Wild Wild West VirginiaOn a late afternoon in November 1974, Hunt Prothro stared up at the sunbaked overhanging West Face of the North Peak, Seneca Rocks. Above him a proud, unclimbed line connected cracks, corner systems and a blank face.
On a late afternoon in November 1974, Hunt Prothro stared up at the sunbaked overhanging West Face of the North Peak, Seneca Rocks. Above him a proud, unclimbed line connected cracks, corner systems and a blank face.
A few weeks earlier Prothro, his partner Charlie Rollins and another friend, Ray Snead, had enhanced their reputations by sending all the 5.10s at Seneca in one day. All two of them, that is: Madmen Only and Totem, which, in a way common to the area, has since been promoted to 5.11.
It was already late in the afternoon and all the other climbers out this day had headed down to the usual packed Saturday-night party at the Gendarme, the climbing shop named after the area’s landmark tower [see sidebar, pg 52]. The shop’s front porch was the climbing community’s center.
But Rollins had had other ideas for the evening and suggested, “Let’s go look at this line on the West Face Herb [Laeger] was talking about.”
Rollins started up the route, the fall air cooling the lit-up wall. He fiddled in a few pieces, then climbed about a third of the way up before backing off. The light was now rapidly fading but Prothro thought he’d have a shot. Reaching Rollins’s high point, he was able to get a few good pieces in, and began traversing right, into the next crack system. Immediately, he reached a state of deep play.
“I kept climbing up, straight-in jamming with my right hand, backhanding left and backstepping my left foot as effortlessly and freely as I have ever climbed anything,” he recalls, still with some wonder. This heightened state quickly took him to the top just as the sun set in dry, clear air over the forested West Virginia mountains. The view from the summit of the fin and the afterglow of the perfect climb led Prothro, a philosopher by proclivity, to reflect headily on the existential tenet that nature is indifferent. Considering that struggle is implicit to desire, and occurs against an opposing force, he concluded that nature must be malevolent. Malevolence became the name of this famous route, now rated 5.10c and considered stiff at that.
“In keeping with this feeling of transcendence and a bit of luck in the struggle,” he says, “I decided on the spot that this had been one of the perfect moments of my life and I was never doing the route again.”
In Seneca Rocks the past melds with the present. The town of Seneca and the emblematic fin of Tuscarora quartzite, which looms up to 900 feet above the North Fork River and is only 15 feet thick in some areas, are suspended in a time warp, hidden deep within the rolling mountains of West Virginia. The hardcore traditional bastion of Seneca Rocks, with its diamond-hard rock, super-exposed routes and rappels, and stiff grades is little changed since the early 1980s, when its crew of standard-setting climbers finished up their rush of first ascents and spread out across America to develop crags of their own. They left a legacy of climbing that requires real leading skills, but offers an abundance in mid-grade and multi-pitch classics.
Over the last year I have spent most of my time at home wandering around Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, with a pad on my back, discovering new boulders. While it was an amazing time, something was missing. I needed to get back on a rope and experience the adventure of piecing together a natural line and placing protection. What better place to do that than Seneca?
When friends and I visited there in early spring, the area swarmed with climbing parties, and people queued up for a good selection of classics such as Ecstasy (5.7) and Soler (5.7), but unlike the activity at many other famous areas, the grade selection of this weekend’s climbers abruptly ended at 5.9. Walls of classic 5.10s and 5.11s remained empty, devoid of any sign of recent activity.
Bill Webster and Rich Pleiss’s 1976 Guide to Seneca Rocks showed this grade scale:
5.0-5.1 = Extremely Easy
5.2-5.3 = Easy
5.4-5.5 = Difficult
5.6-5.7 = Very Difficult
5.8-5.9 = Extremely Difficult
5.10 = Approaching human limitations
5.11 = Unbelievable!!!
To many of today’s visitors, this scale still rings true.
According to Tony Barnes, the author of Seneca: The Climbers Guide, “There is a whole lot of easier moderate climbing here of a high quality, which makes it an everyman’s crag.”
