“That whole rock formation will crumble some day,” the climber and White Mountain hut caretaker Rich Palatino told me this past winter, referring to Seneca Rocks, located in the Allegheny Mountains of the Appalachian Mountain Range. I was overnighting at Rich’s hut just days after a March road trip through West Virginia had brought me past Seneca Rocks.
Months later, I was on the 900-foot-tall quartzite formation, which is considered to have the best multi-pitch climbing east of the Mississippi River, terrified that the whole wall could crumble to pieces with me upon it. I don’t know if it’s the best climbing on the East Coast, but it is scarier than classics at the Gunks and Rumney.
The rock is loose; helmets are a necessity. The climbing style is trad; given the chossy rocks, you’ve got to be confident in placing gear (cams, nuts) and building hanging anchors. The routes are highly exposed over abyss-like drop-offs; shaky legs will shake. A sign advises to call 911 in case of emergency, but that’s impossible because Seneca Rocks sits within the National Radio Quiet Zone and so there’s no cellphone service here.
Along with this being my first time to Seneca, it was also my first time climbing with Joshua, a summer counselor at the nearby Camp Hidden Meadows who has given intro top-roping lessons at Seneca Rocks for the past five years. (The rest of the year, Joshua — who goes by the name “Peat” — works as an adventure expedition coordinator in Dubai.) He knew the terrain, but we did routes all new to him. From Wales, Peat’s thick Welsh accent was especially hard to understand from a hundred feet above or below him on the rocks.
Over two weekends, we climbed three classics: Ecstasy (5.7) on the South End, Gunsight to South Peak (5.3), and Thais (5.6). Those ratings sound easy, but Seneca is one of the oldest climbing areas in the East and the routes are tougher than their ratings reveal. During WWII, West Virginia’s 10th Mountain Division trained here before deployment to Italy — long before the advent of special grippy shoes, hand chalk, or lightweight gear.
We started with Ecstasy, a four-pitch, 250-foot classic on the more-brittle South End. Here’s Peat leading the third pitch:
The approach to Ecstasy was about one mile up a dirt road and then a steep trail. We were followed by a group of three climbers. Their leader, a local guide, saw us putting on our harnesses at the base of Ecstasy and offered a word of advice.
“Be extra careful with the rock on this route,” she said. “A friend lost his leg on it when a rock fell on him. His leg had to be amputated. I don’t mean to scare you, I just think I’d feel guilty if I didn’t say anything.”
We thanked her for the warning and continued suiting up. Peat later told me that his uncle had also lost his leg in a climbing accident, but that it hadn’t slowed him down; his one-legged uncle still climbs and skis. This seemed to reassure Peat that a lost leg wasn’t such a big deal. I felt somewhat assured that since enough people around me had lost their legs in climbing accidents, the chances were extra low that I’d also lose mine. The odds would be too crazy.
Here’s me on the second and third pitches (photos by Peat):
Here’s Peat belaying me from the third pitch:
The following weekend, we focused on the iconic South Peak. The rock here is stronger than on the South End, but it’s still sketchy. In 1987, a pinnacle-like tower called the Gendarme broke and plummeted hundreds of feet the ground. According to an article in The Washington Post from that time:
For more than 400 million years, the Gendarme, a 20-ton slab of quartzite, perched precariously in a notch amid one of America’s most spectacular rock formations, looking like it might fall at any moment.
Last Thursday, at 3:27 p.m., it did.
“New climbers always said ‘It doesn’t look very stable,’ but we told them not to worry,” said John Markwell, who operates the Seneca Rocks Climbing School and the Gendarme Climbing Shop here.
Today, viewed through a telescope outside the U.S. Forest Service’s visitors center, the spot occupied for eons by the 25-foot-tall Gendarme, which stabbed into the gap in the Allegheny Mountains like a giant index finger, is wide open, a three-foot-wide gray slab that looks like the base of a sawed-off petrified tree.
There are exotic theories for the Gendarme’s collapse — reverberations from low-flying military jets, a sudden shift in temperature — but Markwell believes “it probably just crumbled of old age.”
So, yeah, gotta be careful here. Here’s Peat starting the first pitch of Gunsight to South Peak (5.3), and then me following:
The second pitch of Gunsight was a short climb to a long plank-like walk along the narrow summit ridge. I went first, crawling on hands and needs across the ridge (while other less-cautious climbers strolled across carelessly):
Gunsight was relatively short, with two pitches totaling 150 feet, allowing us time for another climb that day: Thais (5.6), a four-pitch, 300-foot route up the South Peak. I led the first pitch, then Peat tackled the second pitch’s chimney.
While I was belaying Peat, another climber high above shouted at me. “Belayer in blue, are you wearing a helmet?” she yelled. “No,” I responded. She shot back: “You should have a helmet! This rock is very dangerous and loose!!” I nodded at the woman, annoyed with what seemed to be pointless fear-mongering and hoping that Peat hadn’t been too distracted. What did she want me to do? Tell Peat to hang on while I ran into town to retrieve a helmet?
Soon Peat yelled down, “Take!” I took out the rope’s slack. Peat relaxed on a camalot and rested. “I’m boxed,” he said. “My arms are done.”
After a few minutes, Peat started back up. He veered rightward, off the route into no-man’s-land. I cursed to myself, Where in the hell is he going? A half-hour later, the rope started being pulled upward. Peat was far out of earshot, so we couldn’t communicate, but I assumed he was secure and it was my turn to follow, though this was just a guess.
I followed up the chimney, then into a slightly overhanging area, and rightward onto a totally different route — we still don’t know what we climbed, but we got to the top.
At the summit, we spotted a metal box wedged into the rocks. Peat had said he wanted to sign the “summit log,” but I was skeptical that such existed because I had never before encountered one in all my hiking and climbing around New England. Yet there it was: an old tin box with a clasping hatch that somebody had hauled up the mountain decades ago and planted at the summit.
Peat opened the box. Inside was a bag of weed, a roll of toilet paper, a pen, and a white notebook where we could add our names to the history book for Seneca Rocks.