Tuesday, November 8, 2011

First Trip Up Whitesides

Around this time last fall, I began preparing for a trip to North Carolina the week of Thanksgiving.  I had never been here before but had heard of the great climbing there.  To prepare, I began looking on Mountainproject.com and bought a guide book.  Once the guide book arrived, I would read it constantly.  One place more than others caught my attention and that was Whitesides.  With adjectives such as "most-feared," "biggest and baddest," and "serious aura;" I was lured into studying some of the long and committing routes on its southeast face.  Upon going through ever route in the guidebook I noticed one thing, this stuff is hard. With the easiest route going free at 5.11a or 5.10c/A0, it would not be an easy task to make it up this wall.  Over the course of the month of November, I prepared for a possible encounter with this massive wall of rock.  Those plans never went through.  Due to a poor looking forecast and my trip partner not sure if he could go, I cancelled the trip and went to Arkansas for the week.

Once I moved to North Carolina, the thought of going to Whitesides scared me.  I had experienced some climbs here in NC that pushed me to physical and mental limits and they were supposed to be easier than the easiest route at Whitesides.  How was I ever going to do it?

This past August, I was shadowing a course with one of the adjunct guides here, Todd.  Todd wanted me to take him up the Original Route at Whitesides.  I agreed to do it but wanted to wait until fall so that the temps would be better.  Then after looking at requirements for AMGA courses/exams, I decided to post-pone it until after taking the rock instructor course so that it would be able to count towards those requirements.  After the course ended, I emailed Todd asking when he wanted to go do it.  Unfortunately, Todd's schedule was just too busy to make the trip happen.  Now I was forced to search out another partner that would let me "guide" them up the route.  Luckily, I found the perfect victim in one of the other guides, Michael.  A few weeks ago, we agreed that we would climb the OR (Original Route) on Monday, November 7th.  This weekend then came upon us.  We each had to work but in the evenings, we talked and planned our day.  Finally, it was Monday morning.  We woke up only slightly early.  At 7 we left to head towards Highlands.
It was a nice crisp morning with a forecasted high of 61 degrees.  Splitter conditions.

After arriving at the parking lot, we geared up and began our approach.  From the descriptions, I expects a bit of gnarly terrain that we would have to descend.  At Whitesides, you park on the northwest side of the mountain.  From there you hike up the summit trail for a few minutes.  Once you hit the ridge, you start down a climbers trail that leads to the base of the southeast face.  I expected it to be most like the gullies that you find up in the Linville Gorge.  This approach was quite nice.  Once at the base, you have about a 25 minute hike until you reach the base of the OR.  Along the way, we were awed by the size and steepness of the headwall on this face.  After about 45 minutes of hiking, we reached the start of our route.  Now it was time to muster up some courage and head up this intimidating mass of rock.

Looking up from the base.  The first pitch climbs the two white streaks to the right.

The first pitch was one of the pitches that worried me some.  Even though it is only rated 5.7, it also does not offer any protection.  I knew this.  I started up the route anyways.  I did manage to find one piece of pro about 100 feet up.  After about 140 feet, you hit a ledge.  There I slung a tree and moved left on the ledge, towards the second pitch, to set a belay.  After a few minutes, Michael joined me at the ledge.

Michael climbing the first pitch.

The second pitch proved to be a bit heady as well.  After going to the left side of the ledge, you hit a flake which does not offer much protection.  From there you move through a small roof on large holds and continue up on easy ground to the next ledge.  This is a huge ledge with many trees and vegetation.  From this ledge, you go left once again until the ledge joins with some cracks that head up.  After just a little while in the crack, you traverse right to hit a really fun flake that then joins a big corner.  Then once you are able to, you traverse back left on to a large ledge with a double bolt anchor.  These two pitches go at 5.8 and 5.7.  The hardest part is managing rope drag on the third pitch.

