Memorial Day Weekend, 2016
It seemed only fitting to take on a mountain the same weekend we honor the soldiers of battles passed. The idea is a metaphorical façade of a war of self-creation in which we risk our lives just the same. Contemplatively though, all conflicts are a product of human institution. Therefore it was on that sunny Friday, May 28th 2016 we set out for our assault upon Seneca Rocks in a small town in West Virginia.
The geological formation itself is a relic of sand from the Silurian Period 440 million years ago that was uplifted and molded into a great white wall of quartzite 900ft high and 250 feet thick. It is a glimmering fin in its own epic accord for starved multi-pitch eastern climbers akin to the greater peaks of the west. There are times in winter when the snow-capped ridgeline appears more like the Rockies than the Blue Ridge Mountains will ever seem.
Seneca Rocks, WV
Seneca Rocks is a magnet for traditional climbers who crave remote, sustained, vertical climbing. The feature sits nestled along the upper Potomac River in the Allegheny Mountains and its summit is accessible only to those with guts and ropes. The formation was first tentatively climbed in 1908 but it was not until the 50’s and 60’s that climbers really began to master the area. The routes range from wandering ridgeline traverses to steep, sustained corners and cracks, claustrophobic chimneys, and quartzite-studded face climbs. The majority of the climbing is done old-school style with minimal bolts and rings, textbook of traditional eastern climbing. Although climbing gear has advanced to metal camming devices from the hammered pitons of older times, you will encounter the rusted remnants plunged into cracks on almost every route on the rock, tributes to the braver souls that climbed before us.
The Siege on Seneca Rocks
Our climbing crew consisted of a party of two experienced multi-pitch climbers and myself who made up for a lack in experience with unwavering enthusiasm. I had been to Seneca Rocks and gotten rained off one of the most memorable ridgeline routes on the South Peak called Gunsight just a year before and I was psyched to be back. Our plan of action was to take on Green Wall tomorrow and then the next day attempt the longest possible linkup of pitches that would lead from the base to the summit. I was going to be thrilled with just getting my first Seneca lead under my belt.
Saturday dawned hot and early and we awoke to a veil of humidity settling heavy across the valley. We would climb on the west face to avoid the sweltering weight of the unrelenting southern sun but the approach to the base of the climbs was a warpath in itself. The Roy Gap trail spits you out at a lightly-set crossing of rocks across a riverbed then up a giant vertical stone staircase that sucks you into a fissure running parallel to the towering edifice. By the time we reached the base of the Green Wall we were wetter than the base of the riverbed, sweat pouring off of us in beaded showers. No matter, though. Soldiers fight through to glory. It was time to climb.
Green Wall is a gorgeous, two-pitch 180ft feature that follows a perfect corner system up to the summit along a wall of lichen that gives the face a shimmering emerald glow visible all the way from town, thus earning its name. It is rated a 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal Scale, but due to the dated nature of the climb and all the climbs at Seneca for that matter, it would feel quite a few grades harder. Two pitches of sustained, slippery quartzite climbing on otherwise beautiful rock made for elegant stemming up the first corner and delicate footwork over a sustained overhanging bulge to the summit. The third climber in our party pulled up over the lip of the ledge and we celebrated the success of our first battle. The reward of the landscape that sprawled out before us cannot be measured in silver or gold. The foreground of a line of mountain-rooted pines in the corner of our peripherals set the scale against the teeming, blue-tinted range in the distance that undulated in gentle rolling waves from the shadow of the rock face all the way to the horizon. The green, thriving beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something of its own species, incomparable in the highest regard.
The second day at Seneca Rocks awarded me with my first onsight: Ecstasy Junior, a white vertical crack that moves up a right facing corner and through an overhang. My pumped arms decided it was much more than its 5.4 rating could attest to as I pulled through the second steep bulge. Either that, or it was the most sustained 5.4 I had ever been on. Regardless, I was stoked. The adrenaline rush overtook common sense as I then dared to start leading another route right on the brink of a brimming summer storm. Leaving a nut in a crack on the first pitch of the route, my partner and I rappelled down and bailed off the mountain just as the clouds began to unleash their fury. We would leave in peace that night to come back to fight again tomorrow.
The third morning dawned cooler, hopeful. It was Memorial Day, 2016 and the rock awarded us beaten soldiers by surrendering the nut and carabiner we had left the day before. Yes! No climber likes to leave gear behind. A second attempt on the route, tastily dubbed Le Gourmet, granted me my second onsight at Seneca. I brought up my teammates and we traversed onwards at a good pace, attempting to climb the longest route of the weekend, a meandering line of interspersed vertical pitches that would take us to a ridgeline crossroads and the rappel back down.
