Many species sync certain behaviors with the full moon. From urinating badgers and mating corals to glowing scorpions and the wild behaviors of our own pets, the full moon can cause things to get a bit… whacky. Throughout history, humans have also congregated in bizarre parties of various natures to take advantage of the mega nightlight in the sky. We recently discovered such a place, tucked away in a craggy canyon in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands. For three nights during every full moon, the energetic guides of NROCKS help adventures with a starry-eyed dose of lunacy traverse the massive rock fins of Nelson Rocks along the legendary NROCKS Via Ferrata.
The Iron Way
Italian for “the iron way,” a via ferrata is a series of cables and iron rungs—like giant staples—permanently fixed to mountainous terrain. The “via” was originally developed in the Dolomites during World War I as a means to quickly and safely transport Italian troops over rugged, rocky, and dead-vertical terrain. With a rifle in one hand and a cable clipped to their harness in the other, the troops traversed their way from one iron rung to the next, all while dodging bullets and doing their best not to become unclipped.
While the above image sounds horrific, the via ferrata became a source of recreation following the war as people found the rungs allowed them access to 5th class terrain without technical mountaineering skills. Via ferratas have since popped up in various mountain ranges throughout the world, and remain major attractions for vertical thrill seekers. Covering the crags of Nelson Rocks and set against the backdrop of the Allegheny Front, the NROCKS Via Ferrata is widely considered one of the best in the United States.
Located 11 miles south of Seneca Rocks and resting in the shadow of Spruce Knob, Nelson Rocks is a lesser-known but equally awe-inspiring rock feature composed of the same legendary Tuscarora quartzite as its bigger brother. The main difference between the two monoliths is in Nelson’s double fins. Imagine taking the single fin of Seneca and slicing it in half along its length. Now, take those two slices, place them 200 feet apart, and span them with a swinging suspension bridge 150 feet above the ground. Welcome to Nelson Rocks, home to what is likely the most unique canyon in all of West Virginia.
According to Garrett Heydt, NROCKS field operations supervisor and six-year Via Ferrata Guide, the NROCKS Via Ferrata was constructed from 2000 to 2003 by local climbing guides in the area. Although the inclusion of “ferrata” in the name harkens back to the days of iron, modern day via ferratas are constructed with stainless steel rungs and cables, rock climbing bolts, and expertly engineered suspension bridges.
“We’ve taken the concept of the original via and turned it into something totally recreational,” says Heydt. “Even for the beginner climber, or someone who’d never go rock climbing, the style of climbing gives them a chance to do so.”
NROCKS Via Ferrata
The NROCKS Via Ferrata is a true adventure trek, covering 1,085 vertical feet, a mile of steel cable, and a 200-foot long suspension bridge over the dual fins of Nelson Rocks. NROCKS does three full moon tours on the Via Ferrata to maximize each lunar cycle—the proceeding night, the night of the full moon, and the following night.
Originally a rock climbing guide for Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides, Heydt has a wealth of experience in vertical terrain. He still enjoys every trip on the NROCKS Via, and gets a kick out of watching experienced rock climbers feel surprisingly tested on the course. He’s guided up to three via ferrata trips every month. “We never close the via,” he says. “If you’re into mountaineering or fall weather, you can come do it. I think the ideal season is October with the leaves changing.”
Regular rock climbing takes a relatively high level of physical skill and technical knowledge, and is done using a climbing harness, rope, and a rack of various protection pieces that the climber attaches and removes from the rock wall. Climbing on the via is much more accessible and far less gear-intensive. Climbers on the NROCKS Via Ferrata use a heavy-duty harness with safety system attached to the belay loop and helmet, both provided by NROCKS. The safety system is a double-lanyard with auto-locking carabiners and a single auto-locking carabiner closer to the harness for hands-free resting and seemingly endless photo ops.
Rock climbers also use tight, uncomfortable climbing shoes required for edging and smearing the sticky rubber on miniscule rock features. On the via, all you need are regular closed-toe shoes—an athletic shoe or boot with a stiff sole and grippy rubber is recommended for comfort on iron rungs and traction on rock ledges.
