(Photo: That's me leading Crack of Dawn (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)
The plan was for Adrian and I to take a trip to Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.
I would drive down from NYC. Adrian would fly from Montreal to Dulles Airport, where I would pick him up en route.
Then we would RAGE on the rocks for four days.
Gail decided to join us. She found a fourth, her friend Jeff. They were coming from Philadelphia and would meet us down at Seneca. I arranged a cabin for us all to share, and we were all set.
Until the day of the trip actually arrived, that is.
I was about an hour away from Dulles Airport when I found out that Adrian's flight had been cancelled. He wasn't going to make it.
With Adrian out, what was I to do? I could climb with Jeff and Gail in a party of three, or I could abandon the trip and head back to New York.
After a flurry of text messages, I decided to bravely press on. Gail and Jeff were fine with the idea of climbing in a threesome. Jeff was a seasoned veteran of Seneca who seemed eager to play tour guide. Gail had been talking to Jeff about my ambitions and he already had a list of climbs he wanted to put me on. With no flight schedules to worry about, the three of us could stay for two days instead of four and come home once the weather turned.
We ended up having a great time. Over our two days in Seneca, I did the lion's share of the leading, as Jeff generously picked out climb after climb for me. Jeff was more than capable of taking the sharp end-- he is a 5.11 trad leader-- but he had done all of these climbs before and enjoyed watching me work to on-sight many of his favorites. Gail got to do some solid leads as well. And I got to follow Jeff up a few harder pitches that I'm grateful I didn't have to lead.
(Photo: Seneca Rocks. The North Peak is on the left, South Peak on the right.)
I loved pretty much everything about Seneca Rocks.
Before the trip, I worried that the place would be intimidating. Seneca has a stout reputation. We've all heard people say that Gunks ratings are sandbagged. But there are many who claim that the Gunks' reputation for stiff ratings is radically overblown, and that the REAL sandbag area in the East is...
It turned out that Seneca's reputation is well deserved. But I was instantly comfortable on my feet at Seneca because the rock felt a lot like the rock in the Gunks. The difficulty ratings, too, were in my opinion pretty consistent with the Gunks, though I would say the typical Seneca climb is steeper and more sustained than the average Gunks route, making it seem more challenging.
We spent our whole first day on the West Face of the South Peak, in the area known as the "Face of 1000 Pitons." This is one of the prime areas at Seneca, with many classic climbs stacked right next to each other.
Jeff put me right to work on Triple S, a 5.8+ testpiece which Jeff described as "the best 5.8 in the world." It is a destination climb, the High E of Seneca.
(Photo: At the first crux on Triple S (5.8+). Doing it like a chimney here. Photo by Jeff.)
It was a pretty rude warm-up but it went off without a hitch and was very enjoyable. The climb is dead vertical, up a right-angled corner for the entire length of the pitch. The left wall has lots of holds, flakes, and variations, while the right wall is mostly flat and blank. There are interesting moves throughout and, as I see it, three crux sections on the way to the anchor. You can use a variety of techniques, sometimes stemming, and sometimes putting your back on the right wall and climbing it like a chimney. As is typical in Seneca, you can place gear almost anywhere due to the vertical crack that runs up the back of the entire corner.
(Photo: Stemming it out a bit higher on Triple S (5.8+). Photo by Jeff.)
After we all took a run on Triple S we shifted our sights to Marshall's Madness, a 5.9 just a few feet to the left. The first pitch of Marshall's is short, just forty steep feet up a vertical crack system and over a small roof to a bolted anchor.
For some reason I started feeling nervous and I messed up on Marshall's Madness. Just a few moves off of the deck I managed to take a lead fall (with a perfect cam right in my face). I wasn't jamming the crack like I should have been and instead I reached to the right for a face hold that turned out not to offer a lot of purchase.
Mayan Smith-Gobat says "A hand jam is as good as a bolt." I wish I felt this way. Maybe someday.
