Jerry Roberts, Godfather of Hard Climbing in the South, Dies at 54

In the South in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Jerry Roberts and his cohort bridged the gap between bold traditional leads and hard sport climbing, in effect bringing modern sport climbing to date in the area. Here, longtime friend and climbing partner Luis Rodriguez—with help from Jimmy Webb, James Litz and others—remembers his late friend, who died just over three weeks ago at age 54.

By Luis Rodriguez | July 28th, 2020

In the summer of 2001, I had just arrived home from work one Friday night to find a handful of climbers having a toking session on the living room floor. Not unusual for our house, which at any given time housed half a dozen climbers. A couple of ecstatic guys were holding court, challenging the other climbers to go climb their new routes at the Paradise Falls sector of T-Wall. Despite their contagious excitement, no one was taking the bait: everyone knew that the sunbaked walls of the Tennessee Wall in midsummer would melt the last off your climbing shoes—if you survived the overgrown and tick-infested 45 minute approach to the base.

“It’s mega man! You’d crush it. We’re headed there tomorrow. You should come with us!” one of the guys, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, said to me. He was a scrappy-looking ruffian. His head was devoid of hair, but his shoulders and arms were covered in thick red tangles of it. He had a droopy eyelid on his left eye, which gave the impression that he had survived the fiercest of battles.

Jerry Roberts
Jerry Roberts. Photo: Harrison Shull.

This was Jerry Roberts. He and Travis Eiseman had been developing and sending T-Wall’s hardest lines in the heat of the summer and loving every second of it. And more than anything they were stoked to share it. It took a lot of cajoling and teasing on their part, but I acquiesced. That summer I put up one of my first routes, Burn, right next to one of Jerry’s hardest at T-Wall, The Messenger, using his gas-powered Ryobi drill which left an ineradicable burn scar on my right calve. I accepted it as a right of passage. I was one of them now.

Jerry Arvid Roberts Jr, 54, was born in East Point, GA, September 2, 1965. He was the son of Jerry A. Roberts, Sr. and Sonya V. Phillips Roberts. On the morning of July 4, 2020, Jerry died after suffering a heart attack at his home. He was a gentle wonder, always ready with a boyish chuckle and a sinister smile.

 

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Even before we met, Jerry was already known as the Godfather of hard climbing in the Southeast and he helped raise a crop of the best climbers to come out of that area for 25 years. He helped me, and many others, find who we were on the rock. He gave us a vision of what was possible and what could be accomplished, and never had any ego or possessiveness.

As James Litz, the notoriously elusive crusher from Tennessee, recently wrote on Facebook:

I remember many times lowering off his projects and the first words as I hit the ground were ‘James great job. That was obviously way too easy for you. You are capable of so much more. Come and check out this other route I bolted.’ Eventually that gave way to ‘James you need to get out of here and climb routes somewhere else. I have nothing left for you around here.’  I remember that moment vividly. Like a bird being kicked out of the nest. Within a month I was on the road.

Jerry Roberts climbing
Jerry Roberts on Whatsherface, a 5.13a, Obed River Gorge. Photo: Rob Robinson.

Jerry began climbing circa 1987. From traditional and mixed lines to aid and big wall; alpine and sport, to ground up and rap bolting, Jerry honed his craft and embraced all facets and styles of climbing. He lived the climbing-bum lifestyle before there was such a thing in the South, sheltering either in dirt shacks or cave dwellings, even in his rusty hotwired Datsun truck.

As Chris Watford, author of the Dixie Cragger guidebooks, recalls, “Jerry came into Call of the Wild [Watford’s gear shop in Alpharetta, Georgia] for the first time with his friend from his hometown south of Atlanta. They had gone rappelling. They bought basic gear and then came in all the time as they got more and more into it. … I took them to Yonah (N. Georgia) and Sandrock (Alabama), etc. They got into leading. He was a very good trad climber. Gradually he just got better and better.”

