Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Coleman Spinks poses for a portrait at HighPoint Climbing Gym on Tuesday, July 20, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Extreme outdoorspeople belong to a unique tribe, banded together by a drive to conquer the world one climb, one ride, one paddle at a time.

And like warriors throughout history, many choose to commemorate their victories with a tattoo.

Here, a local climber, paddler and cyclist share the stories behind their ink, and eight others show off their outdoor-inspired tats and the meanings behind the designs.


Once Bitten

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Photo by Sunny Montgomery / Stiles Tate received his tattoo of a copperhead above a dedication, to commemorate his first year as a river guide on the Gauley River.

Stiles Tate's dream was to become a raft guide on West Virginia's Gauley River. He had rafted the river in 2013 with friends and been awestruck by its deep gorge, powerful rapids and "all the hype" surrounding the Southeast's most infamous Class V big-water run.

He devoted the next several seasons to honing his skills as a guide on the Ocoee River. Then, in 2016, he was given the opportunity to begin training as a Gauley guide.

In the weeks leading up to his move, Tate barely slept.

"I was too excited. It felt like Christmas," he remembers. "The whole drive up to West Virginia, I was just buzzing."

Day one of training went swimmingly, Tate says. So did his second day.

That evening, he returned to camp happy and exhausted, stepped out of his truck — and felt what he describes as "the worst wasp sting I could imagine."

Tate had been bitten on his foot by a copperhead.

"I knew it was a snake because I could feel it wiggling under my shoe," he says.

An hour later, at the hospital, a nurse told Tate, "Your Gauley season is over." He was unlikely to recover in time.

But Tate refused to give up his dream.

"I was eating Motrin like candy," he says.

Five days later, he was walking.

He returned to camp and begged the river manager not to send him home. And one week to the day of his bite, Tate guided his first trip down the Gauley River.

That season, says the now-29-year-old, "was life-changing for me. It opened up so many worlds. It kicked off a really adventurous time in my life."

To commemorate the experience, on his inner thigh, Tate got a tattoo: a coiled copperhead above a dedication, "Gauley River 2016."

A reminder, he says, to go for your goals. No matter what.


What Strength Looks Like

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Photo by Troy Stolt / Coleman Spinks' tattoo, which pictures a carabiner framing the face of a lion and inscribed with the word "Emerson," is a tribute to his 2-year-old son.

Coleman Spinks wanted a meaningful tattoo. Especially following the rainbow narwhal he had inked across his lower back in 2018.

"The result of a lost bet," laughs the now-28-year-old.

So, in 2020, he chose the image of a carabiner, an important piece of gear used in rope sports, framing the face of a lion and inscribed with the word "Emerson," the name of his 2-year-old son.

As Spinks explains, the carabiner, the lion and even the name "Emerson" all stand for strength.

A lifelong climber, Spinks says part of why he loves the sport is that it keeps him strong. It also keeps him on his toes.

"The risk of falling is real," he says.

He remembers his first crack climb, which he attempted earlier this year at the Tennessee Wall in Prentice Cooper State Forest. A crack climb involves following a crack in the rock and using a specialized technique to find holds within it.

"I didn't know if I was remotely capable. I didn't know if I would be able to get off the ground," he says. "But I just shot right up."

That sense of pride following a climb, says Spinks, is rivaled only by the accomplishments of his son — the first time he rolled over; the first time he crawled.

"I can't wait to see [Emerson] top out his first wall," Spinks says.


A Fork in the Trail

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Photo by Troy Stolt / David Snyder hasn't ridden a bike in years, but his tattoo serves as a daily reminder of the lessons he learned through the sport.

David Snyder says his first tattoo serves as a daily reminder to embrace change — though it didn't always.

Across his forearm in black ink is the image of a bicycle crank arm and the words "LIVE THE RIDE."

Bicycling has always represented freedom for Snyder, from the rides he took as a child to nearby Booker T. Washington State Park, to the steep dirt jumps and downhills he dedicated himself to as an adult.

"Finding flow and being able to ride the ideas I had built was big," says Snyder, now 35.

For 20 years, Snyder helped build trails across Tennessee, including some on Raccoon Mountain that are especially near to his heart, he says. But the profession — and the extreme riding — took a toll on his body.

Over five years, "I threw my back out eight or nine times," Snyder says.

Eventually, he was diagnosed with a herniated disc and a pinched sciatic nerve. His doctor recommended he find a new hobby.

"I spent at least a year pretty depressed. I sold all my bikes and haven't ridden since," Snyder says.

But he did eventually find a new hobby: kayaking.

"I'm making new dreams in the water trails of Tennessee and North Georgia," he says.

And as for the words inked on his forearm, Snyder says, "I'm still living it. Life is a ride. So many twists. So many turns. I couldn't have predicted any of this."

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Extreme Ink: Local adventure athletes share the stories behind their tats