Summiting Seneca Rocks

Summiting Seneca Rocks

The last time we climbed Seneca Rocks, weather prevented us from reaching the summit. So, before we even started driving out of Pendleton County we began talking about when we would return and actually get to the summit. It’s surprisingly hard to find a date when four working people with families and friends can break free for a long weekend of climbing, but eventually we found a weekend in early October which would mostly work for our group.

We drove down on Thursday night. The idea was to get a full day of climbing in before the weekenders showed up. This turned out to be a great date for a long weekend. The leaves were starting to change, the weather was nearly perfect for climbing, and the routes were only moderately busy. We summited twice via two different routes, and learned some good lessons along the way.

Looking at the foggy summit from the start of Old Man's
Looking at the foggy summit from the start of Old Man's – iPhone 8

The primary goal for this trip was to reach the summit. We also had a climber for whom this was their first time climbing outdoors, so we decided to start with a route that the rest of us were already familiar with. Since we climbed Old Man’s Route to Traffic Jam Notch the last time we visited Seneca, we opted to start with that route. It is a very easy route for new trad climbers; it’s graded 5.2 with tons of opportunities to place protection.

Previously, Doug lead the routes and I followed. Then, I would belay our third and fourth climbers from the top while Doug prepared for the next pitch. This trip I would clean the routes. I wanted to get some experience cleaning, but more importantly Matt, who had cleaned in the past, was leaving Saturday morning. Since this was Scott’s first trip we wanted him to be in the middle on Saturday, so I needed to be comfortable cleaning.

The anchor at the end of the first pitch of Old Man's
The anchor at the end of the first pitch of Old Man's – Matt's helmet cam

The weather was great. There was plenty of sun and little wind. The early morning fog burnt off long before we reached Traffic Jam. We easily reached the summit, ringing the (cow) bell at the top. The ascent was smooth. The descent is where things started getting interesting.

We had two 70 meter ropes, so we headed to the top of Pleasant Overhangs where we could make a single rappel down. After joining our ropes and running them through the rap rings we tied a know in the end of one rope. As we went to tie the stopper knot in the other rope, the free end of the first rope fell down a long crack between the wall with the anchor and the rock on which we were standing.

Scott and Matt looking through the summit box
Scott and Matt looking through the summit box – iPhone 8

The stopper knot was stuck. We tried for some time to free it from the crack. We even asked another climber coming up Pleasant Overhangs if they could see an way to free it, but there was no freeing it. So, as a last resort, we cut the rope. We estimated that we cut off 2 or 3 meters, which is quite a long piece of rope. Freeing the end of the rope was all we needed to do to start the rappel. We tied a new stopper knot in the now frayed end and sent Doug down.

The rappel from the top of Pleasant Overhangs is long. It requires the full 70 meters, so we expected that it would take Doug a minutes or two to get down and clear of the ropes. The first 10 meters of the rappel, until the next set of rap rings, is slopey. After the next rappel anchor there is 25 meters of sheer rock. The rest of the way down is a free rappel. We lost sight of Doug once he transitioned to the sheer face. And, we lost all contact around the time he went into the free rappel.

The Seneca Motor Company building behind Yokum's Grocery and Deli
The Seneca Motor Company building behind Yokum's Grocery and Deli – iPhone 8

After many minutes we finally felt tension come off of the ropes, so we started rigging up Scott to rappel. As we were doing that another climber came by and said that our leader was ok, but he was in a tree. We assumed that the ropes got tangled in a tree forcing Doug into it. We further assumed that, since the ropes were slack, Doug must have cleared from the tree. So, we sent our least experienced climber on rappel. As soon as Scott reached the next anchor, where the slope transitions to the sheer face, Scott said, “guys, we have a problem.”

We started to learn that our once 70 meter rope was much too short to make the rappel. Doug was in a tree because he had to swing over there to get off rappel and climb down to the nearest ledge. Scott was already on the way down and we didn’t want to ask him to stop at the next set of rap rings without someone there to assist. So, he followed Doug’s path of rappelling into the tree. Once Scott was clear, Matt and I would drop down to the next anchor, set up a new rappel, and then abseil to the bottom. As we got close to the bottom we found that even from the lower rappel station the rope was barely long enough to get us down. We hadn’t cut 2 or 3 meters, we cut somewhere between 12 and 15 meters.

