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Backwoods Bouldering

Rooting around for precious gems in the deep & dirty south.

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“I swear,” said an exasperated Ronnie Jenkins, “this time, it wasn’t leaves of three!”

I was sitting at Amigos, a Mexican joint with dollar tacos and half-priced margaritas in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with my friends Lee Means, Tommy Morrison and, of course, Ronnie Jenkins, who last year wiped his backside with poison ivy. The resulting rash spread from head to toe and lasted a full week, during which time Ronnie couldn’t sleep and his then fiance (now wife), Julie, had the grim task of applying calamine lotion to all the worst spots. This was why no one, especially Tommy, could help themselves from poking fun at Ronnie, 26, short but stacked with lean muscle, and his inability to properly identify hazardous plants.

Tommy, 28, has an infectious laugh that complements his good-natured ribbing. He loves to remind people of their shortcomings, but is the first to point out his own. He relentlessly insisted that Ronnie had committed the same error today, and that Julie would be lathering his butt with calamine lotion in no time.

“I hate y’all,” said Ronnie, slumping into his chair. We laughed.

Strategically situated on the Tennessee River, Chattanooga began as an industrial and mining city in the late 1800s. Around the mid-20th century, however, many industries folded and Chattanooga became a rundown backwater.By the 1990s, thanks to a booming economy, not to mention solidly intelligent urban-renewal efforts, Chattanooga thrived again. To this day, this centrally located city in the Smoky Mountains is one of the most sought-after places in the Southeast to live, especially for climbers. It’s the combination of good food, kind folk and diverse climbing, a dozen lifetimes’ worth of trad, sport and bouldering, that brings visitors here and makes them never want to leave.

Most devout boulderers will have at least heard of, if not climbed at, the crown jewels of the Southeast: Rocktown, Horse Pens 40 and Little Rock City. However, dozens of off-the-beaten-path zones around Chattanooga are just as good, if not better. Some of Chattanooga’s best blocks can be found at Mowbray Mountain, Lookout Mountain, near the Dayton and Cumberland Trails, and especially at Laurel Falls.

An idyllic Tennessee state wilderness area, Laurel Falls is about an hour north of Chattanooga. As its name suggests, this bouldering zone showcases many waterfalls along a raging river. Laurel Falls is primarily known for its collection of brilliant sport routes, located on the rim of the gorge at Buzzard Point and Laurel Falls itself. This is the location of Pieta, the Southeast’s first 5.14, climbed by Jeff Gruenberg in the late 1980s. But Laurel Falls also has great bouldering, with highball faces, splitter cracks, sharp aretes, steep caves and everything in between. Although recent developments have exhausted the most obvious lines near the parking area, new prizes can still be found deep in the gorge.

Chattanooga has no shortage of good rest- or rain-day diversions, including the Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls and Rock City. Like any upbeat city, Chattanooga has an ample selection of bars and restaurants featuring quality live entertainment, though sometimes, as we found out one day at a downtown freak show, the presentation can be a bit unconventional. After the performers had finished eating light bulbs and hanging blocks from their nipples, they offered audience members the opportunity to staple dollar tips to their bodies. Julie Jenkins wanted to staple a bill to one masochist’s forehead, but even he declined.

As I sipped my delicious tequila and lime juice beverage, and looked across the table at Ronnie, Lee and Tommy, I couldn’t help but smile. Though we were all drawn to Chattanooga for its incredible and diverse climbing, it’s the people, their humor, friendship and Southern hospitality, that draw me back. I felt fortunate to have become such great friends with a core group of climbers, who were willing to share their backyard treasures with me and now, with you.


The Locals’ Locals

Text by Tomás Donoso

Spend any time at Laurel Falls and you will cross paths with Arthur Gothard, 60, a friendly Dayton local who has taken it upon himself to keep the trails clean and pristine. Gothard walks the trails with a garbage bag and gloves four times a week, picking up trash. He has been tending to his beloved backyard since the 1950s.

“I just like the woods,” he says. “It’s in my blood. Daniel Boone is my fifth great uncle. His sister married one of my ancestors.”

When mining started in the region in the late 1800s, Gothard’s grandfather worked for Dayton Coal and Iron. A railroad track used to run along the creek behind the classic problem White Noise, transporting ore to the wharves on the Tennessee River. Gothard says that many miners were killed in the field, and a lot of them were buried just above the bouldering area of Laurel Falls.

Thomas Montgomery Morrison is a former U.S. Navy-qualified diver and submarine electrician who committed six years of dedicated service to his country. Above deck and goofing off in the comforts of his home in Chattanooga, he takes a well-deserved break from maintaining turbine and motor generators, operating the electric plant, security swims, hull checks, sonar-equipment cleanings, and removing and installing ballast covers in freezing water.

Wendell Borne, 77, was born and raised in the pocket wilderness area around Laurel Falls. As a child he spent his days swimming in the rivers, catching bullfrogs, playing baseball with a sock and a piece of wood, trundling rocks off the mountainside, and even climbing rocks, evincing the timeless power of this rocky region that draws us climbers here today.

Despite his fond memories, life was tough for Borne. His father, a coal miner, died from black lung in the early 1940s and his mother was suddenly burdened with raising 10 children on her own.


You just didn’t have a lot to eat at times, Borne says. There were no fat people back then. You had overalls with patches, one pair of shoes full of holes. You’d go barefoot in the summer. It was hard to survive. Everybody was in the same boat.

Before his father died, Wendell, then just 12, worked alongside him. The mines were extremely dangerous, especially during explosions. He recalls one particular explosion that almost killed his father, blowing the shoes right off his feet. There was a black man that carried my daddy out, thinking it was his brother, Borne says. In the coal mines, you’re so dirty, and it’s so dark, race don’t matter.

Wendell and his father would make approximately 50 cents to a dollar for each ton loaded and hauled out of the mine by a mule and cart. If they made $2, that was a good day’s of work.

Kora Hancock, 97, was born in 1912 on Turkey Hill, near Dayton. She was the daughter of a master chair builder and started working beside him when she turned 14.

I was born and raised in hard times, but we were happy, Hancock says. Me and my brothers was always together. We climbed trees, go swimmin’, play tag, git a lot whoopin’ and go back and do it again! I dipped snuff. I would brush my teeth with black gum tree. brush out the snuff. Didn’t know about toothbrushes, never seen a bar of hand soap. One time my daddy got me a little doll. If we got an apple and an orange we were rich!