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Southern Sandstone Revisited


 Southern Sandstone Revisited
 

by Sean Hudson

March 03, 2002

What do you think of when someone mentions climbing in the South? One might conjure up images of the movie “Deliverance”, rednecks, Confederate flags, and hillbillies. Others might think of heat, extreme humidity, poison ivy, snakes, and no trespassing signs strictly enforced by the “business end” of a shotgun. There just might be a little truth to all these preconceptions. But when I think of climbing in the South, I think of short approach hikes among the beautiful fall foliage that is typical of the East Coast; I think of the moderate winters which provide year-round climbing opportunities; I think about my youth and climbing with my old friends; but mostly I think about the quantity of incredible rock that the South has to offer.

Ok, so I am a bit partial. I have spent the past five years living in Colorado (currently Boulder, CO), but I have spent most of my life in middle and east Tennessee. While going to college at Tennessee Tech University, I spent much of my time climbing the sandstone cliffs just a few miles from college campus. However, I spent most of my time dreaming about living and climbing out West. California and Colorado were the Xanadu’s of my dreams. According to climbing magazines’ coverage, one would have thought that the only rock in the US existed in these places. So I started making road trips to these exotic locale: Rocky Mountain National Park, Rifle, Shelf Road, Zion, Boulder, Eldorado Canyon, Bishop, Yosemite, Grand Teton National Park, and Wild Iris. The road trips became so frequent that I decided to make the move to live out West. Many years later, I live in Boulder, Colorado just a few miles from Eldorado Canyon; I get the chance to climb several days a week. I still make frequent road trips, and I have had the opportunity to climb in many places around the world. But oddly enough, my thoughts often drift back to the sandstone crags of the South. In hindsight, some of the best climbing I have ever experienced was in my own backyard when I lived in Tennessee. I came to realize this while on a recent holiday trip “back home”. So I decided to pack my climbing gear, call an old friend, and rendezvous at the Tennessee Wall where I learned to climb 12 years ago.

With only a day to climb, my wife and I decided the best way to maximize our experience was to pull out an old guidebook and re-climb all of my old favorites. So I started with a climb called Passages (5.8). After a few moves, it started to feel like old times. The familiar dihedral I had climbed so many times before, the warm winter sun beating down on my neck, and the slightly damp crack due to the constant humidity that hung in the air…ah, it was all coming back to me. When I reached the top, I called “off belay!”, threaded the rope through the rappel slings which loosely hung around a large oak tree, and I chuckled. Looking at the old tree, I remembered about ten years ago when my climbing partner, Tracy Phillips, was at the top belaying me while I was seconding the route and all of a sudden the rope drew tight. I looked up at Tracy and he was trying to climb the old oak tree. I yelled up at him, “What the fuck are you doing!” His reply was, “Uh, Sean, are you at a good resting place?” He then went on to explain how there was a huge rattlesnake or copperhead that snuck up on him, and it was now just lounging under the tree.

Next, my wife and I moved on to Super Slide (5.10b). This route was always a bit of a challenge, so I thought I’d give it a go for old time sake. The guidebook says it is one of the best “mellow” face climbs around. But I am here to say there is nothing mellow about it. The thin face holds and creative placements were always enough to keep me on my toes. I guess overall it is a rather mellow route since there is hardly a potential for a fall longer than 20 feet or so! After all, you have to take into consideration that all the grades at the T-Wall are considered fairly “stout”.

After rapping, I scoured the guidebook and quickly located a few other climbs that brought back memories. So we just picked up the ropes and walked about fifty feet to the next climb on the list, climbed it, and moved on to the next. By the end of the day we had climbed about seven fantastic routes, each jarring fond memories of my climbing youth.

My Nemisis- Golden Locks, 5.8, T-Wall The winter sun, already low in the horizon of the river gorge, started to fade behind the trees leaving only the chill of the wind blowing off the river’s surface far below. “Just one more route”, I kept telling myself, “Just one more and I will be satisfied.” As I looked up to orient my self with the cliff’s topography, I saw it staring back down at me. For years it was my nemesis, kicking my ass every chance it got. Twelve years ago, Golden Locks (5.8)(see photo on right) was both a climb of my dreams and fears. Now here I was, over a decade later, roped up and staring at it with the same trepidation I had when I first climbed it. I know, I know, you’re probably saying what a wimp, but let me tell you Golden Locks is probably the hardest 5.8 crack I have ever climbed. First ascentionists Rob Robinson and Marvin Webb are probably still laughing every time they see climbers hanging on the route and yelling down to their belayers, “There is no way this is a 5.8!” Or “Argh, I suck so hard!” Well, at least those are the things my belayers usually hear when I get on Golden Locks. This particular ascent was no different, but the climbing on this rope-stretching pitch was so good and the crack sucked up protection so well, there was really no reason for any bitching.

