Deep in the Catoosa WMA, the roaring sound of Daddy’s Creek eases my mind as we anticipate the adventure that stands deep before us. I sit comfortably atop the first pitch at the belay with a fantastic view shaded by a huge overhang roof that guards the top of the cliff. We had to climb over a hundred feet just to get to this point. My partner, Arno Ilgner, a climbing guru from Nashville begins to lead out a crack that splits this great chunk of rock. The crack is the only climbable feature in this section of cliff. It widens as it extends towards the lip of this forty-foot monster roof. Arno has been close to free climbing this test piece with no falls, something climbers call a redpoint. This could be the day. There are no bolts (permanent anchors) on this baby. This is a traditional climbing masterpiece that requires fat protection.
Totally focused on being in the moment, Arno places one of his cams and proceeds out the steep terrain. He fires through the first crux and swings his feet out in front of him. He grunts as he feels the burning in his arms from climbing upside down for such a great distance. I shout out words of encouragement trying to help him stay focused. "Look at the next hold." "Stay in the moment." He places another cam and reaches for a fist jam as he stuffs his feet into a wide section of the crack out in front of him. Arno talks to himself trying to quiet his mind as he gets his legs into the bat hang. I feed slack on the rope so he can swing freely without restricting any movement and hang completely upside down. This is the only place where he can rest his arms that are now on fire from this steep blazing tole. Talk about an intense workout — P90X ain't got nothing on this!
He fights through the brutal last section to exit the 40-foot overhang into a wide but vertical part of the crack and gains a stance. He shouts "off belay" and it is finished. He calls the climb "Gilgamesh" after the King of Uruk in Mesopotamian mythology and gives it a grade of 5.13. I felt privileged to share in this experience. I was very happy for him knowing how hard he had worked to achieve this goal. Now it was my turn to venture out there and retrieve all the gear.
I cherish these moments when I get to experience the splendor of adventure East Tennessee has to offer. Not all rock climbing adventures come in such heavy doses. There are a great number of ways and places to experience it. One of the best local climbing areas is the Obed Wild & Scenic River, where great sport climbing and bouldering abound! The guidebook, The Obed: A Climber's Guide to the Wild and Scenic is the best resource for rock climbing in this area. (see bio below).
The Big South Fork offers a lifetime of climbing to be explored. The rock there is a bit softer in places than Obed, yet offers unique features that resemble swiss cheese like pockets and waves of blank rock dissected by horizontal openings. Often there will be a vertical crack that offers the only climbable weakness in the rock. Traditional, Sport, Aid climbing, and Bouldering all can be found here. The cliffs sometimes are around 200-feet high.
A great many other sweet spots of southern sandstone are within striking distance from Knoxville. Black Mountain near Crab Orchard has some unique pebelie rock where one can test their skills. Most climbs are top-roped and there is good bouldering to be found.
Another great place for toprope climbing located along the Foothills Parkway is Lookrock. Along with magnificent views of the Great Smoky Mountains, this sweet spot offers excellent climbs for beginners.
Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area, just north of Knoxville, has some great bouldering. No guidebook exists for this place, so it is best to go there with someone who knows the area. TWRA has been receptive to climbers but require a hunting/fishing license or riding permit. Nine or ten areas have been developed but it is still considered "backwoods bouldering".
One of the best ways to beat the heat and still get your climbing fix is deep-water soloing along the banks of the rivers and lakes of Tennessee. A boat is necessary for this activity. It has gained popularity of late with more being discovered every summer. The cliffs are almost always limestone with crazy sharp pockets. Some folks climb with shoes, but all you really need is bare feet and a bathing suit.
A host of other places stand out along the sandstone belt south of K-town. Starr Mountain, Foster Falls, Deep Creek, Daton Pocket Wilderness, Buzzard Point, all have exceptional climbing and are within a 2 hr. drive from town.
So how does someone who knows nothing about climbing get started? With proper instruction of course. One of the best places is the indoor wall at Climbing Center where excellent instructors will guide you through the process safely. River Sports Outfitters has all the equipment you will need to safely venture out into the wild. If you're a university student, check out the facilities on the University of Tennessee Campus or at Maryville College. Another option is to hire a guide. *John Nowell, owner of Knox Rocks, has been instructing and leading expeditions for over sixteen years. This is a good way for a beginner to experience climbing outside safely. The East Tennessee Climbers Coalition offers workshops and events that help promote climbing in our area. They have also kept many climbs safe by replacing anchors on numerous climbs.
Don't forget about Outdoor Knoxville's 3 day Outdoor KnoxFest, August 24-26. Some fine activities are planned for this years events. There will be a climbing wall at the Get Out & Play Activities - and then you never know where the course will take you on the Urban Adventure Race.
So as you can see Knoxville hosts plenty of climbing opportunities for the beginner to the expert. Whether your taste for adventure comes in big plates, or just a small treat, there is always something there to satisfy ones appetite for the great outdoors. So turn off your TV, put down your smart phone, and get out there and explore the goodness to be found in the rich hills of East Tennessee.
Our Adventurer of the Month, Kelly Brown has been climbing for over 25 years. He is an artist, writer, teacher, father, and avid outdoorsman. Many of you may have seen the "twigloos" Bower Bird Sculptures decorating the trails at Ijams Nature Center and William Hastie Park, they're quite unique! Kelly is the author of The Obed a Climbers Guide to the Wild and Scenic published in 2011. Kelly continues to explore the backwoods, boulders, mountains and cliffs that make East Tennessee so rich. He resides in Knoxville with his wife and two children, faithful dog Belle, and two cats Sundown and Fuzz.
*John Nowell contributed the content for Outdoor Knoxville's Rock Climbing Page where you'll find indepth information on rock climbing in our area.