Aside from a knifeblade ridge and summit like no other in the East, Seneca has beautiful views of endless green hills, lush farmland and meandering rivers and streams, and good though sometimes spaced gear on steep rock of the same type found hundreds of miles away in the Shawangunks, except that here it has erupted in vertical rather than horizontal striations. As in the Gunks, the area offers a continuum in quality routes that let you test yourself at any level. But here, unlike at many areas East or West, parties do not have to line up for a few 5.7s. Seneca offers an overabundance of quality lines from 5.4-5.7.
Seneca Rocks has experienced several distinct eras, from the days when the 10th Mountain Division left the legacy of the popular 5.5 and 5.4 routes Conn’s East and Conn’s West, and practiced pin placement by banging in what became known as “The Face of a Thousand Pitons.” For the two decades post World War II, activists such as Tony Soler, Jan and Herb Conn, and friends put up classics from 5.7 to 5.9.
After the heady 1960s and 1970s, with a broad cast of characters establishing then top-standard routes, the final phase of development, as posited by Eric Hörst in a 2002 guidebook, was from 1985 to 1995. A plethora of fine, steep 5.11s to 5.13 appeared on blank walls and within an area cave.
Our crew arrived midweek after four days of waiting out rain and snow, and we stared at the fabled fins from the Forest Service Discovery Center across the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, seeing the West Virginia made famous by singers and songwriters from John Denver to Daniel Johnston. For years we had all heard stories of sandbag grades, tricky gear, the infamous Stairmaster approach and loose rock raining down from parties above. A ragtag group of Seneca first-timers, Dean Lords, Christine Balaz, Will Mayo and I set off with trepidation and a long tick list. Heading to the Lower Slabs, we eased our way in by climbing Discrepancy (5.8), put up by Drew Bedford toward the end of the first-ascent rush of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A young and impressionable youth, Drew started his climbing apprenticeship near the end of Seneca’s golden age, in 1979. Days of working his way up the grades culminated with nightly campfire renditions of the latest activity from local heroes such as Prothro, Cal Swoger, Greg Collins and Pete Absolon (who would later, sadly, be killed at age 47 in a freak accident in the Wind Rivers, hit by a rock thrown from a viewpoint above). John Markwell, then the owner of the Gendarme, took Drew under his wing and into the community, bringing him along to group dinners at the Valley View restaurant.
From his home today in Salt Lake City, Drew reminisces: “The first time I heard about the Strawberry Shake I was maybe 16 or 17 years old and all the other guys were ordering strawberry shakes, so I thought, Man, these must be good shakes.’ So I ordered one and they brought out a paper cup with beer in it, and I thought, Man, this is even better.'”
Ethics were strict, and strictly enforced, even for the era. When asked about the lack of bolts at Seneca, Drew describes a competitive scene where a rap-bolted line might well be poached (climbed) early in the morning before the scorned bolter had a chance to climb it.
One by one my friends and I quickly made our way up Discrepancy, relaxing as the crack ate gear, and seemed right on and possibly even straightforward for the grade. Our first day, filled with moderate cragging, included the Green Wall (5.7), and our group’s favorite, Gunsight to South Peak (5.4), put us into the groove and ready to step it up. The rock varied from compact and bullet-hard to jumbled chips and flakes. On one climb, we felt like we were on quartzite, but on another, Candy Corner (5.6), we would have sworn we were on granite.
On our second day Chris Goplerud from Colorado joined the group – after a 30-plus-year hiatus from climbing at Seneca, years during which cams, chalk, sticky rubber and even technique have changed it drastically. Chris started climbing here in 1975 as a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, at the end of the Piton Age, using nuts and hexes. Cams would not come onto the scene until late 1978.
“We couldn’t believe how much they cost,” he recalled. “They were $14 a unit and, uh, we were scared to death of them. Once we set up this elaborate back-up system with Stoppers and hexes, then placed this Friend at the lip of an overhang. We were taking these test falls onto it, just scared to death that this newfangled device would rip out. The Friend was probably better than the anchors.”
At the top of Chris’s list of climbs to hit during our visit were Castor, Pollux and Madmen Only, all 5.10a. We had the area mostly to ourselves, and those routes, as well as Orangeaid and Malevolence, all classic 5.10s, were empty. Unbeknownst to us, however, we were being watched intently. As people arrived after the three- to four-hour trek from D.C, we were visible from town and the campground. When we arrived in camp we felt people staring, and had no idea why. The next morning word was out – everyone wanted to ask us about the 5.10s.
One of the area guides told us, “It’s cool to see you on these routes. Nobody really climbs them.”
The twin cracks of Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Leda and Zeus in Greek mythology, were short and bouldery, sculpted in perfect fingerlocks. Though both routes can be combined with many other variations such as Orangeaid (5.10b) or The Grand Finale (5.9), most people only climb the first pitches. On the opposite side of the fin, overlooking town and in majestic sight of the highly traveled classic Gunsight to South Peak (5.4) lay Madmen Only, Seneca’s first 5.10 and slightly wider and harder than we expected. Madmen followed a right-facing corner to three-quarters height, then headed up the face, ending just before the top of the fin. If for nothing other than the hero photos, Madmen is a coveted tick for any local or visiting climber.
At Seneca, “local” has its own meaning. Except for a small handful of guides and Gendarme employees, only about two dozen climbers live within an hour of Seneca. Most of the locals hail from D.C. and Pittsburgh, each weekend driving up to five hours to touch the stone.
One notable exception is Ron Kirk, a business owner in Franklin, just half an hour away, and an imposing figure thanks to years of constant activity and dedicated weight training. A fortuitous meeting at age 15 paired Kirk with the Cleveland Mountaineers and led to a lifelong addiction to Seneca that continued all through his studies at Ohio University. In 1978 Ron moved to the area to buy the climbing company CMI.
Kirk says, “It was actually a climb at Seneca Rocks that got me into the business.” After climbing the parallel-sided crack of Soler (5.7), Ron had the idea for a cam chock and developed the Kirk’s Kamms, which were produced by CMI.
After morning coffee and beta spray downs at Tony Barnes’s coffee shop, Ground Up, we decided to try the Southern Pillar area, and started with the John Bercaw classic Daytripper (5.10a). Cleaved into a smooth wall, Daytripper looked like a lightning bolt drawn by a child. Christine set off and soon found herself midway up the route with water rolling down the crack and dripping off her elbows. Not one to give up easily, she fought through and into a stance above to dry off before finishing.
When Bercaw arrived on the scene in the early 1970s, confident from toproping 5.9 at Carderock, in Maryland, he was shocked to find himself scared witless on 5.3 at Seneca. “Protection was hard, especially as you were learning. The saying among D.C. climbers was, if you can climb in Seneca and protect the routes there, you can climb anywhere.”
Soon, however, Bercaw started repeating the testpieces of the day and adding his own, ranging from Daytripper (5.10a) to, eventually, Fine Young Cannibals, Seneca’s first 5.13.
At one time John was one of the most vocal opponents to bolting at Seneca, making a staunch condemnation. In 1979 he wrote an article called “What Price for Glory?” for Climbing in which he railed against bolting and called out some of the Seneca locals.
In 1975 the first bolt since the 1940s, when the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division trained here, was placed, by Jesse Guthrie on his first ascent of Sunshine (5.10 R), the lower East Face, on rappel, ushering in an era of unrest. Just days after the bolt was placed, John Stannard – a longtime activist here, though he may be better known for his standard-setting climbs in the Gunks – led the route without the bolt, followed shortly by Bercaw in the same manner. After Bercaw led the route, the bolt was mysteriously chopped.
Today, from his home in Salt Lake City, John recalls an encounter with Howard Doyle, a prolific first ascentionist and one of Seneca’s leading hard climbers of the 1970s and 1980s. “Howard was just furious with me,” he says. “I remember sitting on a belay ledge on the East Face and Howard was just railing at me while walking up the scree slope. Just cursing me and everything. I was glad I was a pitch up.”
