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.