Stellar: A Long Cold Day on the O.R.
Whitesides Mountain, 10.27.01
Arno Ilgner, Josh McIntire, Scott Jett
Original Route Grade IV, 5.10c/AO (FA 1977)
Text and Photos by Scott Jett
A halogen bright moon shines through the rear window of the Camry, momentarily waking me. Through the dense frost covering the glass, I can barely make out the shape of McIntire’s old Volvo parked next to me at the whitesides mountain trailhead. I hope he’s as cold as I am. The temp reads a brisk 20 degrees on the outside of the sleeping bag, and the raging wind hammering the trees outside makes me wonder if late October is a wise choice for making a one day blast of the O.R. It’s 3:30a.m., and I’m not happy that I bet Josh I wouldn’t be the first to crank the engine and turn on the heater. I throw on one more layer of fleece and doze back off.
Six a.m. Multiple headlamps in the parking lot next to us. Time to run. Chances are those guys are gunning for the O.R. too. Even though it has a tough crux section and multiple opportunities for death fall potential, it’s the easiest route on the face. Blasting up ten pitches before sunset won’t be easy if we're the only ones on the route, let alone if we have to pass a party or two. Their lamps disappear up the trail. One last gear check and we bolt into a dense rhododendron forest.
To quote Thomas Kelly’s Climber’s Guide to North Carolina, “…the approach to the main cliff is not easy. If all goes well, you should be able to reach the Original Route in about one hour.” We slide and grovel our way down an indistinct, classic North Carolina approach “trail” with more lines from the guidebook intro running through my head. “If you like long and scary routes, Whitesides Mountain is the place for you. Routes on Whitesides are not for the faint hearted. The climbing is quite serious, often involving devious route finding and long poorly protected sections on steep, crackless rock. The pioneering climbers on Whitesides were undeniably bold, leaving a challenging legacy for those who would follow.” It’s a good thing we brought along one of the Pioneers. Arno Ilgner is one of the original Hardmen. His ground breaking routes at Whitesides back in the early nineties have earned a reputation of boldness and respect in a state where respect isn’t easily earned. The topos on his multi pitch, grade IV Headwall routes read like a bad dream. His Little Miss Dangerous has a nice little aid crux simply marked “rotten A3” and a sporty 5.11c pitch named “Nugent’s Nightmare” that has a few bolts in its 160 feet. It’s hard to tell which part of his Volunteer Wall would be worse, the A4 “Happy Hooker Pitch” or the unnamed eighty foot slab pitch below that that has no bolts and just some wandering dots on the topo. You gotta wonder, what would it feel like to fall a hundred feet. Sunrise gives a faint hint of warmth as we scramble along the base, headed due east toward the start of the route. Arno has gotten us here in thirty-five minutes and the other party is nowhere to be found.
PITCH 1: Arno’s rack looks pitiful considering we have a thousand feet to climb today. He’s got maybe six cams, a set of wires, a tri-cam or three, and eight or ten slings, none of which are used on the first pitch. It’s a ropelength slab with no pro. The 5.7 pitch is kind of an idiot filter: death if you fall on lead, but you could follow the thing in gym shoes. A bolt or two on pitches like this could make the O.R. a safe, classic route, but today it pretty much stands the way it did in 1977; again, “leaving a challenging legacy for those who would follow.”
PITCH 2: We traverse a hundred feet on a tree covered ledge to the bouldery start of the second pitch. The sunrise is in full effect now, but the temp is still hovering in the thirties. The wall above comes alive in the sharp morning sun. Streaks of black, white and grey cover the granite wall like the splatters of a Jackson Pollak painting. The massive headwall routes loom above and to our left, and for a moment I’m glad we’re on the easiest route the beast has to offer. The pitch grunts over a little bulge on sidepulls and a long, long reach to a sloping jug. My hands are numb, but the pitch wakes me up.
PITCH 3: A short traverse left on another ledge leads to a nice belay at the start of the third pitch. At honest 5.8, the pitch starts with a slabby handrail right for twenty feet Then shoots up for a ropelength of hands with some of the best protection on the route. We grab a quick bite and a drink at a bolted belay station 400 feet off the deck.
PITCH 4: Though the topo has a 5.8+ scribbled next to the crack above us, Arno assures us the moves are consensus .10c. He looks solid on the moves, but we can tell the thing is saucy. He gets a cam in eight feet off the belay, then crimps and cranks his way up to an old bolt. A few lock-offs see him through the difficulties and he heads up a corner and out of sight. A few minutes later, Josh makes a few strong moves, then takes the first fall of the day, waking us both up a little. I give him a quick lesson in aid and he soon frigs his way up by standing in a sling or two. I’d really like to free the pitch, but my attempt is only slightly more impressive as I am reduced to yarding on a draw when the pump begins to creep its way in. I suck, and I know it. At least McIntire has an excuse, he’s only been climbing for a year, I’ve been on the rock for more than ten. I’m ashamed to admit to the guys that I considered not telling them that I grabbed the sling like the little girl that I am. Nobody would have ever known, but a better man would not have been tempted.
PITCH 5: The last pitch chewed up an hour and a half, and for the first time, Josh and I look out over the valley with a case of the “we better get movings.” The midday sun is shining, but to the west, the lower diheidrals over near Little Miss and Ship of Fools look frigid in the Fall shadows. Arno leads delicately out left and up, up, up without placing any pro. The climbing looks easy, but I don’t like the fact that if he fell, he would sail forty feet, then another forty past the belay. I crank off photos as he works his way up perfectly blank rock. We both second the 5.6 climbing in a hurry. Cleaning the pitch is easy, there’s really nothing to rack.