By the late 1980s and early 1990s Jerry regularly climbed with stronger climbers from the area: Rob Robinson, Charlie Cable, Jeff Gruenburg, et al. Cable remembered:

Most of the climbing Jerry and I did was back in the 80s. Early on in the development of places like Castle Rock, Buzzard Point, Little River Canyon, North Carolina Domes, etc. Later on we made some trips out west to Yosemite (Salathe Wall), Red Rocks, Black Canyon, Longs Peak, Sierras (Mt Charleston). In the early 90s we planned a trip to go to Denali to try the Cassin Ridge with two others. You probably know the story but Jerry and Shannon Stegg went to Rainier just before to do a warm up on Liberty Ridge and were supposed to meet us on Denali after that. They never showed up and the epic tale Jerry and Shannon had getting off Rainier is incredible.

The story Cable speaks of happened In 1992. Jerry and Stegg had a major epic on Mount Rainier where they almost died. It was reported that a storm forced the two men to bivouac in a crevasse near the top of Liberty Ridge for three nights. Later, they were trapped in their tent another two nights. Finally they reached the volcano’s main summit. Hypothermic, exhausted, desperate, the men separated and down climbed via different routes, each surviving.

Jerry Roberts basks in sunrise light on his route Flipper Arete(5.13+), on Lookout Mountain just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Photo: Harrison shull.

As Stegg recently messaged me, “We also had a mini epic in the Gunnison Canyon. We also had an interesting time after we had just finished dropping Fantastic Pit in Ellison’s Cave (the deepest cave drop in the continental United States located in Georgia). We climbed desert towers like Primrose Dihedrals on Moses and Lighting Bolt Cracks on North Six Shooter Peak. We put up Arm and Hammer and Firefly on Whitesides Mountain. Going to miss him.”

In the mid-90s, Jerry traveled to Narrows in Zion and helped Kirk Brode complete his route Narrow Escape. The two went on to also climb Monkey Finger together, with Jerry leading the hardest pitches. The pair spent the rest of the season climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Tetons and Rifle together. As Kirk wrote in a recent message to me, “My first trip to the Mountains was with Jerry. I’d never been west of Arkansas before I met him.”

In the late 90s, not wanting to let a friend risk his life alone, Jerry returned to Rainier with Charlie Cable to complete Liberty Ridge. Cable told me, “Actually I had gone out to Rainier on my own to try to solo the route. Jerry wasn’t interested in going back and kept telling me I was crazy to try. After I got out there he called and told me he was flying out so I would not get killed. After he showed up we blasted the route in quick time. That’s a good friend.”

In 1999 Jerry and Anthony Meeks ventured into Mexico to complete the second ascent of the famous 5.12+ multi-pitch limestone sport route El Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero Chico. Jerry in particular shined, making what was then believed to be the first complete flash (onsighting almost all) of the 15-pitch route. Jerry led every pitch with no falls. The two clocked the fastest time for the route, at just 10 hours, by traveling light and taking a single 70-meter rope, with no food, and no water. Jerry was later quoted in a magazine article as saying, “I knew I was in trouble after the eighth pitch when I racked my quickdraws with the bentgates up. I pulled one off my harness, held it in front of my face, and it looked like it was wavering about like a blur. After the 11th pitch, you could have put me on a bar and I couldn’t have done one pull-up.” When later asked if Jerry ever got scared, Meeks responded, “…when Jerry got scared, he pretty much just climbed harder.”

In Tuolumne Meadows Jerry nabbed the second ascent of Ron Kauk’s technical-face test piece Peace (then 5.14). As Litz eloquently remembers:

Jerry helped set the standard. He backed up everything he said with actions. He told me he was coming [to the Obed River Gorge in northeastern Tennessee] to do long time closed projects, Born on the Fourth and Maximum Overdrive, in one year from the day. This was a contentious threat at the time. Sure as shit he shows up 1 year later and hammers both out in one weekend, opening the best routes at the Obed. On that same trip he onsighted Quinsana Plus (5.13a) at the New River hanging draws. Many climbers that have redpointed 5.14 today would struggle to redpoint that route much less onsight a route in that style. He called me to tell me he redpointed Peace in Tuolumne meadows. It was the second ascent but I could be mistaken. He never said a word to anyone about it. I always admired that about him. He just let his actions speak for themselves. Jerry was not simply a strong climber. Those are a dime a dozen. When I think of Jerry I remember a friend, a mentor, a pioneer, a visionary, tireless developer and black belt of his craft. There is a difference.

Daily rock climbing was Jerry’s diet, and his close mates encouraged it and inspired him. When the last of the dust settled, Jerr had established routes as far west as Rifle and north up at the New River Gorge, completed second ascents of routes from Mexico to Yosemite, and encouraged others to finish what projects he did not have time to complete.

