Seneca Rocks 2007

On September 22, 2007, Jonathan and I went to Seneca Rocks, WV to do some rock climbing. Seneca Rocks is a mountain with a 5th class summit 900’ above the valley. There are many cliffs and the mountain is very steep. The top 300’ is a fin of rock that is only 2’-3’ wide at the top with very vertical wall that look like the whole fin could topple in a strong wind. It is possible to scramble up to the base of the fin without using ropes.

We left at 6am and got there around 10:15. After stopping at the visitor center, we started out on the approach trail to climb the South Peak. We took a wrong trail and wandered around for awhile looking for a shortcut across to the correct trail, but always ended up getting cliffed out. It was somewhat unnerving to look out through the steeply sloping underbrush a few feet away and see nothing but clear air and trees far below -too far below to survive a slip. We finally backtracked almost all the way back the way we had come and found the correct trail after wandering around for over two hours. This brought back memories of some discouraging moments on the way to South Sixshooter in Utah earlier this year. When will we learn to read directions and maps??

We finally reached the base of the main wall around 1pm and started to climb after a quick lunch. We did the first pitch of WEST FACE TO GUNSIGHT NOTCH (5.0) without any protection, but roped up for the more exposed second pitch to Gunsight. From there I took the lead up the first pitch of GUNSIGHT TO SOUTH PEAK (5.4). I think that was the most intimidating climb I have done to date; the crux coming out of the notch onto the main wall was almost more than I could force myself to do. The moves were not difficult, but the exposure was awesome. Several times I nearly locked up and had to force myself to move. Looking straight down between my legs I could not even see the wall below me, only trees three hundred feet down. That climb was total concentration with a lot of determination mixed in; determination to stay on the wall and to stay alive. I was not used to climbing with a large frame pack, and the affect that had on fine balance was unnerving.

I had some brain energy left to question what in the world we were doing here today, without any recent climbing experience and clinging to this wall like ants. I decided that I really had no desire to climb rock any more at all, and that I would gladly retire all my gear and retreat to the relatively sedate sport of armchair mountaineering. Inch by inch I kept going up. I got to one place where I had the choice between a narrow chimney relatively sheltered from the daunting exposure of the main wall, or the wall itself. I took the chimney, frame pack and all. It took quite a while for me to figure out how to squeeze into this chimney that was not as wide as I and the pack was. I couldn’t remove my pack because of all the gear slung over it. I finally squeezed through by brute force and anger. I was very angry at the way I could not fit in this chimney, together with the perception of a low margin of error. I was determined to get off of the main wall and fit through this chimney no matter what. I had not slung out protection far enough and had serious rope drag. I gritted my teeth and pushed up as hard as I could. I finally made it out the top of the chimney into a nice flat sheltered ledge where I decided to set up a belay. I never did locate belay bolts that were supposed to be there. I securely anchored myself into the rock surrounding me and belayed Jonathan up the pitch. We were both now on the brow of the wall in sight of the summit. I told Jonathan that this was no place for us; I felt like we had violated some unwritten law and intruded into elite land, and he said he had the exact same feelings coming up the last pitch. We took several minutes to rest, reflect, and watch the buzzards soar close to the wall extending far below us. I belayed Jonathan from my sheltered ledge and he led over the summit. We had decided ahead against unroping on the summit because of the risk of being unprotected on a two foot wide ridge with a 300’ cliff on each side. I think a lot of people unrope to stand up and look around, but we didn’t really have any desire to do that.

Finally the rope was all fed out and I was shouting to him that he was out of rope. Voice communication is vital when climbing out of site to know the other partner’s climbing and belay status. The wind was whipping around and my voice somehow didn’t reach him on the other side of the wall a 60 meter rope length away nor could I hear or see him from my ledge. I decided to wait ten minutes to give him time to set up a belay and then to proceed very cautiously. The worst case scenario put Jonathan still climbing and me following on the other end of the rope. A fall by either of us would not be fatal but would result in two pants filling falls before the protection between us would catch. I hoped Jonathan was holding me on belay and waiting for me to start climbing, but didn’t want to assume anything at this height. With this in mind I pulled out my belay, left the safety of the ledge, and proceeded cautiously, expecting to be pulled off the ridge by the rope at any moment. I reached the summit and a place where I could see Jonathan and verify that I was in fact on belay, then stood up and tried stretching out my arms, but could only stretch one out at a time because of the vertigo. I paused to admire the 360 degree view from the summit. I tried to stand up straight and balance on the 2’ wide knife edge, but the height and the wind made it difficult to stand. We met at the rappel anchors a short downclimb from the summit and waited for the climbers in front of us to finish their rappels. The last words I heard from the climber as he descended was where to get takeout beer in town-‘very important beta’. We rappelled without a problem to the next bolts about 60’ below us, then from there down to a nice ledge another 70’ down. One more 80’ rappel put us at the base of the wall -6pm- and we unroped, packed up, and started back to the parking lot. When we reached the parking lot a helicopter was just leaving with an injured top-roper that had taken a 40’ fall. We stopped at a Subway for some quick food. It was a big day, but fun. Jonathan and I agreed on the way home that we were not ready to give up climbing yet. The exhilaration on the summit was well worth the terror of the ascent.

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