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Front Page - Friday, November 29, 2019

Climbing off the corporate ladder

Chattanooga drew Wise with 2 passions: Climbable cliffs, law

Fisher Wise is slicing through a forest just off the Sequatchie Valley on a cool November morning, his feet kicking up a thick layer of fallen leaves as he makes his way to a clifftop at the end of a trail. Once there, he and a friend who’s tagging along will drop into the valley below and begin an afternoon of climbing back up.

The longer Wise walks, the less accommodating the woods are. Rocks and tree roots poke through the groundcover, and thorn-covered branches tear at his jeans as he marches by. Despite the rugged nature of the terrain and the 50-pound knapsack hanging across his back, the trim and fit Wise weaves through the thicket like a blustery autumn breeze.

The path eventually disappears, and all that’s left to guide Wise to his destination is his memory of previous excursions into these woods. His recall is perfect, and he soon finds himself standing on rock and overlooking a tree-filled gulley.

“Anywhere you climb in this region is beautiful, but this cliff is amazing,” he says, peering over the edge.

The roughly 3,000 cliffs that dot the Chattanooga landscape drew Wise, an Alabama native, to the city. He was introduced to rock climbing as an undergraduate student at Samford University, and since then his passion has only grown.

“When I first tried climbing, it was fun and challenging, and I found I had a natural ability for it,” says Wise, now 40.

When a casual hiker takes in the view Wise is enjoying, he or she sees the end of the trail. Wise, however, sees the possibilities that lie dormant in the crags and crevices of the rock face.

“I like developing new routes that are at the top of my ability level,” he explains. “The most fulfilling experiences I’ve had rock climbing involved finding an amazing line no one has climbed before and repelling in, bolting it, cleaning it and then climbing it.”

Although Wise is proud of his additions to the sport of rock climbing in the Chattanooga area, he’s a portrait of humility when comparing his skills to other climbers.

“The best in the world at this sport are able to do amazing things,” he notes, ticking off names like Jerry Roberts, Anthony Meeks, Stephen Farmer, Jon Dorough, Cody Averbeck and Laban Swafford. “There’s nothing special about the level of difficulty I’ve achieved.”

Modesty aside, Wise has conquered a 5.13b climb, which is only 10 grades short of the most difficult. These skills have carried him up the jagged cliffs of Rifle Mountain Park in Colorado and Hueco Tanks State Park in West Texas, among other places in the U.S.

They have also kept him healthy.

“I’m very conscious about safety because I want to be able to climb for as long as possible,” he says. “I have friends who lost fingers rock climbing, or were present when other people died from either bad luck or carelessness, and I don’t want those things to happen to me.”

Wise has fallen off a bolt he placed in sandstone that was softer than the rock prevalent throughout the Chattanooga area. While another bolt he’d placed stopped the fall, the incident unnerved him and solidified his determination to put safety first when climbing.

Wise has injured himself, however. While training on a fingerboard earlier this year, he heard a pop while using the full crimp grip, a powerful hand position that helps climbers navigate thin edges but also places a tremendous load on the finger joints and tendons.

The damage grounded Wise during the summer as he nursed his finger back to health. Although this made room for other leisure pursuits (Wise also enjoys quality television, good movies and reading), it was a painful lesson in conforming to conventional wisdom.

“To a large degree, rock climbing comes down to finger strength,” he says. “But many climbers question the wisdom of the full hand crimp, and I would probably agree at this point that it’s not wise.”

Wise is an attorney for essentially the same reason he’s a rock climber. He found he had a knack for it.

“I think people tend to gravitate toward the things for which they have a natural aptitude,” he says. “And my parents always told me I’d be a good lawyer, probably for reasons they found frustrating.”

After earning a philosophy degree, Wise enrolled in the Cumberland School of Law. During his first semester, he was concerned he’d made a terrible mistake. “I was heavily into rock climbing by this time and was terrified of ending up in a corporate rat race,” he says.

Wise’s worst fears were realized when he found himself doing document review for an Atlanta law firm.

“It’s where lawyers go to die,” he continues. “But graduating from law school without knowing how to actually practice law is terrifying. You have debt, you have bills and you don’t know what to do, so you just want someone to offer you a job.”

Wise was saved from his personal circle of hell when John Wiygul and Johnny O’Brien gave him the opportunity to help them open High Point Climbing and Fitness downtown. After seizing this opportunity and seeing it through, he felt empowered to hang a shingle in the Scenic City.

“I showed up in Judge Barry Steelman’s courtroom on a Friday and he appointed me to a case,” Wise recalls.

From there, Wise developed a practice focused on criminal defense, family law and personal injury. He says his work on divorce cases have been particularly gratifying.

“It’s rewarding to secure a custody agreement a parent feels will be the best thing for his or her family,” he says. “These things happen, and I like putting families in the best possible position to raise their kids and move forward in a positive way.”

Wise, no fan of office walls, likes to get out and be an active member of his profession and community. In addition to joining the Chattanooga Bar Association, he helps to coordinate CLE’s for the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Wise also sponsors the Scholar Athlete of the Week, which recently awarded a $5,000 scholarship to one of the weekly winners. Wise sponsors the scholarship in memory of this father, Philip Wise, a Baptist preacher and the man he says is responsible for the person he is today.

Other than biological relatives, Wise is family-free. This allows him to indulge in his two passions – “lawyering and rock climbing” – to his heart’s content. It also gives him space to ponder the big questions in life.

“Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all? How should we determine these things? I like to think about those things,” he says. “I believe the best way to arrive at answers is through the application of logic and reason. That’s what I’ve found to be the most rewarding.”

At this moment, Wise is ready to search for happiness at the bottom of a valley. An afternoon of rock climbing is stretched out before him and his friend, and he intends to make the most of it.

“I’ll repel down and meet you at the bottom,” Wise says to his companion, who begins descending into the gorge using a hand rope bolted into a nearby rock. Then Wise disappears, weaving through the thicket like a blustery autumn breeze.