In our spring 2021 issue, we published a piece about Full Metal Brisket, a new rock climbing route in the New River Gorge that is currently the hardest route east of Colorado. While Full Metal Brisket may be West Virginia’s only 5.15 rock climb, the state’s multitude of slightly less challenging routes is just as impressive. As such, Ken reached about Flyin’ Lion, the hardest rock climb at the iconic crag of Seneca Rocks—a place with one of the most storied climbing histories in America. The route’s first ascent was completed by Matt Fanning, a Fayetteville-based rock climber who’s made quite a name for himself in modern climbing lore. Enjoy!
It was early summer 2019 in Seneca Rocks and well into the West Virginia climbing season. I was fresh off a stint of overseas travel, eager to get back into the swing of things and get a taste of the West Virginia climbing I’d heard so much about. A newbie to the Seneca Rocks scene, I was looking for any excuse to get out and shoot some photos. Little did I know I had just stumbled upon one of the biggest gems of East Coast climbing. I was hanging out on the porch at Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides and decided to pose a question: “Hey, does anyone want to have their picture taken while climbing on Seneca?”
From there, it was serendipitous. Still new to the scene at Seneca, I didn’t realize the company I found myself in. Matt Fanning, a legendary climber from the New River Gorge, was sitting just across the table. It was a hot day and I didn’t expect anyone to bite, but Fanning humbly took me up on the offer. “I guess we could try Flyin’ Lion,” he casually said. With no idea where the route was or what it entailed, I excitedly packed my camera gear.
Shortly after our hike up the steep, rocky path—affectionately known as the Stairmaster—to the base of the iconic quartzite monolith, I realized the caliber of route on which Fanning was about to climb. There’s nothing casual about that, I thought to myself. Standing at the mouth of a yawning cave at the southern end of the South Peak, he pointed up to the route. His finger traced an impossibly steep line etched into the side of the cave that ascends overhanging blocks of jagged and gnarled stone—a terrifying feat for most folks.
Flyin’ Lion was originally bolted in 1989 by Seneca icons Tom Cecil and Brian McCray. Unable to complete the climb, the bolting party left it to sleep quietly in its imposing cave for over 30 years. In fall 2018, Fanning showed up to rouse the route from its long slumber. Fanning worked the route for 22 days before completing the first ascent—meaning climbing the route without any falls or resting on the rope—on November 3, 2018. “I went up that day and was a climbing robot,” he said. “It was a perfect fall day. I just shut off my brain and it all clicked.”
Fanning gave Flyin’ Lion a nails-hard difficulty rating of 5.13d. He remains the only person to have successfully ascended this beast of a route. “It’s a bit spicy; you don’t want to fall,” he said. “It’s like falling into a shark’s mouth.”
As he tied in to the rope and psyched himself up for the climb, I anxiously checked all of my camera gear—I didn’t want to miss a second of the action. I rappelled down from the top of the cave to set myself up with the best vantage point to shoot Fanning as he left the ground and made his way through the first set of difficult moves.
Dangling above the void, I started snapping photos. Matt moved swiftly and elegantly. His hands found each hold perfectly and his feet followed suit. As I hung there shooting photos, it was clear the muscle memory never left him. I’ve been climbing for almost a decade and had never witnessed such raw power, graceful elegance, and technical ability all at the same time.
Imagine you’re hanging upside-down on sharp rock with some holds as small as the edge of a credit card and nothing but the friction from the tips of your fingers and the rubber of your climbing shoes to keep your body attached to the cave ceiling. Now, picture yourself meticulously moving upwards on these miniscule holds, pausing every six feet or so to clip your rope into bolts drilled into the rock.
Fanning climbed artfully, pulling and pushing through the crux—the hardest set of moves on the route. His body flowed through the sequence, horizontal and fully extended, to reach a tiny lip in the rock hiding just out of sight. Every muscle was fired up and tuned in to maintain purchase. It almost felt unfair watching him trying so hard as I sat hanging with ease on my rope. I felt the energy of that moment and the humility of capturing such an epic battle of mental and physical fortitude.
Powering through the last few moves, Fanning clipped his rope into the anchor at the end of the route and swung out smiling as his belayer lowered him back to solid ground. My heart still racing from the excitement, I rappelled down shortly after to give him a well-deserved high-five.
I asked Fanning to take me back to the crisp fall day of his first ascent. “I was in disbelief; I had worked on it longer than anything I’d ever tried before,” he said. “It’s probably the best route I’ve ever climbed on. It’s such an honor to have a first ascent at Seneca.”
Since his ascent of Flyin’ Lion, Fanning has gone onto “bigger things.” In summer 2020, while the rest of us were baking our first loaves of sourdough bread in quarantine, Fanning was putting up another first ascent on an unclimbed wall in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Along with his partners Ben Stannuth and Jamey Sellew, Fanning established a new eight-pitch 5.12 route called California Dreamin’ on Little El Cap, an 1,800-foot granite monolith that offers a striking resemblance to Yosemite’s famous El Capitan. “Just being on a wall that no one has ever climbed before is a pretty magical experience,” Fanning said. “We got struck by lightning on the summit, it was wild!”
With numerous difficult first ascents under his belt, I asked Fanning what comes next. “I want to take young climbers from West Virginia and the Southeast out to have the experience of a first ascent in the mountains,” he said. “When it comes to climbing, I prefer to be competitive with myself rather than others. Picking and finding new routes is an artistic process, and making art out of climbing is still possible.”
Climbing Grades, Explained
Although the alphanumerical soup of 5.15a sounds like the model number of some obscure relic from Radio Shack, it represents the upper echelon of modern rock climbing. Climbers in the U.S. use the Yosemite Decimal System to indicate the difficulty of a climbing route. The number preceding the decimal indicates the class of terrain. Class 1 terrain refers to a relatively flat hiking trail , class 3 terrain is a steep staircase or a scramble up large rock ledges, and class 5 is reserved for vertical terrain where technical climbing skills are required and ropes are recommended.
The number following the decimal confers the difficulty of that terrain. Most rock climbs start in the 5.4 to 5.6 range, going up in single-digit jumps to 5.10. Before the days of modern climbing equipment, 5.10 was the ceiling of difficulty. After the advent of dynamic ropes and sticky rubber shoes, falls became safer and the realm of possibility expanded. Able to easily dispatch 5.10 routes, climbers added a new layer of difficulty to the system. Once 5.10 is reached, the lowercase letter grades a through d are added. After 5.10d, the jump to 5.11 is made, and the letters a through d are added until 5.12 is reached, and so on. This allows for seemingly endless growth as subsequent generations of athletes continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in rock climbing. Currently, the hardest climb in the world holds the grade of 5.15d, and the climbing community is waiting with bated breath for the first 5.16a to be confirmed.
Ken Shaffer is an adventure filmmaker, photographer, and mountain guide at Seneca Rocks Climbing School. Check out more of his work: www.kashaffer.com. You can hear more of Fanning’s WV climbing adventures on his Chalk is Che@p podcast.
Feature Photo: Matt Fanning exiting The Cave on Flyin’ Lion, the hardest route at Seneca Rocks. Photo by Ken Shaffer