Saturday, December 11, 2010

Return to Whiteside

High up on Traditions
    For an entire week prior, the feeling in my stomach alternated from queasy fear to unbridled excitement. It was finally happening. I was going back to Whiteside but, this time, to the imposing Southeast Face, an eight hundred foot quartz diorite monstrosity known for its bold run outs. “SF” had set up the plans. We would leave from Athens Saturday night, camp on nearby Forest Service land, and make a fast and light assault on the mountain with the sunrise. Our route of choice was Traditions (5.11c R IV), the second easiest full length route on the wall. Somewhat of a mix between the meandering Original Route (5.11a R IV) and the absurdly steep headwall routes to the left, Traditions takes a direct line up the middle of the face.

"Fearless" going all out
    Naturally, I had to prepare for such a feat. I had never climbed anything that long before, let alone that committing. I knew of only one thing to do, go sport climbing, so on Friday morning, “Fearless Leader”, “The Ambassador”, and I loaded up into a sub compact and made the haul to Foster Falls in Tennessee. The highlights of the day all belong to “Fearless”. He is actually starting to live up to his ironic nickname. Not only did he attempt his first 5.11 sport lead, but he logged at least two hundred feet of airtime in the pursuit. I might have to change his name to “Sir Whipsalot”. Sport climbing may have been poor preparation for what I was getting into on Sunday, but “Fearless Leader's” new focus definitely inspired me and helped me get my own head squared away.

"Fearless" sussing out
the moves after whip #362
    The ride home from Fosters turned out to be traffic purgatory. For over an hour we sat in Chattanooga traffic before making a getaway towards Birmingham and unknown roads. Luckily, our desperate detour did not prove to be too disastrous and after another hour we were in Lafayette, home of the Rock Town bouldering mecca. Unfortunately, Rock Town is just as far from Athens as Fosters. We were just happy to be out of traffic, but it could not last. Three miles from our final exit, traffic once again ground to a halt, bothersome. I got home past one. I had nightmares that night. Saturday morning, I awoke, but doubt laid fresh in my mind.

    Still nervous, “The Lady” and I met up with “SF” at Taqueria Del Sol for a pre-game meal. Due to a semi-comical miscommunication, “SF” ended up being late but getting his food before we even set foot in the building . Once we finally sat down, I began drilling “SF” with questions, as if increasing my knowledge would in any way calm my mind. After getting my fill of Whiteside trivia, we made our plans. We would be climbing sans packs with our water and sandals clipped to our harness. I made the suggestion that we swing the pitches, giving me the first .11a crux and a .10a crux up high. This plan was crafted carefully by me to avoid the run out first and last pitches. I sure was clever. “SF” obliged with the caveat that we would be linking a few of the pitches to save time. With plans in our heads and food in our bellies, we bade farewell to “The Lady” and set off towards the North Carolina Highlands.

    After two and half hours of driving and getting a little bit lost on some curvy, gravel back roads, we arrived at the pull off. It was a beautiful night, clear skies, bright stars, and cool air. Despite my anxiety about the morning's climb, I slept like a baby. I would have gotten away with it if I was properly dressed. The morning chill caused me to shiver the last hour or so of my sleep away and to continue shivering all throughout breakfast at the trail head. After a few cups of rather strong coffee, we were off towards our objective. The second we crossed the bend and were hit by the sun, my shivering days were over. It was going to be a hot one. The approach was fairly uneventful with the exception me being stung by an unprovoked hornet. The first thing that I noticed about the wall was that it was much steeper than I had imagined. It being North Carolina, I most assuredly thought the route would be a slab.
Slab? Yeah Right!

    As planned, “SF” was leading the first pitch, a rope stretching, seriously runout pitch of 9+ slabbing. Fifteen feet of barely fifth class climbing led “SF” to a chopped bolt and the first crux. If he were to blow it, the results would be serious, a twenty foot tumble into the dirt. After a quick breathing exercise, he committed to the insecure smears and clipped the first bolt, twenty five feet off the deck. Another thirty feet of slabbing on crystal dikes earned him some solid gear and another crux. “SF” began the real run out after pulling the mini roof. The next sixty feet were wholly unprotected friction climbing. Falling would be out of the question, but the climbing was just hard enough that it was not out of the realm of possibility. The last sixty feet of the pitch proved to be the hardest. Just two bolts protects the entire section. I was glad not to be leading.

