Author: Lu Huang
Location: Seneca Rocks, WV
Team: Brian Dunlavey, Matt Evans, Lu Huang
Over 23-25 January, 2015, students and instructors of the ECP mountaineering school engaged in alpine climbing activities at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia as part of the school's training curriculum. The objectives of the trip were to complete a challenging, self-sufficient approach hike after an early alpine start, carry out multi-pitch rock climbing in winter conditions, bivy on the summit, and safely descend by rappel.
Our team comprised of instructor Brian Dunlavey, students Matt Evans and myself. Brian is an experienced rock, ice, and alpine climber. Matt and I have some rock and ice experience, with Matt being a recent graduate of the ECP Rock School. We had some concern about being able to complete the demanding climb after a sleepless night hiking in the dark. Nevertheless, spirits were high as we got geared up and ready to go. Shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday morning, all teams loaded up into vehicles to be shuttled to the trail-head. Since our arrival at 11:30 pm the night before, I might have had 45 minutes of sleep total. The weather driving into camp was atrocious, with freezing rain and clumpy wet snow obscuring visibility. The mountain roads were iced and unwieldy. All weather reports seemed to indicate precipitation continuing through sunrise.
The approach hike took us through a 13.4 mile section of the North Fork Mountain Trail, a straight-line route going north-northeast with frequent blue blazes. Throughout the night, we stopped frequently for brief breaks to eat, drink, and to add or remove layers of clothing. It was difficult to stay dry given the conditions and we were wary of excessive heat loss later when the pace slows. At the four and a half hour mark we reached the Pipeline, our turnoff that led west towards Seneca. The diffuse light of dawn intensified slowly, allowing us to discern the lay of the land as we descended the Pipeline. The valleys were steeped in a layer of mist and fog. We took a brief moment to absorb the beauty so particular to the Appalachians, as well as to appreciate the difficult task we had at hand.
It took another hour and a half for us to get down to the stream, and yet another before we gathered and boiled enough water to last us through the following day and night. As we stood, we felt a deep chill setting in. The light of day did little to warm us. Little did we know, the long belays and wait times ahead were about to make us way, way colder. The time was now 9 a.m., Saturday morning.
Brian's plan was to lead us up on the Old Man's(5.2) or Old Ladies(5.2) routes. To get to the climbing, we had to ascend a long series of stone steps called the Stairmaster. Brian told us about how volunteers from the ECP helped build the Stairmaster back in the day. We had decided on Old Ladies being the objective, but as we got to the base of the climb there were already two teams on the route ahead of us. After a long, cold wait, Brian led the first pitch and Matt and I got ready to follow. This was our system: Brian would lead one pitch and belay from the anchor. Matt who had more experience than me cleaning gear was to be third. My job was to tag along a second rope and clip it through each piece of protection along the way. Once I got to the belay, I could then turn around and belay Matt with it. This system worked well and was particularly crucial for the second pitch. The second pitch was a long traverse to the right and protection must be cleaned by the last person to avoid a long pendulum fall. The climbing turned out to be easy enough for all of us but remained fun with new challenges of gloved hands, stiff-soled boots, and heavy packs.
It was close to dusk by the time we reached the summit. Despite being only three pitches, it had taken us all day to complete the climb. We could not have been more impressed with the importance of effective communication, efficient belay changes and the necessity of making constant upward progress. The wind had picked up during the day and scoured the rock relentlessly. Any delay or lack of motion left us hanging uncomfortably cold.
Our bivy spots were less than ideal as other teams had long since called dibs on their personal favorites. I had a few options, all of them terrible, and eventually decided on a sloped rocky patch beside a tree. My head rested against a rock, my feet stuck out over the ledge, and the gradient meant I was sliding down further and further down as I slept. Nevertheless, anchoring into that tree meant that I was secure and safe from any nighttime mishaps. Brian and Matt had re-hydrated meals while I attempted to eat a sandwich. I must have dozed off four or five times with sandwich in hand before I decided to save what's left for breakfast.
We were well-rested by Sunday morning but eager to descend. Camp was stripped and packed with gusto. Brian helped set up the rappel lines at the Traffic Jam rappel station. Derek Stuart and other instructors helped supervise the students during their rappels. From there, we took the trail down and followed a road to the parking lot. Matt Golub who was in charge of the outing ran a debrief at the campground pavilion. Each student quickly listed what we had brought with us on the trip and highlighted the items that were particularly useful or unnecessary. There was a big round of applause for Matt and all the instructors for volunteering and leading groups.