It was a good day! The sun was completely gone now, and it was starting to get cold. As our thoughts turned to good Southern cooking and a cold beer, we packed our gear and started to head down the trail. Then I remembered something one of my old friends, Rob Piper, used to do at the end of the day. I had to run back up to the rock, embrace it with a hug, and thank it for such an incredible day.

“Thanks Rock.”




Logistics

Location: 20 minutes from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Season: Late September – Early June, and summer too if you are a glutton for punishment.
Amenities: Primitive camping only, but heck, ‘Nooga is just 20 minutes away.
Resources: The Underground Guide to the Tennessee Wall (out of print), The Deep South Climber’s Companion (out of print), and Dixie Cragger's Atlas
Gear: Bring a full rack and a 60m rope. Double ropes can be nice on some routes.
Other Climbing Areas (within 2 hour drive): Sunset Park, Suck Creek, Buzzard Point, Laurel Falls, Foster Falls, Black Mountain, Sand Rock, Obed, Clear Creek, Hidden Rock, and Bee Rock just to name a few.
More Info: Southeastern Climbers Coalition website is “The Source” for current access issues and more information. Visit them at www.seclimbers.org.

More Information

The Tennessee Wall (T-Wall) is located just minutes outside of Chattanooga along the banks of the Tennessee River. Rob Robinson and Chris Watford describe it the best in their guidebook The Deep South Climber’s Companion. “There are several prestigious cliffs in the mid South which are (without question) deserving of unstinted praise. But the Tennessee Wall is the biggest diamond in the Dixieland sandstone crown. The area earned its position as preeminent crag because it offers: a climbers’ goldmine of connoisseur quality sandstone. (British magazine Mountain included the Tennessee Wall in its Ten Best Crags in North America series.)I

The area is divided into four main areas: Paradise Walls, The Wasteland, Steepopolis, and Orange Blossom Walls (sub-divided into West Blossom, Middle Blossom, East Blossom, and Lost Blossom). If you are here only for a day, head directly to the Orange Blossom Walls for the best sampler of T-Wall climbing. If you have the time it is highly recommended to sample a few climbs from each section…

The Paradise Wall is historically known as the hard man’s area. “As Alabama hone master Curt Merchant put it: these climbs ‘will put the potatoes on boil”II. Paradise Wall boasts of trad classics like The Birth Simulator (5.11d), Stone Hinge (5.12b/c), Only On Earth (5.12a), and the improbable Fists of Fury (5.12b) which climbs out a large roof split by a 40-foot crack of varying width (see photo below). Sean Hudson, The difficult roof crack on Fists of Fury, 5.12b, T-Wall

The Wasteland is probably one of the least visited areas of the T-Wall, but should not be completely overlooked if you are into steep climbing. Wrectum Wrecker (5.12b/c) is the must do at the Wasteland. Rob Robinson and Forrest Gardner did the first ascent in 1995. Rob gives a colorful description of the climb in the old guidebook as follows: “This is one of those climbs which will simultaneously ‘take the piss out of the arrogant leader’ and tear’em out a new one. Famous for its ‘kiss your ass goodbye’ rest stance.”II

Steepopolis is aptly named because the easier routes are overhung, and the harder climbs are even steeper. Even for mere mortals, this area is not to be missed. It is worth the time to drop your pack and have a look around. Some of the legendary routes in this area include Poweropolis (5.13a), Tamper Proof (5.13a), Hands Across America (5.12c), and Grand Contusion (5.13a/b). Take note- these are just your ordinary bolted-every-three-feet kind of climbs. These are totally committing trad routes that will scare the shit out of most 5.13 climbers. I’m reading your mind, and by now you are wondering if there are any moderates on the entire cliff. Fear not. Just head over to the Orange Blossom Walls, but first before you leave Steepopolis you might as well jump on the mega-classic moderate Art (5.8). Rock doesn’t get much more beautiful than this…truly a piece of art.

Tracy Phillips, Sun King, 5.12a, T-Wall In my humble opinion, the Orange Blossom Walls are stuff that dreams are made of. If you are looking for moderates, this is your place. Splitter cracks and clean dihedrals on colorful rock abound. I cannot mention the T-Wall without talking about Golden Locks (5.8). Yeah right, 5.8 my ass! Golden Locks is a beautiful splitter hand crack that goes completely from bottom to top of the cliff. I laugh at the grade because I have personally seen it spit many solid 5.10 climbers out before they get 10 feet off the deck. If you get denied, don’t despair, there are many other excellent moderate climbs on the Orange Blossom Walls. Just a few great ones include: Passages (5.8), Finagle (5.9), In Pursuit of Excellence (5.9), Jay Walker (5.7), Fill In The Blanks (5.9), Razor Worm (5.9+), and Nutrasweet (5.7). A few other must dos at the Orange Blossom include: Finger Lockin’ Good (5.10b/c), Gift of Power (5.12a), Super Slide (5.10b), Cake Walk (5.10b) which is definitely not a piece of cake- pun intended, Sun King (5.12a), Hidden Assets (5.10a), Precious Orr (5.10b/c), and Golden Gloves (5.10b/c).



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