Whiteside Mountain, a slumbering humpbacked whale of granite nestled among the summer homes and golf courses near Highland, North Carolina, overlooks the headwaters of the Chattooga River. The entire upper portion of the mountain's west side has fallen away as if cleaved by a glacier, leaving a 700 foot vertical face which acts as a magnet for rock climbers, vertical cavers, and peregrine falcons. In the 1980's, when this account was written, we used to make regular trips from Nashville and camp on top of the mountain to rappel and climb. I went back in June 2007 and although the area is now posted for day use only and the trail up the hill and safety fence along the top has been improved, the mountain itself is still the same wonderful place.
Whiteside at Night
As the shadows gather, the last of the day hikers and rock climbers walk down from Whiteside Mountain, voices fading into darkness. Alone in the night, Whiteside seems to breathe in the wind and awaken. By moonlight the mountain becomes a place of dreams and imagination: magic, deserted, secret. I remember standing alone on top of that mountain inside a fishbowl of stars, the wind in the trees all around. I remember being on top of Whiteside, closing my eyes and then opening them as if for the first time.
Some people wonder why we climb mountains or push our bodies through caves, but those people haven't been on Whiteside Mountain on a windy October night. Some people are strangers to themselves, making believe that life is expensive cars and condominiums and air conditioned comfort. Their world is the wrong one, an illusion. The real world is the one all around you at night on Whiteside, rushing in the wind through your hair, tumbling away into infinity in every direction. Alone on that precipice against the night sky, I may be an invisible speck in the universe, but at least I know my place. Like the other animals in the woods around me, I am a part of the world I move through, not an intruder from outer space in a Saab with a telephone in it.
Rick and the Rope
He's tired, he says. I see him moving quietly in the background of the firelight, taking a quick sip of water, looking up to catch a moment of the conversation. Alone he walks off to the rope, a distant shadow rigging to descend. I picture him alone at the base of the drop, the mountain leaning over him, darkness all around. Does he feel the night as I do? Is his world as lonely and frightening and wonderful as mine?
Rick Hill's world is God and Gibbs and long, tired sighs. I drift off to sleep to the sounds of his nightly prayers, and wake hearing his morning devotions. Saturday night, as we walk down the mountain for dinner in town, leaving Rick still on the rope, he has rappelled and climbed the 700 foot drop five times. When we return, he has managed two more. Finally, the night growing late, he has come and gone nine times. I put on my harness and accompany him on his tenth and last climb. Fifteen feet below, Rick climbs silently in the moonlight.
Later, around the fire, the conversation turns to television evangelists. "Don't put your faith in a man," Rick says. "He'll let you down every time." Rick takes off his gear, says nothing more. He has climbed 7,000 feet in one day, but you'll never hear Rick brag. He may even deny it ever happened, and so I try to remember the day for him: the mountain of granite, the sunset turning to starlight, the people who came and went. Did Rick see all this, or did his climbs blur into one? As I replay his almost mechanical determination in my mind, it seems to me that sometime during that 7,000 feet Rick had closed his eyes and started looking inward, with nothing to prove to anyone except himself and God.
All of Us on Whiteside
To recap: The parking lot at Whiteside gave silent greeting...no trace of the orange signs that had forbidden us in April remained.
The half mile of trail up the mountain was like an old friend to us. Rick Hill and Doug Simpkins were on top, the rope rigged and ready. Dennis Curry and Doug Parker hiked up later that night; Krissy and Robert and Homer and Brenda and Billy and Tank and Louie came the next day. It was a Whiteside weekend, like the Whitesides of old.
By the time Annie and I were out of the tent, Rick had already been down the drop once. Hang gliders soon appeared overhead. I went down to the rig bolts twice: once to scout, and once for pictures, then finally did the drop for real a couple of times. As the sun disappeared into a spectacular sunset, Rick rigged into the rope for another of many rappels and most of us went into Highlands to eat. Late that night, I made my fourth and final drop of the day, watching the ghost of the wall slide past in the darkness, peering up from the bottom at the stars and the one little star that was Rick, descending.
On Sunday I placed a 300 foot rope at the second rig point and hung at the end taking pictures, legs dangling over 400 feet of lonely space. Rick was on the other rope with a video camera, 80 feet away, descending to the register ledge. Others came down to capture their own moments of glory on video tape. Suspended in the breeze, I sang a chorus of the theme from "Branded" as each rappelled past.
Hang gliders and peregrine falcons soared together, the wind blew, and I thought: This is what we live for. Here we are, all alive together.
Title Shot: Rick Hill at the top of the drop by moonlight.
Looking down at the breakover ledge.
Otis Farmer with 600 feet of nothing below.
The view from the second rig point.
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