While West Virginia proudly boasts some of the best rock climbing in the Unities States, there’s one thing the Mountain State lacks: big mountains. Most rock climbers, at one point or another, have a burning desire to summit a big mountain. The development of alpine climbing and mountaineering skills requires serious training. But don’t worry—you don’t have to book a flight to Colorado to get Rocky Mountain High. All you have to do is hop in your car and take a ride down to Seneca Rocks.
Seneca is well-known for its stellar multi-pitch rock climbing routes, but when the Mountain State is deep within the grip of winter, there’s something else it’s becoming known for: an alpine training ground. And for good reason. The south peak is the only true summit—meaning a peak accessible only by technical rock climbing—in the eastern U.S., and the tallest technical summit east of Devils Tower in Wyoming.
Seneca Rocks is such an ideal training ground for mountaineering skills that the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh (ECP) caps off its mountaineering school every January with an extreme final exam: a winter mountaineering excursion to the summit of Seneca that pushes participants to the edge by mimicking the various aspects of a big mountain climb.
According to Ron Edwards, president of the Explorers Club of Pittsburgh (ECP), the Seneca Rocks formation is ideal for mountaineering because of its highly exposed nature. Where most cliffs in West Virginia are part of the landscape, Seneca rises triumphantly above it. “Seneca is very different, geologically, in the way it sticks out,” Edwards says. “You have that exposure to the air around you; you have that exposure to the air under you, which is often what you find in the mountains, and we’re trying to simulate that.”
Seneca’s protruding nature makes it ideal for one very important simulation factor: precipitation. While routes covered in ice and snow relegate most rock climbers to indoor gyms, Edwards and his instructors actually hope for precipitation. “Being that [Seneca] sticks up, when the precipitation comes down, it settles onto that structure, and we kind of want that,” he says. “That’s part of the mountains; they gather snow and ice, so we want to have a structure that does that.”
But an ECP mountaineering school outing simulates more than just the summit bid. Alpine climbs typically involve a long approach—the often monumental undertaking of getting to the point on the mountain where the hiking ends and the technical climbing begins. Approach lengths can range from a handful miles over a few hours to tens of miles over days. Multi-day trips require hauling everything you’ll need for your base camp and the climb. “We’re looking to simulate an outing on a mountain,” Edwards says. “It’s not just immediately climbing technical terrain as you head toward the summit; it’s all that work that happens to get you into the vicinity, from the point you get to the trailhead and begin the long hike of hauling gear and equipment until the point when you harness up and head onto the technical terrain.”
In mountaineering, it’s safest and fastest to move when everything is frozen. This leads climbers to commit to the dreaded “alpine start”—waking up at 2 a.m. to be geared up and climbing by 3 a.m. “If you’re gonna go for a summit, you’re gonna leave in the middle of the night,” Edwards says. To simulate this, the ECP crew parks at either Judy Gap or Chimney Top on North Fork Mountain and sets up a bivouac. Around midnight, they strike camp and head up the mountain—from the north or south, it’s about 12 miles to the central point on the North Fork Mountain Trail from which students navigate down the west side of the mountain to find the north peak of Seneca before descending Roy Gap Road to reach the base of the south peak.
“The hardest thing logistically is figuring out when to turn off [from the North Fork Mountain Trail] to go down to Seneca Rocks,” Edwards says. Complete with packs weighing upwards of 50 pounds, these committed students trudge on through the wee hours. “You’ve got a long hike ahead of you. The goal is to push the body and the mind and then arrive for the climb… sleep deprived as you often do in the mountains.”
Basically, the instructors are hoping for the worst: the worst weather for the approach, the worst conditions on the rock, and the most mental and physical discomfort, all to assist in compounding the joy of a moving during odd hours of the day with a heavy pack. “We always hope for really cold temperatures and for snow,” Edwards says. The ECP outing is all about purposeful suffering—aka Type II Fun. You know, the kind of torture you willingly put yourself through to come out on the other end feeling simultaneously elated and relieved that it’s over, complete with one hell of a story to tell by the comfort of a warm fire and a cold beer.
But, the sufferfest is long from over—students must now choose a route to reach the summit. Fortunately, Seneca has a good range of easy routes like Old Man’s or Old Ladies’ (both 5.2), Skyline Traverse (5.3), or even Conn’s West (5.4)—routes that are conducive to climbing in gloves and plastic boots with crampons. These routes provide the low-angle climbing, ledge systems, and number of pitches necessary to prove that mountaineering equipment can perform well on technical terrain. “It’s a soft enough entry and yet it’s intimidating enough to produce anxiety on that trip,” Edwards says.
According to Edwards, Seneca is also a great place to practice aid climbing skills. While climbers can legitimately practice aiding—placing gear and pulling on it to gain upward progress—at most crags, Edwards likes the realistic mountain setting of Seneca. “Simply by the nature of the routes in the winter, the conditions might be so hard that the leader, to safely [reach the summit], is gonna have to resort to partially aiding routes to get up there.”
Kevin Shon, an AMGA-certified climbing instructor and guide at Seneca Rocks Climbing School, heads up Seneca in the winter to practice alpine guiding techniques. “There’s a lot of 3rd and 4th class scrambling to get to the top,” Shon says. “It’s very similar to top of the Grand Teton, for example. Seneca is a great guide’s laboratory for alpine climbing.”
Currently a Single Pitch Instructor, Shon is training to take the Rock Instructor exam, which will allow him to guide clients over alpine terrain. And with 15 years of climbing under his harness, Shon knows there’s no substitute for experience in difficult scenarios. “It’s ideal for a guide to get out in bad conditions,” he says. “When we have to be responsible for client safety, it’s good to have been out in worse conditions than the ones we’re taking them out in.”
For Shon, it’s about more than just climbing routes in the snow—it’s about test driving all the systems one uses in the alpine, from rope management and gear placement to the right boots and proper layering of clothing. If you find out that something you’re doing isn’t working or needs to be changed, it’s best to figure that out before you’re on a big climb. “Seneca is a traditional climbing destination, so knowing your gear placement and anchor building is key,” he says. “Seneca really pushes an intermediate climber’s gear placement; it’s got a lot of subtleties that are easily overlooked by a beginner.”
Shon recalls an aha-moment he had during one of his early Seneca winter outings. While lead climbing the route Ecstasy (5.7) in December, he decided to remove his thin leather gloves in order to get better feeling on the hand holds. As he fuddled to get the gloves off with his teeth, strong wind gusts instantly numbed his bare hands. By the time he had replaced the gloves, both of his hands had become what he described as “numb meat paddles.” He was forced to read the features of the rock with frozen hands in leather gloves, which, for a climber, is analogous to a blind person trying to read braille with numb fingers in mittens. “Trying to take them off was worse than just leaving them on,” Shon says. “It was a harrowing experience and a great introduction to winter climbing on Seneca. It’s not messing around; it commands focus and respect.”
Focus and respect are two words that appear often in the mountaineering lexicon. While some climbers boast that they’ve conquered a mountain, most treat the process with a heavy dose of respect. We don’t conquer mountains—they allow us to experience the world through their eyes but for a moment before the harsh conditions of the alpine force us to retreat. If you’ve got the burning desire to stand on the shoulders of a giant, gear up and head to Seneca this winter for a quality Type II sufferfest.
Dylan Jones is managing editor of Highland Outdoors, and has climbed the Grand Teton in Wyoming and the Elephant’s Perch in Idaho. He plans on heading to Seneca this winter to suffer through some much-needed alpine training.