The pale ridge rises like the ragged fin of a prehistoric fish in a rolling green sea of low forested mountains in eastern West Virginia.
Massive and intimidating, the craggy landscape of Seneca Rocks draws serious rock climbers from Washington, Pittsburgh and elsewhere to its fiercely vertical routes. The mountaintop once hosted American combat troops training to fight in Italy’s Apennine Range during the Second World War.
Despite its daunting appearance, guides say this is a good place to introduce novices to a challenging but manageable ascent.
“It lends itself to mellow climbing,” said Adam Happensack, who led a threesome of mixed skill levels to the summit recently. “It’s like the coolest exposure you’ll get for this grade of climbing.”
From the Monongahela National Forest Discovery Center terrace, through a binocular scope, you can watch climbers nearly a kilometre away ascend the west face. The peak rises 274 meters above a fork of the Potomac River below. Visitors can splash in the river, hike forest trails and stay in campgrounds or an old motel. The nearby hamlet has two combination general stores and restaurants.
Seneca Rocks viewed from the ground spears the sky with its grey quartzite, but becomes more intimate and breathtaking on the way to the top. You hear the birds and soft thrum of the wind through the hardwood forest, and occasional yells from climbers to partners belaying them on safety ropes.
Happensack led climbing partner Phil Brown and me up a seven-pitch patchwork of easy routes to the top, including the Skyline Traverse. Many handholds and steps were obvious jugs of rock. No pitches were rated higher than 5.4 in the Yosemite Decimal System for technical climbing that ranges from 5.1 to nearly impossible 5.15.
One well-known feature is that traverse with little more than a few steps around a rock column into a three-sided chimney with obvious holds. However, the first moves require stepping over about a 100-foot (30-meter) drop.
“It’s like the scariest thing a beginner can get into,” said Happensack, who has taken many first-timers up the route.
He cautioned that those initial footholds are worn and slippery from decades of boots and climbing shoes.
It took me a long, slow, breathless minute to follow him: testing the leaning traverse across the space, trying to grip the narrow crack on one side and fumble toward something to hold on the other with arms spread wide” trusting that the slightly smooth step below wouldn’t simply slide you into space. The safety rope attached to my climbing harness was somewhat reassuring.
This is what climbers call exposure — where there would be a high risk of injury or even death from a false step without protection.
You have to trust the rope and go.
Brown, who followed me, has climbed for a decade in the Adirondacks and did this traverse once before.
“Wow,” he said, when he joined us at the top of the chimney where Happensack belayed him. “Cool.”
The next day Brown led me up Old Man’s Route. Rated only 5.3 for difficulty, it consists mostly of what looks like a giant stairway along the cliff face ending in a 15-metre vertical corner to the summit ledge.
At the base, 33-year-old Lindsey Enterline, pregnant with her first child, prepared to do it with a friend. A climber for seven years and a runner, her obstetrician told her to keep doing what she was doing but not start anything new. She’d chosen the easy route instead of the harder climb her husband and other friends from Hershey, Pennsylvania, took on.
“I’ve done the route before, and it’s one that I won’t fall sideways — or do the traverse,” she said. “I just make sure it’s safe. And you have to have cool trust in the people you’re climbing with.”
Another young woman, on her first climb, mounted the corner farther up, kept on a tight rope by the experienced partner who coached her on finding holds. She ascended with only one or two hesitations. She’d fallen farther down the mountain, but was caught on the rope and kept climbing. “I had a moment,” she said with a smile.
With no trail to walk down, Seneca Rocks climbs end in rappelling on ropes threaded through a device on your harness that creates friction and slows the descent. “That was scarier than the climb up,” the novice said.
Other sites that draw climbers to the state include the New River Gorge and Summersville Lake, where cliffs lean out over the water not far from the gorge.
If you go...
SENECA ROCKS, WEST VIRGINIA: Located about 275 kilometres from Washington DC, about 600 kilometres from New York City and about 320 kilometres from Pittsburgh.