(Photo: Marshall's Madness (5.9), take two. Photo by Gail.)
Feeling like an idiot, I went back at Marshall's Madness and this time it seemed easy. This really isn't a hard 5.9. It is kind of pumpy for just two or three moves. Once you pass these moves, the roof is probably just 5.8. The pitch has good climbing but it is brief.
(Photo: Gail on Marshall's Madness (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)
After watching Gail and Jeff waltz up Marshall's Madness (Gail pronounced it easier than Triple S!) I got set to belay Jeff on Mongoose, a 5.10d just to its left.
This pitch doesn't merit a star in the guidebook and there is no entry for it on Mountain Project. It must be unpopular. But it has high quality climbing all the way, following a steep, clean finger crack up to the left side of the same overhang that Marshall's Madness goes through.
When we did the route it was a little bit wet at the crux, increasing the difficulty. For Jeff the hardest part seemed to be in getting gear he liked in the thin crack. He got two pieces eventually but they seemed finicky and very strenuous to place. He struggled with the placements for a while, stepping up and down. Once Jeff had satisfactory gear he made the difficult-looking moves up to the overhang and then blasted over the ceiling to the belay.
(Photo: Jeff working hard to get gear at the crux of Mongoose (5.10d). Photo by Gail.)
Now it was my turn. I managed to follow Mongoose cleanly, but boy, I thought this was a hard 5.10. Very steep and strenuous, with tiny footholds through the crux. I was glad I didn't have to place the gear. (I couldn't see Gail when she ended up following this pitch but I think she found it very challenging as well.)
Maybe I was getting a taste of the Seneca sandbag effect? When I reached Jeff at the anchor, the plan was for me to take over the lead and to climb straight into a famous pitch called Crack of Dawn (5.10a). I had dreamed of coming to Seneca and doing this climb. I hoped I was ready for this. After taking a fall on Marshall's Madness and barely squeaking by on Mongoose I wasn't so sure.
To my relief, Crack of Dawn ended up going very well. It erased all my doubts.
(Photo: Finishing the crux bulge on Crack of Dawn (5.10a). Photo by Gail.)
This is a great, great pitch. My favorite of the trip. It starts up a wide crack shared with pitch two of Marshall's Madness, but pretty quickly you have to swing out right (exposed!) to the base of a hand crack through a roof. After you crank over the roof, a few more overhanging moves (all of it with great gear) take you through a bulge and then easier, lower-angled climbing leads to a ledge with an anchor.
I probably should have jammed more than I did, but I managed to get through it cleanly regardless.
A 5.10 on-sight lead on my first day at Seneca! It felt great.
(Photo: Jeff nearing the top of Crack of Dawn (5.10a), trailing a rope for Gail.)
What next? Jeff suggested a face climb to our right called Breakneck Direct (5.10b). The route follows a vertical finger crack which begins about twenty feet off the ground. Jeff warned me that when he'd led it he hadn't found too much gear in the first twenty feet, but he assured me that the gear is good once you reach the crack.
I didn't know that this was the optional "direct" start to the Direct. It is apparently easier (and probably better protected) to come into the crack from the left. Unaware of this, I went straight up to the crack through an initial rotten band of rock that takes you over a small overhang. The climbing here isn't awfully difficult, but protecting the moves requires creative placements in questionable rock. I was really happy to reach the crack, where I could plug in some reliable gear.
(Photo: Breakneck Direct Direct (5.10b). Photo by Gail.)
For the rest of the way the rock is solid and the moves are consistently thin and challenging, using the vertical finger crack and occasional small edges on the face. This climb has no stances. It is technical all the way to the bolted anchor, and though there is no one especially hard sequence, the tension builds as you get higher. Just before you reach the bolted anchor the crack thins out to a tiny seam and you have to keep it together for the last move with some small gear below you (I had a blue Alien).
