Thanksgiving Dessert

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Written for:  The Gainesville Times

By: Michael Crowder

     Thanksgiving Day and its been below freezing four nights in a row. My official temperature test is whether or not the dogs water bowl has frozen during the night. That means temps in the low twenties at elevations above 3,000 ft. There has to be climbable ice somewhere in the mountains and here I am eating for the third time today. Not that I donít enjoy an occasional day of relaxation, I would just rather be ice climbing than anything else I can think of.

     Driving home I started making cell calls looking for a climbing partner. My second call meets with success. My most frequent ice climbing partner, Russell Sagon from Jefferson is psyched to climb. He agreed to meet me at 5:30 a.m. on Friday morning to look for some ice. Because ice doesnít act friendly when the temperature gets above freezing it is always best to get an early start to beat afternoon warming.

     We left Friday morning for Whitesides Mountain, just a few miles north of Highlands, N.C. Standing at an elevation of 4,930 ft. its massive faces form ice quickly. Only 1Ĺ hours from Gainesville this mountain produces ice that rivals some of the Rockies finest climbs.

     We went past the mountain to a scenic pull off on Hwy. 64 that allows a view of Whitesides north face. Much to our surprise we saw that the 300 ft. climb "Starshine", water ice grade 4, was formed all the way to the ground. A buddy had scoped the route on Tuesday and said it wasnít even close. We suddenly realized that we now had a longer hike than we had planned on.

     The approach to "Starshine" begins with a one-hour hike over the top of the mountain. Then you are presented with a two hundred-yard descent down the steepest gully you can imagine. The approach is then finished off with a three hundred-foot rappel to the base of the climb.

     This route is generally done in two pitches. A pitch is usually about 150 ft.; the length of the rope determines pitch length. A standard rope length is 165 ft. The first pitch consists of 150 ft. of 60 to 70 degree climbing on thin ice. This route is usually thin at the bottom but the higher you get the thicker the ice gets. The first hundred feet the ice was only two or three inches thick in most places but the lower angle and a gentle touch allowed us to cover this section rather easily.

     The second pitch is the crux of the climb. Constantly steep, it contains two sections that are dead vertical and maintains at least 80 to 85 degrees for the remainder of the climbing. On this section the ice was thick enough to take 21 cm. ice screws and the ice was what we call soft and plastic because of the mild temperature. By the time we got off the climb the temp had gone up to 37 degrees and ice was starting to fall. During the course of the climb the weather managed to rain, sleet and snow on us. A perfect wintery mix.

     On the hike out we took a side trip to get a view of a climb in the valley called "Frozen Heart", WI grade 2+, but it had not formed yet. We did find some of the shorter climbs above the Whitesides parking lot formed so we stopped and played until fatigue did us in. This is the earliest "Starshine" has come in to my knowledge and with a early freeze allowing me to find a couple of routes on October 10th this bodes to be a good ice season here in the south.

    Before we could get home a steady rain was beginning to fall. The rain moved steadily north and by Saturday morning our route was gone. Nothing but wet rock. This is what I find so amazing about ice climbs. A route can actually form up and be climbable for only a few hours before it falls. In this sport timing is everything, bad timing can get you killed, good timing means a day of staggering joy.