PITCH 6: “The Crescent Pitch” The belay at the base of the crescent pitch is crowded and the wind has picked up, I throw on another layer, glad that we each brought a pack with water, fleece and shells. We hear loud whoops from somewhere on the wall to our left, but see no one. Then Josh points out the source; dangling fifty feet out from the wall, six hundred feet above the forest. It turns out the mystery group ahead of us on the approach was a team of cavers who is brushing up on their rapelling and jugging. They had fixed nine hundred feet of rope from a “Caver’s Rappel” station near the summit, and spent the rest of the day spinning and toiling up and down their ropes. I’d rather climb than dangle any day. The Crescent pitch is a beauty. Arno pulls a stout bulge by high stepping his feet way out right until they're level with his shoulders. He places a small wire in a roof, the heads out of sight. Twenty minutes later, Josh backs off the move and comes back to the belay. “What the frick am I suuposed to do with my feet?’ he keeps asking. “Stand on ‘em!” is all I can say. He finally figures out the sequence by levering out on a tiny sidepull, and he’s soon above the bulge. The wind is really howling now, and Josh has been stymied in the middle of the pitch for about forty minutes. Arno can’t see him, neither can I, and I start to wonder if we have bitten off more than we can chew. The waiting is brutal on the nerves. “Falling!” I see Josh’s feet, dangling below the roof. He works for ten minutes. “Falling!,” and I see his shoes again. I take off my helmet, put on my fleece cap, and shout some encouragement laced with some “Do something or we’re screwed, man” tones. He finally realizes that he hadn’t seen a crucial flake system out to his right, and eventually pulls through to the belay. It’s 2:47 and the west wall is starting to fall into the shadows when I start to tear down the belay. I feel for Harrison Shull and Yon Lambert, two carolina climbers halfway up Little Miss.. Harrison is a climbing photographer who has done his share of scary Carolina routes and Yon got up Toulumne’s Bachar-Yearian a while back, so the guys know what they’re doing, but they have got to be cold over there, and they’re still a long way from home. Over a plate of barbeque pork in town later that night, Harrison tells us just how cold they had been all day over there in the shade. The two had gone light, carying one shell between them. I felt like a sissy for having six layers and still not being able to feel my fingers at the belays.
I have the luxury of watching both Arno and Josh work the moves, so following the pitch is as good as climbing gets. It’s dead vertical fingers with polished stemming on bullet hard granite with miles of air below. If this pitch was in the Valley or at the T-Wall, it would have a line at its base all day long.. I arrive at the hanging belay at the base of the infamous “Bolt Ladder pitch” winded but jacked to be “in the business” 700 feet up.
PITCH 7: “The bolt Ladder.” Fifteen feet of vertical rock with three bolts should not take any team an hour and a half to get up. It does. Arno makes a quick attempt to free the moves, but with the sun where it is now, decides to yard through on draws. Josh spends an hour pumped at the last bolt and I don’t do much better. Even though I‘ve brought along a set of aiders, the move is tricky and downright danderous. Above the last bolt, Arno has gone up and right for about eighty feet to the belay with no gear in between. A fall while unclipping from the bolt will send me on a wild pendulum out into no-man’s land, not a good place in the dark on Whitesides. I resort to leaving my home-made aider clipped to the bolt and highstepping up and out of the danger zone. Josh hadn’t had the same luxury, and had made a desperate, balsy move that could have gone bad. I’m proud of his guts, and we sit at the Eighth belay, cold and a little beaten up, but stoked to be nearing the top.
PITCH 8: “The Traverse” The O.R. is famous for a few reasons, one of them being the 5.0 runout traverse of the eighth pitch. Arno leads out from the belay on a windowsill ledge that slopes down slightly. Only an idiot would fall off the thing, but with the gravity of the whole route draining below, the thing has a psychological aura that makes you hope you aren’t the idiot today.. It goes for about a full ropelength on toes and tips and eventually ends at a hanging belay. A truly awesome pitch. I take my time, scoping out the view and soaking in the route, but arrive at another hanging belay with completely numb hands. I’ve had to physically watch them all day to make sure they stick to holds. Better than doing this route in July, though I tell myself.
PITCH 9: The shells come out as the sun dips around the corner and the shadow grabs us for the first time. Instant 10 degree temp drop. I look down to see a pair of guys struggling halfway up Traditions, a stiff .11c free route to our left. There is no way those guys will get off before nightfall. I can see Harrison and Yon a couple pitches below the summit, and know that if all goes well, they’ll make it. The ninth pitch is a cold, windy slab that earns its R/X rating in the guide.
PITCH 10: We have chewed hard, but will be on the top soon. The last surprise is a bulging high-step move twenty feet off the belay with no gear that has Arno up and down climbing a bit. If he falls, he’ll shish-ka-bob a granite spike and fall past the belay. He doesn’t, and we’re soon in the trees on the summit. We shake hands, coil the ropes, trade sticky rubber for socks and tennis shoes and book it down the trail. We stop over the top out for Miss Dangerous and Arno raps down to see if the guys got off in time.
The sun is setting, we hear no shouts, and soon find the guys sipping a brew down at their truck. Yon stays around to see if the guys on Traditions need help, but Arno, Harrison, Josh, and I head into town for ribs and hot coffee. Over dinner, we hear Harrison’s tales of hard, steep climbing and that Yon broke off three holds at different times. “Stellar route Arno, stellar!” is all he kept saying. As for the O.R., cold today, cold, but overall, “a stellar route man, stellar,” is a pretty good way to sum it up. -Scott Jett