9/19/16.      We didn't backpack.  This was the plan.....





Ijams closes Knoxville’s only outdoor rock climbing area in sudden decision

Kelly Brown, a member of the "Crag Committee," tests his skills on a bolted route called Scruffy City Blues at Ijams Nature Center's crag on March 28, 2015. Ijams has been forced to close the unique climbing area because of insurance. (PAUL EFIRD/NEWS SENTINEL)
Kelly Brown, a member of the "Crag Committee," tests his skills on a bolted route called Scruffy City Blues at Ijams Nature Center's crag on March 28, 2015. Ijams has been forced to close the unique climbing area because of insurance. (PAUL EFIRD/NEWS SENTINEL)
Updated: 7:49 p.m.

By Travis Dorman of the Knoxville News Sentinel

Ijams Nature Center closed the only outdoor rock-climbing site in the Knoxville area on Monday in a whirlwind development that left administrators surprised and climbers confused and disappointed.

A short statement posted Saturday on Ijams' website said the Ijams Crag would be closed to open climbing "due to changes in Ijams Nature Center's liability insurance coverage." Only supervised climbing and instruction classes are permitted on the crag, effective Monday, the statement reads.

The decision shocked Knoxville's small but dedicated climbing community as well as the "Crag Committee," an unofficial team of volunteers who have spent countless hours over the past three years preparing the space for public use.

"We worked so hard on developing this area," said Kelly Brown, a member of the committee who also wrote the guidebook to the Obed Wild and Scenic River. "A core group of us put in thousands of hours developing this place, cutting out invasive species, planting dogwoods and redbuds and flowering plants and turning this around.

"We worked on making it beautiful when it was just a scar in the earth. … If Knoxville really wants to stay and step forward as an outdoor community, this is something that's really necessary for people to embrace. It should always be open to the public."

The unexpected closure of the crag was the culmination of four months of struggling to find a suitable liability insurance policy, said Cindy Hassil, Ijams' development director. The search, which began in May, yielded no results until Paul James, Ijams' director, received a text late Thursday — less than three days before the park's previous insurance plan was slated to expire.

On Friday morning, James told Ijams' management team that it had 48 hours to accept or decline what they saw as their only option — a plan that didn't include coverage for open climbing.

"It was a complete surprise to us that they weren't going to cover it," Hassil said, "because with the insurance that we had in the past, it wasn't an issue. … If we had not taken it, we would have had to shut down the entire park."

Hassil said the group is still hoping to find another option — " if they're available, if they're affordable" — to reopen the crag as soon as possible.

The closure blindsided devoted Ijams patrons and nature lovers such as John Quillen, a Knoxville resident who has climbed at Ijams two or three days a week since it opened. The crag was the only climbing destination in Knoxville, the next closest being at the Obed nearly an hour away.

Quillen said he was heading to the crag to climb on Saturday afternoon when he saw the area had been closed off and a sign had been posted. He alerted the climbing community, which certainly was surprised. But it was the members of the Crag Committee, he said, who were the most saddened.

"You can imagine the palpable disappointment when they found out that all that effort is now potentially in limbo," he said. "We're all hoping they can work this thing out. There was no discussion about this with any of these guys, and they are the real stakeholders."

Zachary Lesch-Huie, regional director for Access Fund, an organization that aims to protect climbing access across the country, believes the insurance policy may not be necessary. He said Ijams is not responsible for unsupervised climbers who do not pay to climb under the Tennessee Recreational Use Statute, which states "the landowner … owes no duty of care to keep such land or premises safe for entry or use by others for such recreational activities as hunting, fishing … rock climbing ..."

Lesch-Huie suggested Ijams explore other strategies for risk management, such as posting warning signs or having climbers sign a waiver showing they understand the danger inherent to the activity.

Hassil said the Ijams management team will explore every possible solution to the problem and aims make the crag available to climbers as soon as possible.

"We really appreciate the generous, hardworking volunteers," she said. "They helped us develop and continue to support the climbing destination. We're committed to making the crag available to climbers."

About Travis Dorman

Travis Dorman is a reporter covering crime and breaking news at the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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