Once on this ledge, you are looking at this section of rock that originally was rated 5.9+.  Now it is given a rating of 5.10c.  The difficulty isn't the big issue though.  The problem is if you fall before clipping the bolt part way up the pitch.  Since you start off on a ledge, you are very likely to hit this ledge.  You get one piece of protection before the bolt.  It is a solid cam.  The only problem is that you are still close to that ledge when you place it.  So once you move above the piece, you are hoping that your belayer is paying close attention.  Once I started up the pitch, I was super nervous.  I probed into the moves a few times but felt uncomfortable.  Finally, I committed to the moves that put me up near the cam that I placed from the ledge.  After this, you have to bear down on a crimp, reach really high for a good hold and hope that your feet stay on long enough to move them onto something better.  Well my first time trying this move resulted in my feet coming off the their holds and me falling towards the ledge.  Michael caught me right as I hit the ledge.  My left foot must have hit the ledge or something on the fall because it had a slight bit of pain.  After a few minutes of regaining my composure I went back up to that piece of gear.  I then attempted to aid through that section but did so without any luck.  The bolt was just a bit too high for me to reach.  I was now forced to free the moves.  This second time I beared down and latched the good hold, moved my feet up and clipped the bolt.  From there I moved up a few moves into easier terrain.  Once up on the ledge, I began the process of trying to settle my nerves so that I wouldn't freak out too much on the upcoming pitches.  Pitch four was done.  It was my biggest worry for the day.

The next pitch was just some 5.7 climbing up to a stance below a small roof.  It must not have been that great since I can't remember much about it.  The sixth pitch though was uber-good.  While looking at it from the belay atop the fifth pitch, I could tell that I was going to have some exposure right off the belay.  Once I was put on belay, I started up this little dihedral that I built my anchor in.  I soon found out that it wasn't the way I was supposed to go.  Instead, you do this airy traverse to the right off of the belay and head up to a dihedral to the right of that little roof.  It was very exposed and unprotected until I hit the roof line.  There I got a piece and moved into the dihedral.  At one point, I got a bit confused as to where the easiest path was.  Eventually, I figured it out, made some super sweet moves and hit a ledge.  From this ledge, you continue up to the belay.  This is the most exposed belay on the entire route.  You have only a few holds to stand on and you are mostly hanging from the anchor.

Michael finishing up the sixth pitch.

The next pitch is the crux pitch if you are trying to free it.  It goes at 5.11a but is well protected by three bolts.  These bolts also allow you to aid through the section making the rating A0.  Once I reached the first bolt, I decided to just aid through this section.  The moves looked very long and by this point I had given up on moves that would be made more difficult for me due to my size.  Above the bolt ladder though, the climbing eases up and you are just climbing on big jugs.  From the top of this next pitch, you can decide to stay with the OR or finish on Traditions.

View from the belay below the Bolt Ladder Pitch

We opted to finish on Traditions.  It offers a more direct line to the top but with some harder climbing.  Also, most people said that it is much more enjoyable than finishing on the last pitches of the OR.  The eighth pitch then, hits a bolted ramp that has some 5.9 moves eventually hitting a large ledge.  The ninth pitch is a steep 5.10a pitch with two bolts.  I was told that this pitch was good but never imagined that it was as much fun as it was.  From the belay, you continue to the left side of the ledge.  There you hit a flake system.  Near the top of the flake, you clip a bolt then make long, overhanging moves on jugs.  After that you continue straight up on some easier jugs until you hit a big tree ledge in which you have to tunnel through vegetation to get on.  While leading this pitch, I couldn't help but yell out of excitement.  I am up a few hundred feet, pulling on jugs in overhanging, exposed terrain with good protection.  I still have a huge smile on my face from that one pitch.  I may also be bold enough to say that it is my single favorite pitch that I have climbed in North Carolina.  This ledge offered a great place to sit and relax for a few minutes.  Michael and I chilled on this ledge for a while, enjoyed a snack while checking out the amazing views offered from our perch.

The last pitch was before us.  Michael had asked if he could lead one pitch on the route, so I gave him the rack and he headed up a 5.8 pitch taking us to the top.  Once we were both up top, we organized the gear, coiled the rope, took a summit picture, and then headed down the trail back to the parking lot.  Once at the parking lot, we enjoyed some burritos we had made.  This was a great way to cap off an amazing day of climbing.  This was one of the best routes I had done in North Carolina.  I can see why it is such a classic route.  It offers fun, bold climbing up an exposed face.  I can't wait to go back and do some more climbing on this face. 
Summit Shot!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

New Ground at Laurel

A while back, Ron was telling me about a line that he wanted to do with some clients that was easier climbing at Laurel Knob. This past week, we went there to equip the route with proper protection.  Ron had previously done the route without these permanent anchors.  Without the bolts though, it would not be very safe for climbers looking for routes that are easier.  The whole thought of the route was to get an introduction route for people looking to slowly break into the climbs at Laurel Knob.  Before this, 5.8 was the easiest route.  So when Ron asked me if I wanted to go to Laurel to equip the route I was stoked.

