Climbing Seneca Rocks
Overcoming Fear on one of West Virginia's Most Iconic Peaks
We met in the parking lot around 8:00 in the morning before heading out toward the fin of rock that dominated the horizon. This trip had been postponed twice and almost didn’t happen, but today was finally the day of my first multi-pitch climb. Today, one way or another, I would summit Seneca Rocks.
If you are reading this for some harrowing tale of survival on a super-difficult route, you can stop here. The route we took to the top, Old Ladies Route, is rated 5.2. This route is consistently listed as the easiest route on Seneca. One comment on Mountain Project says you shouldn’t even bother with it unless you are an absolute beginner. implying that if you are any good at all this is a waste of your time.
This isn’t an epic tale of adventure. This is the story of a guide leading three people up their first multi-pitch climb. Really, it is about my experience and my reaction to completing what to me was a monumental feat.
We started the day early but there were already climbers on the rock. Chris, our guide, is the owner of our local gym, Climbing New Heights in Martinsburg, WV. We were joined by Stephen and Emily, a young couple on their first multi-pitch climb. Originally I planned to have my daughter with me. We were supposed to climb in June, but a breakdown on the way to the rock meant we had to postpone. She opted out of the climb due to her marching band schedule.
We set out along Roy’s Gap Road. After crossing the creek we end up at the Stairmaster, a series of wooden stairs placed into the hillside to ease ascents. After a steep hike and a few Class 3 maneuvers we were on the Luncheon Ledge setting up for our climb.
I have heard stories of Seneca ever since I started climbing. I have read that it is the only peak east of Devils Tower in Wyoming of which you must perform technical Fifth Class climbing to reach the top. It has been climbed for a century. The Conn’s East and Conn’s West routes were first set by the Army while soldiers trained there during World War II. Due to changes in the way climbs are graded many of the older climbs are much harder than their ratings imply.
The first thing I notice is its height. The South Peak is a little over 300 feet from the bottom, but the summit puts you at about 1,000 feet from the creek. Photos never do justice to monoliths like this. And I’m a little afraid of heights. I’m fine with climbing but I hate ladders, and standing at certain heights is disorienting.
Trad, or traditional, climbing is generally what people think of when they think of climbing. Most gyms have top-rope setups in which the climber climbs on a rope that extends to the top of the wall, through an anchor, and back down to the floor where someone belays the climber. The job of the belayer is to use the tension of the rope to catch the climber if they fall. In trad climbing, the climber starts at the bottom of the wall with the rope coiled below them and climbs to the top with the belayer feeding slack back to the climber. The climber will place protection, or pro, into cracks in the wall and clip the rope through the pro using carabiners. If the climber falls, they will fall double the length they have climbed above their protection. So if a climber falls six feet above their last piece of protection, they will fall six feet to the protection, then down a further six feet below the protection before the anchor is weighted.
When the lead climber gets to the top of a pitch, they will belay for the rest of the group. A pitch is a section of a climb between belays, typically between 60 and 120 feet. The last climber’s job is to clean the pro by taking each piece out of the wall and clipping it to their harness as they ascend. Cleaning ended up being my job on this trip.
The start of Old Ladies Route moves from ledge to ledge with very little exposure for about 90 feet. It gets slightly harder toward the top of the first pitch, but you are never really in a position where you can’t find placement for your hands and feet. The climb begins on the West face of the peak but crosses over to the less-photographed East Face at the very top. There, Stephen, Emily, and I stood on a ledge approximately five feet wide above a 100+ foot drop.
This was my first time experiencing this kind of exposure, and I was so terrified that I didn’t dare take my water bottle out of my backpack because I knew I would drop it. Stephen was the least bothered by this and stood close to the edge. He had his heels out of his climbing shoes to rest his feet. I wished I could do the same, but I was deathly afraid of my shoes flying off into space. We were all anchored into the wall, but the feeling of being one step away from plummeting off the rock is heavy and doesn’t go away with simple logic.
The second pitch was a traverse; a climb across the face of the rock. After Stephen and Emily made their traverse I broke down the anchor and started across. Not being able to see Chris’ movements I had to rely on what he had told us. Step down to the footholds. Step across the gap. It didn’t look as scary as it sounded, and in general I found that I am more comfortable moving than sitting or standing still while climbing. I noticed a small wrinkle in the rock, in the middle of the gap, and was able to cross over and weight my foot to move forward.
Trying that a year ago. I would have failed. Most climbers wouldn’t give it a second thought; it’s a simple transition, but I was proud of myself for piecing it together. Climbing is just as much a mental sport as physical, and I was coming up short on the metal game after a fall eighteen months before left me with a sprained ankle and a fear of falling off of even the simplest routes.
I was more comfortable during the second rest. I was able to eat and drink, although I dropped the cap of my water bottle and it bounced down the cliff face. If anyone finds a Smart Water bottle cap near the base of the Cockscomb, I’m sorry for littering. I even trusted myself to take my phone out and snap pictures of my climbing companions.
The third pitch was the most physically demanding. I climbed to an outcropping about six feet off the ledge, moved to the right, a little too far based on the amount of lichen I was climbing through, and traversed a couple of steps back above the ledge to a crack. I jammed my face in the crack for a blast of cool air and cursed myself for forgetting sunscreen. I climbed up the crack to a ledge and stopped to rearrange some of the slings and runners I had collected. Chris lowered a carabiner on a rope and collected my backpack to make the next set of moves easier.
I climbed up to a small shelf projecting out of the wall, creating an incline I hate incline climbing. It is hard work on the arms and shoulders, which means your foot placement really has to be on point. You have to keep your hips close to the wall and have solid technique. My arms felt spent, and I leaned back and weighted the rope for a moment to find my footing. I found a good foot and muscled my way up, but I was in an awkward position turned sideways on the rock. I placed my back into a small dihedral and worked my way up. The next move involved leaning to the right, with my head hanging almost off the edge of the cliff face. Something about the move made me feel super exposed. I took a few deep breaths and started putting moves together to just get through it, finally powering my way up over the edge.
After a rest we tethered ourselves to each other and hiked across the top to the true summit. Seneca Rocks is about 15 feet wide so there is a nice trail that runs from one end to the other. I looked up at the summit covered in quartzite smoothed over by generations of climbing.
“We have to climb up that?” Chris just looked at me.
“You want to summit, don’t you?”
I relented. We team climbed to the summit where I was both awestruck by the beauty and majesty of what I had just done, completely terrified by being up so high, and overcome by all sorts of emotions I can’t even name. We took pictures, signed the log, and blew bubbles from a small bottle found in an ammo can at the top.
I was exhausted. On the way down I found myself resting on every rappel ledge. Rappelling was a relaxing getaway compared to the climb, but at the late hour in the afternoon I started to realize that I had packed way too little food and water for the trip. During the rappel I found myself below a ceiling, dangling 200 feet off the ground with no rock within reach. It was surreal, but I felt heavily protected.
I left Seneca that day with a new-found sense of determination. I knew that I loved climbing, and I was determined to climb more. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, and that I would need more practice to be able to achieve my goals. But this climb let me know that those goals were within reach.