The First Ascent of Sea of Brows
by Eddie Begoon
Unfortunately this is not a story about the first ascent of a five star, hyper classic like Rotert’s Tits and Beer, Jeep’s Dinkus Dog or Henry Barber’s free accent of Cornflake Crack. Instead, it’s a story of a five star day on a one star route.
While doing the direct start to Hyperbola in early November of ‘88 with Mike Artz, I kept looking at a diagonal line of eye brows heading up and right just after the second bolt which looked way climbable. It didn’t take much to convince Chris Caldwell to have a closer look, so late morning on November 25, 1988, CC, Jimmy MacArthur and I started up the trail for our attempt.
It was decided I would lead the first pitch to save time since I had just climbed the first half of it a few weeks earlier and should have it wired. I reached the second bolt on the direct start with ease then started up and right toward a little prow\shelf. On the right end of the shelf I got a bomber hook on a nice positive lip then set sail into the sea of brows. It was classic brow climbing, crab walking up the diagonal line, mantling, under clinging on rounded brows, smearing and always sure that the next brow would bring killer gear. It wasn’t really hard climbing and without many opportunities to fiddle with gear I made pretty good time and soon was near the end of my rope staring up at a good horizontal for a belay. The rich flavor of Looking Glass climbing started to settle in, a quick glance down the rope assured me that there was no gear except the hook which was miraculously still on its lip way below, but all I had to do was get my feet where my hands were and everything would be fine. After numerous false starts and lots of “watch me” cries I finally committed to the move, got a hand in the horizontal and placed three bomber pieces, then sat back on the belay with a sigh of relief. While belaying CC I was surveying the terrain ahead and it didn’t take a true “brow master” to realize that the first pitch was a lightweight appetizer with the meat yet to come.
The second pitch starts out with a large panel of steeper rock, with brows a little shallower, more closed up and a tongue of lichen thrown in to make the friction a little less secure. After organizing the rack CC launched into the unknown waters carrying all the TCUs and friends that we could scrape together. The path of least resistance had him traversing right, immediately off the belay with seamed up brows that wouldn’t accept anything he tried to plug in. This set the stage for the rest of his voyage, hopeful looking eye brows that proved to seam out and flare. His rightward traverse ended, then climbed straight up, then back left describing a large backward letter C. Throughout all of this CC would climb a little bit, arrive at a brow then start the fidgeting with gear which never quite worked out the way he hoped. It didn’t take long before his temper got the best of him, “f@%k this slab s*#t, tie on the bolt kit”, so I would start getting it ready for him to haul when I heard “nah, wait a minute, the next brow looks like it has gear”. So it went for most of the pitch, “send me the bolt kit, wait a minute, let me check out the next brow, it sucks too, I hate this shit”. I knew he didn’t hate it, he was right where he wanted to be! Once the backward C was formed the climbing took him pretty much straight up along the left side of the lichen tongue with even less opportunity for pro. Finally he ran into an old angle pin then an old bolt which is where he ended the pitch and set up a belay. All we could figure about this old gear is that it is a variation to the second pitch of Hyperbola.
By the time CC got off belay the short winter days and our crack of noon start were catching up, the light was fading so Jimmy followed the first pitch then rapped off so CC and I could finish the route hopefully before dark. Once Jimmy was down I got myself together and followed CC’s pitch. Most of the gear was body weight only, there mostly for decoration and protecting sustained 5.10 climbing with a very real chance of hitting the ground had he fallen near the top. Impressive lead!!
By now it was getting dark. We were not about to rap off only to return the next day and have to lead the first two pitches again. This was one of those routes that if we made it off of safely we would never repeat. So we pressed on. The last pitch was long but not very hard as the angle eased the closer I got to the top. It was pretty well dark as the trees came into view, then 10 feet under the top a red object caught my eye: sitting on a little pad of moss, right in front of my nose, was a Swiss army knife that I put in my chalk bag and later learned that it was the ‘Climber’ model. That knife lived in my pack for 20+ years before it finally went missing.
Following the pitch quickly in full darkness CC joined me on top for a celebratory handshake and the discussion of ‘how do we get off’. Of course a great way to expedite an epic is to not bring a headlamp, luckily we had that box checked. It was decided that we’d never find the Nose rap in the dark so we opted for a descent CC had done once before that goes down the gully that leads to the waterfall out left of Dum Dee Dum Dum. I have no idea how long it took but it seemed like an eternity. I remember crawling over and under downed trees, going through dark, thick stands of Rhododendron with all of our climbing gear and the constant ‘wait a minute’ as everything on us was catching on brush, never sure if we were headed in the right direction. Finally we arrived at a point that we couldn’t see trees in front of us and sensed that we were on top of a drop. Having no idea how far it was to the ground, we felt around for some rocks and hucked them over the edge. The thump of rock hitting terra firma came just a few second after launch so we knew one rope would take us to the ground.
Finally, at the base of the wall and rope coiled we stumbled the short distance around the Nose to reach our packs. The simple pleasures of returning to flat ground and replacing climbing shoes with approach shoes was almost intoxicating. We were an exhausted but happy and light hearted pair walking back down the trail toward the road. It was after 1:00 am when we finally made it to the car and woke Jimmy up for the drive back to Brevard and a late dinner.
That day 28 years ago is the pure essence of why I’ve spent most of my adult life climbing. Being in a wild, beautiful place with good friends and as the old saying goes ‘with nothing but a rope and the shirt on your back’.
Looking Glass is such a special place to climb. When the sky is Carolina blue, with the sun on your face, bomber gear at your feet and the Pisgah forest rolling off into the distance it’s hard to imagine any place you’d rather be than on that beautiful salt and pepper colored granite known to many as simply ‘The Glass’.