Southern rock lured me to Chattanooga. Not music, though the town is renowned for its variety of festivals and venues, but the literal, physical, geologic rock.
Visible from any highway leading into the city, stretching hundreds of feet into the sky, Chattanooga’s broad swaths of sandstone cliffs are capturing national attention and beckoning rock climbers to the area. I am one.
Last August, tired of chill Northern winters full of snow, tired of driving five hours every weekend to find climbable rock, I quit my job, sold most of my belongings, tucked my cat into my car, and drove south.
I join a growing flock of transplanted climbers. “Nearly every week I meet someone who just moved to town for the climbing,” says climber and writer Sarah Anne Perry, who relocated to Chattanooga last year after travelling and climbing throughout South America and the American west.
Chattanooga is fast becoming an epicenter of American rock climbing. Climbing magazine dubbed the town “America’s New Climbing Capital” in 2016, and followed up with a feature article in 2018. The city has won other recent accolades as well, named Outside magazine’s “Best Town” in 2011 and 2015, the only city to win twice.
“The publicity is certainly having a big effect,” says Cody Roney, who for five years headed the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, a regional organization. “When I first moved here, I knew every single climber. Now that’s unimaginable.”
Formed more than 300 million years ago from sand and pebbles that washed out of the Appalachians when they were higher than the Himalayas, Chattanooga’s crags offer intricate features that climbers relish. There are vertical and horizontal cracks, chunky blocks, pockets and rails to grab onto and more, an irresistible diversity of challenges.
Look closely as you drive along one of Chattanooga’s highways on a sunny day and you may see a small dot of bright color inching its way up a cliff. I may be one of those dots clinging to the rock, equidistant between ground and sky, striving to reach the top before my arms and fingers give out.
Chattanooga may be drawing a diverse community of climbers from all over the country, but as a lifelong Northerner, my head full Southern stereotypes, I had concerns. What would it be like as an athletic woman in the South? Would I be expected to conform to some of these stereotypes? Would I have to be feminine, dress carefully, wear make-up, look nice, actually be nice?
At a party my first week in town, another woman came up to me and ran her finger over my shoulder and arm. “How did you get such muscle definition?” she asked. “How can I get it too?” I invited her climbing.
While many climbers initially move to town for the rock, they say they end up staying for the community. Chattanooga’s climbing community, estimated to be about 3,000 local inhabitants by a recent economic study, may be its greatest strength.
“It’s the community that keeps people climbing here, the people and the support,” says Lyndsey Cutler, who works as a route-setter at a local climbing gym and moved to Chattanooga several years ago.
This may be especially true for women. A notable feature of Chattanooga’s climbing community is its gender balance. Local climbers estimate that 40-50% of Chattanooga climbers may be women. By contrast, a 2017 Climbing magazine survey found that only 21% of its readers were women, suggesting a greater gender disparity nationwide.
“I do think there’s more women here than in other communities,” says Roney, who has seen Chattanooga’s exponential growth as a climbing center. “It is a welcoming town for women.”
Rock climbing has typically been perceived as a male dominated sport. While there are a handful of well-known women climbers, men grab headlines, magazine covers, and the popular imagination. For instance, women appeared on only 19% of the covers of Climbing magazine over the 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.
But this male focus is beginning to shift. Women and girls represented about 40% of climbing competitors from 2014-2019, according to The American Bouldering Series, which sponsors competitions nationwide. This figure represents a 10% increase from 2006. And one of the sport’s most accomplished climbers, thought by many to be the best climber in the world and likely to compete at the 2020 Olympics when rock climbing makes its debut, is an American teenage girl named Ashima Shiraishi.
Southern women may be regarded as Steel Magnolias, stern resolve under soft feminine exteriors, but these Southern rock climbers are literal women of steel. They are challenging what has long been perceived as the boys’ club of rock climbing, as well as stereotypes of femininity and women’s bodies with their sculpted shoulders and finely delineated biceps.
To learn more about Chattanooga’s community of women climbers, I spoke to a number of these women. I asked about their experiences with stereotypes, their perception of community, what drove them to climb and what kept them climbing.
Why do women, or anyone for that matter, climb?
For some, the appeal lies in the pure physical challenge of the sport. Others enjoy the mental aspect, the puzzle-solving involved in locating hand and foot holds and assembling them into a successful sequence of moves. Most say it’s a combination of the physical and mental aspects, which requires total attention to the moment and clears the brain of any distracting thoughts.
“It’s what I chase when I climb,” says Beth Suker, who has been climbing for four years and moved to Chattanooga from Toronto about a year ago. “I love the meditative state I can achieve when I am really focused.”
The goal of climbing is tangible – reach the top without falling. “I like the fact that it has a specific focus on success,” says Bethany Macke, a personal trainer who has been climbing in Chattanooga for 10 years. “And those elements of strength and conditioning. You can train for success. Anybody who is willing to put in the time can do it, you don’t have to have a specific body type.”
Women’s bodies may work to their advantage in climbing, providing them an edge over men in some aspects. “Woman have a lot of strength for their size relative to men,” says Macke. “They also tend to have greater flexibility, and advantages with their smaller hands and fingers,” so they can grab onto small holds or jam their fingers into slight openings in the rock that men may be unable to use.
The physical body transformation that climbing brings about may be rewarding as well. “One of the most positive aspects for me is my body image,” says Perry. “I now focus on what my body can do rather than just on how I look. I never considered myself an athlete before, never considered myself strong. It’s amazing to see what your body is capable of, what you can push it to do.”