“It took me forever to convince him I did not chop the bolt, and I’m not sure I ever did. I still don’t know who did it.”
One by one, many of the Southern Pillar’s steeper lines went down: Daytripper, The Judgement Seat (5.10a), Block Party (5.8), and Border Patrol (5.11c). The walls on the Southern Pillar, with its mossy, spring-fed base of verdant ferns, ranged from slightly overhanging to steep and cave-like. Constant seepage has left many of the climbs here slick and glassy, requiring precise footwork. After a quick lunch, we set our sights on the roof crack of Ambush (5.11a). Dean and Will made quick work, and then Christine was up. By this time, two guided parties on routes to our left had stopped to watch, while another party spotted us from a route on the South End and came over for the show. Christine chalked up apprehensively: three days straight of climbing, and now a slick 5.11a roof crack.
She began tenuously, but soon reached the crux. Visibly pumped and fighting, she placed a cam; suddenly her body seemed to slacken, and she started to slump down. Not a whisper arose from the crowd. A low scream matched her unwelcome downward movement, but turned into a roar as she sprang upward and dynoed off a hand jam to a jug. Her hand hit the flat block with a loud “thwack” and the crowd roared. Afterwards we were told that the guided clients felt like they were in a climbing movie. They had never seen anyone try like that.
These routes ask it and are well worth it.
Nathan Smith lives in Salt Lake City, working as a photogapher and graphic designer. The co-author of two climbing guides, with more in the works, he spends his days in the woods with a camera in one hand and topo drawings in the other, trying to make sense of things.
The Day the Soldier Fell
The Gendarme was a symbol to the town, and the site of three climbing rutes. Then it fell.
As far back as the Seneca tribe, who idolized the lone spire on the peak looming above, the people of Seneca Rocks were proud of the Gendarme.
The local climbing shop was named after the 240-foot spire, and its image was posted on T-shirts, mugs and posters.
Tony Barnes, local climber and guide, says, “It was symbolic to the community. It was unique.”
October 22, 1987, was an unusually warm fall day. At 3:27 p.m. 11-year-old Brock Markwell, the son of the local climbing-shop owner, was waiting in the schoolyard for his mother when from inside the building she heard him scream.
“I didn’t know if he was bitten by a snake or someone was trying to cut his head off,” she says. I ran out, but he was just pointing up at the rocks with nothing to say. It was then that I saw all the dust and said, “Oh, my god, the Gendarme fell!”
Brock had seen it explode into white mist. He is the only person to witness it fall.
The spire cracked across the bottom and smashed into the ledge below, shattering the rock into boulders, and sending a groan through the lower valley. By the time the people looked to see what had happened, a thick wall of dust concealed the mountains.
The Gendarme had been one of the most popular climbing features in Seneca, with three different routes leading to a platform summit. It stood between the two pinnacles of the Seneca buttresses, in an area known as the Gunsight. As an independent spire, apparently guarding the mountain range behind, it was named after the French word for a medieval soldier at post.
However, the spire did not always stand steadily. Some climbers claimed that the wind would often sway the pinnacle. Luckily, no one was on the 40,000-pound spire when it finally gave up its station.
According to John Markwell, founder of the Gendarme Climbing School and Shop, “Many times climbers would not tie into the end of the rope or would just solo the thing. Everyone knew the sucker would come down eventually and if it did they wanted to be able to jump off or let their climbing partner run through the belay device and watch them go down.”
The imminent danger did not stop climbers and guides from going up the routes. Climbing on the Gendarme was on most visitors’ lists.
“We always took people up the Gendarme,” Markwell says. “It was such a cool formation.”
Barnes says that upon completing a three-day course, clients were given the chance to climb the pinnacle’s 5.4 route as “a celebration.”
The Gendarme was first climbed in 1940, by Paul Bradt, Sam Moore and Don Hubbard, who put up the 5.4 route on the East Face. In 1974 Gordon Grahm put a 5.8 R route up on the overhanging West Face, and four years after, a 5.8 R went on the North Face by Tim Campbell and Jenny Ruffing.
