First Ascent of the Nose

(Written by based on a 1990’s interview with Boulderdash Magazine and rewritten by Steve and Ground Up Publishing in 2015. )

Robert John (Bob) Gillespie, Bob Watts and myself were three friends who wanted to climb the rocks around the western part of North Carolina during the mid-1960’s. The two “Bob’s” were from Hendersonville. Bob Watts was a woodsman and a bow hunter who knew the forests around Looking Glass very well. Bob Gillespie had done some climbing in the Tetons and was the only one of us three who really knew what the hell he was doing at the time. I had been a teacher in California and had recently moved to the area after a time with the Air Force Reserves.

In 1964, Bob Watts and I worked together at a Hendersonville summer camp (Camp Mondamin) with Bill “Wally” Wallace, who had started a rappelling clinic at the camp.  We learned how to go down the side of a cliff but had no idea how to climb, belay, put in protection, or find routes. We were anxious to learn but no one, including Wally, could help us. Bob Watts and I waited until the summer was over, went out West, then found a climbing school in the Tetons where they taught us that “other stuff”. After that, we knew just enough to join up with Bob Gillespie and start exploring the areas around Brevard for possible places to climb. There was a big rock face that was visible from one of the back roads in Henderson County. Climbing is not permitted on it now, because of liability, so I won’t tell you where to find it. Securing permission from a man who owned the property at the time, we started putting in some little hand-drilled bolts for protection. This was considered very “high-tech” in 1965!

We practiced belaying each other and catching falls with the rope simply wrapped around our waists for friction. Remember, there were no belaying devices (except our bodies) fifty years ago! We’d fill our packs with heavy stuff, then take up some slack and jump. This, of course, was very hard on the belayer, but it did build a high level of trust between partners and in our gear. We used laid (tightly-twisted) nylon rope called “Goldline”. Ours were 150′ long and 7/16″ diameter. The stuff cost seventeen cents a foot. Carabineers were ten for fifteen dollars, “Bedayn” aluminum ovals. Pitons were either soft steel that could be used only one time, Chromalloy steel that were removed and used again, or large aluminum pitons called “bongs” that, when hit with a hammer, sounded like their name! There were no harnesses at that time, so we made ones out of rope or flat webbing and called them “rock jocks”! When we rapped, we put the rope through a single carabineer on the front of our “rock jock”, then took the rope over the shoulder and behind the back. Talk about “rednecks”….we were that, in more ways than one! Our clothing was very personal and practical, sort of suited our backgrounds and personalities. As a woodsman, Bob Watts climbed in heavy pants and hunting boots with thick Vibram soles. My shoes also had stiff lugged soles and lots of insulation in them. Bob (Robert John) Gillespie was the only “real” climber, having been with people in the Tetons who knew what in the hell they were doing, unlike Bob Watts and me! He had knickers, knee socks, a leather-bottomed rucksack and shoes called “kletterschuhes” that had lugged bottoms that were thinner than ours. We all had helmets to protect our heads when we fell (which was frequently!) and to keep us safe from loose rocks that seemed to always be on the routes we attempted. Bob Gillespie’s helmet was an actual climbing helmet from Switzerland; Bob Watts and I both had big motorcycle helmets!

The first time I was ever at the bottom of the Looking Glass Rock was Christmas of 1964 while visiting Bob Watts, who introduced me to Bob Gillespie. We all hiked into an area now known as the “North Face” and scouted the place for possible starting spots. None of us knew anything about route finding, and had never heard of anyone climbing in the region. We were, very honestly, looking for the easiest way to go to the top! We spotted some cracks, broken by what appeared to be belay ledges, leading from the ground, up the face. This seemed like the place to begin, but we did not bring a route to the top in that area for another 5 years. In 1970, Tony Pigeon, Bob Gillespie, and myself completed the first route to the top of the North Face and called it “The Womb”.

In the time of our early falling, flailing, and failing exploratory experiences on the North Face, pilot Frank Bell, Sr. (“Chief”) flew us around the rock (sometimes coming so close that it appeared we were about to land on the damn thing) and gave us our first close-up look at what would become “The Nose” route. We drove up on the Blue Ridge Parkway and sat at the overlooks for hours (after the rock was wet from rain), looking through binoculars for places where the water ran down. We knew that, if there was a break in a water run, an overhang was involved.