Finishing the hairy first pitch
    When I began following the pitch, I was not sure that I wanted to be leading any of it. The climbing was much harder and more insecure than “SF” had made it look. If this pitch was a sign of things to come, I was in no way prepared to take the sharp end. That is why I wussed out when I reached the belay. The next pitch, essentially a 5.11 sport route followed by runout 5.8, was supposed to be mine, but despite “SF's” assurance, I could not convince myself that the hidden moderate climbing above the steep crux was as juggy and secure as “SF” promised. I folded under pressure. I practically got down on my knees and begged him to lead the pitch. This was a definite low point in my climbing career. “SF” was gracious when he agreed to lead it for me, but I felt like a total freeloader. I am normally someone who leads all of the pitches, but now I was basically being guided up this climb. My self esteem in tatters, “SF” started climbing the spectacular steep headwall above.

    When I pulled over the lip and the terrain above was exactly as secure and juggy as “SF” described, I immediately felt foolish. The gear may have been sparse, but the holds certainly were not. My only consolation was that I might still have an opportunity to redeem myself. However, since “SF” had just linked two pitches, my chances of doing an equitable share of the leading looked pretty slim. With some kind encouragement from “SF”, I calmly began leading up the slopey jugs that make up the entire midsection of the climb. Twenty feet off the belay, I set a highly suspect tricam. Twenty feet after that, I placed an even worse blue Camalot. Ten feet after that, I got in the most frightening gold Camalot imaginable. If only I had saved the blue! When I finally did get some decent pro, the difficulty of the pitch was over. The belay was as Whiteside as they come, a rusty knife blade piton next to three chopped bolts. After an extended bout of marginal engineering, I finally had an anchor composed of the pin, a funky tricam, and two tiny brass nuts. If “SF” was annoyed with the time I had just eaten up, I could in no way blame him.

The slabbier right flank of Whiteside
    The crux pitch was next and “SF” was dedicated to red pointing it. After  flopping himself over a bulge, he placed a cam and gingerly pulled on eerie hollow flakes. It sounded like he was playing bong drums, but nothing pulled. “SF” clipped a bolt and then climbed steep, more secure rock, through a fifteen feet quartz intrusion capped by a small roof. After the roof, the climbing gets hard. Balancy rockovers, smeared feet, and microscopic crimps all mean that you are getting your money's worth. In a moment of weak resolve, “SF” grabbed a draw and ended his red point attempt. Committed, he lowered back to the belay. After pulling the rope and tying back in, he cruised the crux, but in typical Whiteside fashion, it was followed by forty feet of unprotected 5.9. A chopped bolt halfway through the run out silently mocks you as you pass.
    Not as dedicated as “SF”, I ended up grabbing a draw and through one of the crux moves. It was not intentional. I literally could not find anything at all to grab, not even the thinnest of micro crimps. “SF” assured me there was a little mica side pull, but I certainly did not see it. After my shameful draw grabbing experiment, I got established back on the rock, got a high smear, and busted for the slopey rail above. I barely stuck it, but after the viscous face climbing below, it felt like a handle bar. Because I was on top rope, the pitch was basically over. After botching a mantle thirty five feet above the last bolt and nearly falling, I was glad this was the case. Chances are that I would have started crying or some other embarrassing thing had I been on the sharp end.

