When Kurt and I left NYC last winter, I told him that I got to pick the next place we lived. We spent Christmas with his family in Arkansas but immediately backtracked to the southeast to spend a winter in Chattanooga. A majority of my time spent climbing has been in the southeast, specifically in the New River Gorge and at the T-wall. I’ve always had enough time in both places to attempt a thing here or there, but never long enough to project some of the harder things.
I often wonder what climbers from out west think of when they hear about climbing in the south. The general consensus has always been: the south is filled with rednecks, extreme humidity, and possible snakes, and there is always a chance of retreating to your car because someone with a gun threatens you off their property. None of those things would be false preconceptions. But, despite some of these factors, there are also primo sandstone trad routes and moderate winters, which provide year-round climbing opportunities.
There are a few climbs in Tennessee that I have been willing to make the 19-hour drive from Colorado for. Human Chew Toy (5.11d), in 2015 was one of them. Fists of Fury was another. Fists is one the infamous Triple Crown roof cracks at the T-wall, about 30-meter long climb consisting of an intense, burly start, a bombay roof crack, and an invert you absolutely have to battle through to the anchor.
Rob Robinson and Steve Goins put Fists of Fury up in 1985. Robinson says of the history of the climb, “The name came from one of several martial arts training exercises that I incorporated into my training to benefit my climbing back in the day in order to build brutal, crack climbing power: Doing hundreds and hundreds of push-ups in a large bed of rice approximately ten inches in depth set in a 3′ by 3′ square pan.”
Robinson said that this type of training provides the martial arts practitioner with tremendous gripping and tearing power. “It’s brutal shit. And it’s great for climbing, too,” he says. Robinson gave the Tennessee Wall mega classic roof crack its name, “Fists of Fury”, in recognition of the rice bed power training he performed, which was instrumental in his original onsight/flash of the route. For the first ascentionist, the crux came once he jammed out into the bombay slot, cut loose on a pair of fist jams buried high and deep in the crack while smearing feet on the bottom wall that sloped away beneath him. To turn around, Robinson relaxed into a full body dead hang on his fists and then eased his feet into space. Letting them dangle, he then twisted his head hard left to give him enough space to rotate. He says, “It was such a tight fit that I literally sanded the skin off the end of my nose in the process…. A little bit further out and I wormed my way left around the lip, then up a short corner to a standing belay. An FA story that’s never been told.”
The first trip I ever took to Tennessee, I merely gawked at photographs. The second visit to the T-wall was in November of 2014 and I decided to try my hand at it. I failed miserably, barely able to get ten feet off of the ground and taking on every other piece. It felt impossible before I even got to the hand to chimney-sized crack and overhanging offwidth. I was going to need a miracle—but I kept that one in my back pocket. Another day, I always told myself.
But sometimes, you get climber’s amnesia and forget about how impossible things feel. Enough time goes by that you even start to believe you have some small iota of a chance. It had been four years since the first time I’d gotten my ass kicked, with one other attempt. I asked Kurt if we could spend the winter in Chattanooga climbing and working so that I could give it a real attempt this time. It was going to take a lot of work, and I knew it. Because I don’t really onsight things anymore, and I especially don’t onsight 12 roof cracks.
After waiting out some wet weather, I had three and a half days of attempts (one with Donal O’Leary and again with Sarah Malone). Both were generous enough to belay me through it even though it was not fast climbing. Mike O’Mara gave me a belay on the coldest, wettest attempt, where I only made it halfway through the roof. It had been a particularly cold winter, and there was a huge sheet of ice, frozen on one side of the wall. Where the crack opened wide, daggers of ice jutted out, glistening dangerously and threatening anybody who happened to be standing underneath. I went indirect and hacked away for what felt like forever with my ice tool and a number 3 cam. Shards came careening down and I was lowered, giving the route some time to dry.
Our time in Chatt was dwindling down and I was wondering if I’d be able to go up it again, or would I have to come back and try another time. Mostly, I was in need of a good belayer—someone who didn’t mind trudging far west with me and taking up a few hours of their day. Sabine Connors pretty much saved the day when she said she’d join me. Not only did she come with me, but she was also buzzing with excitement (more than me, I think!)
Racking up, it already felt improbable. I had sorta figured out what to do through the upper section but still, up until that day, had not been able to do the start clean. It was overhanging. It was burly. And scary, burly, low to the ground moves still make me nervous. But Sabine put me on belay and I started upward. I’d told myself, it was just a warm-up burn to familiarize myself with the gear and movement again. I went entirely horizontal, to the point where I was almost upside down, and plugged my first few pieces. Breathing deeply, I continued through the bulgy roof that had given me trouble from day one. I got to a good stance and said, “Fuck if I try that again.” I was NOT doing that again.
I continued up through the 5.10ish crack and at the arete, I plugged a bomber hand-sized piece. From perfect hands, I inverted to place my feet inside the crack. I took a breath—two breaths—and came swinging out. My heel-toe cam kept me perfectly in place and I pivoted to the other side. I shuffled quickly through to where I thought I would plug another piece but decided to skip it. In one swift motion, I sat up, chin at my knees and grabbed the tufa-like feature inside. After scraping my way through it, I made it past the bombay chimney to the final crux.
The offwidth is overhanging just enough. I wasn’t sure if I needed to invert again or not; it was unclear. I did a butterfly on a 4 section and got myself slightly inverted before going full splits. I wanted to be angry that Mountain Project calls it “overhanging fists” because for someone with my sized mitts, it isn’t. But, I battled for several moments, hearing Sabine shout up to me, “You got it!” And then, amazingly enough, I did have it. I’d pulled the last overhanging roof.
Reaching the anchors on the first attempt that day almost brought me to (happy) tears. I had put so much of myself into this route, spanning several years, that it felt surreal to know that it was finished. I remembered the first time I sent Human Chew Toy, I wrote that you don’t always make it to the top. Giving yourself a little time and space between you and the things that you want gives you perspective, which is all a part of the route. They always tell you that it’s a journey, but they never tell you how much.
When I look back at last year as the winter I put both of my east coast projects to rest, and I feel satisfied. I’ve taken a lot of time off since that January and, while I’ve still been climbing, I have not been seeking anything to project. I think that’s a necessary part of the journey, too: taking time to reset. I’ll be ready to start all over again though, soon. Starting from the beginning is just as important as getting to the end. How hard you climb and how hard you try are two different things.