Today is likely to be the year’s first 90-degree day, which means summer is pretty much here. Accordingly, Rock/Creek employee and guest writer Will Eslinger laments the end of the Tennessee Wall “season” with this ode to his favorite world-class crag. Enjoy!
Early fall in Tennessee. The humidity is bad. It’s terrible, really. A twenty-foot walk from your porch to your fridge is a herculean task that spends more liquid in sweat than your fresh beer replenishes. On River Canyon Road, your car goes up and down hills and around blind corners. Even at forty miles an hour the air blowing past your open windows is stifling. You know that you will be hot for the rest of the day, oh so hot. But you’re a climber, and you know that climbing is hard. That’s why you do it.
Besides, the sun really isn’t bearing down with quite as much fury as it did in the summer months, when you climbed in the morning and afternoon shade at Lookout Mountain’s Sunset Park. You were cool, but you didn’t want to be climbing at Sunset, not really. And no matter how much you told yourself they didn’t, your heart and hands longed for the orange-streaked Sandstone of the Tennessee Wall. But it was too hot. The summer sun reflected off of its south-facing walls like a giant convection oven. You would have been cooked from the outside in.
6.3 miles down River Canyon Road, on your left, you see the gravel parking lot for the Tennessee Wall. It’s hot, so hot, and so yours is the first car to arrive. You pull in and pick a spot, any spot. That’s nice, you think, remembering the winter days when the lot was overflowing and cars scattered up and down the side of the road.
From the trunk of your car you pull out your backpack. You see so many different packs at T-Wall. Some climbers carry big haul bags of vinyl-laminated nylon from Metolius or Black Diamond. They’re tough, and carry a staggering amount of weight, but feel like some device out of the Spanish Inquisition. Your bag is simpler, a climbing-specific design with straps for a rope, ice-tools and three-point haul. Your partner goes simpler still, pulling out a standard backpacking pack. But it works; all you need is a frame rated for forty five or so pounds with straps for rope-compression and a sleeve for a water bladder. You and your partner each carry three-liter bladders. Yours is filled with a mixture of cold water and Heed, a powder like Gatorade that replenishes the electrolytes you’ve already started to sweat out.
In your hands you hold trekking poles. In the past, grizzled hard-men at the crag have jokingly asked if you have tweaked ankles when they saw the poles. No, you think to yourself, and I won’t, because of the poles. What they see as weakness, you know to be wisdom. You have a long hike ahead with staggering weight on your back, and the poles save your ankles and knees for the day’s real work.
The main T-Wall trailhead is directly across the road from the parking lot. Just a few yards into your approach, the trail tilts to an ungodly angle. The trail is mostly mud and dirt. Out west, where the rock is worse and the views are better, you would be in approach shoes from La Sportiva or Five Ten, with sticky rubber made for hiking up talus fields and scrambling over boulders. But you’re in the sandstone belt, where the cliffs rise from dirt. Your Montrail trail running shoes grip the trails far better than flat soles and climbing rubber ever could.
You’re sweating now, and your legs are burning, you forgot how long and steep the trail is. But soon you see the reason to suffer through the hike. Rising out of the mountainside are the burnt-orange walls of the Wasteland, jagged and menacing and beautiful all at once. They seem to taunt you, to ask if you have what it takes to climb up their many jagged cracks. You smile because you are home. You’re at the place where your worry fades into the oblivion of jamming cracks and placing pro. Your job and your relationships, be they bad or be they good evaporate into nothing as you reach the end of the trail.
You look up into the massive rock amphitheater, where a waterfall pours over the tiered roof of the 5.12+ crack Hands Across America. You wonder if you will ever be strong enough to conquer this line. It feels good to know that no matter how good you become, you will never own this rock; this rock will inevitably own you.
From the Amphitheater, you turn right towards the Orange Blossom Walls. Beneath a left-facing dihedral, you and your partner doff your packs. “Prerequisite for Excellence?” your partner asks. “Yes,” you respond, and that is all you need to say. Every line here is worthy, and this beautiful 5.8 corner crack is as good a warm-up as any.
From your pack you pull out your harness. The T-Wall is a crag for single-pitch routes, so you have no need for your Metolius gear sling. You will carry everything you need up the wall on your gear loops, and so you’ve chosen a harness with four of them. From experience, you know that this will be enough.
Next you pull out the aforementioned gear sling that you will be left on the ground. Onto it, you’ve clipped your trad rack. Most of the bulk comes from your cams. You have doubles in all sizes, from small finger-tip pieces to bigger hand-sizes ones. For your hand-sized cams you have chosen the Black Diamond Camalot C4; these are the gold standard for rock protection, and you have two of each from .3 to #3. For finger-sized gear you carry Metolius Master Cams, lightweight, four-lobed cams that you like in the #00 to #3 sizes.
Rounding out the rack are your slings and quickdraws. For the former, you carry shoulder-length dyneema slings from Mammut, and several of the 24-inch Petzl Fin’Anneau slings. The slings are unbelievably thin and take up little space on your harness. For the latter, you carry Petzl Spirit express quickdraws that, although relatively heavy, will give you 300,000 clips before they even think about becoming sticky.
You start out on the initial hand crack of Prerequisite for Excellence. You jam the crack open-handed, first with your thumbs up, then with your thumbs down. You’ve lapped this climb countless times. As a gumby climber you placed pro down low, but now you don’t. You have the moves dialed, and you know that you’re just feet away from a four-foot ledge. Placing pro before the ledge increases your rope drag exponentially, so you run it out.
At the ledge, you’re in the zone. You attack the crack with precision. Life and its worries fall away like so many leaves in the early autumn wind. On the ground, your partner feeds out slack on the rope with a Petzl Grigri 2. In the alpine, you’d leave the Grigri at home in favor of a Black Diamond ATC Guide (although your partner likes the Petzl Reverso 3); those plate devices are lighter, and accommodate double ropes, but feed far less smoothly. The dreaded “guide belay” short-ropes your slack at the most inopportune times, while the heavier Grigri feeds so smoothly that it seems that you and your partner have established some kind psychic connection.
You finish the pitch, lower and belay your partner as he cleans it. At the top your partner shouts that he’s off-belay. While he pulls the rope to rappel, you pack up your gear. From the bottom of your pack you pull out your Chaco sandals, and in their place pack in your trail-runners. While great on the approach, the running shoes take too long to put on and take off; up at the crag, it’s better to wear sandals, it saves time.
You spend the rest of the day star-chasing, climbing all the classic routes that made you fall in love with T-Wall in the first place. Before the day is up you tick off Golden Locks, In Pursuit of Excellence, Precious Orr, Points of Contact, Finger-Lockin’ Good and Hungry for Heaven. When you lower off of Hungry for Heaven, there’s so much lactic acid in your arms that you fumble with your knot like a drunkard for three minutes before you have it off.
You pack up, swap Chacos for trail-runners and sit down on your pack next to your climbing partner. You climbed hard today, and you know that you will be sore tomorrow. Hoping to stave that off just a bit, you mix a packet of Recoverite into your Nalgene. You pass more of the same to your partner and he does likewise.
The two of you sit silently as the sun goes down and the breeze picks up. There’s nothing to say that could have any meaning next to the sight before your eyes. The day is ending in the Tennessee River Gorge, and you know that you spent the day well. And as the light wanes, you point yourself down trail and stumble back to your car.
Tomorrow you return to work, to the “real” world. But you know that it isn’t going to be real. Nothing seems real, you don’t feel alive, and life feels empty when you’re away from the Tennessee Wall. That’s why you climb.
And that’s why you’ll come back.