Story by Carmen Bowes
Photos by Samuel Taylor
Life’s progress is not easily measured in the present. We do a lot of looking back and thinking of ways we could have done something differently. Rock climbing is not this way. You can try hard to complicate it, you can make it so many small problems and puzzles, but at its core there is only one clear goal: get to the top.
Seneca Rocks in Pendleton County, WV is one of the most astounding landmarks in this state. Two massive fins of Tuscarora quartzite stick straight out of a mountain and stand proud above the trees and valley below. If you haven’t seen it, go. You won’t be disappointed. The north peak of Seneca is accessible by a trail that winds up the mountain. The south peak, however, is only accessible by technical rock climbing. This means it is more challenging and steep than “hard, up-hill walking” will allow. You have to use your hands and feet and make moves to get up this thing.
The first time I summited the south peak of Seneca Rocks I felt like I had done the impossible. I had climbed 300 feet of technical climbing to get to this place. I was invincible. Then I remembered that I had to rappel off of the 300-foot-face. Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t done this, get your big-kid pants on. It is a long way to the ground and you get to look at open air as you slide down the rope. It is the single most exhilarating thing I have ever done.
Get to the Top
For this trip, we have a guide. Stephen is super nice and loves to teach people how to rock climb. I will paraphrase for him because we were on the side of a rock face when he said this to me (notes were not easily taken). He said of his teaching and guiding that he loves seeing people achieve things they thought were unachievable. This is one of the most romantic things I have heard anyone say about their day job.
With Stephen in front, we take off out of the picturesque parking lot toward the fins. It is a warm, sunshiny summer day. We cross a small creek before attacking the affectionately-named “Stairmaster.” It is steep and keeps going for much longer than we want it to. I am covered in sweat and my calves ware pounding when we reach the start of our route.
After catching our breath we put on our harnesses and check the long rope for knots before we start up a route called “Le Gourmet.” Stephen and Sam both go up ahead of me and I watch them both as they climb. I pay attention to their hands and feet, noting which ledges they use as they go. I put my already-tired calves to work as I move. Each pull up the face I take, the more exposed the world behind me becomes.
I see Stephen and Sam waiting on the ledge above me and take a moment to turn around. I have quickly put 70 feet between the ground and myself. The trees roll away from the bottom of the face down into the valley. I can already see the roads stretching out.
We follow our leader up a pitch of a route called “Front C” and then finish out on the classic “Old Man’s.” We walk up the summit ledge and get to the final scramble that takes us to the top. I climb up the polished rock. It is slick from decades of shoes wearing away at the quartzite. I look up from my feet and the world opens up. I see a cozy farm hiding behind the rocks and valleys trailing off into the distance. The summit is narrow and tight. Stephen grabs an old ammo box and hands it to me. I pull the notebook from the inside and sign my name with the note, “Summit #2!” I hand it to Sam.
After a while we traverse the summit and set up to begin our rappel back down. My hands are sweating and my heart is fluttering. I lean back and look over the edge, the drop takes my breath away. The breeze blows across us on the face. Stephen sets up our rappel devices and takes off down the rope. After what seems like 20 seconds I barely hear his voice yell that I am to begin mine. I lean back into the air and let my weight take me down.
I slide slowly down the length of the rope until I awkwardly find my feet again. The earth feels solid and immovable. I think to myself “I got to the top” and I smile big. Sam follows me down and we haul out the gear. We got to the top.
A Note about Our Guides
Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides have an awesome spot tucked between the road and Seneca Creek. A few small camp sites are available to clients complete with an outdoor shower with a view of the rocks. Kick back after a day of playing hard at the fire ring and small bar. In addition to privately guided trips, they offer several other courses and programs. They work closely with the Adventuresports Institute at Garrett College in Maryland to set up learning opportunities for folks just beginning to the more experienced climber looking to craft a specific skill. The man that runs the place is Tom Cecil. He is a bit of a legend in these parts with some really epic first ascents and a solid 40 years of climbing under his belt. He has built an incredible facility with the intention of allowing room and opportunity to grow as a climber and hone your skills. These folks are professional and excited. I highly recommend them. For more information please visit http://www.senecarocks.com/ .
**Warning: Summiting Seneca Rocks is not for the unexperienced. If you are a beginner and wish to summit Seneca, please contact a reputable guide service for tutorial and guide service.