This past weekend was the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club – Mountaineering Section’s annual Fourth of July get together at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. About 15 or so folks from the DC Metro Area braved an extremely violent wind and thunderstorm and a weekend of appallingly hot and oppressively humid weather to get together for climbing at Seneca Rocks, WV. It has to be one of the most unusual and memorable climbing trips that I’ve been on.
Driving through the Derecho
Friday night after work I hitched a ride with Travis and Eliddia for the three hour drive out to Seneca—however; this would not be your normal drive out to Seneca by any means. The Mid-Atlantic, and indeed much of the country, has been facing a record breaking heat wave recently with temperatures soaring into the triple digits.
These prolonged 100-plus degree days created the conditions that led to a rare and violent storm known as a derecho, a fast moving weather front with severe thunderstorms and hurricane-force gusts.
This storm left a path of destruction in its wake over multiple states, left millions without power during the continued heat wave, and resulted in the deaths of at least 22 people. And here we were driving head on into it…
As we approached the western terminus of I-66, we could see the storm off in the distance, stretching across the entire horizon, with a rapid series of lightning strikes that kept coming one after the other.
Travis compared it to a scene out of war movie, as if it were an extended night bombing raid, which I thought to be a pretty apt description. We finally hit the storm along I-81 with strong wind gusts and light rain.
It wreaked havoc on traffic obviously as drivers slowed down and some even pulled off to the side of the road, waiting for calmer conditions. We soon encountered large amounts of debris strewn about the roads, with leaves, branches, and even some trees blocking entire lanes—we remained concerned that we’d run into a section of road that was impassable.
By the time we reached Moorefield, WV we realized that power had been knocked out, which would prove to be the case all the way to Seneca.
The storm eventually began to calm down as we passed through the backside of it, though we obviously continued to encounter the debris and destruction left behind—at least half a dozen trees across the road and there was even a giant boulder sitting right in the road at one point.
By the time we pulled into Seneca Rocks at 11:30pm, they storm had completely dissipated, thankfully, and we were able to set up our shelters at the PATC-MS group campsite without the added drama of the derecho.
I’ve never seen a thunderstorm of that intensity before, and it was humbling to watch the fury of Mother Nature… It was quite the way to start off the weekend!
Climbing Old Ladies (5.2)
Saturday morning, Eliddia and I were supposed to climb together, but we ended up getting a late start, which was then further delayed by our search for breakfast and coffee…
Unfortunately, the storm had left the town of Seneca Rocks without power, which normally wouldn’t be a problem while camping, but I’ve come to rely on being able to go to the store for breakfast and coffee.
The folks at the Macksville Mart were quite disheartened about the whole situation and couldn’t believe that we drove through it, “If I were you, and had some other place else I could be, I woulda turned ‘round right when I saw that storm!”
Luckily Harper’s in town had a generator running so we were able to pick up the last two prepackaged breakfast sandwiches (unfortunately mine was moldy and disgusting), along with some Mountain Dew in lieu of coffee, and ice cream bars since it was already like 90-some degrees.
It was also the only place where gas was available. There was a huge line of cars queued up for gas like we were back in the days of the Arab oil embargoes.
Our late start actually ended up working out in our favor on our intended route (Old Ladies 5.2), since we could start on the West Face and then would be crossing over to the East Face just about when the sun crossed over, so we’d mostly be in the shade.
We arrived at the base of the route after a hot and humid approach up the Stairmaster, a stone staircase with a few hundred feet of gain, to a pretty quiet scene—there just weren’t many climbers around, but it was after noon by now, so they were all probably up higher.
Eliddia and I had never climbed together before, and I’d be leading all the pitches, this would also be my first time leading a non-leader, so the pressure was on! Thankfully I’ve lead Old Ladies a couple times now, so I’m pretty familiar with it. At the top of the first pitch I ran into another party that I hadn’t realized was there… I set up the belay and brought her up.
We had to wait for awhile for the other party to get on their way. The second pitch traverses around a corner and then goes across the face on a small ledge—unfortunately the group in front of us, I now realized, was a slow moving group of four traveling in caterpillar formation. This was going to take awhile!
I set up an anchor off a small tree about halfway through the traverse since there were three of them crowded around the tree at the end of the second pitch. I brought Eliddia over and we just hung out in the middle of the ledge snacking, hydrating, and waiting.
At least it was shady—though it was still disgustingly hot and humid, which I don’t deal with very well. After a long while the last climber finally started up the third pitch, so I pitched out the last half of the second pitch, belayed her over, and then gave it a little more time to ensure I wouldn’t end up right behind him.
The third pitch is a fun flake that alternately features a little bit of exposed climbing out on the edge and then a few chimney moves inside the flake. Overall Old Ladies is an enjoyable, non-stressful route for beginning trad leaders like myself.