Just after a fresh snow on a late December day in 1966, the two Bobs and I managed to find the base of what would become the Nose. Up the rock, spotted an intriguing flat ledge covered in snow about a rope’s length above us. We climbed to it, and placed two 3/16″ by 1″ bolts there. Anything beyond that ledge was brand new and intimidating but we were now ready to figure out how to go up the rest of the thing! There was a diagonal ramp above the belay ledge and that appeared to be a key to our success. As you face the rock, there is a flake (on the right) running upwards, towards the ramp. We knew that putting pitons behind the flake would probably break it off, so we chose to go left and up, into a bowl at the far left-hand edge of the ramp. I can remember inching along that thing, feeling like some guy holding onto a piece of glass and carefully moving to the right, afraid I would drop the glass and break it! Weird imagery, yes? Stopping about half a rope out, I found a good belay ledge with lots of places for pitons, completing the second pitch.

After everyone else had arrived, I tried to find a way to go higher. Just above and to the right was another little ramp. I couldn’t find any way to step up and on to it. I recall one of the guys saying, “Longenecker, we don’t have all night to do this. If you want to get up there, you’d better do something!” I banged in a Chouinard angle pin, hooked my right little finger through the eye of the piton and pulled up on it just enough to let me climb on to the move needed to start up. So yes, the first ascent of “The Nose” was actually an aid climb! A full rope-length later, I arrived at a huge ledge. I yelled down to Bob and Bob, “There’s enough room up here to park a Volkswagen!”. Since then, the ledge has been called the “Parking Lot”. At that point, Bob Watts grabbed my rack of pitons, remarking that “he hadn’t done anything all day”, then led up the very lichen-encrusted last pitch. He was the first person to actually reach the top of “The Nose”. By far, that was the most dangerous lead of the entire day. Climbing on lichen is like walking on ball bearings (If you don’t believe it, try climbing the last pitch somewhere other than on the established route!) and there was almost no place for pitons. Very scary!

Once we all reached the summit, we were so thrilled that we pretty much ran all the way down the hiking trail to the bottom. Frank Bell, Jr. was our back-up. He waited at the bottom of the route until we yelled down for him to drive back around to the trailhead and meet us with his Volkswagen. Four of us, plus all the climbing gear, couldn’t fit into his car, so we stashed our ropes, packs, etc. in the bushes, then let Frank drive us to my car. When we drove back, to pick up our stuff, it was gone! Meaning all of the photos of the first ascent, and all of the climbing gear currently located in Western North Carolina, gone! I remember the newspaper account starting off, “Three Hendersonville rock climbers took nine grueling hours, blah, blah, blah….”. We repeated The Nose many times after that ascent, then on Labor Day of 1989, we climbed Peregrine, a route considerably harder than The Nose.

I think all of us have been credited with first ascents in other areas, Linville Gorge, especially.  In 1971, Bob Gillespie, Bob Mitchell (Mitch), and I completed a route we called “The Mummy”, located in the Amphitheatre of Linville Gorge. Mitch was the one who named the climb before it was first done. Standing on “The Prow” (which didn’t have any name at the time), there was a place where we looked across the open space between the two faces and saw a piece of rock that looked-like the traditional sarcophagus associated with mummies.

On the first ascent of the Mummy, I was so thrilled to have topped out the last pitch and focused as the belayer at the top, that I didn’t even notice when Bob Mitchell topped-out wearing nothing but his climbing boots! Bob Gillespie, who climbed right-after me, had conspired with Mitch to observe my reaction when the last climber appeared in the nude. He says that I never even noticed anything until it was pointed-out to me that Mitch was stark naked!

Naming “The Daddy” has a completely different story. Art Williams, who wrote the very-first guidebook to climbing in the area, was a Brit. I’m guessing that he must have climbed “The Mummy”, then explored the area below and to the right of “The Mummy” until he found another place to start up the wall. His new route was longer and more-difficult than “The Mummy”. He needed an appropriate name, so being British and thinking that “mummy” is English for the word “mother”, it was obvious that “The Daddy” should be right next door to “The Mummy”!

Heather Phillips