In the mid-1960s, Steve Longenecker became the first person to find a way up the steep sides of Looking Glass Rock (the “Nose” ascent), Linville Gorge and Devil’s Courthouse. Xpress asked him whether he’d experienced anything eerie when ascending that stark jut of rock known in Cherokee myth as the Judgment Seat of Judaculla.
“Nothing spooky at all about climbing Devil’s Courthouse, other than it was a very dangerous place to climb, because of tourists throwing things at you while you climbed. We would make cardboard signs saying ‘Climbers Below,’ then hold them in place with rocks. It was quite common to see the rocks coming down, then the cardboard floating gently in the breeze!”
Today, climbers decked out in the latest lightweight helmets and rappel devices line up to climb the Nose, WNC’s most popular technical ascent. Back in 1966, however, when Longenecker and his friends Bob Watts and Bob Gillespie first braved its ramps, flakes and ledges, bulky motorcycle helmets and do-it-yourself harnesses (which they called “rock jocks”) made of rope or webbing were the order of the day. There were no belaying or rappel devices — the rope belays simply went around the climber’s waist.
“When we ‘rapped,’ we put the rope through a single carabiner 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!”
Now a rock-climbing and mountain-biking instructor at Falling Creek Camp in Tuxedo, the modest Longenecker disclaims his widespread fame as a climbing teacher.
“I’m good at starting other people and motivating them to surpass their teacher. Long ago, I learned that I could succeed as a teacher/motivator, not as some sort of ‘God of Climbing.'”
He motivated one local woman, “probably … my most successful student,” to climb Everest — via two different routes — within a single year. Longenecker also cares passionately about a fellow cliff-clinger, the Peregrine Falcon, working to educate other climbers about the nesting habits of this endangered bird of prey.
— Steve Rasmussen