Runout and loving it

    Now it was decision time, We could either follow the original route for half a rope length to the right, half a rope length to the left, and then perform a belay shift on a ledge or we could head up straight into unknown territory, supposedly 5.9 but covered in a nice coat of crispy lichen. “SF” wanted to take the variation, but it was my lead and was more keen on taking the the traditional, established line. However, the new route allows linking the 5.10 pitch after the traverses, trading 4 belays for one. I was nervous, but “SF” was right. The direct variation would save us at least an hour and a half. The prospect was thrilling, a lichen covered face devoid of chalk, no idea where to go. What a rare opportunity. After moving fifteen feet right and eight feet up, I encountered the first crux, a huge move off of a hollow crimp. With a nasty factor two pendulum being a distinct possibility, I putzed around on this move for a good ten minutes. Trying one sequence and reversing it, trying another but not being wholly satisfied, it was a trick situation. The move was totally committing with no promise of protection afterwards. Finally, after almost a dozen tries, I committed to the move and slapped the slopey, lichen covered shelf above. Luckily, there was pro to be had, but it was not going to be easily placed. My feet were on smears and my position was only secure with my right hip into the wall. However, the pro was way out to the left. It took some serious Houdini contortion, but I ended up placing two bomber pieces and taking a sigh. My feet were on nothing, my hands were on crunchy lichen, but at least I had pro now. Twenty feet of fun face climbing led me to the sketchiest slung horn possible, psych pro at its finest. I knew that it would never hold, but I was feeling great. The climbing was steep and secure, so in spite of the lichen and scant pro, I felt completely in control. Fifteen more feet of fun climbing got me a funky cam placement, and after pulling a small bulge higher up, I was on the belay ledge.

Almost there
    A steep dihedral and water groove overhung above me. Two bolts protected the steepest  section, but I only had two draws left. “SF” assured me that the climbing above the crux was easy and I would not have to place any more pro. With his consolation fresh in my ear, I began stemming and pulling my way up the dihedral. The crux hit me hard after the first bolt. I made a huge throw for what looked like a bomber flake but proved to be a slopey side pull. After reversing the move, I started thinking. I tried going to it with the other hand, but that was even worse. I tried it the first way again and held on to that nasty hold long enough to reposition my feet, grab a real jug, and clip the second bolt. A few technical face moves established me on the easy slab, and I ran it out to the tree ledge.
    After scrambling through the tree ledge, we were finally ready to begin the last pitch. “SF” originally had said that he was worried about this pitch, but it really did not look that bad. Hoping to redeem myself for my cowardice earlier, I offered to give it a go. We were out of water and both quite thirsty, so I took no hesitation and quickly started climbing. The crux came right off the ledge. I got decent pro right afterwards and romped up the slab above, taking a short break to dig dirt out of a deep solution pocket in order to place a cam. After that, the climbing kicked back to around 5.5, but the pro completely disappeared. I love that sort of thing. Easy, run out slab is one of life's simple pleasures. This pleasure ended quite abruptly when I topped out the route. I realized I was doing so in the wrong place almost immediately, but by the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. I was hopelessly tangled in a web of briers. I could see my salvation two feet in front of me, but it might as well have been a mile away. At least sixty feet above my last piece and being cut to shreds, I grabbed into my camera case and grabbed the leatherman tool “SF” had loaned me. One by one, I broke the prickly vines with the pliers and made slow progress. Twenty minutes later, I had dug a small cave and climbed through it to the top. After belaying “SF” up, he informatively let me know that I had topped out in the wrong place.

    On top of the climb, we were a cross between heroes and oddities. Alone on the wall, we were now surrounded by a horde of people taking in the beautiful view from atop the mountain. Most interestingly, we met a deaf and mute man from Korea who used to climb in his youth. Climbing is such a universal language that climbers do not even need formal language to communicate. From hand gestures alone, we discovered he used to climb with pitons and prefers crimps over jugs. After finishing up with our new friend, we loaded our gear up and headed off to the least creative pizza place on the planet. You do not have to believe me, but this restaurant is actually called "The Pizza Place". It may have been the worst pizza in the world, but after climbing my first grade IV up the wildest mountain on the East Coast, it might as well have been a three star restaurant.
Obligatory scenery shot

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Nice I live 10 minutes from whiteside and am wanting to climb it soon thank u for helping me know what to expect! Ps I love the pizza place better calzons than pizza lol