In a first outdoor win for 2021, the Southeastern Climbers Coalition this month will make the final payment on a $1.3 million, 685-acre tract of land girded with nearly 3 miles of sandstone cliffs many say is some of the best rock climbing in the South.
The property in Marion County, Tennessee, known as Denny Cove is a rock climber's paradise.
Andrea Hassler, the coalition's executive director, said the property was discovered by local climbers about 10 years ago when it was owned by a timber company. When they realized the potential of the site, two of those climbers, Cody Averbeck and John Dorough, began developing climbing routes, Hassler said.
"The steepness of the cliff at the Buffet Wall and high quality stone made the area appealing, as well as proximity to other established climbing areas, Foster Falls and Castle Rock," Hassler said in a statement about what initially drew Averbeck's and Dorough's eyes upward.
Averbeck and Dorough took the idea to the coalition and Access Fund officials in 2011, she said.
But making the idea a reality took help and cooperation from others.
"At 685 acres and $1.3 million, Southeastern Climbers Coalition and Access Fund realized that Denny was too large of an acquisition to take on alone," Hassler said. "They recognized the area's potential for world class rock climbing as well as hiking, nature viewing and conservation. They reached out to partner organizations and foundations to support the project and to the state for long-term management."
The coalition's partners in financing the purchase include the Open Space Institute, Conservation Fund, Riverview Foundation, Lyndhurst Foundation, Access Fund and Friends of South Cumberland, according to officials. The Conservation Fund is administered through The Land Trust for Tennessee.
Denny Cove project partners
Land Trust for Tennessee
Southeastern Climbers Coalition
Friends of South Cumberland State Park
Open Space Institute
The Conservation Alliance
The Conservation Fund
Tennessee State Land Acquisition Fund
Tennessee Heritage Conservation Fund
Stone Summit Climbing and Fitness
Triple Crown Bouldering Series
High Point Climbing and Fitness
Source: Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
Former coalition executive director Cody Roney acknowledged the importance of those partnerships in 2018 as the groups joined to purchase Denny Cove.
"This was a million-dollar-plus purchase, and that was not something we never imagined [we could do], but everything worked out really smoothly. And having those partnerships now is invaluable to us," Roney told Get Out magazine in 2017. "We all had different interests in the property, but it came together."
The coalition took out an initial loan for the purchase and closed on the property in July of 2016, Hassler said. Before long, the majority of funding came in to cover the cost of the acquisition, she said. The coalition sought an additional loan from the Access Fund Conservation Loan Program of $150,000 for the remaining amount needed for the project.
"It's a completely undeveloped tract of land," said Zachary Lesch-Huie, who in 2016 was southeast regional director for the Access Fund when the work was being performed.
"There are no trails, no parking. So that basic infrastructure isn't there yet. We've got to build that out to a degree before folks can get out there and enjoy it," Lesch-Huie said then.
While the coalition owned the property, officials coordinated volunteer trail projects — called "Denny Days" — every weekend in the fall of 2016, according to Hassler.
Climbers invested thousands of hours building access trails. In exchange, those climbers got early access to the property, she said. Meanwhile, the coalition organized the construction of an access road and parking lot, built to state park specifications in anticipation of the transfer.
Southeast Climbers Coalition to pay off $1.3 million rock climber's paradise Denny Cove in Marion County
Denny Cove was transferred to the state of Tennessee in December 2016 after finishing construction of the access infrastructure, according to organizers.
Before Denny Cove was opened to the public in 2017, the walls had to be "cleaned" by route developers, a difficult and risky process that involves removing potentially hazardous rock, dirt or vegetation along climbing routes, officials said.
The work gave climbers more than 150 newly-cleared routes.
By fund-raising, the coalition pulled in about $40,000 each year since 2016 to pay back the loan from the Access Fund, Hassler said.
"These funds have come exclusively from the climbing community through annual fundraisers and events, including our main fundraising event of the year, Buy Your Own Boulderfield," she said. The event raised in 2020 $17,400 for the loan "in addition to funds raised throughout the year at smaller events and from [Southeastern Climbers Coalition] membership, general donations, and our Conservation Legacy Program."
After the final payment on Denny Cove, climbing conservationists can move on to another acquisition project, Hassler said. The coalition since its formation in 1993 has purchased 10 properties in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
"Writing the final check for Denny Cove shows the role that climbers can play in large-scale conservation initiatives, as well as providing access to the outdoors and supporting outdoor recreation tourism that boosts local economies," Hassler said.
Chad Wykle, southeast director of The Land Trust for Tennessee, praised the payoff and noted for region residents that Denny Cove is just 30 minutes away from Chattanooga and only a short drive north from Jasper.
The final payment on Denny Cove will "permanently secure this fantastic resource for us all," Wykle said.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.