Chattanooga Dreaming: Coming Home to Southern Sandstone

By Sarah Anne Perry

The Right Bunker at Foster Falls. Photo by Mackenzie Taylor Perry. 

The Right Bunker at Foster Falls. Photo by Mackenzie Taylor Perry. 

My first climbing trip was to Little Rock City in Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee. I had never spent much time outside, and to me the well manicured paths of the golf course boulders were a wild adventure.

“This place is beautiful,” I sighed as daylight faded over an unforgettable day of chilly V1 struggles.

“Wait till you see Rocktown,” I was told. “It’s magical.”

I did discover Rocktown’s magic, and that of many Southern boulderfields. I slipped off slick slopers and punted off iron rails. I projected Pancake Mantle and Golden Showers for two years. Gradually, I strengthened my body and learned to use my feet. Reluctantly and with much anguish, I began roping up in the summers, fighting the fear of falling because I knew the rock was worth it.

After college, I left my sandstone homeland. I wanted to speak Spanish and climb rocks — it didn’t matter where. I ended up in Ecuador.

By the time I moved to South America, climbing was essential to my sense of self. Sure, I didn’t climb hard, and I wasn’t incredibly experienced. But I was a capital-R-C Rock Climber, and I didn’t know it then, but sandstone had shaped the landscape of my identity.

The author climbing in Cojitambo, Ecuador, one of the first established crags in the country. Photo by Steven Lung and Mateo Oleas.

The author climbing in Cojitambo, Ecuador, one of the first established crags in the country. Photo by Steven Lung and Mateo Oleas.

The Andes are home to incredible rock, and I am grateful for the climbing and community I found there. Ecuador has porous boulders, slippery slabs, powerful faces, and incredible columns. You can climb two minutes from a bus stop or deep within the cloud forest.

I’d felt true terror atop boulders and on lead, but moving to Quito was scarier by far. I had to navigate a new city and culture in my second language, far from my support systems. A world away from the only town I’d ever lived in, climbing connected me to my new home and my old one.

Living and climbing in the Andes, I realized I had taken sandstone for granted. I didn’t know as a fledgling boulderer that the bulging roofs of Rocktown and bullet crimps of Stone Fort were something special. When I begrudgingly clipped bolts between bouldering seasons, the Bunkers at Foster Falls and the Concave at Little River Canyon seemed no more extraordinary than the next destination.

I was climbing now on andesite, basalt, and ancient lava. I was roping up more than ever — and starting to like it. But as my head game improved and I embraced a new climbing culture, I found myself daydreaming about early morning drives to my favorite wooded places. In the equatorial eternal spring, I missed the feeling of fall. When I was homesick, I watched The Big Three: Bouldering in the Southeast. An English friend missed the rock of his homeland too, and we exchanged photos of our favorite crags, debating which country had superior stone.

After a year, I left Ecuador to work for The Climbing Academy, a traveling high school for rock climbers. We began the semester in Bishop. Eighty-three miles closer to home but on the opposite coast, I felt farther than ever from my roots.

The Happies and Sads offered a final humbling taste of volcanic bouldering between school days in our rental house. After a month in snowy California, we headed to Mexico.

In Potrero Chico, I climbed on limestone for the first time. After a few sketchy falls on crumbling choss, I found myself rebuilding the sharp-end confidence I’d developed in Ecuador. “This is limestone?” I asked myself. The tacos were worth it, but only just.

Long-term projects like  Nosferatu  in the Tecalote Cave opened Sarah Anne's heart to rope climbing. Photo by Kieran Hadley.

Long-term projects like Nosferatu in the Tecalote Cave opened Sarah Anne's heart to rope climbing. Photo by Kieran Hadley.

Weeks later, though, the tufa wonderlands of El Salto enchanted me. In the otherworldly Tecalote cave, I decided to become a capital-S-C Sport Climber. In Nevada, I fell in love with Mount Charleston’s deep pockets and invisible feet. I discovered a style to which my body felt truly suited. Taking whips and trying hard, I finally trusted the rock and myself.

Over the summer, I spent six weeks on the seussical madness of Maple Canyon and the unforgiving crimps of the Fins. I surprised myself, watching in a daze as I quickly put down my hardest climbs.

More confident in my climbing than ever, I was also restless. I needed to be shut down on the burl of Little River Canyon, to shred my skin on Rocktown slopers. I’d gone so long since putting rubber to sandstone, and I needed to get back to the South.

So I moved again, this time to Chattanooga. I’m in a new city once more, but I’ve finally made it home. I’m a different climber than I was that day in Soddy-Daisy, and I’m a better version of myself.

My footwork got better while I was gone, and my body got stronger. A year and a half out of my comfort zone taught me how to welcome fear, learn from failure, and shrug off doubt.

I’ve carried those lessons home. At first, the Canyon shut me down like always, and my bouldering projects felt impossible. But soon, I surprised myself again, putting down old projects and sending harder grades.

I had to readjust to the outlandish roofs and bookcases of Alabama and Tennessee. While I was away, I forgot my skin could disappear so quickly, and how easily rubber could grind away.

I also forgot how beautiful our tiny mountains are, how at peace I feel beneath their trees. I forgot how humid the South gets, and how little that affects my psych. I forgot how concentrated our crags are, how warm our culture is, how quietly world-class our climbing is. Now I remember how good it feels to be home.

After Sarah Anne returned home,  Ethnic Cleansing  became her second proudest Tennessee send.  Two Shoes Jack  and  Pancake Mantle  are still tied for first. Photo by Mackenzie Taylor Perry.

After Sarah Anne returned home, Ethnic Cleansing became her second proudest Tennessee send. Two Shoes Jack and Pancake Mantle are still tied for first. Photo by Mackenzie Taylor Perry.