Meet Chattanooga area adventurers who are addicted to dangerous hobbies

Left: Staff file photo / Tripp Lichtefeld climbs out of Stephens Gap Cave, a 100+-foot drop in Jackson County, Ala. / Right: Photo contributed by Jordan Stratton / Hang-glider pilot Jordan Stratton takes off from Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

Whether it's clawing for a secure handhold while rock climbing, anticipating a wind gust while piloting a hang-glider or fighting against an extreme current while swimming in the Tennessee River, almost all adventure sports have their moments of peril. But for thrill-seekers, that's the allure of the outdoors.

While advancements in safety have helped reduce the risks associated with many adventure sports, there's no 100% guarantee that something won't go wrong, including natural factors, equipment malfunctions or human error. Here, meet four Chattanooga-area adventurers who say the rewards of their sports outweigh the risks.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Fleetwood Gruver stands at the Lower Leda Climbing Area near the North Chickamauga Trailhead in Soddy-Daisy.

Fleetwood Gruver

Sport: Climbing

While climbing the Higher Cathedral Spire, a 400-foot rock structure in Yosemite National Park, Fleetwood Gruver and his climbing partner were working through the crux of their ascent, the most difficult part of the climb.

Gruver said he lost his hold and fell 15 feet onto a slab, when he heard his ankle make a cracking noise. Ultimately, Gruver required surgery on his ankle and six months of recovery time, during which he was unable to climb.

"Looking at the recovery time, looking at taking a break from climbing, it didn't feel like a huge setback," he says. "It was a consequence that I had already accepted getting into the sport."

Gruver got involved with this dangerous hobby by going to climbing gyms with his friends in Florida, but it wasn't until he moved to the Yosemite area in his 20s that he really started climbing. He says the culture, physicality and danger of the sport were the elements that drew him to it.

About two years ago, Gruver, now 34, moved to Chattanooga. The scale of climbing here is smaller than Yosemite, he says, but the quality is still good, and he has enjoyed discovering new places to climb.

"You go an hour in any direction here in Chattanooga, and you can find something that is unique unto itself," he says.

For Gruver, the rewards of climbing include improving his physical fitness and skills, enjoying the "flow state" of being in the moment while climbing, being involved in the community and culture of climbers who share a passion for the sport and having the opportunity to visit beautiful places.

On the flip side, he says that there are several risks to consider with climbing. Weather such as rain or snow and preparedness, or lack thereof, can affect the safety of a climb.

The main danger is experiencing a serious injury that could potentially — and possibly permanently — impact a person's ability to climb, engage in other activities, maintain a job or care for themselves. As a father, Gruver says that he has to think about how his climbing could affect his daughter's well-being just as much as his own.

"[Injury is] something to consider," he says. "It's like, 'What other areas of your life add that richness, and are you willing to put those on the line?'"

Despite the risks, the act of climbing provides an incredible feeling. Gruver says that each time he climbs, he has a moment that reinforces his desire to be a climber — a moment in which he thinks, "This is the best climb I've ever had."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Jordan Stratton, aerotow and tandem manager at Lookout Mountain Flight Park, poses for a photo.

Jordan Stratton

Sport: Hang-Glider Piloting

Weather is everything when it comes to hang-gliding, Jordan Stratton says. In the Chattanooga region, wind flowing over the mountains creates a rotation that Stratton describes as a "washing machine of air." This causes significant turbulence, similar to what you would experience on an airplane, Stratton says, making it difficult to fly and land. In bad weather, the only thing to do is to get to the ground as fast as possible.

"I always tell people, 'It's easy to learn how to fly, but it's hard to learn the weather and keep yourself safe,'" he says. "You can't just go fly a hang-glider in any conditions."

Stratton got into the hang-gliding business when a friend living in the Outer Banks in North Carolina invited him to come stay and help him teach hang-gliding.

"[He said,] 'You can come vacation for a week, or you can come teach hang-gliding with me for a summer,'" Stratton says. "So that's what I ended up doing. I sold all my stuff and moved there and became a hang-gliding instructor."

Stratton has been a hang-glider pilot for eight years now, and he is currently the aerotow and tandem flight manager at Lookout Mountain Flight Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia.

At the flight park, there are two types of soaring that pilots do, Stratton says. One type is ridge soaring, where wind comes through the ridge and creates a lift band that a pilot can ride as if they were surfing a wave on the ocean. The other type is thermal soaring, where a pilot flies into a rising column of hot air that lifts them to a higher altitude, similar to how birds soar.

"Every time you go up into the air, it's a real sense of just pure bliss," he says. "There's a million things happening in the world, and once you get in the air, it's just you and Mother Nature, which is an awesome feeling."

In his time as a pilot, Stratton has had the opportunity to see the world from the skies. He's flown in New Zealand, Switzerland, Italy, Australia and Mexico. He says there's no experience quite like piloting a hang-glider.

Hang-gliding stirs up feelings of awe, and the sport is not without its dangers. According to the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, the major risks of hang-gliding are equipment malfunctions, weather and a pilot's own judgement.