I was thrilled to make it to the top cleanly. This was one of my proudest on-sight leads anywhere. Jeff seemed to approve.
(Photo: Gail on Breakneck Direct Direct (5.10b).)
At this point I was mentally drained.
We ended the day with another nearby climb: the first pitch of Neck Press (5.7+). Gail stepped up to lead this pitch, which ascends a beautiful curving corner. She made it look very easy but when I followed it I thought the final, overhanging moves up the corner were tough. There are some thoughtful, awkward moves in there. Maybe I was just tired.
(Photo: Gail on Neck Press (5.7+). Photo by Jeff.)
It was time to retire to the Front Porch (one of the only restaurants in town) for some surprisingly good pizza, a great view of the cliffs, and wifi.
On our second day Gail and I really wanted to do one of the longer routes that goes to the summit of one of the peaks at Seneca. Jeff had several suggestions for us.
We started out taking the hiker's trail up to the observation deck at the northern end of Seneca Rocks. From there we went around the back of the formation and traveled south past the East Face of the North Peak, picking out some climbs to do along the way to one of the summit routes Jeff had in mind.
Right away, just past the observation deck, Jeff suggested I warm us up with Streptococcus (5.9). This is a short (50 foot) route up a clean face with a zig-zag hand crack. I really liked this route, though I wish it were a little longer. I negotiated the initial moves up to the crack, then hesitated a bit while I examined the crux bits to come. While I stood there sussing it out (was that next hold out right a jug, or was it nothing?), Jeff kept talking about a poor woman who'd had a fatal accident on the route a few years ago. Apparently her gear ripped out.
Jeff meant well, but he seemed to go on and on about how he couldn't understand how the gear failed on such a G-rated route. As I stood there listening, the holds seemed to get smaller and smaller and my bomber gear started to look worse and worse.
(Photo: Streptococcus (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)
I began to get a little freaked out even though I knew deep down that everything was fine. I needed to get on with it. Stepping up into the crux, I placed two perfect cams, asked Jeff to PLEASE stop talking about people dying, and carried on.
Next we moved down to another good 5.9 called Desperado. This one is high quality for a full 100 feet, with a delicate step across to a stance beneath a ceiling, then a good crux getting over the roof, and finally some technical moves in a left-facing corner above.
(Photo: At the roof on Desperado (5.9). Photo by Jeff.)
At every stance I tried to sing a bit of the song, for luck.
"Desperado, why don't you come to your senses...."
(Photo: Jeff working on a variation called Desperado Direct (5.11b). Photo by Gail.)
These single-pitch routes were fun, but the day was already slipping away. It was time for our summit route.
We negotiated a complicated system of ledges until we found ourselves beneath the impressive East Face of the South Peak. Jeff directed us to Conn's East Direct (5.8), which would take us in two short pitches to a large ledge about halfway up the face.
(Photo: Looking up at the East Face of the South Peak, with several climbing parties visible high on the face.)
Gail took on the first pitch of Conn'e East Direct. The crux of this pitch is right off the deck, with polished slopey hands and small footholds. There is no gear for these first few moves, which earns the pitch a PG/R rating in the guidebook. Gail led calmly through it and then got a great nut at the first available crack. Jeff gave her a spot until she had some pro in. I think she would have been fine even if she'd blown it. During the difficult moves her feet were only a few feet off the ground. Still, this pitch feels pretty necky while you are doing it. It is a solid lead. Once Gail was through the early crux she cruised up the somewhat interesting, widening crack to the first belay ledge.
(Photo: Gail on Conn's East Direct (5.8). Photo by Jeff)
Jeff led pitch two, which again has a quick 5.8 crux right off the belay (a layback up a corner), with good gear. Then it is easy going up a ramp to the big shelf.
Several different routes ascend from this shelf to the summit. When I joined Jeff and Gail at the ledge Jeff offered me two choices: Alcoa Presents (5.8+) or Orangeaid (5.10b). He described them both as classics.
I took one look at Alcoa Presents and wanted to do it. It appeared to be a beautiful climb up steep rock. I knew that by not leading Orangeaid I might be passing up my only shot at a 5.10 on our second day, as it was already well after noon and we had to leave with time to drive up to Philadelphia in the evening. But it was sunny and hot out, and in the moment, sweating and thirsty there on the ledge, Alcoa Presents looked difficult enough for me.
It turned out to be a good choice. I loved Alcoa Presents. It was probably my favorite pitch of the trip after Crack of Dawn. It starts with steep climbing up juggy rock, and then the footholds get very thin in the technical, shallow corner that leads to the summit. Little holds in the corner and some flakes out right provide passage to the top. In the crux corner there is an overdriven aluminum piton which gives the route its name. It is pounded in too far for it to be clippable with a biner but you could run a sling through it if you wanted to. There was other gear nearby so I just ignored it.
(Photo: Gail at the crux of Alcoa Presents (5.8+).)
As we reached the summit of the South Peak we got a great view of the improbable formations that make up Seneca Rocks. When you are close to the ground Seneca feels like any other crag, but as you gain altitude you become very aware that the seemingly solid cliffs are really nothing but huge shark's fins made of stone, which at their summits are less than a meter thick.
(Photo: Looking north from the top of Alcoa Presents (5.8+). The climbers in the foreground are at the top of Conn's East (5.6). In the distance you can see much of the overhanging West Face of the North Peak, with a climber at the chains atop on Madmen Only (5.10a) and another one beneath him, halfway up the face. There is also a climber visible atop a climb on the opposite side of the formation.)
Up atop Alcoa Presents we were a few feet shy of the true summit but through a hole in the cliff (which functioned like a ship's porthole) we could see through to the town and countryside on the other side of the South Peak. We could also look sideways to see practically the whole North Peak, which to all appearances was as thin as a sheet of paper and which leaned dramatically towards its West Face in the manner of the famous tower in Pisa. There were some climbers visible at the bolts atop a route on the West Face called Madmen Only. As I looked at them it seemed entirely possible that their weight alone would be enough to tip the whole North Peak over, sending it straight to the ground like a trap door slamming shut.
I wasn't sure how much more we would get done after our summit route but I stacked the deck against us by getting our rope stuck on our last rappel from Alcoa Presents. Another party eventually freed the rope for us but we ended up waiting around a while.
Jeff had some routes in mind on the South End, so after we retrieved our rope we headed down there. By the time we got to the South End, what with the 80-degree heat and the hike around the formation, I had to say I was pretty beat. I was glad Jeff was looking to lead something, so I wouldn't have to.
He finished our little trip with a climb called Muscle Beach. The second pitch has some 5.11a cracks but Jeff was planning on just the first pitch, which goes up around a small 5.10 roof.
As usual, Jeff did a solid job and sent the pitch. I was able to follow it cleanly as well, which felt good at the end of a hot day. It is steep, awkward, and in your face for a few moves. I enjoyed the climb but it wasn't one of our most memorable pitches. I was happy just to see the South End, a cool area of Seneca with a huge cave and lots of odd blocks and corners.
As we walked out Gail remarked that we'd circumnavigated the entire area on our second day. We really got to see a lot.
I thoroughly enjoyed Seneca Rocks. It doesn't have nearly the amount of climbing that the Gunks has, but what is there is of very high quality. And the climbs are of a sustained, steep nature that the Gunks doesn't often provide.
I'm very grateful to Jeff for showing us around and allowing me to lead so much! He really made it easy for Gail and me to have a great experience.
And I was pretty happy in the end with my performance on the routes. For the most part I was comfortable on all the routes we tried. I left having on-sighted two solid Seneca tens, which felt pretty darn good.
I could see returning to the area once a year. I'm definitely going to need a Seneca fix again, and a year seems like a long time to wait!