In the climbing literature, much is made of the fearsome reputation of Whiteside. "With a reputation for loose rock, steep routes, skimpy gear, and wild weather, Whiteside Mountain remains among the most feared and revered climbing areas in the Southeast," reads the introduction to the wall in Lambert and Shull's Selected Climbs in North Carolina. Or, even more whimsically, Whiteside is "immense, scary and the closest thing to big wall, run-out adventure climbing you'll find in the south. This is the place for you if you wish to avoid the crowds and soil your drawers," quoth Thomas Kelley, author of The Climber's Guide to North Carolina. We didn't necessarily find the climbing to require multiple pairs of undies (at least not on the routes we chose), but there is some truth to the loose rock and runout-climbing rumors.
As is our custom, Dan and I debated for hours in the week leading up to our trip over which routes to attempt and in what style. We ended up settling on Arm & Hammer as our first adventure. We chose this route carefully. We knew that retreat on any route would be difficult given the long pitches and our choice to climb on a single rope. Yet we still wanted to challenge ourselves physically and mentally. A&H seemed a good compromise, as it is near our physical limit at 5.12a, but the most difficult pitches would be protected by bolts -- although they also happen to be the last three pitches of the climb. Bailing for any reason from the top of the climb would be "sporting," to say the least, as we would be several hundred feet in the air on an overhanging headwall. But at least, with the bolts, we stood a good chance of "failing upwards" (that is, admitting defeat yet continuing to make vertical progress by pulling on bolts and gear -- essentially finishing the route in poor style).
The first two pitches of the climb are mostly gear protected (or not protected at all, as is the case with the second pitch) with the occasional bolt. At the base of the route, we did our traditional rock flip to determine who would get first lead. This time, Dan won. He got the first pitch, which consisted of runout 5.8 climbing to a hollow flake, where sketchy gear could be placed. From there, a few easy moves led to a nice shiny bolt protecting the 11a thin crux moves. The rest of the climbing was mostly facey, with some gear and a couple more bolts protecting thought-provoking 5.10 climbing. There was one notable runout through that section, which got my blood pumping as a belayer. On the sharp end, Dan seemed to handle it just fine and made the whole pitch look much easier than it was.
I drew the second pitch. Most of it was forgettable 5.7ish climbing with no gear and difficult route finding. I knew that I was aiming for a hidden bolt that protected a 5.9 section near the anchor, but I had a tough time finding it. I killed maybe 30 minutes climbing back and forth between two different options (breaking a hold in the process), finally settling on a chossy corner that led me, happily, to the hard-to-see bolt. I finished up the pitch, glad to be done with the runouts, but wondering how we'd rappel down nearly 300 feet of rock with a single rope and few options to leave gear if we had to bail. Retreat from this point would have been a headache, to put it mildly. Possible? Yes. But it would have required some seriously creative sketch-ineering.
After some discussion when Dan reached the belay, we decided to continue. I'm glad we did. The third pitch was a good one. Dan led up off the belay and clipped a few bolts, making thin moves in the process. He gained a flake, which provided some gear, and made a rightward traverse towards another series of bolts. He finished with some interesting moves to a small belay ledge. This was one of my favorite pitches of the weekend and went at about 10c.
Pitch four: welcome to the headwall. So far so good. We had onsighted all of the pitches and were feeling pretty confident, especially now that we could see a line of bolts ascending the massive, overhanging wall that loomed above us. Retreat would now prove even more difficult given the angle, but we were confident we could climb ourselves out of any jams. It was now my turn to prove it. The story of the 11c fourth pitch can mostly be summed up by the following video, which tells the disheartening tale of broken holds and blown onsights. Oh well...I take some consolation knowing that there is no way we could have onsighted the sustained crux pitch...
The 11d sixth pitch is the last pitch of the route, unless you count the 5.easy scramble to the summit. This pitch is known as the "bathtub pitch" because of the unique basin-shaped ledge about a third of the way up. I made a few easy moves off the belay and then puzzled for several minutes over how to reach the bathtub. After finally committing to a powerful reach, I pulled up into the tub and immediately wanted to spark a J and turn on some Song of the Whale. But, instead, I spent my energy figuring out how to protect my second and exit the tub without falling. Ultimately, I did this, but my onsight was blown shortly thereafter at the crux move, over a bulge. The sequence, which I nailed on my second go, ended up being a cool friction undercling move (unique!) up to a fingerlock in a dirty crack. I finished up through 30 feet of crack wallowing, doing some fierce gardening to get pro along the way. From there it was a short scramble and ... Cumbre!
In the end, while quite committing, this route was actually pleasant and not a bad way to spend a day, should you ever find yourself with nothing to do in Cashiers, North Carolina. As Dan put it, after paying the entrance fee (first two pitches), essentially you get to enjoy some "sport climbing in the sky." Not bad!