Our second pitch of the day was a route called Front C and it earned every point of its sandbagged 5.6 rating. But most importantly, we were all having fun. There was a light breeze to keep the personal armpit showers at bay. It was not until our third pitch of that final day that the mountain waged its war. It was during our lead climber’s attempt to navigate midway through Critter Crack in a deliberate decision back onto the final pitch of Le Gourmet that the rock took its revenge. I seconded up to him through a poor-quality collaboration of choss, chimney squeezing, and an exposed move across air from one ridgeline to another, realizing we had designed a new route, hopefully never to be repeated. We were forced to use the rappel rings of a different climb to get back down to our third climber since this pitch was not even worth him climbing, equally unaware that the direction of our simultaneous rappel on both rope ends would weight the rope heavily down into a deep crevice just unseen over the lip of a ridge fin. After coming off rappel at the bottom and seeing the tension in the rope on my end only release halfway, my heart sunk. We had gotten the rope stuck. And just as the clouds of another daunting summer storm rolled quickly across the sky.
We had to act fast so using the topo from the guidebook I initiated a plan to climb up to the summit on a nearby route and hope a clean ridgeline path would allow us to make it back to the rappel rings to retrieve my rope. Mine being the longer rope of course, at 70m. So we ultimately had just one 60m rope between three climbers to carry out this plan before the storm broke. It was time to set siege to Seneca.
Climbing forces your mind to narrow in a way that nothing can compare. It triggers your body into a heightened sense of awareness that is able to control the tiniest angle change of the edge of your toe on a foothold or the solidification of your fingers on a sloping precipice. It creates a physical template of your body in your mind that allows you to map vertical travel using strength and subtle, shifting opposition of forces. The result of the equation is the perfect sum of human activity: the ultimate alliance between nature and man through elegant movement over rock.
I remember being comforted by the fact that the route I had chosen to lead was a 5.3, especially with the threat of the inclement weather looming. But the route only topped out to a lower ledge of ridge, inaccessible to the summit by about forty feet. I was completely unaware until after I had finished the easiest pitch of the day (Old Man’s Route, Pitch 4), slung a wide tree with a double-length directional and hiked ten feet up a short gully to what I had hoped was a scramble to the ridge. What I saw was a great white fin lifted upwards out of the ground at a concave angle with another fin set next to it so as that one could clamber up on to it, stem your body across to the other, and climb horizontally to reach base of a steep corner that appeared to go vertically up another thirty feet to the summit.
In hindsight I found out the route was called Traffic Jam, a 5.7+ and if the 5.7 had not been terrifying enough alone a route containing a plus sign at Seneca was plenty to get my skin crawling. I was a new leader and where I was physically capable I was still developing mentally. Conquering the route that day may have given me an entirely new perspective on fear.
I remember the corner appearing steep, but everything at Seneca Rocks was steep, and I could measure with my eyes the perfect distances between even, parallel cracks that would protect well with cams. I knew the climb was possible and protectable, the two most important factors in onsighting, and not knowing what grade I was getting on at the time gave me the courage to move forward. I also knew that I had to climb this now if I wanted to get my rope back. There was no time to set an anchor, have my partners lead the pitch for me, scramble the ridge, retrieve the rope, and get us all down before the storm.
The first movements of the corner above the matching fins were heady and steep and I remember the forced calm of my mind overruling the panic of my body. I leaned up flat against the wall, cheek bared to stone, heel pushed out against the sidewall to steady myself, placed a .5 black diamond camelot into a perfect parallel crack, made sure the lobes touched, clipped in, and moved forward. There was no time to stop and think. Only to climb. The next few moves did not let up and just as I was starting to a pump out I found a placement for a bomber 2-sized Camelot. That’s all I needed. I could see the lip of the ridge five feet above me and I knew I could make it.
Climbing up onto the summit and looking out across the valley was one of the most breathtaking moments of my life. The sun dropped lower in the sky pulling a golden blanket of light across the layer of gray clouds billowing up around the mountain like a pharaoh crowning a pyramid of rock. The landscape from the spire on top of that peak served as the most epic lookout on the whole rock formation. It was by far the best view of the weekend. I stood there just for a moment, soaking in the beauty before jerking back into action. Luckily, there was a solid chockstone resting heavily enough on the ridge that allowed for me to quickly set up a belay and begin the process of bringing my partners up. I clipped indirect, went off belay and pulled up the thin loops of the emerald lifeline. I only had five feet of rope left with the alpine butterfly tied between my partners below me. We had barely made it.
It was only later on of course, with the outline of Seneca Rocks retreating in the rearview mirror of the Toyota Forerunner, safe and successful, the small debacle behind us, did it occur to me how much the rock truly humbles you. It was only in the presence of dire need and the underlying imminence of fear that I had been able to perform so deliberately. It is a humbling yet comforting feeling to be pushed to the limit and overcome. And I think that is the reason we climb every time, to drive the boundaries of our mental and physical strengths, to set continually higher standards for our bodies and our minds. We climb so that we can continue to feel alive every waking moment.