Kennedy: Why rock climbers pick Chattanooga

  photo  Contributed photo / Chattanooga teacher Haley Graham prepares for a bouldering competition here in January 2024.

People move to new cities for lots of reasons: jobs, climate, lower taxes.

Haley Graham and her now-husband, Andrew, moved to Chattanooga about a decade ago for one reason: rocks.

More specifically, boulders.

"We moved here in 2013 because we were traveling here from Canton, Georgia, every single weekend to climb," Graham, who now teaches second grade at Battle Academy, a downtown elementary school, said in an interview. "We came to Chattanooga for the climbing."

Like other sports — biking, running, pickleball — bouldering can become a lifestyle. But unlike activities that you can practice practically anywhere, climbers need access to artificial climbing walls, and/or, actual stone formations.

Graham said she and her husband were counting on their fingers recently and came up with 10 climbing spots within a 10-minute drive of their Chattanooga home.

Their go-to venues are the area's Highpoint Climbing gyms, downtown and on Appling Street near Riverside Drive, and the St. Elmo Boulders on Old Wauhatchie Pike.

(READ MORE: Bouldering at Old Wauhatchie Pike.)

Last month, Graham won the women's division in the Wauhatchie Boulderfest, an endurance bouldering competition sponsored by the Lookout Mountain Conservancy at the St. Elmo Boulders.

Her climbing hobby began 18 years ago when she was looking for a sport that could take the place of softball and gymnastics, which filled her K-12 years.

"I needed something to take the place of not being able to play fastpitch softball anymore, and climbing did that," she said. "It was outside, and I've always enjoyed things outside and being out in nature."

In 2005, living in Canton, she would go with friends to climb on rocks near the Etowah River. She soon discovered the Escalade Rock Climbing gym in nearby Kennesaw, Georgia, and became a regular there.

(READ MORE: Regional bouldering series returns to Chattanooga.)

She met her future husband in the Georgia climbing community. They moved to Chattanooga in 2013 and got married in 2017, Graham said.

While there are many kinds of rock climbing, Graham enjoys bouldering, which involves climbing a short cliff or boulder without a rope. Crashpads are deployed below the rocks to protect climbers if they fall.

Although she doesn't consider herself a competitive climber, Graham said she cleared 64 boulders at the Wauhatchie Boulderfest, a bit short of her goal of 74 (which would have been a number equal to twice her age).

"I like to set a birthday challenge for myself," she said.

Bouldering is said to require balance, strength and flexibility, which makes it a perfect sport for keeping fit.

Graham said the exertion helps her work off stress, although it can occasionally lead to injuries. She has had multiple ankle and shoulder tweaks over the years, she said.

Yet, on balance, the rewards of climbing outweigh the risks, she said.

"It (climbing) is definitely my happy place," she said.

The mother of a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, Graham said climbing has become a family affair. Mom, Dad and the children build climbing into their busy weeks, she said.

"Through the week, we are climbing at the gym to support our mental health," Graham said. " And on the weekends, we go outside if the weather is nice."

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.

Upcoming Events