Fixed pins provided protection on the 5.4 and a couple of old rusty bolts marked the summit.
On October 19 Barnes and two clients were the last people to visit the spire. Barnes was also climbing nearby the day it fell. He and Hunt Prothro had just finished the 5.10 Crack of Dawn, which was right around the corner from the spire, when they heard the sudden crash.
Barnes says, “We turned to each other and just knew that it had to be the Gendarme.” Both men scrambled around the corner and hurried to look below. “Sure enough, it was gone,” Barnes says, “with just a cloud of dust in its place.”
The community viewed the loss of the spire as a sorrowful event. Barnes says, “After it fell, people described looking up at the Gunsight as like looking at the dog house after the dog died.”
The reason for the Gendarme’s fall is still unknown. Helen Markwell says, “Everyone in the community has theories.”
Some say that the Air Force jets that regularly flew down the river valley went above the sound barrier and the vibrations shook the ground so much they cracked the spire.
The most likely reason, according to Markwell and Barnes, is that the previous night was a stormy and freezing 20 degrees and the next day was a sunny, 80-degree fall day.
Barnes says, “It’s just expansion and contraction. The 60-degree difference got to it.”
A few weeks after the Gendarme fell, a man came into the climbing shop with a pair of rusty bolts around his neck: the anchors for the Gendarme that had plummeted with their holder. He laid them down on the shop counter and simply said, “Do you want these?”
Now the precious trinkets hang in the Gendarme Climbing Shop, rusty remnants of the fallen soldier who rests in pieces in the forest.
– Teige Muhlfeld
Guidebook: Seneca: The Climbers Guide – Second Edition, by Tony Barnes.
Climbing Shop: The Gendarme: www.thegendarme.com.
Camping: Princess Snowbird Campground (www.yokum.com): the site of the traditional pavilion climbers’ camp; cabins and tipi options. Yokum’s Vacationland Campground (www.yokum.com). Seneca Shadows (877-444-6777): Forest Service campground on the hill above the Gendarme shop.
Motels & Cabins: The 4-U Motel and Restaurant (304-567-2111): route 55, two miles from town center. Yokum’s Vacationland (www.yokum.com).
Restaurants: Front Porch: a great spot for pizza after climbing, open for lunch and dinner; follow the “Climb to Eat” sign to the upper level of the Harpers Country Store. 4-U: traditional diner food; route 55, 2 miles from town center.
Groceries and Supplies: Harper’s Country Store and Yokum’s Grocery are both in the center of town.
Cell Service: There is no service in town, but drive about five minutes north on 33 toward Franklin and look for a small church on the left. Nicknamed the church of immaculate reception, it has service in the parking lot.
Season: It’s possible to climb year round, but spring and fall provide the best temps, with fall having a lower chance of rain.
- Gunsight to South Peak (5.4). FA: Paul Bradt, Don Hubbard, Sam Moore, 1939.
- Conn’s East (5.6). FA: John Stearns, George Kolbucher, Jim Crooks, 1944.
- Ecstasy (5.7). FA: Joe Faint.
- West Pole (5.7). FA: George Bogel, Jim Payznski, 1970. FFA: Tim Beaman, Larry Myer, 1971.
- Green Wall (5.7). FA: John Christian, Jim Shipley,
Alan Talbert, 1956.
- Soler (5.7). FA: Tony Soler, Ray Moore, 1951.
- Castor/Pollux (both 5.10a). FA: Pat Milligan, George Livingstone, 1971.
- Marshall’s Madness-Crack of Dawn link-up (5.9+.10a). FA M.M.: Tom Marshall, John Christian, 1955. FA: Dawn: Marty McLaughlin, Eric Janoscrat, 1980.
- Cottonmouth-Venom link-up (both 5.10b).
FA Cottonmouth: Tom Ramins; FFA: Matt Hale, Tom Evans, 1969. FA Venom: Hunt Prothro, Herb Laeger, Charlie Rollins, 1975.
- Spock’s Brain (5.11a). FA: Leith Wain, Jack Beatty, 1979.