For many years, climbers heading to Horse Pens 40 could only gaze longingly at the forbidden Steele cliffline above them as they wound their way up Chandler Mountain Road. Now at least part of that cliffline is no longer forbidden. In another triumph of climber-owned crags, a section of Steele has been purchased by the Southeastern Climbers Coalition (SCC) and re-opened to climbing after more than 30 years of closure.
Located on the southeastern face of Chandler Mountain near its namesake town, Steele was a popular destination for Alabama climbers through much of the 1980s. Things came to a screeching halt in 1987, however, when a local landowner got fed up with climbers cutting through his tomato fields to access the crag. Steele was closed to the public, though a small number of locals continued to climb there under the radar.
Recently, after years of being rebuffed, the SCC finally located a willing landowner who would sell them a tract of the cliffline. In 2009, the SCC closed the deal on about 25 acres at Steele, including access and parking at the base of the cliff (in the past, climbers had approached the cliff from the top). Fund-raising for the $55,000 price tag on the SCC-owned land is ongoing, with about $5,000 left to pay it off.
Documentation of routes and climbing history at Steele is sparse; the crag was never included in any local guidebooks, and it became even more of a word-of-mouth destination after its closure in 1987. As a result, thereís little today in the way of topos and route descriptions, and there tends to be disagreement among Steele regulars about what little documentation does exist. Hopefully, this will change as the SCC and others do more research.
Itís known that climbing began at Steele sometime in the 1970s; old iron pitons dating from this period can still be seen. Early first ascents were established by well-known climbers like Gene Smith, Ken Pitts, Jamie Silliman, Curt Merchant and others. By the mid-1980s, a new wave of FAs were being put up by locals like David Hemphill, Adam Henry and Bernard Wolfe. Hemphillís efforts also include a hard-to-find mini-guide with route descriptions and topos; this is the only known written documentation of Steele.
A non-continuous cliffline, Steele is divided into several named areas, some of which are:
Grahamís Crack Area
According to the SCC website, only Area 51, Verde Wall and Wolfe Wall are included in the SCC purchase tract. Because the specific boundaries of the property have not been published by the SCC, and no signage has been put in place to note where the property ends, finding your way around at Steele is still problematical.
Climbing at Steele is a mix of sport and trad lines. The old-school ratings tend to be stiff for the grade, and thereís not much in the way of easy-to-moderate climbing. Standout trad routes in the moderate range include the classic Monopoly (5.9+) and Grahamís Crack (5.8). Because it's a south-facing crag, Steele is a good winter destination but miserably hot in summer months.
Camping is not permitted at Steele, but nearby HP40 does allow camping. For local amenities, head into the town of Steele, or Gadsden further to the north.
The Steele cliffline is located seven miles from the Horse Pens 40 bouldering area and less than an hour away from Birmingham.
Driving from Birmingham, take I-59 north for about 45 miles to the Steele exit (exit 174). Turn left from the exit onto Steele Station Road and follow it to where it dead-ends at US 11 (Main Street/Pope Avenue). Take a left and then take a right after .3 miles onto Chandler Mountain Road. Follow this road for just under two miles, watching for several chicken houses on the right. Pass the entrance to the chicken farm and take the next gravel driveway on the right; follow this, bearing right at a fork, to where it ends at a mobile home and shed. This is the parking area and trailhead for Steele.
Driving from Atlanta, the path of least resistance is to take I-20 west for about two hours to the Pell City exit (exit 158). After exiting, follow US 231 north for about 20 miles past Ashville, then get on I-59 north. Continue on I-59 about seven miles to the Steele exit and follow the directions above to get to the cliff.
After parking at the mobile home, take the trail up toward the cliff. When you come to an obvious split in the trail, the right fork leads to the Graham's Crack wall, Penchant/Copout and the Amphitheatre. The left fork leads to Wolfe Wall and other areas.
Varying from tight hands to fists/offwidth and back to hands and fingers, with plentiful face holds and a slopey finish, Graham's is one of the many Steele classics. ...[more]Browse More Classics in AL
The Southeastern Climbers Coalition has signed a contract to purchase what is roughly the "middle section" of Steele, to-wit, from the Walk down gulley near the Rinkles radio tower down to Relevation Wall, which is just shy of Graham's Crack area...
until we give the go ahead, this place is still off limits to climbing.
Although we have until June 26th to close, we will try and get it opened ahead of time to enjoy it before it gets too toasty...
if you have any questions, contact someone at the scc board at www.seclimbers.org or shoot me an email at email@example.com
Wow, thanks for working to open this area. It was the hotbed of Southern climbing in the early to mid-80s with folks coming from Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, in addition to the nearer locations. I can't wait to revisit. I'll make a trip just to climb there.
There are many routes on this portion of the cliff (left of Grahams Crack area all the way to the radio tower) that have never been documented. Most follow logical natural weaknesses that are visually appealing or invoke curiosity. Some are all naturally protected, some mixed, some sport, and some are unfinished projects where fixed protection has not fully been installed yet. There are also routes where you will find ring-angle pitons placed by those who came before.......These artifacts i hope will be respected and left in place....but certainly don't expect them to hold a fall. This evidence seems to suggest that rockclimbing was done at Steele many years ago, which gives the place a sense of heritage one might not expect.
regarding optimal seasons for visiting, chiggers are prevalent here in summer, especially when it has been dry. If you ever have the misfortune of suffering through what is just the average chigger experience this cliff can inflict, you will not forget it.
Brannen....If you can lead solo the 5.8 on the right end of the Wolfe Wall, Graham's Crack at 5.7, or 4th class up the gully in the vicinity of Dreadlock et al, you'll be able to rig something nearby that will be more challenging and fun. Wolfe Wall is the best spot to get a burn, solo. Generally, anchors are challenging to access without a lead and much more so if you are unfamiliar with the intermittent nature of the cliffline.