Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Warming Up Is Hard To Do

It was a trip that had been bouncing around my head since I got home from the Gunks. According the the guidebook, the North Face of Whiteside is the premier summer crag in all of North Carolina. The 5000 foot elevation, due north facing cliff sounded like a paradise compared to Athens. For the last month, the thermometer had flirted with the hundred degree mark every day without fail. Opening the door of my apartment was like opening the door of a hot oven. Even the short walk to the mailbox seemed risky at times. If I let my imagination roam, it was hard to believe that I would not catch on fire if I stayed outside too long. 

The view from the Catwalk

It took two chance meetings to break my dry spell. The first time I had met “SF” was before an epic day at Laurel Knob last winter. That meeting made sense. He was a climber at a climbing destination. However, when I saw him, alone, thirty miles away from his home at my favorite restaurant, I knew my luck was taking a turn for the better. After a short conversation, “SF” said we should climb some time. He was in a hurry, so he left it at that before bolting off. I got a text message from him later that night offering to take me out deep water soloing. Sadly, the DWS never materialized, but we still made plans to hit Whiteside that weekend.

I rode up to the mountain with “SF” and his wife and child “Baby, Momma”, a beautiful trip through the North Carolina Mountains set to the tune of lullabies. It sounds more peaceful than it was. The female vocalist on the CD sounded like a dying cat. Once we arrived at Whiteside though, I realized I would have gladly listened to fifty dying cats to be where I was. It must have been seventy degrees out, slightly chilly. Amazing. We had to wait a few minutes for “The Menace” and “Doc” to arrive, but we were soon off into the rhododendron infested forest and on our way to the wall. Our target today was The Catwalk, a hundred foot cragging cliff on top of the four hundred foot Main North Face.

Flaming Lips
The guidebook said that you should expect to get lost on your way to the cliff and that there would be an exposed scramble. It was wrong on both accounts. With “SF” as our guide, we made the approach quickly and without incident. At the wall, we found ourselves in quite the predicament. We are not 5.13 climbers, but the easiest route on the cliff was 5.11b. I am used to 5.11 warm ups at Alabama's Little River Canyon, but these routes were not sandstone jug-hauls. They were slightly overhanging granite crimp fest, neither easy on the fingers nor the mind. “SF” and I picked Flaming Lips (5.11c) as our warm up while “Doc” and “The Menace” chose The Railway (5.11b). 

“SF” took the first lead while I gave a careful belay. While Flaming Lips does have bolts on it, it is not a “sport” route in the traditional use of the word. The aftermath of a blown clip could definitely result in a grounder, and halfway up the route the bolts disappear. That is why I was glad to be paying attention when “SF” pulled up rope to clip the fourth and final bolt and then dropped it. Quickly, I pulled up the extra slack, and a fraction of a second later, “SF” was airborne, an amazing way to warmup. “SF” proceeded to finish the route, cruising through the run out section at the top.

The Steep Crimping of Flaming Lips
Now it was my turn. I can't say I wasn't nervous, but I knew beforehand what climbing at Whiteside meant and wasn't going to back down. In retrospect, it was hubris. I should have just top roped the route as a warmup, but I didn't want to look like a baby in front of “SF”. From the ground the route looks blank, but as I slowly inched my way up the rock, I found a slew of micro crimps. My fingers were yelling at me. Above the first bolt, I found myself out of sequence, and had to down climb and take. The bravado I had developed at the Gunks had disappeared. A month of climbing in a gym had made my body strong but my mind weak. I hung at every bolt. At the forth bolt and the beginning of the run out, I sat wondering to myself what I was doing. I tried to piece out the sequence from the comfort of bolt, but it looked so blank. I would have to commit to the moves to figure them out.

Determined to finish what I started. I began the thin traverse rightward, my feet on microchips. I lunged for an obvious crimp with my left hand but could find nothing for my right except a mossy slot. Now I was quaking. The fall at that point would have been short and safe, but the insecurity of my position combined with the knowledge that I would only be climbing higher above the bolt started my legs shaking. From that point onwards, my technique disintegrated. Letting fear overcome me, I lunged from crimp to crimp, completely disregarding my feet. When I reached a decent hold,  I let both feet cut at once as I brought them up to my waist. This was not the way to be climbing a run out and I knew it. I finally arrived at a jug and gladly placed a big offset nut. The piece was completely useless, but it gave me the wherewithal to mantle onto the jug and traverse into the final easy dihedral. A decent cam and a few more moves led me to the the anchor. I was already exhausted, and this was only the warm up. 
The long drop off the catwalk

After getting a bite to eat and a drink, I belayed “SF” once again on Flaming lips while “Doc” and “The Menace” were taking whip after whip on their route to the right. Unfortunately, “SF” couldn't red point the climb, but even worse, we heard thunder off in the distance. We were going to stay until the rain started, but “SF” had to escort “Baby, Momma” back to the car. While he was away I thought about Flaming Lips. Maybe I thought about it too much because I came to the conclusion that I probably shouldn't go for a red point attempt. Going into the runout with a pump seemed like a worse idea every time I thought about it. Luckily for me, “SF” had an alternate plan for me when he got back. A couple hundred yards down the cliff was an easier climb, Grouse (5.8), so we headed over there to look for it. Grouse's approach made it clear why this section of the cliff was called the catwalk. In some places, the ledge between this cliff and the Main North Face was less than five feet. In others we had to crawl under low overhangs or step over precipitous drops.

Grouse, quite steep for 5.8
After a little bush wacking and chasm crossing, we arrived at Grouse. The first twenty feet were easy but unprotected, but once the route got steeper, funky horizontals began to appear. After pulling steep ground on bomber jugs, I reached the crux, a vertical crack used to pull a final roof. The crack looked nice, but reaching up into it proved my judgment incorrect. I reached up into the crack and it was filled with moss and lichen, completely filthy. Not letting that stop me, I grabbed high in the crack with my right hand and a nasty two finger pocket with my left. Cranking off of these brought me to a good, but dirty, stance. However, I was wrong when I thought that part was dirty. The rest of the route was slabby, slopey, and infested with dirt and lichen. The second half of Grouse completely changed my perception of dirty. I pulled a final bulge and was glad to clip the anchors. On the way down, I noticed a wall of rain far in the distance. 

I didn't think much of it at the time, but once on the ground, that wall was getting frighteningly close. Judging by its speed, we only had two minutes before we were going to be drenched in a torrential downpour. “SF” and I hurried back to our packs. Once there, I looked again, the storm was only a few hundred yards away now, thirty seconds left. I hurriedly, racked “SF's” gear on a sling and tried to gather my things. It was too late. I had just enough time to get my camera under my jacket before the rain hit us. It was the kind of rainstorm that soaks everything on contact. In seconds, my backpack, rope, and climbing gear were completely soggy. Normally, I would have called a day like that a failure. On that day, the rain was a bonus. It was better than a swimming pool. The hike out left me covered in mud and rendered my glasses useless, but I was smiling the entire way. On the way home, “The Menace”, “Doc” and I made plans to come back soon. Next time I will be prepared. The weather might get me, but the mountain won't. 
The storm approaches


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