For Stratton, the benefits of hang-gliding overshadow any potential hazards. He says that even people who start out afraid of hang-gliding come to love it because of the unparalleled experience of flying.

"There's really no other feeling like it," he says. "You can't describe it until you do it."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Swimmer Jamie Ann Rennick poses for a photo near the Wheland Foundry Trailhead.

Jamie Ann Rennick

Sport: Open-Water Swimming

Open-water swimming is not for the faint of heart; one has to consider environmental factors, water conditions and their own physical ability to know if a swim in a river, lake or ocean is safe, experts say. However, the risks don't stop there because swimmers aren't the only ones in the water, as Jamie Ann Rennick learned firsthand.

"Swimming around Manhattan, there was one instance with a boat. It was either the Staten Island Ferry or the Statue of Liberty Ferry that was leaving its dock and didn't see me," Rennick says. "That was a little scary because there's 200 or so people on this boat looking down ... but it was fine."

Knowing the water and one's own limitations can make all the difference in swimming safely, even for experienced swimmers like Rennick.

"I'm never going to put myself in a situation or do a swim that is just stupid dangerous," she says. "I always try to be smart and act smart and be with other smart people when I swim, but of course, things come up."

Community is a big part of why Rennick began open-water swimming avidly around 2012, she says. She was involved in the triathlon community but realized her strengths were in swimming, so she joined the Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers (COWS), a group of swimmers that organize meetups, training swims and races around Chattanooga.

"We have all sorts of different personalities — types of people all across the board, but everyone comes together and does the same thing," she says of the community.

While making friends is one of the biggest rewards for Rennick, she says that the sport has also become relaxing for her and gives her time to think and clear her head. She compares swimming to trail running and mountain biking in terms of physicality and community, although she says open-water swimming is a better way to spend a hot day.

To become an open-water swimmer, it's important to feel strong swimming for long periods, Rennick says. It is also beneficial, and often required, to have a partner, referred to as a pilot, in a kayak who can act as a lookout for signs of danger.

In terms of risks, Rennick notes that weather (including winds and air temperature), water currents, depth, water cleanliness and temperature, boats in the water and wildlife are all things to consider before and during swims. She says that one's own health is an important risk factor as well, noting that swimmers have died from having heart attacks in the water.

Rennick's now-husband was nervous about her swimming the Catalina Channel off the coast of Southern California, she says, but after witnessing her swim, he had a change of heart about the sport. And Rennick chooses to focus on the positive aspects of her sport and not the perilous ones.

"I think anything that you can do where you are in a good community with good people, and you are pushing yourself and doing cool things, is worth it. Always worth the risk," she says.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tripp Lichtefeld poses for a photo at Eagles' Nest on Lookout Mountain.

Tripp Lichtefeld

Sport: Caving

Once, while caving, Tripp Lichtefeld struggled to move through a tight passage. With the rocks seemingly grabbing onto his clothes and harness, he says that moving forward or backward was difficult, and one small movement at a time was the only way to avoid getting stuck.

"It was really tight, and you get a little wave of panic." Lichtefeld says. "But then you calm down, and you work your way through it."

A friend introduced Lichtefeld to caving and took him on his first expedition at Johnson's Crook Cave on Lookout Mountain, where they were able to rappel into the cave and explore its beauty. Lichtefeld became addicted to caving, he says, and he moved from Athens, Georgia, to Chattanooga because of this area's many caving opportunities.

"This region where we live — specifically Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia — is its own region of caving," Lichtefeld says. "So we have really good caves here, so people move to this area like I did, for the caves."

According to him, the rewards of caving include seeing beautiful things, such as unique rock formations, fascinating animals that have adapted to subterranean life and fossils of long-gone organisms. The physicality of caving, including the hiking it takes to get to a cave site, also provides great exercise. Another of the big benefits of caving is the experience of discovering a new frontier that few, if any, others have seen.

"It's one of the last chances for exploration," Lichtefeld says. "Even the whole ocean floor has been mapped, but not caves; you have to actually go. Every year, many new caves are discovered and explored and mapped as a result of amatuer people just going out and pursuing the hobby they love."

Notable dangers in caving, according to Lichtefeld, are darkness; hypothermia caused by the consistently cool temperatures of cave environments; serious injuries caused by loose, brittle or slick rock that can fall or break away; disorientation caused by the maze-like structures of caves; and potential falls caused by sudden drop-offs and changes in elevation.

"Before someone goes caving, they need to have let someone know where they're going and when they plan to come back and, if applicable, the area of the cave that they're going to," Lichtefeld says.

Even with the dangers, Lichtefeld says that once a person starts caving, the experience and community of the sport can quickly make it become an obsession.

"There's not a big group that does it, but everyone's very passionate about it," he says. "As you talk to people, you'll hear many stories like mine — that as soon as they started, they got so into it; immediately, it was very addictive and very consuming. They might have other hobbies, but those kind of become less, and they cave more and more and more. Every weekend, you're planning your next cave trip."