On Tuesday we headed out there.  Once we hiked to the base of the route, called Biopsy (5.7), Ron described the route from the ground.  After that he took off with drill in tow and began the process of making this climb safe for the 5.7 climber.  Ron would climb up to a stance, drill a hole, hammer the bolt in, and then tighten down the nut.  This process happened a few times, then he belayed me up to the top of the first pitch.  The first pitch starts off with an easy slab, past one bolt then hits a vertical bulge that you must navigate.  A high bolt on this section can be reached from the slab to offer protection from breaking your ankles on the slab while pulling one of the hardest moves on the route.  After the bulge, you have another section of easier slab protected with one bolt half way to the belay.
Ron on the crux move of the first pitch of Biopsy
The second pitch continues up this slab.  It offers one bolt, a less than ideal gear nest, and a whole for a cam to protect the pitch.  It is easier climbing (5.5) but still fun.  From there the third pitch passes two bolts and heads for a brushy ledge called Three Way Ledge.  This pitch goes at 5.4.

From this ledge you have some options.  Above you, there are two distinct water grooves and just to the right is an obvious line of weakness.  This day, Ron offered for me to do the middle line.  He said that it had not been done before.  He offered me the first ascent of the pitch.  I was stoked.  I went up with just trad gear.  After some slab climbing, I came to the base of the water groove.  I got a piece of gear, then started up the groove.  It had some interesting moves and protected fairly well.  After I got through it, I set a belay part way up the last pitch and brought Ron up.  This pitch is rated 5.8 and called Socket Rocket.  If you were to do the line to the right, it is the original line for Biopsy and goes at 5.7.  It has two bolts protecting the pitch and can take natural gear as well.  The line to the left is a bit harder and is protected by two bolts right at the crux.  This line is called Yes Ma'am and goes at 5.9.  Each line is really fun and offers different styles of climbing from the other lines.  My suggestion would be to lead up to the ledge, then climb each line before continuing on to the  top.
Me getting the FA on the Socket Rocket pitch

The last pitch goes right of the water groove and hits a small vertical section which has a very well protected 5.6 move.  From there you pass two bolts to a rappel station on a tree.  It is a very fun climb and will probably have the 5.7 thinking on a few of the moves.  

After we got off of this route, Ron and I headed towards the main area of Laurel to get a few more pitches in. After passing Seconds (5.8) we saw a line that looked fun.  I recognized it as Stemming Laurel.  I was stoked to get on it because it looked really fun.  Ron led the first pitch.  It has some sections that have potential for long falls.  But Ron, as usual, completed the pitch with style.  I led the second pitch.  It was a bit harder but followed a very obvious crack up the face.  The climbing at first was super fun and protected well.  Higher up though, the climbing became a bit trickier and I was not able to protect it like I wanted since we only brought a single rack with us that day.  After making some committing moves well above a poorly placed purple C3 I made it to the anchors.  From here we rappelled back to the ground since we had to get back home.

The next day, Ron, Karsten, and I headed back to Laurel.  This time to finish equipping Biopsy and put up some new stuff.  I led up all of Biopsy while Ron and Karsten put in the remaining bolts.  From the top, we traversed to the right and rappelled to a huge terrace with tons of trees.  There Ron and Karsten each put up some new single pitch lines that went on natural gear.  These routes were 5.9 and 5.10a.  After this, Ron and I top roped a line to the left.  It may go near 5.12.  It has some super fun moves with good holds.  While we were at this wall, I eyed some lines that I am thinking about putting some time into as well.  After we were done playing here, we went back near Biopsy and possibly put up another two pitch line that hits the Three Way Ledge.  We are still trying to verify its virgin status as a route.
Karsten climbing into the unknown on a new route.

Overall, it was a great two days.  I learned a bit about route development.  We each had a chance for some first ascents and have looked at more virgin terrain for the future.  I highly suggest checking out Biopsy.  Though it doesn't have the stigma of some of the other routes at Laurel, it is a great climb for those looking for a challenge at that grade.  You can find information about the climb here on the Carolina Climbers Coalition's website.