Jerry Roberts climbing Apes on Acid (5.13d)—in overalls! Photo: Jerry Roberts Collection.

But while he left his mark in climbing areas across the continent, it is in the southeastern United States where Jerry’s legacy is richest. In the 1990s and early 2000s, no one defined southern hard climbing like Chris Chesnutt, Travis Eisman and Jerry Roberts. This trio picked up where Jeff Gruenburg and the Reed brothers (Maurice and Doug) left off, bridging the gap between bold traditional leads and hard sport climbing, in effect bringing modern sport climbing to date in the Deep South.

After years of gleaning what he could from the previous generation of climbers and sharpening his rock craft skills, Jerry began to pioneer pure sport climbing grades into the 5.14 range, a first in the South in that era. At any area Jerry visited, he left a slew of difficult first ascents and open projects in his wake, which were classically sandbagged: Apes on Acid (5.13d) and Creature Feature (5.13d) at Castle Rock, Tennessee; Freedom Tree (5.13d) at the New River Gorge, West Virginia; Flipper (5.13d), Duct Tape (5.13d) and Golden Girl (5.13c) on Lookout Mountain, TN; The Conflict (5.13d) and Fire in the Hole (5.14a) at Foster Falls, TN; Respect for the Spider (5.13d) and The Messenger (5.13d) at T-Wall, TN; and The Jackal (5.14a) and Coolio (5.13c) at Laurel Falls, TN. The list goes on.

 

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On May 1, 2001, in what perhaps could be called his greatest feat of heroism and strength, Jerry, with Travis Eisman, witnessed Chris Chesnutt survive an 80-foot fall and a harrowing 12-hour rescue ensued. Jerry and Travis got Chris from the cliff base to a heli staging area close to a mile away. Chris ended up losing a leg below the knee, but he survived. Despite the serious setback, within 18 months of the accident Chesnutt returned to rock climbing and tree-service work with Jerry. As Chesnutt texted me soon after Jerry’s passing:  “Jerry was a really good guy. One of my oldest and best friends. I know how I felt about him. Still feel. 36 years.”

Jerry Roberts with his wife Kim Bennett. Photo: Jerry Roberts.

Beyond his climbing aptitude, prowess and achievements, Jerr was first and foremost a friend and devote husband and father. He built a successful tree business, Roberts Tree Service, hiring many a climber and friend, all the while nurturing his beautiful marriage to Kim Bennett Roberts for 18 years and tending to generations of blue heeler dogs. He ultimately ended up buying land with a piece of Southern stone near the heart of the Tennessee River Gorge and Suck Creek Canyon in the outskirts of Chattanooga Tennessee. He kept the climbing flame alive for more than a few Southern rock-climbing legends without expecting anything more in return, except perhaps enduring some long-winded text conversations he was known to have, with or without your reply.

As the prolific American boulderer Jimmy Webb recalls:

I remember his accomplishments as a climber but I also remember his kindness as a human. He was always asking me how I was doing, complimenting me on my climbing, and even pointing me in the direction of some amazing hidden projects that were still yet to be done. At one point he even gave me a job passing out flyers in the rich neighborhoods for his tree service business. He definitely didn’t have to do that, but he knew that I needed the money at the time so he just made the job up. I will forever be grateful for his kindness and his friendship.

If you had a climbing question or simply needed help with anything, Jerr always answered the text, and a long message thread would typically ensue which read like his stream of consciousness from the depths of his memory.

Not one of us is infallible. We all have insecurities and frailties. Jerry Roberts was well aware of his fragilities. He scorned crowds. He was awkward with strangers. He was well aware of his appearance. But he found freedom in the Southeastern hills and valleys, in the escarpments near the Tennessee River and Sequatchie Valley, in mountains where at the time only a few sought out exposure, danger and adventure on the tall sandstone crags. He went on to leave as indelible a mark on climbing in the Southeastern U.S. as just about anybody of the past four decades. He will be missed beyond measure. As another of his long-time climbing partners, Jim Arnold, sentimentally messaged me about Jerry: “I’ll forever be thinking about the pitches we didn’t do but also try to stay thankful for the few we shared. Off belay, brother.”


 

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