[Originally published in Nashville Fit Magazine, Spring 2017]
Somewhere deep in the Tennessee woods, budding green with spring life and far from the beaten path, a strange group of athletes pursue their sport. Powerful sandstone cliffs shear away from the deciduous jungle of the Cumberland Plateau and open wide over a cold and crisp riverbed. Down the way, whitewater kayakers unload their boats and suit up, but these athletes drive past them and turn down a narrow gravel road to a hidden grassy parking lot. They’re not here for the water; they’re here for the rock.
The Obed Wild & Scenic River is home to one of the many hidden river gorges that speckle the southeastern United States. Eons of erosion have carved out enormous overhanging rock faces gnarled with fissures and pockets and cracks. These irregularities, as arbitrary as they might seem at first, draw a peculiar and specialized group of people to the gorge year-long without fail. These are the rock climbers.
In the last fifty years, rock climbing has gone from a disreputable and marginally legal activity to a legitimized sport replete with its own World Cups, pro athletes, and urban gyms. In Tennessee, this development began when a motley crew of muscled men began bushwhacking out to cliff lines and forging their way upward with an assortment of hardware, ropes, and derring-do. Gradually they began equipping their favorite routes, or “lines,” with fixed metal anchors and bolts. The more they explored, the more they’d clean, and gradually local “crags” were established where the less intrepid could also test themselves on famous climbs.
Fast forward to 2017, where there are not only a dozen or more popular climbing areas around Tennessee but there also major indoor climbing facilities in most of the state’s cities. Everyone from the original hardmen to fresh-faced college kids can swing by a climbing gym for a quick romp up a wall covered in plastic holds.
So what’s the point? What does it mean when someone says they’re a rock climber? What’s the difference between the sun-kissed sandstone and the air-conditioned indoor walls? And why do it in the first place?
Climbing, as a movement, is hugely beneficial to the human body. It’s a very natural extension of the way we move on the ground, only transported into a vertical environment. Professional rock climbers are often compared to dancers: both move with a rare intentionality and precision, both have impeccable control of their bodyweight and superb fine motor skills, and both make something incredibly difficult look easy.
Climbing is a whole-body exercise. The work begins in the feet, which support the weight of the rest of the body and activate the muscles of the leg to move the climber upward. The hips and core determine where a climber’s body lies in space and must be constantly under tension to maintain an efficient body position. The back and shoulders do the unceasing work of pulling the climber inward toward the wall, while the forearms grip smaller and smaller holds to stay vertical and allow the rest of the body to perform. Body positioning requires constant twisting and shifting of the hips, which means that climbers must develop a high level of mobility in every plane. Like in yoga, isometric strength in extended poses is invaluable.
Climbers benefit from a high strength-to-bodyweight ratio; the strongest climbers are rarely the most muscular people in the room. Walk into any climbing gym and you’ll find a squadron of lean, wiry and powerful athletes similar to gymnasts, dancers, or yogis.
Even those who aren’t pursuing a high level of performance in the sport can practice climbing as a form of cross-training to develop balance, body awareness, and grip strength. It tends to be a low-impact sport, focusing on slow and deliberate movement, meaning fitness enthusiasts of all ages can pick it up with without issue.
Indoor climbing takes an esoteric sport and makes it accessible to the average urbanite. The first man-made facilities were ramshackle plywood walls for elite climbers who wanted a training area in their backyard. Climbers started shaping artificial holds to drill into the walls; some even glued on rocks and pebbles. Over time, the sport popularized, and demand grew for local gyms.
While the industry was young, the primary clients were either hardcore outdoor climbers looking to get shredded or casual observers bringing their kids for the novelty of it. In recent years, a new middle-class climber has emerged: those who practice the sport for performance and skill but enjoy the accessibility of the indoor facilities. While some old-school alpinists bemoan the development, the reality is that due to indoor gyms, the sport of climbing is becoming popular, accepted, and respected. Fitness enthusiasts and gurus are espousing the functional movements required and physical therapists have noted the benefits to skeletal alignment and muscular integrity. More importantly, it’s just plain fun.
The modern climbing gym is a veritable fitness emporium: in addition to the extensive climbing areas (often as tall as 50 feet), most have cardio decks, yoga studios, and weight-lifting areas. They offer personal training, climbing instruction, technical classes, and youth programs. The climbing is intuitive and gymnastic. Music, bright colors and a crowds of fit young studs create an atmosphere of electric energy.
Indoor gyms offer several helpful options not available to new climbers outside. Most of the walls are equipped either with ropes wrapped around steel anchors; a complete beginner could learn to “belay” or manage their partner’s rope in under 30 minutes. For those who like to go solo, most gyms also have automatic belays, devices that keep a climber safe from above without a partner.
For many, the appeal is in the community. Although climbing is ultimately an individual’s sport, it requires partnership and collaboration. Climbers belay and encourage their partners. The culture pushes everyone to step out of their comfort zone and test their physical limits. Climbing routes is often like solving a puzzle: how do I get from here to there using these holds? Groups of friends will sit under a climb and analyze it together, suggesting and critiquing each other’s “beta,” or movements. The sport is highly social, first gathering friends at the gym, and eventually sending them outside together. It has its own slang and sense of style. You might hear a climber say, “I got mega-pumped pulling that gnarly gaston sloper crux” and assume they’ve lost it, but gradually one learns to speak the language.
Eventually, most climbers get outside. Many consider this the pinnacle of the climbing experience. Hours of work (and play) in the gym hone the muscles and skills needed to engage with raw stone and wind and sky. Cliff faces require new methods of protection, an intuition for the geology of the rock, and nerves of steel. Climbers have to take their rope up the wall with them in a style of climbing called “leading.” Both lead climbing and lead belaying are significantly more complicated than indoor methods, although usually just as safe. The transition can be challenging, but it’s hard to go back.
The greatest lure may just be the nature: verdant southern forests, exquisite Appalachian views, exposure and silence and solitude. Climbers become consummate hikers and campers just as prerequisites to reaching the crag. Many climbing areas, such as the Obed or Foster Falls, have convenient campsites where ‘craggers’ retreat at night to socialize, drink, and jam around the fire.
Early the next morning, however, they drive back past the river and into the woods, ready to pit their bodies and minds against the most intimidating face they can find. The athletes rope up, check and double-check their knots, carefully examine the fissures before them, and with a deep breath, bid the ground farewell.
For readers interested in learning to climb inside, Nashville has several great options: Climb Nashville, with a location in both West and East Nashville, and The Crag near Franklin.
For those looking to get outside, the closest crags to Nashville include King’s Bluff near Clarksville, under an hour away, the Obed Wild & Scenic River near Crossville Foster Falls near Monteagle, and the boulder field at Little Rock City near Chattanooga. Information about these locations can be found on the website of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition.