Pioneering Climbing on Old Bald

by Robin McKinney Walker

Generations of Merrie-Woode campers have gazed upon the granite face of Old Bald, drawing strength from its ancient grandeur. Alumnae and campers alike share the memory of viewing Camp from its summit, realizing the smallness of their world from the perspective of heaven. A few adventurous men and women have experienced Old Bald in a more direct way: scaling the rock face with only rope and a few bolts to offer protection along the way. For all of those who have ever wondered how it became possible to climb the face of Old Bald, we share the story of the intrepid climbers who first ascended our beloved mountain and returned to share their skills by establishing Camp’s first climbing program.

Climbing on the granite domes of Western North Carolina area began in earnest during the mid-1960s, on routes such as The Nose at Looking Glass, Crackerjack at Table Rock, the Original Route at Whiteside, and later, Fathom and Seconds at Laurel Knob. For years, the climbing routes in Cashiers Valley were kept pristine and nearly secret. Many were located on private property, not accessible to the general public, and required strenuous hikes and a significant amount of bushwhacking to reach the base of the rock. Access routes to the granite cliffs were closely guarded secrets, shared among the members of the small, tightly-knit climbing community. These early climbers studied topographic maps and photographs of the rock taken with telephoto lenses to determine the best routes.Once a route was completed, the climbers prepared hand-drawn maps that they circulated among their friends.

Serious climbers in Cashiers Valley practice a pure style of climbing known as traditional or “trad”climbing. Trad climbers subscribe to a leave-no-trace ethic, placing permanent protection, such as a bolt, only where absolutely needed to complete a route. In most cases, the climber places temporary pieces of protection, such as nuts or cams, into features of the rock as he goes. These temporary pieces are removed either by a subsequent climber in the group or by the original climber when rappelling. In the North Carolina traditional style, bolts are placed from the ground up by the climber as he ascends the route, rather than by a person rappelling down from the top. The first person to complete a route is given credit for the first ascent. That person has the right to name the route and no one is allowed to change the route without obtaining the first ascensionist’s permission.

There is also a competitive element to this style of climbing. The manner in which a person climbs the route is just as essential as finishing the climb. Climbers sometimes attempt to one-up each other in the boldness and technical difficulty of a climb. Many routes are “run-out,” meaning that the climber must travel long distances between placing pieces of protection, lengthening the distance of any potential fall. Trad climbing in North Carolina requires the climber to be both highly skilled and extremely bold. This style makes the climbing as much a mental challenge as a physical one.

In the early years of climbing in Cashiers Valley, climbs were rated, as they are today, on the Yosemite Decimal System.After completing a first ascent, the climber rated the climb by difficulty between 5.1 and 5.9. The most technically difficult climbs were rated 5.9+. Present day practice allows climbs to be rated up to 5.15, however, many of the old route descriptions for Cashiers Valley routes simply state that they are 5.9+. Needless to say, climbs rated 5.9+ pose particular danger, because it is hard to determine the true level of difficulty prior to beginning the climb.

The first accents on Old Bald took place in the mid-1970s. The individuals who pioneered these early routes included Diff Ritchie, Bob Rotert, Peter Young, and Buddy Price. They were members of an elite group of climbers who tackled many of the first ascents in the area. The relationship between the early climbers and Merrie-Woode was generally good. The climbers’primary access to Old Bald did not start at Camp, but rather at the Old Fairfield Inn site. They would park at the Inn and canoe over to the mountain.

Today, there are many routes by which climbers can ascend Old Bald, but the first direct route to the top followed the zigzagging lines of quartz running straight up the center of the face. The first ascensionists named this route The Spider Wall. In the summer of 1976, climbers Diff Ritchie and Buddy Price were planning to finish The Spider Wall. Diff Ritchie completed the route first, with the assistance of climbing partner Dave Shepherd, and they are credited with the first ascent on Old Bald in June 1976.

Diff’s connection to Merrie-Woode and Old Bald began when he moved to Cashiers around 1975 to open an outdoors store and to complete some of the classic climbs on Whiteside and Laurel Knob. In addition to climbing, Diff was an exceptional paddler. When he was not climbing or running the store, Diff built and raced boats with Fritz Orr III. Diff maintained a close friendship with the Orr family, including Dottie and Fritz Orr Jr.

Diff had learned to climb during his eight years as a camper at Camp Mondamin, where he later returned to teach climbing as a staff member. Like Merrie-Woode, Mondamin and its sister camp, Green Cove, have a well-established tradition of excellence in wilderness adventure programs. Diff had participated in the development of a girls’ climbing program at Green Cove, and he was confident that Merrie-Woode campers would realize similar benefits from a program of their own. Diff approached Fritz Orr Jr. about starting a climbing Program at Merrie-Woode during the 1975-76 year. They talked extensively about the philosophy of introducing campers to adventure sports, as well as how to ensure the campers’ safety. Diff believed that climbing provides an opportunity to build a camper’s self-esteem. Initially, she might not believe that she would ever be able to climb a huge rock face like Old Bald. Confronting the fear of an unfamiliar situation and overcoming the physical and mental challenge instills a sense of accomplishment in the camper, thereby enhancing her self-esteem. Fritz Orr Jr. agreed that a climbing program would complement Merrie-Woode’s strong tradition of wilderness adventure programming.

The next summer Diff, along with Mondamin friend Bill Adams and Dave Shepherd, regularly took campers on half-day trips to climb on Old Bald. They made harnesses out of webbing that would fit the campers and used their own ropes and other climbing equipment. Peter Young, another highly skilled climber, also participated in the program during its early days. Diff recalled that one of his most memorable experiences with the program occurred when one of the girls went up expecting the experience to be entirely different. She did not like climbing or being on the rock. Another staff member had to climb half-way up to help her through the climb and rappel. A few days after that half-day trip, Diff and Dave saw her down by the waterfront. They sat down together for a chat, and Diff and Dave told the camper how proud they were of her for finding the courage and perseverance to complete that one climb. “She was really surprised,” Diff recalled, “and [she] said how let down and embarrassed she felt, as she was an accomplished camper in other activity areas and expected success. We told her anyone can be accomplished at things that come naturally, but it takes real character to tackle something that is completely alien and to conquer one’s fear. Even if she never set foot on a rock again her inner strength and resolve were on full display. She should be proud of herself, and we were so proud of her effort.”

For that camper to hear such words of encouragement from one of the boldest climbers in Cashiers Valley, someone who pioneered climbing on Old Bald with the first ascent of The Spider Wall, must have been an extraordinary moment. Merrie-Woode campers to this day continue to benefit from the mentoring that they receive from leaders in outdoor instruction, not only in learning skills, but in building character traits that will sustain them throughout life. We are grateful to Diff and the other early climbers, both for putting up routes on Old Bald that we continue to enjoy today, and for teaching us the qualities of good character that make a true wilderness adventurer.

Special thanks to climbers Diff Ritchie, Mike Magalis, and Frost Walker for information used in the preparation of this article, as well as for the original hardware from Old Bald that Frost and Mike donated to the CMW Archives.

Written by,
Robin McKinney Walker
Camp Merrie-Woode Spring 2016 Newsletter # 3


Heather Phillips