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Humans climb before they walk; it's hardwired right into the system. The Dagon, the Anasazi, and countless other aboriginal people have scaled formations of impressive size and difficulty as a matter of religious ritual and daily existence.
No doubt, the natives who traveled the Seneca Trail and hunted through Smoke Hole Canyon ascended many of the prominent spires and outcrops long before the first European set foot on this continent.
According to local folklore, the first known climber in the canyon made his ascent shortly after the Revolutionary War.
His name was William Eagle, a local who ran away in his teens to join the Virginia Regiment of the Continental Armies, and served with distinction before returning to Smoke Hole to raise sheep and start a family. The story claims that one day an eagle swooped down and snatched up one of William's lambs, carrying it to an eyrie on the summit of Eagle Rock.
Annoyed by this, as any hardworking veteran farmer would be, William went to retrieve his lamb.
In much the same way as the Federal government reaches out to farmers and small communities today, William was attacked by the eagle, which tore a huge chunk of flesh from the Revolutionary War veteran’s side. By the time William reached the bottom and re-crossed the river, the story claims that his hair, long and coal black, was completely white. It was in honor of this event that William named the formation and surrounding ridge Eagle Rocks. He is buried across the road from the entrance to Eagle Rocks Campground, where there is a historical plaque recounting his life.
As a result, climbers spoke only to close friends of their discoveries and rarely returned to even great crags, with so much more rock to explore. Who knows how far afield Don Hubbard, The Conns or any other member of that early pantheon of venerable hard persons wandered on unrecorded trips?
Information is sparse, and jealously guarded where it exists, but many inhabitants of the canyon remember people climbing on Eagle Rock and the Entrance Walls. Old rope burns on the older trees atop many of the prominent cliffs, rusting piton belay and rappel stations and faded remains of webbing slung round stumps and chockstones attest to a rich history of exploration at which we can only guess.
The August ’78 issue of “Off Belay” magazine reported that, following at least one day of mayhem and trundling by a group of teenage tourons and their handlers below the popular East Face, “locals… (had begun) climbing at some of the more remote crags in the Smoke Hole Gorge.” At that time, “locals” included Howard Doyle, Eric Janoscrat, Hunt Protho, Ray Snead and John Stannard, all explorers and pioneers.
They crossed the Branch and established the lines on the Sunshine Wall in a siege of creation and sending, pretty much doubling the amount of available climbing in a month. Darrel, Tom Cecil and Tony Barnes wandered over to the Long Branch Wall to find a long-remembered beauty, and Tom bolted Beautiful Loser ground up, creating one of the most beautiful lines in the canyon. Tony established a mixed line next to it that became known as Barnes’ Mixed Bag, which is currently without anchors since the tree used for the purpose died.
In the end, we are all on the same team. A good friend reminded me of that, not too long ago. Nothing about those issues changes the beauty of the stone and the routes we climb, and the turmoil we find down here, on level ground, pales in the pure joy of remembering those great ascents, wonderful days with friends, the glow of accomplishment and the rush of discovery and adventure.