It's Saturday morning, April 10th,2004, the second Saturday of the month and we are gathered around booths at the Waffle House restaurant at the north end of Georgia Highway 400 having ourselves breakfast and waiting to see who all will show up for our monthly Second Saturday climb in the north Georgia mountains. As usual, the Waffle House is awash in a sea of noise, servers shouting back and forth at each other, the cooks rattling their pots and pans for all they are worth, and customers having to shout at the tops of their voices in order to communicate with one another. Just one more normal morning at the Waffle House.
As nine A.M. approaches we look about to see who all we have and I am happy to see that we have ten climbers. This will be our biggest Second Saturday climb ever. My brother, Wild Bill, who usually organizes these events, is eating with us but will have to pass on the climb as he has been asked to work at his job today.
We finally agree that no one else is probably going to show up, so we head for the parking lot and our vehicles and start the drive north to the Possum Top climbing area, an hour's drive away.
The group consists of Abe, Steve, Tom, Naomi, Robert, Rod, Glenn, Jeff, Darryl, and myself. Glenn and Robert are our novice climbers, Darryl and Jeff are our camera crew; All of us are ready for serious climbing and serious adventure.
Possum Top is a climbing area with large old-growth trees located in the Chattahoochee National Forest in the middle of a triangle created by Nowhere, Somewhere, and Anywhere. In other words, I'm not going to tell you exactly where it is; if you want to climb there, then you need to come along on one of our Second Saturday adventures into the north Georgia outback. We are happy to share the climbing there, but we want to make sure that the area does not become closed to us because of climbers who do not adhere to the wilderness ethics warranted by a visit to such a place. Other areas, with trees even more splendid than those on Possum Top, have been closed to climbers because of irresponsible practices witnessed by hikers and reported to rangers who then have made rules causing us to climb elsewhere.
Arriving at the trailhead, we were quite happy to find that we had the place to ourselves. In minutes we had our gear on our backs and were headed along to where the trees grow really big. In less than half an hour we were there and the only problem lay in deciding which trees to climb. Abe had his heart set on an extremely large white oak that towers over a hundred feet into the air. Naomi and Robert were set on climbing a large poplar that had been named after her on a previous climb in the area. For myself, I was seriously eyeballing a huge white pine that I had looked at before, thought about, and had decided that if I was ever to climb it, I might as well go ahead and do it now. The rest of the crew decided to follow Abe into his white oak. That was where the video crew would be doing their thing.
After using my BigShot to get a few lines up into the white oak I departed in the direction of my white pine. This was going to be a major challenge. The first limb of consequence, upon which I would be willing to trust my life, was close to ninety feet up. It took five shots before I got a line over a setting that I felt OK with; everything else had been highly questionable. I hauled a climbing rope into place, attached the hardware, harnessed up, did a gear check, and was on my way.
As with any first ascent into a wild and challenging tree, I went very slowly. I divided my time between enjoying the view and craning my neck to try and get a clear view of my anchor setting to make sure that everything was as safe as it had appeared from the ground. The higher I got, the slower I climbed. It is axiomatic that the higher one climbs, the smaller the anchor appears to be, and the more aware the climber becomes of every little nuance in the tree's movement. It was with relief that I reached my anchor limb and was able to move the climbing rope right up against the tree trunk. The relief increased as soon as I had tossed my rope over the next higher, and much bigger, anchor.
White pines have lots of limbs, and this giant was no exception. If anything, there were too many limbs. As I advanced upward, throwing one short pitch after another, I was forced to wriggle between smaller limbs that created obstacles to my progress. In addition to lots of limbs, there was also a lot of flaky "tree dandruff" falling on my head, working its way down through the collar of my tee shirt, and creating a whole lot of itching and scratching. Pine trees can be quite dirty; if it weren't for the height and the view, I wouldn't even bother with them.
Voices on the trail below warned me that other hikers were approaching. I wrapped an arm around a convenient limb and watched the trail. A few moments later four hikers, obviously a family, passed the base of the tree below me without even looking up. They never even realized I was around. They passed on out of sight and I continued upward after throwing another pitch.
I don't know exactly how high I climbed, but I do know that the tag end of my one hundred and fifty foot rope did not reach the ground. I also know that I was in the highest tree in the neighborhood. There was still another twenty feet of tree above my head but I wasn't going to tempt fate. The top of the tree was already moving around in the breeze more than I would have liked and the trunk at this height was only about eight inches in diameter. I was high enough.
The view was magnificent. For almost an hour I looked over the three hundred and sixty degree view of the surrounding mountains. Far, far below, through the dense foliage, I could see flashes of white indicating the presence of the rushing waters of the trout stream that runs through the area. I searched for a glimpse of the other climbers in their white oak tree only a couple of hundred yards to my northwest and was able to finally spot a white shirt as it moved about along the limbs of the white oak. I had been searching too high. It seems that I was quite a bit higher than the others. Food for my ego! I was definitely the highest climber in the group, and was more than sure that my view of the forest had to better than anyone else's. The sound of a whistle from below got my attention, and looking down I was rewarded with the sight of another solo hiker waving at me. He moved on down the trail, the sound of his whistling slowly fading .
Time to come down and join the others. Thirty minutes and two down-pitches later I was on the ground and heading toward the white oak tree. Realizing that they were going to be up there for a while, I hurried back to retrieve my gear and get myself up into the white oak with the rest of the crew.
Tom McCorkle graciously relieved me of the job of getting a line up by allowing me to ascend on his spider line. Twenty minutes later I was up in the white oak and snapping photos of everybody there. Life in the top of the white oak was very laid back. Everybody had a comfortable perch. Tom was stretched out in his treeboat, everybody else stretched out on limbs. Darryl Augustine, the videographer, was busy shooting footage and doing tree top interviews. Glenn, Rod, Steve, Jeff, and Abe were just hanging out and admiring the view. The climb had transformed itself from being a wilderness adventure into a wilderness social. I had to concede that while my pine tree had yielded a higher climb, the white oak was definitely the friendlier place to be; and the view wasn't nearly as shabby as I had been prepared to tell them. I was glad that I had kept quiet on that point.
Our climb on this Second Saturday was being documented by Jeff Mar and Darryl Augustine from Toronto North Studios out of Canada. The two had driven down and were spending several days in the area photographing our climbing activities. They had already climbed with Abe the day before, on Friday, and would be joining us on Sunday for Tree Climbing USA's monthly Second Sunday climb. They were hoping to market their documentary video for television upon returning to Canada. This was the second time that one of our Second Saturday climbs had been photographed, the first time having been done on the Second Saturday a month earlier in March.
No one had any problems on this trip or during the climb. With the amount of climbing talent that was present it was no wonder. Even our two novice climbers had done themselves proud and were as happy as the rest of us as we hung out eighty to one hundred feet above the ground.
It was soon time to come down. We were all pretty worn out and we still had to de-rig the tree, pack up the gear, and walk out. Hunger was becoming an issue also. Rod Justice was threatening us with his military-style MREs, telling us that if we didn't get to a restaurant soon it was going to be the MREs. It wasn't long before six of us were gathered around a table at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Dahlonega and having ourselves a well-earned dinner.
Once again we had enjoyed a safe and wonderful Second Saturday wilderness climb.