The wooden tower, constructed of 1970s 2x4s, leaned weakly left or right depending on the wind. Brittle composite holds would occasionally explode when an eager kid pulled on one. Bits of wooden boards splintered off into campers’ knees.
Yet I was surrounded by crags and colossal domes, rising stark white above the crowded rainforest below. I had come from the paved wetlands near San Francisco, where the only crags were walled and air conditioned, to experience the wildness of genuine climbing.
Each of our staff was allowed one 24-hour period away from camp per week. In the granite heart of western North Carolina, these days off held rousing potential.
On a muggy morning preceding one of these off days, I checked my schedule to discover that a fellow staff member, Carl—long-haired, quiet and, like me, age 19—would also be free. We spent the morning teaching second graders how to rappel off the side of the antique tower, and discussing our window of opportunity. We wanted to climb outside. Between us we had minimal experience, but we were hungry to leap from gym novice to big time badass. Our chat attracted the attention of the climbing staff manager, Tony.
“We should go up Whiteside.”
We turned towards the low and growling voice. Tony had been recently hired and was clouded by mystery. We had picked up a few key details, though. He was a climbing guide at a major local outfitter, and he had a brash style of teaching techniques to campers. We often heard him tell kids, “Try harder” or “Stop being a quitter.” Also, we knew intuitively that Tony climbed hard.
The invitation lingered in the air.
“Let’s go up Whiteside. Tonight. It’s a full moon.”
Carl stared, attempting to process. This new guy, older than we were and weathered by the jaws of real rock, was offering us Whiteside Mountain. Whiteside had a reputation for big, bold and serious routes.
“You know how to multi-pitch, right? Come on, it’s the best climbing in the state.”
“Well, yeah,” lied Carl, looking directly at me. “I would, but ….”
“Same,” I said, “of course, but … won’t it be dark?”
“Headlamps. Bring them. Leave at 5:30.” With that, Tony left Carl and me with our mouths hanging open.
“Should we?” asked Carl.
“Yes,” my voice rang out without my approval. Carl looked shocked. I hoped he would cave and call it off.
“Y-yeah,” Carl said and cleared his throat. “We’ve got it.”
At 5:30 we arrived in the parking lot. Going over our entry-level gear, we waited silently for our chaperone. Tony rolled in late. He drove an abused Honda Civic that clearly doubled as a four-season bivy. Loose bumpers appeared to be held on by a decoupage of old La Sportiva stickers. Tony pried open the squeaky hatchback and chucked our packs on top of a pile of blown-out climbing shoes. Carl lumbered up to shotgun. I reached for a seatbelt in the crevice and touched something that felt like an apple core.
“Y’all stoked or what?” said Tony over the sound of death-metal through gravelly speakers. “We’ve got to move quick, don’t have much daylight. Anyone got a headlamp?”
Carl looked over his shoulder at me, as if to say, “What kind of person doesn’t bring a headlamp?” The sun was starting to sag.
Tony swerved the rickety Civic back and forth over the road like a fidgety rattlesnake.
“Look out the window. That’s Laurel Knob, biggest wall in the state. Me and some buddies have been freeing some old aid routes from the ‘70s up there. Really futuristic shit, super hard.”
“Cool, man,” I said. Carl was silent and still.
The sun was half buried as we zigzagged up the final steep dirt road to the trailhead parking lot. I strapped on my headlamp and unloaded the car. Carl did the same. Tony shouldered the rack, and we set off down the muddy trail. Stomping through puddles and sharp rhododendron, we passed some ominous bolted climbs seeping green ooze.
“All this stuff is runout and 12+,” Tony informed us. “I’ve done it all. Scary shit.”
Tony looked back and forth between us, sensing the nervous energy in our silence and arrhythmic gasping. The dark form of Whitesides grew larger and more shadowy as we neared the start of the first pitch.
“Here we are,” Tony said, slinging the gear violently over a hawthorn branch. “Get your harnesses on.”
I looked up at the wall. The full moon was rising, and I could make out some major grooves and scarcely bolted slabs. Tony would lead to the end of 70 meters, with an additional tag line so Carl and I could follow in unison. We watched as Tony palmed and pranced with quick precision, a newt disappearing into the dark. After hearing a muffled and distant “On belay,” Carl and I climbed together, staying close to share the glow of my freshly charged headlamp. Tony was using Carl’s, a nearly burned-out bulb resembling a coal-mining relic. It was my first multi pitch experience, and the leader was building anchors by the equivalent of candlelight.
Carl and I climbed the first two pitches in silence. When I realized that I could not only feel but see my legs quivering, I mumbled about feeling chilly. I wasn’t. As we arrived at the top of the steepening second pitch, Tony offered an idea.
“How ’bout I take the bright headlamp for this next one and you two can share the old one? It’s sketchy leading without much light, and this pitch looks wet.”
I wanted to say, “Why didn’t you bring your own then?” but handed over my light, mute.
The next pitch was wet, and mostly a vegetated traverse. Tony meandered sideways awhile, placed a swampy nut in mossy choss, and traversed another 30 feet to a bolted anchor. Carl and I began the traverse together, but the thin ledge demanded single file so I moved ahead. With our shared headlamp threatening full kaput, and a wet ledge underfoot that had the texture of banana peels covered in KY jelly, we moved at an absolute snail’s pace. We inched along until we arrived at Tony’s lazy first placement.
