East Tennessee has numerous cliff lines hidden in our river canyons and giant sandstone boulders nestled in the mountains and throughout the valley bottoms. There are many developed crags waiting to challenge those that want to climb. Our mild climate allows climbing to be a year-round pastime. Fall is ideal with warm, beautiful colors, and dryer, clear days, but even in the depths of winter, southern exposures are usually warm on sunny days. Grab your gear and head out to one of our featured areas.
Located in the heart of the Southeastern climbing region, Knoxville is sandwiched within the immense opportunities rising up from Chattanooga, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky (ranked as one of the most popular climbing destination in the country) and the 400 – 1,000 ft. formations of western North Carolina. Knoxville is a perfect hub where climbers will find over 5,000 different routes within a 3-hour drive of Knoxville. The East Tennessee Climbers Coalition is a local climbing organization, and its volunteers focus the majority of their energies on the areas closest to Knoxville. Of these listed below, the Obed Wild and Scenic River Area is the most prominent and popular. Our contributor, John Nowell, owner of Knox Rocks, has been instructing and leading expeditions for over sixteen years. Each of these featured sections present his expertise of the area, providing links for more in depth information and a list of his Recommended Routes for East Tennessee. Please look over the Responsible Climbing booklet to understand and follow the rules for the areas where you climb.
Some of the best bouldering is found where the Cumberland Plateau finally gives way to the flatlands in northern Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Locally, the Lilly Boulders at the Obed Wild & Scenic River is the place to go.
Top-rope climbing: With this style of climbing, a rope runs from the climber to anchors on top of the route and then back down to the belayer. The climber ties into one end of the rope, the belayer on the other. As the climber ascends, the belayer continuously takes up the slack in the rope. If the climber falls, he only falls a very short distance as there is little slack in the rope. Top-roping is great for beginners and for experienced climbers who are pushing their physical limits on a climb. A top-rope climber can work on a route but then rest on the rope while studying their next move or waiting for an onsurge of energy to continue.
Sport climbing: The anchors (typically bolts) are already placed in the rock prior to a climb. As the lead climber ascends, he attaches the rope to the rock using these anchors, thereby securing him against a long fall. Because the anchors are already in the rock, the leader does not need to bring additional equipment to build his own anchors. The anchors (bolts) are placed by the climber who “develops” the route. He may place them as he climbs the route, or he may rappel the route, stopping to place anchors on the way down. Because bolts are easy to clip, sport climbers can push their physical limits or just have fun without worrying about the consequences of a fall. Sport climbing areas develop where the character of the rock does not offer good anchors. Rock in the southeast is typically well featured and offers good natural protection on most climbs.
Traditional (trad) climbing: This form of Free Climbing where a climber places all gear required to protect against falls (pitons, etc.), and then removes it when a passage is complete. A trad climber has a strong focus on exploration with a strict dedication to leaving nature unblemished (the leave no trace ethic). Older means of protection caused damage to the rock from the use of pitons. The safety of the climber relies on the tools used as well as having a suitable area to place these tools on the mountain wall. This form of climbing is fairly gear-intensive.
Bouldering: This is climbing no higher than you are willing to accept falling, which generally means climbing close to the ground so you don’t need to rope up. It can be done indoors at a climbing gym or outdoors on large boulders, cliffs, caves, etc. Bouldering is one of the purest forms of rock climbing where the only equipment required is a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. It’s good to have a friend to spot you if you fall and a crash pad or two to land on. Bouldering is a great way to gain power and improve technique. Bouldering can be a good intermediate step from climbing in the gym to rope climbing.