Preparing to belay from the top of the third pitch of Skyline
Preparing to belay from the top of the third pitch of Skyline – Scott

Despite drastically underestimating the length of one of our ropes, we all made it to the ground safely. A lot of the processes we follow when climbing are about establishing backups. We avoided a very bad situation, someone rappelling of the end of a short rope, by ensuring that we had backup systems in place. We learned many things on this rappel, but the biggest take-away was the value of redundancy. It is easy to make a mistake, so it is wise to follow procedures which account for that eventuality.

As we sat eating pizza at the Front Porch, we discussed what we had learned. As software developers we are used to doing retrospectives, so this was easy for us. The experience taught us that if a rope gets cut, then its exact length is uncertain – if you assume anything, you should assume that it is too short. It also reinforced the value of always using a stopper knot.

Doug leading the Gunsight to South Peak
Doug leading the Gunsight to South Peak – Scott

After an exciting Friday we were ready for a lowkey Saturday. Matt was heading back to Ohio for a wedding, but the rest of us were heading for the summit again. We would get up early and try to beat the crowd to Skyline. We didn’t get there early enough; there were two parties ahead of us. We could tell already that the mountain was going to be busy.

A front was rolling through on Saturday, but it only brought light rain showers early in the day. That was not enough to keep climbers away. The east side was shielded from the wind, so it naturally attracted more traffic. It wasn’t until we reached the second pitch of Skyline, the exposed traverse, that we started to feel the wind. A small slip on the traverse got my heart racing, but I made it up the chimney and then lead the third pitch. An easy pitch to make my first trad lead.

Doug belaying me up Gunsight to South Peak
Doug belaying me up Gunsight to South Peak – Scott

We took a break at the top of Skyline then scrambled our way to Upper Broadway. From there we headed toward the gunsight. Gunsight to South Peak was our new objective. When we reached the base of the route we again found two parties in front of us. One of the parties had walkie talkies. That party’s lead made it to the summit and reported back that there was a lot of traffic on the summit, including a party of 6 waiting to rappel from the top of Pleasant Overhangs. So they decided to wait for some people to clear off the summit.

We briefly noted how nice it was to have walkie talkies, and how that would have saved us some trouble the day before. We also had another snack. But mostly we sat there, barely thinking about the amount of exposure we would have on this route.

The sun was getting low by the time we started climbing. It was an easy climb physically; more of a mental challenge. But with the sun setting I was in a bit of a rush to clean the route, summit, and begin our decent. We had watched people rappelling down the night before, and wanted to at least get to our final rap station before sunset.

Me preparing to make the second rappel at dusk
Me preparing to make the second rappel at dusk – Scott

Scott and I waited for Doug to traverse the summit. We were bypassing the crowded anchors at the top of Pleasant Overhangs. As he made his way by he warned the group about getting their ropes stuck, and that group mentioned that they had actually managed to free a large piece of rope from that area. It was the tail end of Matt’s unmistakable neon pink rope. They gave Doug the rope and we agreed to buy them beers in exchange. We made our second rappel after dark, but still had time to get to the Front Porch for dinner. Or, so we thought.

Since it was late in the season the restaurant sometimes closes early if there are not a lot of customers. This was one of those times. The group of climbers who saved our rope also saved our dinner though. They came out of the restaurant and told us that it was closed, but they did hold the door for us. The door was locked and no one else was supposed to get in. When I went to place my order the server told me they were closed. I mentioned how bummed we were to miss out and she said that they still had a few pizzas in the oven and could make two more for us, but it had to be to go. That was fine, we had to pick up some drinks anyhow. So, our day, and our trip, ended exactly as planned.

Published: 2019-10-15
Monongahela National ForestSeneca RocksWest VirginiaClimbingTravelPhotography