“Why didn’t he place more gear?” I wondered aloud. We looked down into the abyss. Were we to fall after pulling this single piece, we would plunge together into the 4th dimension.
“Dude, I don’t know. Who is this guy?”
We arrived at a spacious belay, our trio looking up together at a clean hanging corner. There was an obvious three-inch crack down low, and single bolt 25 feet above that. Otherwise, the pinched off corner had face holds and smears but no gear. The languid moonlight softened the granite.
“It’s 5.9. You’re up.”
“Huh?” I said, turning on the ledge to face Tony. He was handing me fistfuls of tangled gear.
“Plug a 3 and head to the bolt. Don’t blow it, you’ll smack the ledge. I don’t want to have to rescue your ass.”
It was apparently time for my first trad lead. Tony grumbled out a terse review of how to build an anchor, “in case you’ve forgotten,” though I had never really learned. Carl, shivering, attempted an encouraging expression. He looked at me like I was about to board a space shuttle.
The bottom of the pitch was damp but featured and comforting. I shoved a cam deep into the obvious slot and breathed, fooled momentarily into courage and calmness. I was safe. It felt wonderful to re-calibrate with trusty gear at my face. Yet the real challenge was ahead. I looked up into the puzzle, considering how to pull off a miracle.
I kicked my right foot out to a smear and reached for a positive edge. Pulling down and locking off, I brought my left foot into the sequence. Above the ledge and past my gear, I stretched, searched, and quivered on the smears. I could reach a seam that suggested liebacking, but I’d have to commit to insecurity and bad fall potential. I returned to the rest.
“You got it, dude!” said Carl.
“Dude, what the fuck?” said Tony. “Get up there already.”
I climbed up and back down several times. Twenty minutes later, Tony spoke again.
“You can’t do it. Use my stick and clip the bolt. We don’t have all night.”
He explained the process of pre-clipping and handed me the stick. Embarrassed and assuming my climbing career was over, I clipped the bolt and aided past. With safety concerns quelled, I finished the pitch swiftly. I brought up Tony and Carl. Carl congratulated my lame effort. I later learned the pitch is 5.10+.
Now it was Carl’s turn to try his novice hand at leading. He stared at his palms, his dread surely exacerbated by the humiliation storm he had just witnessed.
Tony offered helpfully, “Don’t worry, you can’t possibly do worse than Austin. Besides, this pitch is easy.”
As pale as the moon behind him, Carl racked up and set off into the darkness. The rope ran slowly upwards for five minutes as he moved into a corner. He seemed to be on his way.
Then his breathing changed. His exhalations grew louder until they were certified grunts.
“Shit! I don’t know where to go!” he yelled.
I felt his panic. He sounded desperate. I looked to Tony for a voice of experience. He sneered, unmoved.
“Aaagh!!!” cried Carl, from completely out of sight. Suddenly, with a yelp that he considered his last, Carl swung wildly out of the darkness: upside-down and headfirst right across Tony’s and my feet. An inch of air separated his head and the ledge.
Carl took a moment to check himself, before fully crumpling into a pile on the ledge beside us. He didn’t say a word. He covered his face in his down jacket. He didn’t untie. His chest filled and fell in quick succession. I exhaled into my chilled hands, wondering how to console my fallen friend.
Once Tony had finished up Carl’s pitch, we climbed through several wandering pitches without a word. Tony seemed to have reevaluated our ability. Up the moderate slabs he went, placing a rusty tricam every football field or so. He’d land at an anchor, tug on the rope, haul us up, and quickly turn back to lead. We inferred his frustration and indignation through eye rolls and head shakes, but we didn’t need to. He told us what was on his mind.
“You two couldn’t climb out of a bathtub. Are you guys sure you’ve climbed before? I never should have brought you up here ….”
It was 5 a.m when we flopped onto the flat summit. We followed Tony through angry patches of rhododendron toward the car. The last light of the full moon revealed blood on my ankles and forearms. Tony didn’t wait up. We fumbled through the brush as the headlamp finally expired.
Tony plopped into the back seat to sleep. He was snoozing before Carl and I had our harnesses off. In Carl’s eyes I could see a vacant hollow where energy and hope once lived.
“I’ll drive.” It was all I could do for my shattered pal.
Blasting country radio for stimulation, I sped down desolate roads while air from open windows held my eyelids up.
Carl leaned forward and turned off the radio.
“Those eyebrows on the second pitch were cool,” he said.
I looked at him, rattled. He had reintroduced positivity into our bummer procession. I thought of the sloping features he had referenced. They were fucking cool.
“Yeah,” I said, “and that corner with the knobs on the fourth pitch was rad.”
Carl shared another observation. “The moonlight turned the rock white, like porcelain.”
A smile snuck onto my face.
“Dude, that fall you took was massive!” I said.
“I thought I was a goner! That was crazy!”
For the rest of the drive, Carl and I recounted the night with energy sourced from an unfamiliar place. The harrowing climbing experience transformed into camaraderie and joy.
For the rest of the week, between extracting splinters from the knees of our summer campers, Carl and I proudly recounted our adventure to any semi-interested audience we could find.
We forgot about tears and terror, and crowed about massive dynos and runouts. When our next day off came around, we asked Tony to borrow his guidebook. He looked surprised and amused.
“Don’t get your asses killed out there,” he said.
We piled our gear in the car and went climbing.
Austin BeckDoss, 23, writes and climbs from dispersed locations in the American West.