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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Whitesides, Table. May 2009


Experience matters. That’s what I kept telling myself as I was looking up, and up, and, yeah, about 50 feet up to see the first and only bolt. I’ve run it out like a million times. Joe Forrester and I were surrounded by country clubs and summer homes on all but one side at the base of Whitesides Mountain in North Carolina. Cashiers, the nearest town, has, among other high-end resorts, retreat centers and a Sotheby’s office. The ritzy surroundings helped us appear exceptional (or at least stand out well). After sleeping in a gravel cul-de-sac a few miles from the cliff, we drove to the trailhead and made the descent to the base of the wall. I spent the last three years well under 800 feet off the deck and lost any semblance of my base level of fitness. These factors contributed to my anxiety as I finally spied the bolt. The stories of Whitesides as told by Arno Ilgner and others as a place the meek should avoid also didn’t help. As serious as I would like to make it sound, the first pitch of the Original Route is only a 5.7 slab. By the time I was within a few feet of the bolt my nervousness was gone. Joe linked the next two pitches to reach the base of the first hard section, a 10c bulge in an alcove. I whipped going for it the first time, and almost blew the clip when I did send on my second try. As we gained height, more and more summer homes came into view. A few more pitches led to the 11c crux, a bolt ladder and my lead. I clipped and yarded on the nylon jugs and pulled another A0 move as I exited left to link up with the final pitch of Traditions. Joe led a nicely overhanging 10a jug-haul with just enough clips to not freak out, and a jug that Joe swore he’ll remember for a lifetime. “It’s like the kind of jug you’d only find in a gym!” he yelled down to me. “Savor this one, man!” And he did, looking around behind and below him at the 700 or so feet we had climbed in less than fours hours.
“Brian! I found some donuts!” We were back in the parking lot where a lady, waiting on her husband to get out of the porto-john, witnessed dumpster diving for what must have been the first time, considering the look on her face. Joe’s extensive scrounging career really paid off. In donuts. It was only 2:30PM, so I was glad I had brought a bunch of papers to grade. Considering that I was skipping school, grading--along with the pluton we’d just climbed--assuaged my guilt for abandoning my students. After a nap, a few beers, and having our sanity questioned by a mother with two climbing-curious teenage boys, we decided to go climb on the Carolina Wall in the Linville Gorge. I wasn’t all that psyched to climb another route that had run outs on all the easy pitches and bolt ladders through the cruxes, and Joe wanted to come back when he was stronger so he could send Traditions on-sight. We stopped for a fuel-up at the Mexican restaurant. With our tomes of experience, both of us had forgotten to bring a stove. In the Linville Gorge, Ginger Cake Road brought us to a bed of pine needles that felt like feathers compared to the gravel of the night before.
Rested and ready, we drove to the parking lot to find the road gated. All our experience kept paying off: Joe and I have seen many a seasonal peregrine closure in our day. Looking in the guidebook, we read what we just learned: this time of the year the last 1.4 miles of steep grade to the trailhead is closed. The details of said closures often escape me. Many times I have experienced the hike to the Third Flatiron only to detour away from it after reading the closed-to-climbing sign.
So we got our approach on, and none too soon, considering the barely-above-freezing temps and overcast sky. When we started soloing “Jim Dandy,” a 5.5 on the right side of the east face of Table Rock, the cold slowed us down and numbed our fingers. We counted at least six double-ring belay stations, so our pitch count was up to 11, almost having reached our goal of doing more pitches on Saturday than the seven we did on Friday. If the clouds hadn’t parted, we would have left on that, but by the time we got back to the base, the sun was shining and the birds were singing.
We decided on “A Tall Climb to Be Good On,” with 50 feet of 5.9 and the rest under 5.8. Another 500 or so feet later we topped out for the second time, discussions of economics and wanker, gumby climbers climbing harder than us fueling the quick descent for a final route. “Cracker Jack” is a two-pitch route on the smaller south end, with a wavering but nice, long 5.7 dihedral leading to a 5.8 squeeze chimney. Joe got to lead the grunt-fest, and after disappearing into the crack, the only thing I saw before I met him on the summit was his left leg kicking wildly from what appeared to be a horizontal body position. “Why do I always get stuck with the off-width?” he lamented.
Back at the trucks, beers in hand, Warren Zevon blasting, we ate whatever we had (cold) and congratulated ourselves on our epic achievement. It’s all relative, after all. Just a week earlier at work I was out with my students in 20 degree temps stencil-painting some Spanish-themed t-shirts, and I told them about the time Joe and I had open-bivied 13,000 feet up on the side of Longs. It was the coldest I had ever been: I was shivering too much to sleep. However, with wind blowing spray paint in our nostrils that morning, just like my students, I was freezing my ass off. You just can’t take comfort in the fact that you’ve been much colder in the past. One student remarked, “Mr. Sohn, I haven’t felt like crying in a long time.” We laughed through our chattering teeth. So for us, two guys with things other than climbing going on in our lives, it felt badass to climb 2000 feet in a weekend, even though, at times, both of us have achieved much more significant objectives.


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