Throughout his life, Gus Baty was often asked why he made that near-fatal leap on that morning in May 1911. He always answered with wry humor and it was always some variation of his stock response: “All I ever wanted was for that girl to pay a little attention to me,” he said. “That girl” was Irene Edwards.
Let’s fill in some background. The occasion was a little group of picnickers (seven walking and six riding in a surrey) who had set out on a leisurely 6-mile trek from Durgan Corner in Highlands to Whiteside Mountain. The group was largely composed of teenagers; however, there were four unofficial chaperones: Will Dillard and his wife, Maude; and Charlie Wright and his wife, Helen.
Although filled with good spirits, the group was well-behaved except for Gus, who was a few years older than the others and had been attempting to impress the group with his colorful experiences in Ducktown, Tenn., where he had been working. Gus had been injured in an accident that required minor surgery and as a result, he had a small silver plate in his head. Usually, he would tell the story of his accident and then invite his listeners to tap the silver plate. It always seemed to work and girls would ask questions: Does it hurt?
On this particular day, Gus also had a small bottle of whiskey and would take an occasional sip, trying to behave as a sophisticated drinker. There was one problem, however. Irene Edwards didn’t seem to be impressed. In fact, she was carrying on an animated conversation with another teenager, Harvey McCall. When the surrey stopped, and the entire group began the short walk to Whiteside, Charlie Wright noticed that Gus has become withdrawn. He suggested that Gus leave his bottle in the surrey and join the group. Instead, Gus dropped his bottle into his pocket and joined a group who were approaching a part of the mountain crest called “Fool’s Rock.”
There was good reason for the name. Fool’s Rock was an outcropping that extended from the edge of the mountain and gave the illusion of being separated from the mountain. Anyone who stood on it felt as though they were floating some 2,000 feet above the forest floor. On this day a slight breeze was blowing and Charlie Wright remembered that there were several eagles wheeling above the mountain crest. It was at this point that Gus Baty made his final bid for Irene Edwards’ attention. Shouting his intention of jumping over the edge of the mountain, Gus raced to Fool’s Rock. He jumped onto the rock and pretended to lose his balance, causing several of the girls to scream. Baty had finally accomplished his purpose. Every eye was on him as he wind-milled his arms and pretended to be struggling for balance. Two members of the group managed to grasp Baty’s arms and forcefully pulled him from his perch. Resenting their interference, Baty broke free of their grasp and immediately jumped back to Fool’s Rock, where he stumbled and then fell.
There was instant pandemonium. Several members of the group rushed back to their chaperones, shouting “Gus has jumped off the mountain.” Finally, Gus had gotten everyone’s attention.
Charlie Wright was a short distance away watching the eagles circle the mountain’s crest. He immediately raced to Fool’s Rock, laid down and looked over the edge. He saw Gus some 65 feet below the rock where his feet had become entangled in a rhododendron bush. Gus had fallen about 15 feet, struck the side of the mountain and bounced into the bush. Below him was nothing but approximately 2,000 feet of space.
In communicating with Baty, Charlie learned that he had a variety of sprains, bruises and fractures. He was possibly in a coma and as he drifted in and out of consciousness, he found himself staring at the distant tree tops of Whiteside Cove.
The story of Gus Baty’s rescue is a tale of amazing courage. Wright descended a “safe slope” of Whiteside until he was parallel with Baty. Then, he inched forward across the sheer rock face of Whiteside with no hand-holds except minute pits and crevices. Will Dillard attempted to help Charlie by approaching from another angle. However, Dillard eventually encountered an expanse of stone with no hand-holds. Reluctantly, he retraced his path. Charlie kept his shoes on because he felt the leather soles gave him a tiny bit of traction. In a short time, Wright’s hands began to bleed. It took him approximately two hours to reach Baty.
Watching her husband’s progress from above, Helen Wright became hysterical. It became evident that her screams disconcerted her husband and caused him to hesitate. However, all attempts to lead her from the scene failed.
Eventually, Wright arrived at a point that was slightly above Baty and managed to grasp his coat and dragged him upward until his shoulder was beneath Baty’s body. Gradually, Wright managed to stand with Baty on his back, but found that he could not proceed without help. He called to Will Dillard and asked him to return. Dillard did so and after a long period of shifting and moving, he finally managed to take part of the weight of Baty’s body. By then, Wright was suffering from muscle fatigue and trembling. It was at this point that Wright actually fell and slid several feet down the surface. His slide was halted by Dillard who found himself momentarily supporting both Wright and Baty. However, the three men were now in a position to be rescued from above.
Tying together the lines and halters from the surrey, the people on the crest of the mountain were able to lower a lifeline. Baty was tied to the line and lifted to safety. A total of three hours had lapsed since he fell from Fool’s Rock.
Six months after this incident, an article about the rescue was published in the Charlotte Observer, which provoked additional interest from some of the region’s most influential people. Eventually, Wright was awarded a Carnegie medal, plus $2,000 in cash. Dillard received a silver medal and a cash award. Both men bought farms with their money. Charlie Wright died on a foggy morning, Dec. 4, 1927, when his truck plunged over a precipice near Lake Toxaway.
Over the years, a number of mythical tales emerged about the incident, and Gus was often asked about the bottle of whiskey in his pocket. Gus said that the bottle broke in his fall. He also noted that he never touched another drop of whiskey. Instead, he became a gifted carpenter and his handiwork can still be seen in a number of houses in Highlands. Gus once told an interviewer, “I built good houses and I wish folks would remember that instead of the fact that I fell off Whiteside Mountain.”