But women face some challenges. “I think women face a stereotype of being less bold,” says Macke. More than anything else, rock climbing may be a sport of confidence. What’s going on inside your head can be as important as what’s happening on the rock. Often it is these inner challenges, more than the physical challenges, that hold women back.
“Sometimes you have to battle your own inner thoughts,” says Cutler. “Sometimes you feel outnumbered by the guys. If you’re the only woman trying a route, it may feel harder because you haven’t seen any other women do it.”
Many spoke of the benefit of climbing with other women. “The community of women who climb here is the strongest -- metaphorically and literally -- that I've ever experienced,” says Dana Passman, who started climbing while in college in North Carolina. “It's great to be able to share the same [advice], and work out problems with someone who has similar body types and experiences.”
Role models can provide motivation and boost confidence. “It’s really satisfying to see women climb, to think, if she can do it, I can do it. Other women give you more accountability,” says Perry. “You have no excuse.”
Cutler agrees. “It’s not that you think you can’t do it because you’re a woman. But if you know another woman has done it, then you know it’s possible and that gives you confidence.”
Chattanooga is fast becoming a hub for women climbers. Flash Foxy, an organization founded to bring women climbers together, is preparing to hold its 3rd annual Women’s Climbing Festival in the area this fall. Its 2018 festival brought more than 343 women from 41 states and 3 different countries to town.
“I see a lot of growth in climbing for women supporting women,” says Macke. “There’s a tremendous amount of women getting into climbing – as there should be.” Macke has provided workshops for women climbers with She Moves Mountains East, a female-focused climbing guide service based locally that aims to empower women. Macke is working toward becoming a certified guide herself.
“The rise of the female specific climbing organizations is a brand new development here,” says Verena Draper, a climber of 27 years who has pioneered local routes. “I am not really sure what to think of it. I don’t think women become more empowered by separating themselves from men, but instead need to reimage themselves as who they want to be.”
Many women feel climbing can help them build skills to transfer to other areas of their lives. “We may not always be confident in every part of our lives,” says Cutler. “But climbing is one activity where you do it for yourself. It makes me feel fearless.”
“Trying hard is its own skill you need to develop,” says Perry. “The focus learned from climbing has been beneficial in other areas of my life. I’ve learned to take ownership of my actions, like instead of ‘hoping’ to do well to ‘expecting’ to do well.”
“I’m so glad to have found climbing,” says Macke. “I think you’re able to take your experience into other areas in life, to be more bold and independent and confident. Women should use these skills they learn from climbing, and apply them to their identity, to their field of work, and to their families.”
“When I lay in bed at night, my body aching everywhere, my fingertips burning, I wonder why I do this,” says Josie Benson, a New England climber who often visits Chattanooga. “Ultimately, I think it’s for the feeling of control and mastery you gain over your body and by extension your life. Like, I put in all this work to get strong, and now I can do it, I can hold onto that rock, I can reach the top. It’s empowering. I can do anything.”
On a sunny, 63-degree day in December, my daughter and I hike up Mowbray Mountain to reach the exposed rock. The hope of days like this is why I moved to Chattanooga. We lay our gear out on the ground: our harnesses, the coiled blue rope all silky and shimmery in the sun, the glinting carabiners we will clip to the rock. It is early, and dew still gleams everywhere, giving the rock a metallic sheen.
My daughter ties one end of the rope to her harness. I thread a section of the rope through my belay device, a metal contraption that will clamp down on the rope if she falls and keep her aloft, the weight of my body a counterbalance to hers.
The rock wall towers in front of us, 100 feet of undulating black and orange sandstone bands, peppered with protruding pebbles and small pockets.
She powders her hands with chalk to increase the friction of her grip. She wraps her left hand around a small knob, sets her right hand against the wall, tenses her body and swings her left leg out. Her toes land precisely on a pebbly ridge and she leverages her body up. She is off the ground.
As she ascends the rock, a group of three women arrive and start to set up nearby. About 50 feet up, my daughter pauses, holding on with one hand and wiping the other hand on her thigh. “It’s a little wet,” she says. “My hands are slipping.”
“You‘ve got it,” I tell her. “Put your weight on your feet. You can do it.”
She climbs a bit higher, reaches a ledge she can stand on, pauses again. “Slippery,” she says. “I don’t think I can hold on. I’m going to fall.”
While no climber wants to fall, falling is an accepted part of climbing. It happens in an instant. There is a rush of air, a momentary weightlessness, and then a jerk as the rope tightens and holds you, secured to gear inserted in the rock. Everyone falls, but no one likes it. The goal is always to ascend cleanly to the top.
“You’re strong,” I say. “You can. You’ve got this.”
She starts again, gripping the rock fiercely, which I know will tire her out faster.
Her left foot skitters off and she dangles for a moment, holding on with her fingertips. I feel a sympathetic rush of vertigo. I start to offer more words of support, but before I can, I hear voices from behind me.
“You go girl! Stick with it.” It is the other women climbers, who have been watching her progress.
“Stay strong!” shouts another. “You’re crushing it!”
My daughter grins, energized. She slots her foot into a pocket and reaches up, fingers searching for a hold. She pulls up another few feet.
“You’re doing great. You’re almost there.” The three women have crowded closer, still shouting encouragement. My daughter looks up. Twenty feet above her are the anchors, metal bolts drilled into the rock that she will thread the rope through in order to lower back down to the ground.
She reaches up again. And again. She slips, catches her balance. And again.
“Keep going! Almost there.” Our voices blend together. “You’ve got this!”
And then she is there.
Tracy Tabaczynski recently moved to Chattanooga after spending all her life in the Northeast and Midwest. She is not missing the snow.