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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Thrill Of Climbing At Seneca Rocks

Seneca Rocks consists of two peaks, divided by Gunsight Notch. Photo by Phil Brown

Seneca Rocks in West Virginia is billed as the only peak in the eastern United States that can’t be summited by a mere hike. You need (or should have) ropes, helmets, and other rock-climbing gear.

If you ever have the chance to see Seneca Rocks close up, you’ll see why. Seneca actually has two peaks, North and South, with a U-shaped col between known as Gunsight Notch. Over the eons, the peaks have shed layers of rock, leaving only narrow ridges leading to the summits. In places, the ridge leading to South Peak is only a foot or two wide.

Nevertheless, Seneca Rocks can be climbed by some easy routes (or by hard ones, if you prefer).

Tom Haas belays near the top of the South Peak fin. Photo by Phil Brown

Last month, my friend Mike Virtanen and I chose the easy way. We hired a guide, Adam Happensack of Seneca Rocks Climbing School, to lead us up the first documented route on the mountain.

Skyline Traverse was established on South Peak in 1939 by three climbers from the Washington area: Don Hubbard, Paul Bradt, and Sam Moore. Though easy by modern standards, it is celebrated for an airy step on the second pitch. With a hundred feet of empty air below, the step is either thrilling or terrifying, depending on your comfort zone.

The next day I led Mike up another easy classic called Old Man’s Route, which leads in three pitches to the summit ledges. A woman who was nine months pregnant also was climbing the route that day.

On both days we approached the summit from the south. A few days later, I returned to Seneca by myself and hired another guide, Tom Haas, to lead me up South Peak from Gunsight Notch (located to the north).

Gunsight to South Peak is rated only 5.4 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale of difficulty (which ranges from easy 5.0 to very hard 5.14), but it must be one of the most exhilarating 5.4 routes in the country. From Gunsight Notch, a long, narrow fin of rock rises into the sky. Words won’t do it justice. The photos should give you a better sense of this unique formation.

The route looks harder than it is. Once climbing, you find many big holds for your hands and feet on the sides of the fin. It’s so narrow that you can grab both sides at once.

The rock is Tuscarora quartzite, similar to the rock at the Shawangunks, a climbing mecca near New Paltz. At the Gunks, however, the layers of rock are stacked horizontally. At Seneca, the rock is tilted so the layers are vertical. As layers shed, the ridge got narrower and narrower.

Mike wrote a story for the Associated Press about our climbs at Seneca Rocks. Click here to read the story and see more photos.

The author crosses the narrow ridge of South Peak. Photo by Phil Brown

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

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