Sunday, December 16, 2012

Men, Monsters, Myths and Whitesides

Alpine Start
    The alarm went off at 5:00 am. My bed, a mat on the floor in the corner of a living room, was warm and the air was heavy and dark. Bennett and I tiptoed around the creaky hardwood floors, trying not to wake up our sleeping roommates as we loaded our packs and made breakfast. We ate oatmeal and drank coffee in silence under the buzzing of the dim fluorescent lights in our kitchen. It was time to go, we had to move fast all day. As we went down the dark stairwell that leads to the street I ran my hands over the Tibetan prayer flags that hang overhead. It wasn't an empty gesture, it was a big day and I wanted everything to go like clock work. I needed the mountain's blessing, even if it was only a figment of my imagination.We stepped out into the cold air of the dark morning. We were welcomed by empty roads and buzzing street lamps. The predawn  air was crisp  in our lungs. Off into the dark we drove, to go see about a monster from the storybooks.
    Just the word WHITESIDES carries a heavy tone. At 700 vertical feet of bold climbing it is as respected as a wall can be. Reading the guidebook descriptions alone will turn most away. The climbing is steep, exposed and run-out. You could fill a hard drive with the numerous accounts of epics and giant whippers from the history of this mountain. The men that established this cliff were masters of the mind so the routes will test you physically, but the mind is in the most pain on a Whitesides ascent. It is not uncommon to be 600 feet off the ground, 30 feet above your last piece of protection, trying to decide whether or not you're going the wrong way as you hang from your finger tips and stand on questionable footholds. All this lore made for grand images in my curious imagination and the Monster from the stories began to pull at me.
    My love in this world, that which drives me and makes me feel whole is.... "on-sight, ground up,Traditional climbing". One go, one chance to understand a line perfectly, get the gear right, and keep the chatter of your mind silent as you wonder up the path of another's imagination. Whitesides seemed like a great place to be perfect and I wanted to be just that, perfect. To be perfect on a cliff like this would mean having to make 1,000's of correct decisions for hours upon of hours.
    I decided that the OR should be my first route on Whitesides, and coincidentally mine and Bennett's first multi-pitch together. An 800 foot 5.11a R Grade III with  a 140 foot 5.8 free solo for the the first pitch seemed like a fine test for my gumption. As we hiked down the trail the darkness began to give way and the sun peaked over a silky layer of clouds and turned the cold night sky into a warm ambient light capable of inspiring men to great things. We turned a corner and there it was, the monster from the stories. As I looked in amazement at the wall for the first time I felt something unexpected. I did not feel like I was standing at the feet of a monster at all but rather at the door of a welcoming mother eager to have me home. I knew at that moment that I would spend many days of my life on this wall.
    At 8:00am I started up the first pitch. I chose a line with a single bolt, 70 ft off the ground and began to climb. The first pitch of the OR could reward one missed foot or one lapse in concentration with serious injury but more likely, death. At least in regards to the first pitch, all the lore was spot on. My mind was in a quiet room for 20 minutes. After 50 feet of moderate slab climbing I clipped my first and only piece of protection. The lack of comfort this bolt offered was almost humorous because just a few minutes later I was right back into the no fall zone with no chance of gear. I topped out the pitch and let out a deep breathe of satisfaction and relief. We climbed a pitch of 5.8 and 5.7 before arriving at the first difficult pitch of the day, a 5.10c corner that is oddly polished compared to the entire cliff. I was pressed into a gastone and lie back, fully dependent on the pressure provided by my feet, when both my feet cut. My shoulders fired into overdrive as I held an awkward iron cross and drove my feet back into the wall. Another pitch of run out 5.8 led us to the crux of the route, a pitch I had built up in my mind for years, trying to imagine what it would be like to pull on edges with nothing but air below and then run it to the anchors.
Top of the crux pitch
    Three bolts on a 75 foot 5.11 stood between us and a perfect first day on Whitesides. We were moving at a great pace and making no mistakes, so I just had to fire this quickly and it would basically be over with just a few pitches of 5.9 and 5.10 to the top. I laced up my shoes and did a few big moves off the belay and it was all over, except for the remaining 40 feet of the pitch with no gear. At this point in the day it was just understood that an entire pitch my  have 3 pieces of protection total and that's OK. Bennett and I swung leads to the top. At one point I laid down on a grassy belay ledge as Bennett built the anchor for the next pitch. The sun warmed my body under a perfectly blue sky and the cool wind kissed my skin and rattled the stalks of grass all the while 500 feet of air lay below me. I almost peacefully fell asleep while belaying until the roar of a near by diving Peregrine woke me,  I told Bennett later on the car ride home.

    Once at the top we briefly celebrated, took some photos and answered a few questions from a couple hiking to the top. I can only imagine how we looked to them as we crawled out of the void and over the fence to the overlook where they stood. We began our hike back to the car satisfied and proud of our perfection. I was excited about the future. I have my hopes wrapped around the harder lines on the headwall... the Arno lines especially. Lines with stacked 5.11 and 5.12+ pitches. As my mind raced I made my one and only mistake of the day. In my haste I placed all my weight onto a wet step on the hike down. I was shot into the air and my full weight came down on my lower back with a carabiner to break my fall. I laughed and groaned wondering if my back was broken. I stood up and hobbled down the trail with a firm reminder that I'm not invincible. A good thing to keep in my mind as I venture into more difficult terrain on my new favorite cliff.

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