are doing," says Webb. "Southerners are pretty laid back. If you just be nice and friendly, and maybe bring them a six-pack of beer, you’re in."

Disrespect a land owner by exploring without permission, however, and you might end up having a story like Webb that you won’t want to tell your mom about. "I went hiking one day with a couple of buddies in the woods. We’re running around, looking at these boulders and all of a sudden two landowners walk up, pissed off because we didn’t talk to them before we went in. He put a shotgun at my back and walked me 15 minutes out of the area. I was super scared.

"But I just started talking to them, asking what they own. It’s so easy to get someone going if you just start talking about their land. They’ll get jazzed up. He walked me out at gunpoint but by the time we got to his house, he invited me in for a beer. He said, ‘just come back anytime you want.’ I’ve brought him a couple of cases since then. That’s southern climbing."

Paul Morley © Andrew Kornylak

Gym rats belong in the gritty gym

With multiple options for climbing indoors, the founder of the TBA (Tennessee Bouldering Authority) climbing school, Luis Rodriguez claims it’s a tight community, "People all know each other by name. When you walk into TBA, it’s like Cheers. It’s the old sweaty gym in the basement of somebody’s house. It’s not very fancy, but it’s the anti-commercial gym. You can’t hide in there, it makes for a tight community and an intimate environment. It can be intimidating for folks because it’s so small and you are going to get close to everyone in there. They quickly find out that energy is contagious. Everybody is really pushing each other."

Brion Voges at Stone Fort © Andrew Kornylak

Just because you play in the dirt doesn’t mean you have to sleep in it

The Crash Pad is a hip hostel co-owned by climbers Dan Rose and Max Poppel who moved into the area for the climbing 10 years ago and ended up supporting the community with their affordable boutique hotel. A secure place to stay in the heart of downtown, climbers are at home with hang boards, free breakfast and local guidebooks. "The quality and quantity of climbing is unrivaled, you can go 20 minutes in any direction and be on some amazing rock," Max says. "We [saw] there was a need for a basecamp for climbers, a community hub for climbers."

Dayton Pocket boulders © Andrew Kornylak

Leave your ego in Colorado

Some say Chattanooga is becoming the second Boulder, but without the spandex and egos. "There is a lot of elitism [in Boulder]; they’re full of themselves," Luis says. "Chattanooga is a dichotomy. It’s called the Dirty South for a reason. As much as there is that element here, go outside of town about 30 minutes, you can be in the Boondocks … Redneckville. They don’t give two shits if you are riding a $4,000 bike, they’re going to run you over and throw a Slurpee at you. Don’t get too serious about yourself.

"A lot of the climbers here consider themselves rednecks. They ride their four-wheelers to get to the areas, carrying guns and drinking cheap beer. There’s still the rebellious side of climbing going on here."

Whitney Boland at Deep Creek © Andrew Kornylak

There’s some of the shortest approaches to the crag

Chattanooga is nestled right between Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain. And both are littered with rock. From sport climbing and bouldering to trad, it’s all within minutes of town. World Champion climber Sasha DiGiulian says, "I used to climb Stone Fort. I would go bouldering there with my dad. He wasn't a climber but he loved how it was on the golf course."

(The second stop of the Triple Crown Bouldering Series takes place at Chattanooga's Stone Fort on October 22nd. Click here for more info.)

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