For professional rock climbers Wills Young and Lisa Rands, climbing is their passion and their business.
It’s also how they fell for each other.
Married for 18 years, they have spent years doing things most people will only see in photographs or videos.
In 2010, they moved to Chattanooga from Bishop, California, a little town on the cusp of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and haven’t looked back.
They chose the Scenic City—after coming here for a competition sponsored by The North Face—to start their next adventure in climbing. This time as instructors.
“It’s the perfect size with stuff going on and the climbing right on the back door,” said Young, who will begin teaching climbing for students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall.
They employ and teach UTC students at their gym, Synergy Climbing and Ninja, which they opened in the summer of 2020 amid tough times and after years of working for other people.
One of their newest employees, Luke Holmes, started as an intern from the UTC College of Health and Human Performance.
Holmes earned a bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation and sports management in the fall of 2021 and interned at Synergy the summer before that. He’s been climbing since his teens and said the job couldn’t be more perfect.
“There’s a lot of hanging out and fun that’s part of it,” said Holmes. “Wills and Lisa are the best. They’ve just done so much so it’s awesome to get to work here.”
Aside from their expertise and the innate exhilaration that comes with the very idea of rock climbing, it’s no wonder people are drawn to Young and Rands. They were the late 1990s/early 2000s version of today’s social media influencers.
Rands was hitting her professional stride and with Young as her coach and partner, the couple jet-setted from one spectacular destination to another. For work.
A California native, Rands had just graduated with a degree in geology from California Polytechnic State University Pomona, better known as Cal Poly Pomona.
Young photographed Rands tackling epic challenges—her freehand climbing on the edge of protruding cliffs in Korea or clambering the round edges of a massive boulder in South Africa—and wrote companion stories for Climbing Magazine. The material doubled as content for Rand’s corporate sponsors to use in promotions and advertising and allowed them to “live the life” of dreams.
“It was a whirlwind,” said Rands, the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup and, at the time, the face of outdoor brands like Patagonia. (She’s climbed the granite spires in Patagonia, a region encompassing all of southern Chile and Argentina, too.)
She started climbing as a teenager and continued in college, taking a few semester-long breaks for “climbing projects.”
Young, born in California to British parents but raised in England, got into climbing as a kid on the famed gritstones of the U.K.’s Peak District, located almost dead center of England.
He came back to the U.S. for the first time on a one-way ticket shortly after graduating from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland with a degree in philosophy. He has dual-citizenship so the move was relatively easy, especially since he brought only a suitcase.
For Young, becoming a professional philosopher seemed as far-fetched as becoming a professional climber, so he “just went for it.”
He wound up back in California via New York City and Philadelphia, found a job selling climbing gear for Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire founder of Patagonia—the climbing gear company, not the region. At the same time, he climbed in as many competitions as he could.
Young and Rands met in Los Angeles “developing” ascents in the San Gabriel Mountains and other nearby ranges.
“It was wicked. You get to see places nobody else on earth has ever touched,” said Young, who won Rands’ heart at a climbing competition in Arizona.
Days after graduating from college in 1996, Rands moved to Colorado to be with Young, who by that time was working at Climbing Magazine.
That’s when climbing became not only their passion but their business.
After years of constant travel and wear-and-tear on her body, though, Rands was ready for a “lifestyle change” by 2008. Young was, too.
“I started my career late and so, at some point, you get older and have to stop,” Rands said.
Their gym in Chattanooga is a giant, cavernous playground. Rubbery, artificial rock faces with multicolored grips line the towering walls. People use their hands and feet like four-legged octopi to maneuver the walls, falling off like drops of water and hitting the floor mats with a thud.
There’s also an indoor obstacle course designed by their business partner and fellow climber Isaac Caldiero, a multi-season contestant and million-dollar winner on the TV show American Ninja Warrior.
They don’t have children but get a hint of parental satisfaction teaching college students and kids how to climb. They also lead a nationally competitive youth climbing team at the gym.
“It’s always been appealing, the idea of opening a climbing gym with my husband and teaching all the skills we learned through our lifetime of climbing and passing those on to another generation,” Rands said.
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.