Author Topic: Seneca Trail  (Read 2348 times)

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Offline cclarke

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Seneca Trail
« on: October 08, 2009, 10:51:24 am »
Lots of words but no pictures . . .

West Virginia is not known for its big walls.  In fact, it has none.  But it does have miles and miles of fantastic rock:  sandstone, limestone and, best of all, quartzite.  If only there were some way to rearrange the geometry of the geology.  Hmmm.

For example, Seneca Rocks is a great crag but it?s not really more than 300-400 ft tall at any point.  Nevertheless, it does start low in Roy Gap and the fin runs diagonally up the hill side for nearly 1000?.  Tucked discretely at the back of the guidebook is a 40?pitch girdle traverse called the Seneca Trail that goes at the lowly grade of 5.8.  I?d looked at this traverse for many years but never found the right time, or the right partner, to try it.

Enter Mike Goff, an expat Brit of indeterminate but advanced years, who has explored more cliffs around Seneca during the last 40 years than anyone else I know.  He?s bold in a way that you usually only see in those who started climbing before the advent of reliable protection.   A stonemason by trade and one of the prime architects of the notorious Stairmaster stone steps at Seneca, he has connoisseur?s taste for choss and lichen. 

A few weeks ago, while spending the day with Mike at an obscure 140? fin of quartzite repeating a surprisingly good route that he had done previously and climbing a few more that may, or may not, have ever been climbed previously, I casually mentioned the Seneca girdle traverse.  Eagerly taking the bait, Mike explained to me that he had wanted to try it for years but never found anyone interested.  He had started climbing on the gritstone in England and long contrived traverses there are quite popular as training for longer routes.  We made a plan to just follow the route as far as we could get because we thought it would probably take some puzzling out and, given the short Fall days, we likely wouldn?t have time to complete the traverse on the first go.

I spent the Saturday before our attempt climbing about 8 pitches, including High Test (5.9) which I think is single best pitch at Seneca, with another partner.  It was cool and clear with strong Fall colors.  Perfect conditions for either the sun or the shade.

On Sunday, I met Mike at the relatively new Ground Up Coffee Shop, the best thing to happen to Seneca since the Gendarme opened, at the forgiving hour of 9 am.  After a leisurely cup of coffee and a slow approach to let the sun do its thing, we arrived at the base of Ecstasy and began climbing.  Sure enough, there was another party already on Ecstacy but it turned out to be a guide who we know going up the Southwest Buttress route with two clients and it was easy for us to pass on the right. 

Mike made quick work of the first two pitches of Ecstasy (5.7) and established the classic hanging belay over the void above the cave area.  I figured that I would follow in my approach shoes as I didn?t want to spend all day in my climbing shoes and, because they seemed to work fine, I just left them on all day.  I led the brilliantly exposed traverse right across Muscle Beach (5.7 here) and down the Simple J Malarky (5.7) ramp to a comfortable belay in a large alcove to the right of the cave area. 

At this point, we couldn?t see or hear each other and we had a bit of an issue with the rope but it was soon sorted out.  I led again up the ramp to the top of Totem (5.5) and set Mike up to lead what turned out to be the crux of the day, the intimidating overhanging traverse across the Tony?s Nightmare Buttress to the top of the first pitch of Ye Gods and Little Fishes.  Neither of us had ever done this traverse as it isn?t part of any established route but it went fine at around 5.8 with a mixture of great and not-so-great rock.

A leader was trying to back up the perfectly good fixed anchors on Candy Corner/Ye Gods, with a hex no less, so Mike continued up to the Skyline Traverse belay which, predictably, was occupied.  Fortunately, we had deviated from the guidebook?s description of the route, which calls for down climbing Skyline Traverse, figuring it would be nearly impossible to down climb it on a beautiful Fall day given its popularity.  Mike set a belay with a sling around a decent bump to the side of the Skyline party and, after I grunted up the short chimney section wearing my pack, I set off across Dufty?s Popoff Corner (5.7) and traversed on Kauffman/Cardon (5.5) to a nice ledge with good anchors. 

Mike deemed the rest of Kauffman/Cardon unworthy and, instead, climbed the spicy ar?te of Cardon?s Rib which is pretty heady for a route rated 5.4.  I had never done that pitch and thought it was really fun but I would say there was just barely adequate protection for a leader very comfortable at the grade.  We arrived at Lower Broadway Ledge and walked 50 feet right to another 150? vertical pitch up A Christian Delight (5.4), a worthy, if easy, route which I had also never done before.  Mike led out Old Ladies (5.2) but, instead of following it to its end, went to an anchor straight out above Frosted Flake so we got a little off route.  After discussing our options, we decided to rap to Upper Broadway Ledge and walk another 50 feet to the start of Soler (5.7) and do that.  The first pitch follows a pretty-real-for-the-grade offwidth flake for about 160? to another good ledge and cold shuts.  The sun had moved around to the West Face by this point but it was still nice in the shade and out of the wind.

I led up and across Conn?s East (5.5) to another fixed anchor and then Mike finished Conn?s East at the High Test anchors perched high above the Gunsight near the summit of the South Peak.  We down climbed the exposed Gunsight to South Peak (5.3) and took stock of our situation.

It was about 4:15 pm and we had covered 16 pitches of mostly really good climbing since starting around 10 am.  I had made arrangement to meet my ride home at the parking lot at 5 pm so we called it a day and rapped off to the West.

Not bad for a first try at the route and about what I expected given our starting time and need to quit so early.  Our route was an aesthetically pleasing and logical progression from the lowest point on the crag to the summit with less than 100? of ledge hiking.  We had a really great time and got very lucky not running into traffic considering how many classic moderate pitches we did or crossed.  I was a little disappointed that we stopped climbing because my ride didn?t get down until nearly 7 pm so we probably could have finished the traverse, not including the North Peak, if I had known they would be delayed.  Still, I put the time to good use drinking beer and slandering other climbers in the time honored fashion of the day.

Not much of a big wall but such is life in West Virginia.


Offline smack

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Re: Seneca Trail
« Reply #1 on: October 08, 2009, 11:20:22 pm »
Super Cool TR! I climbed in Seneca when I was in D.C. for a summer. That first pitch on Soler is an eye opener for sure!


Offline cclarke

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Re: Seneca Trail
« Reply #2 on: October 30, 2009, 10:17:32 am »
Thanks Smack.  I'm glad somebody liked it as I had mixed feelings about posting it here.

I later found out my partner Mike was 72 years old.  I hope I can still climb when I get that old.