One of my favorite places to climb locally (within ~4 hour drive) is Seneca Rocks. It is essentially a giant 900 foot rock fin, and the only peak inaccessible except by technical rock climbing on the east coast of the U.S. There are ~300 documented climbs on Mountain Project, most of them 5.0 to 5.11 trad climbs. As a bonus, Seneca is absolutely beautiful and is home to one of the most charming climbing shops I’ve ever been to.
The North and South Peaks of Seneca
Seneca’s Southern Pillar (I’ve always wanted to climb up and have a picnic on top of the tallest pillar pictured 🙃)
I first climbed at Seneca last June and absolutely loved it. Despite nearly getting heat exhaustion midway through our climb (many of the routes are exposed with little shade), I loved the euphoric feeling of climbing on super exposed rock with hundreds of feet below you as well as the all-day pushes to reach an end-goal: the summit. After two days exploring the mountain, I was hooked on multi-pitch. I ended up visiting Seneca one more time last year for a long day trip, and since then, can’t stop thinking about it.
A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend Dustin and I decided to brave the cold though sunny temps and drive up to Seneca for the day. We were on the road by 5:30am and got to Seneca by 9am. Seneca’s parking lot is usually super crowded, but surprisingly we were one of the only cars there. We actually only saw 3 other parties the entire day. Usually, the most popular routes on the mountain have lines to climb them. It’s not uncommon to wait up to 2 hours at the summit’s rappel stations (appropriately named Traffic Jam”) in order to get off the summit. In general, due to its close proximity to D.C. and Richmond, Seneca is a pretty popping place.
Dustin injured his A4 pulley a couple weeks ago while gym climbing so wanted to take it easy at Seneca and focus on his gear placements. Our plan was to climb 2 pitches of Worrell’s Thicket (5.0), and then traverse over to Gunsight to South Peak (5.3), which would get us to the summit. I was fine with that plan, as this was my first real time being a “follower,” meaning I was Dustin’s second, removing all of the gear he placed on his way up the climb. Previously, I climbed in groups of 3 so didn’t end up cleaning any gear.
Hiking to the start of our first pitch of the day!
Although the weather was in the low 30s at the start of the day, it quickly became warm as the sun baked down on us. I felt perfect in my base layer, Patagonia R1 fleece pullover, and Arc’teryx Atom LT hoody. Side note: that day was my first time climbing in my Arc’teryx jacket, and it definitely lived up the hype. I was fairly comfortable and warm for most of the day in it, which I was immensely grateful for.
As we got to the base of the first pitch of Worrell’s, a climbing guide and his client were about heading up as well. As Dustin hadn’t climbed this particular pitch before, we were thankful to be able to watch the guide go up the route so we knew exactly where it went. The first pitch was fairly uneventful. Worrell’s in general is a pretty mild scramble that provides easy to access to a plethora of other routes closer to the summit.
We followed the guide up to what we thought was the second pitch of Worrell’s. Dustin took a lot longer on the 2nd pitch, while I chilled at the belay ledge in the sun. Damn what is taking him so long, its only a 5.0. Dustin slowly made his way up the pitch until he got to a large roof about 3/4 of the way up.
“This is pretty spicy,” he yelled down at me, laughing. As he got to the roof, I could tell he was rethinking whether or not to move on. He ended up slinging a tree and bailing off the route. Seneca is notorious for having very stiff ratings. For example, a 5.4 at Seneca is more like a 5.6 or 5.7 anywhere else. When Dustin got down, we looked at the guidebook and figured out the route we thought was the 2nd pitch of Worrell’s was actually another much harder route that Dustin wasn’t mentally ready for at the moment.
We ended up finding the correct 2nd pitch of Worrell’s, which was thankfully another fun ledge scramble. By the time we got to Upper Broadway, which is a series of ledges and where the scramble leading up to Gunsight to South Peak begins, it was almost 3:00pm.
Looking up at the scramble leading to the start of Gunsight to South Peak.
We ate a quick snack before roping up again. By this point, we had mostly climbed out of the trees and were very exposed. The wind had also picked up, so while an hour before I was cozy in the sunshine, now I felt freezing. I’m not going to lie, belaying Dustin up Gunsight felt like it took forever since it was so windy and cold. The climb also traverses out of the sight of the belayer, so due to that and the wind, I couldn’t see or hear Dustin at all.
I didn’t take a photo of Gunsight that day, so this picture is taken off of Mountain Project.
What felt like two hours later (sorry Dustin lol), I felt a hard tug on the end of the rope that was tied into my harness. I waited a minute and then began climbing. The cool thing about Gunsight is how exposed it is, traversing just under Seneca’s ridge line. I had climbed it previously and had forgotten what a cool climb it really is. A fun scramble, but perhaps mentally heady to newer trad leaders.
Dustin and I reached the summit at about 5:30pm, took a quick selfie 🤳 , before trying to find where we could rappel down.
Freezing cold on the summit!
Traffic Jam is one of the most easy and popular ways to get down off the summit, as it is literally 3 sets of bolts in a row before landing at the base of the mountain. As I mentioned previously, there is usually several parties of climbers waiting to get down at any given time. Fortunately and unfortunately for us, there was literally no one else on the summit at that time. The fortunate part is that there was no wait, but on the flip side, there was no one we could tie ropes together with for one giant rap off instead of three separate rappels.
It was getting dark by the time we executed our first rappel. Luckily I had remembered to throw my headlight into my bag last minute; I had never actually had to use it climbing before other than intentional night climbing.
“We’re benighted!” Dustin happily exclaimed. You’re insane, I thought. At this point, I was extremely cold, tired, hungry (I had only eaten an apple and a Lara bar since we started climbing), and ready to get off the mountain.
FINALLY, we rappeled three times to the base, hiked down the Stairmaster (a horrible steep set of rock stairs that leads to the base of Seneca), and made to our car around 7:30pm. Ours was the lone car in the parking lot. It was a sight for sore eyes.
We definitely a lot that day in terms of what we need to work on while climbing multipitch routes, so that in the future we can move a lot faster. At that point, however, we were content with our day. It was our first time climbing multipitch together, and there were no real mishaps besides rapping off in the dark.
As we meandered through West Virginia’s dark, twisting roads on our drive home, I had to admit to myself that I felt a little crazy. Hiking off a mountain in the dark after a long day of climbing in cold windy conditions wasn’t exactly most people’s idea of a #sundayfunday. But somehow I couldn’t stop thinking of getting back out there.