I almost forgot about Seneca Rocks, West Virginia…and yet they are the backdrop photo on my iPhone! I forgot about it because rather than hiking Seneca Rocks, we climbed Seneca Rocks. I really miss climbing. So I must have put it to the back of my mind. But that was until our recent road trip out to the Wild West where I reminded myself how insignificant the mountains on the East Coast truly are!!!
It actually wasn’t that long ago that we climbed the spectacular Seneca Rocks out in West Virgina. We took a long weekend and camped it out. The days were warm and the nights were blinking chilly! But we were blessed with some wonderful weather.
Seneca has the highest ‘true’ peak on the east coast. What this really means is that the peak is only reachable by climbing – you can’t just walk up it! What else is really cool is that it is only reachable by ‘traditional’ climbing. This type of climbing is where you place your own protection in the rock cracks using your own gear and rope as you climb….if you fall, then you are relying on your own ability to place the protection in a secure place, as well as relying on the rock remaining in place to save your life! This means that in general you stick to climbing route grades that you feel confident climbing.
Anyway before I get too carried away with talking about climbing! Let me tell you that on this mountain I was brave. Actually we were both brave. BUT! The climbs we faced were highly exposed (i.e. the empty space below the climber that if the climber were to fall is a great (often psychologically) distance) and this creates great fear in most climbers!
Chris and I took turns to ‘lead’ (the climber who places the gear in the rock first, the second is the climber who follows and removes the gear the leader placed so nothing is left behind). Leading is more often harder than seconding because the climber has to pick a route up the rock face. It is actually like one giant puzzle, but on a rock face.
It was my turn to lead, all was going well until I reached a point where I needed to climb up and squeeze between two fallen boulders and ended up the other side (not before coming face to face with a huge unknown spider, I just don’t want to know what type of spider!). Now I was unable to see Chris who was holding the other end of the rope…and Chris was unable to see me or the route I was planning on taking.
This was anything but ideal!
Climbing requires a lot of communication and it helps to have a visual on where your partner is, otherwise you rely on signals passed through the rope. We had the basic signals down to an art, we work well as a team. But signals that required me to say –
‘What the F#*%?? I can’t see where my next move is!’
…was not one we had practiced. So I was shouting to Chris asking him where the route was supposed to go (according to the guide book). All I could see above me was flaky, crumbly rock, and below me, an exposed drop so far down I knew it would be the end of me and potentially injure Chris if I was to fall at that point. It was at this stage that I got the old climbers ‘Disco legs’ – my leg muscles were shaking, adrenaline pumping, my breathe quickened to the verge of hyperventilation. There was no escape route… down climbing the way you came up is often harder than climbing up.
I was alone – and then a piece of rock came away from beneath my foot. I screamed ‘BELOW’ just in case there were climbers below me.
I was stuck. No way up, no way down.
Chris was only the other side of the two boulders, but he felt a million miles away. He was trying to talk me out of my predicament. Trying to get me to focus and solve the puzzle.
My heart was pounding. I had to find a way up. I could see the ledge above where I was supposed to be next: the safe point. It felt like I was clinging on to the wall for hours – it probably was only 15 minutes of attempting multiple ways up, but it felt like an eternity.
I gave up, carefully squeezed back through between the two boulders to see Chris’s face again. I was one hot sweaty mess!
In my whole climbing career this was the first time I was genuinely scared for my life, our lives. The heights usually give me a thrill of adrenaline, but I always climb within my limits so I rarely get truly scared. This time, I thought I was climbing within my limits but instead, I found a surprise dead end – a dark scary (lonely) dead end. Fortunately it was not literally a dead end! (My mum is probably cursing me right now as she reads this 🙂 hehe ).
With a bit of patience and caution, we managed to down climb a little way and we then tried another route up. With success this time!
Mountain Lesson # 6. When you think everything is going just dandy, a dead end crops up unexpectedly on you. It might be scary as crap. You might feel alone. But take a small step back from the shadows into the sunlight, turn around, take a deep breathe, and try again. You’ll get there, it just might take you a little bit longer than you anticipated.
Mountain Lesson # 7. Good communication in the mountains is crucial. Practice, practice, practice so you both know what to do when things get a little hairy.