At the top of the third pitch on the summit ledge, I ran into another party of three from PATC-MS that had come up Old Man’s Route on the West Face. We were going to skip the summit and just join them for a double-rope rappel, but it turned out there was a line to use that rap station and we didn’t want to cut.
And it was much hotter now that we were out of the shade and on the exposed upper part of the crag. Ugh, we wanted to get out of there, so we headed over to the Traffic Jam rap station, hoping that it wasn’t living up to its namesake at this moment.
Amazingly, there was no one at Traffic Jam, neither rappelling nor climbing the adjacent routes. We made the first rap and I anchored into the other set of rings… Immediately I noticed the stopper knots on the end of my rope had become wedged and stuck under a little corner roof another 25 feet below…
No, no, no, I don’t want to deal with this.
I tried shaking them out but just couldn’t get them free—Eliddia rapped down and I told her we may have a slight problem… Thankfully with some additional concerted effort trying to free them, I was able to shake out one end of the rope.
With some additional slack in the system I was able to get out the other end. Stopper knots, oh how you stressed me out.
It wouldn’t have been the end of the world, I could’ve rapped down to the end of the rope, reached down to free the knots, and then ascended the rope back up to the rap station, but I’m sure glad I didn’t have to!
Two more raps and we were back on the ground. We hiked back out to the car, unsure of what the club’s exact plan was for the evening. We went out to the nearby swimming hole to cool off and ran into a few more members of the club.
We later found out that numerous people in the group got leeches from swimming in the river! I didn’t even realize there were leeches in the rivers out this way—West Virginia has some pretty nasty critters, ticks, rattlesnakes, and now leeches?
We returned to the Seneca Shadows group campsite where just about everybody was at this time. Soon thereafter we started grilling up burgers and hotdogs and snacking on all the potluck items that were brought, and rehashing the days exploits with everybody else.
We had a little mini raffle with some free gear, which was pretty cool considering we were such a small group. Following the barbecue we headed down into town for some live music on the porch of Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides.
With the power out it turned out to be a one-person acoustic show with Kelly, one of the guides at SRMG, who rocked it on guitar and has an awesome voice to boot. SRMG also has a pretty huge indoor climbing area with real rocks, crack systems, and just normal plastic holds, so lots of people also went bouldering by headlamp following Kelly’s show.
Hotter and More Humid?
Sunday morning we got an earlier start. After the moldy breakfast sandwich yesterday, I just stuck to pretzel chips and other leftovers from the barbecue. We followed along with Dave, Travis, and Andy, since Travis was our ride, and that was also the original plan since both Dave and I are new leaders.
We ended up heading over to the east side to climb up Worrell’s Thicket (5.0) a pretty simple ramp system that leads up to Lower Broadway ledge. The challenge of Worrell’s Thicket is obviously not in the climbing itself, but more in trying to find ways to place gear as there are relatively few placements, it consists of a lot of running it out, and feeling sketched out with the dirty, loose, debris covered ledges.
Dave headed up first and we just hung out at the base. Eliddia and I were climbing on her 70m rope which has a little more wiggle room, but the route is basically a full 60m rope, so Dave made it to the tree where he could belay with just a few feet to spare. After Travis and Andy headed up, I then set out on lead.
I got a few little gear placements down low, but toward the top I just ran it out between trees to sling. I did score my first gear booty when I found a nut tool on one of the ledges—which wasn’t from any of the guys in front of me. The weather today was even worse than the day before, and I actually needed to chalk up repeatedly because my hands were so sweaty.
When it is as hot and humid as it was on Sunday, it is just not much fun to climb in, any movement at all and you start sweating, which can be a little disconcerting when your hands are clammy and slippery.
So we all decided to just bail early—Dave set up a rappel above Worrell’s with his two ropes which would get us all the way down in one rappel. It took awhile for all five of us to get down but then we just packed up and headed back to the cars.
On the way out of town, Travis, Eliddia and I stopped at the Smoke Hole Caverns just north of Seneca… This was my first time at any of these caverns that I have driven past innumerable times, and I must say, it is an awesome place to go when it is 90-some degrees out.
The caverns stay at a cool and consistent temperature of 53-degrees or so. We got to experience total darkness, where you can’t even see your hand in front of your face, plus there are just some wild and unusual rock formations down there.
We couldn’t help but look around at some of the walls, crack systems, and overhanging rock and marvel about how fun those would be to climb if that were possible! There is one room that has a 200+ foot tall overhanging wall… Chris Sharma, get on that!
All in all, it was another enjoyable trip out to Seneca. Not a ton of climbing really, but it was a good experience for me to have to lead all the pitches and also lead a non-leader. Great to see lots of old faces from PATC-MS and meet some new ones as well!
The trip was also quite memorable for the violent derecho storm, all the other accompanying experiences, and climbing in the oppressive weather. Needless to say, I’m REALLY looking forward to the end of the DC summers and eagerly awaiting falls arrival!
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