The Crag

John Quillen

At home on the rock of Knoxville’s climbing pit



FIND THE CRAG: Walk ¼ mile along first trail to the right out of the parking lot. Take a left before Burnette Creek Trail ascends to the right.

I’m 30 feet up a route called “Carcosa” on the Detective Buttress taking in the last glimpses of a disappearing sun melting behind the lime pit. My final move is the crux, and I dive for a jug buried deep behind blasted limestone. Now I need to turn slightly to grab a chain and throw a “dog bone” (quick draw) so my belayer can lower me back to the ground. I’ve inched up this route a few times, but am still sweating in the late afternoon sun.

If Knoxville is the “scruffy little city” then Ijams Nature Center definitely has the scruffiest little crag. Developed and maintained entirely by volunteer labor, this is the only “legit” climbing pit in the heart of our Urban Wilderness. It was the vision of local rockers, like Robbie Blackwell, Benjy Darnell, Kelly Brown, and Micah McCrotty, who released this resource from its kudzu prison. On any given Tuesday those same visionaries are here, harnessing up newcomers who wish to make their first forays on outdoor rock, many having begun inside the gym.

Sarah Whitt is one of those “gym to crag” climbers. She climbs nearby and tells me later about the skill and community she’s gained here. Kelsie McNutt gently takes me off belay. She travels an hour each week from Inglewood to hone her skills on “Madelaide”, arguably the best beginner crack in this part of the state. Flaking out a rope next to me is a couple from Idaho, who learned about this crag through Mountain Project and were excited to take a detour on their cross-country trek to tick off some routes on Knoxville rock. On this day, the parking lot is full of license plates from across the country.

Pat Caveney and Cai John like to “project” hard routes. They spent months inching up appropriately named “Scruffy City Blues” before triumphantly ascending this 5.11-rated route. This group of four climbs all over the Southeast but Ijams is home rock. “It’s a devious climb,” Cai says. “Once you slab past the first half you hit the steep headwall. We probably whipped off the crux 50 times before we unlocked it.”

I’m focused on the newest route since it is named after my favorite novel, Blood Meridian. Here on what I have dubbed “the Cormac McCarthy wall”, we are waiting in line to take another shot at this friction demon. It is positioned alongside “The Road” and “Suttree”. In keeping with the book, this cliff face claims scalps and makes cowboys the villains as it peels me off and whips my body once more into the sky.

As in the Old West, this territory is disputed and until Ijams and the city resolve management, volunteers are critical for keeping these 35 routes open. The East Tennessee Climbers Coalition welcomes volunteer love, especially on “trail days”. And I guarantee you’re sure to find a harness and route to fit.   

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