published Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Champion climber Claire Bell turns attention to teaching

Instructor Claire Bell, right, guides children up a small climbing wall at Northside Learning Center. Bell, a climbing enthusiast, has helped upgrade the wall with more grips, making it easier for children to use.
Instructor Claire Bell, right, guides children up a small climbing wall at Northside Learning Center. Bell, a climbing enthusiast, has helped upgrade the wall with more grips, making it easier for children to use.
Photo by Patrick Smith.

Don't be fooled by appearances.

Claire Bell, a petite, thin-framed young woman is anything but frail. For the last 14 years, Bell has been a world-class rock climber, a sport that landed her in Chattanooga.

Her accolades are many. She has placed first in numerous rock-climbing competitions ranging from the Mad Masters European X Games in France in 1999 to the British Bouldering Championships in 1999 and 2000 in Sheffield, U.K. She has held sponsorships from Mountain Hardwear, Metolius, Urban Rock, Derek Baden, Petzl, 5.10, Prana and Clif Bar.

Today, the young mother of two is spending less time bouldering and more time teaching youngsters, including her own, the thrill of climbing rocks. Several times each week she works about a dozen young climbers at Northside Learning Center, where there is a small climbing wall in place.

"They're like little monkeys," Bell said. "There are crash pads on the ground, and that gives them confidence that if they fall, it won't hurt."

Q: What brought you to Chattanooga?

A: Rock climbing. We had to pick a place that was good for raising a family, affordable and that had good rock climbing, a sport we love. I had been in this area a long time ago when I worked on a farm in Dunlap, doing an organic farm apprenticeship. I had friends who live here, one of whom is a good rock climber. It just made sense to move here.

Q: When did you become interested in rock climbing?

A: In 1997, I had finished an apprenticeship to become an organic farmer and was taking a break to figure out where to find work. I was hiking to the top of a mountain when I saw people rock climbing. I had fallen in love with the mountains, so I took Outward Bound courses to learn rock-climbing skills. I found some indoor climbing gyms and learned that I was good at it. Six months later, I won a regional and national competition in the United Kingdom and started earning money through sponsorships.

I never planned to give up farming because it's something I've always loved. I grew up in a village and harvested corn, potatoes and straw for extra money.

Q: Did you think rock climbing would become a career?

A: I have always loved the outdoors, so being outside, whether working on a farm or rock climbing, is something I've always dreamed of doing.


  • Name: Claire Bell.
  • Age: 40.
  • Hometown: Guildford, United Kingdom.
  • Children: Wiley, 6; Romany, 2.

Favorite books

"Danny, the Champion of the World" by Roald Dahl and "Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse.

Favorite movies

"Billy Elliot," "Amelie"

Favorite music

Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes, The Shins, Coldplay, Arcade Fire.

Q: What do you consider to be your top accomplishments?

A: My first goal was to win all six of the British Climbing National competitions in one year, so I went to Boulder, Co., to train. I trained for six months, went back to the U.K., and won all six competitions. It required a lot of discipline.

Q: What did your parents think of your interest in rock-climbing?

A: They thought it was cool. I had traveled a lot on my own to other countries so they knew I was adventurous. My dad was particularly proud.

Q: Do you still compete?

A: No. I stopped when I had children. I would like to compete, but now is not the time. I do enjoy, though, teaching the children to climb. The climbing wall at the Northside Learning Center is small, but big enough for the children to learn the skills. And they love it.

Q: Will you continue to teach children to rock climb?

A: Yes. I really enjoy it and so do the children. I'm thinking about coaching young climbers, but I have to see if there's a local interest. My kids are really into it because it is fun. I work with about 12 children at Northside Learning Center, and they were really quick at learning the skills. At first, they're hesitant about climbing up then down, but once they do it, they're hooked. They even like to fall on the crash pads.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: I would love to have my own climbing school -- small, nothing massive. I would do one-on-one coaching as the child gets older and help them with competitive skills. We climbers hope the sport will be an Olympic competition in 2020. It's moving forward.

Q: Where are your favorite local places to climb?

A: A place climbers have named "Little Rock City" (above Soddy-Daisy); Stone Fort; Horse Pins 40 in Alabama, and Rock Town in LaFayette, Ga.

Q: Are you still involved in farming?

A: No, but I do have an obsession with organic and fresh food. I miss farming, and it's good for your health, too. I got strong quickly when I farmed, and it's good that you don't focus on just one thing, such as climbing. You can get tight so you need to do other things. If you combine climbing with hoeing and milking cows, you can get super strong.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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