While it doesn’t require the level of fitness that rock climbing does, Heydt is quick to point out that the via isn’t a cake walk. “It’s a physically demanding outdoor experience for people who love thrills and are willing to accept responsibility for their own safety,” he says. “If you can go on day hike and hike four miles, then you are physically cable of climbing the via. I think it’s laid out very well, if I had built it, I would have probably gone the same route.”
To participate on the NROCKS Via Ferrata full moon tour, climbers must have previously completed the via ferrata on a daytime trip. Having all clipped our way across the cables at one point or another, the Highland Outdoors staff had to experience the full moon tour for ourselves. The following is an account of our full moon tour, guided by Heydt and another guide known as Stokey Bear, on a cool and clear July night.
The West Fin
We begin on the west face of the west fin, ascending slowly as our party becomes familiar with the double carabiner and lanyard system on the cables. Move from one end of the cable to the next, transfer one carabiner to the next cable, and then follow suit with the second one, ensuring you’re always clipped in with at least one burly safety line. Although each climber is personally responsible for their own safety, if you follow the protocol explained by NROCKS’ expert guides, you’ll never be fully unclipped from the system until you set foot on terra firma.
After a hundred feet or so, we reach a notch at the top of the west fin, awarded with our initial view of the canyon, the east fin, and the full moon peering up above North Fork Mountain to the east. The totality of the sight before us is so overwhelming that it takes us a moment to realize the gut-wrenching drop below our feet—the gently overhanging east face of the west fin disappears into an ink-black abyss below; tree tops are barely visible with a bright headlamp.
I’ve been in some exposed positions in my years of rock climbing and mountaineering, yet I found this position to be quite spooky. NROCKS encourages those with a healthy fear of heights to come test their meddle, but advises those subject to height-induced panic to reconsider the via. Upon staring down into the great nothing beneath my feet, I began to understand why.
We make some exposed moves on overhanging iron rails and reach a large ledge—the suspension bridge is up next. 200 feet long and 150 feet above the ground, the swinging suspension bridge is a heart-stopping feat of engineering. Three people are allowed on at a time due to the unavoidable swinging and bouncing while crossing. One member of our party turns on his super bright caving headlamp halfway across the bridge, and the shadows of the foot boards gliding along the rock face in the distance creates a psychedelic scene with the full moon blazing in the distance.
I clip into the safety cable above that will arrest a misstep on the bridge. The narrow foot boards are placed several feet apart; it’s as if the designers were trying to geek out even the most intrepid adventurers. Once again, I get spooked. I focus on my breathing as I gingerly place each foot precariously above the chasm below. The bridge is much longer than it appears from the start. I feel like I’ve already traveled far, but a glance up from my feet and the pitch black below reveals I’m only a third of the way across. Amidst the swinging and bouncing, I stop halfway and take in the scene around me. I stand on a single board, my hands clamped to thin cables. I’m 150 feet above darkness, 100 feet between two vertical fins soaring into the starry sky, and a million miles away from ordinary life. Overtaken by adrenaline, I howl at the moon above. Visible only by the tiny dots of their headlamps, members of our wolf pack hanging on the walls of both fins return the call.
Full Moon, Beating Heart
I make it across, heart pumping, and return to the perceived safety of the rock face. Now on the west face of the east fin, it’s incredible to turn around and see the illuminated east face of the west fin. We stop and jokingly posit that because moonlight is reflected light from the sun, we’re basically getting a nocturnal suntan via an epic game of cosmic photon pinball.
We jam our minds back inside our heads and instantly go from macro to micro as a scream and flash of a headlamp point out a gigantic wolf spider carrying an egg sack right next to one of the rungs. Struck by the magical energy of a full moon, it’s easy to forget that other creatures call these craggy cracks home.
We traverse around a rock spire called T-Rex, now bathing in full moonlight on the east face of the east fin. A few more moves and our group is fully gathered below what Garrett identifies as the headwall—a purely vertical, 100-foot climb to the true summit of the east fin. Optional to all travelers on the Via, the headwall requires a general level of fitness and a healthy ability to handle serious exposure. For those who think the climber’s summit on the South Peak of Seneca is exposed, I suggest you come straddle the spire on the top of the headwall.
I climb smoothly with confidence, pull over the top, and instantly send my stomach into my throat. We’re now over 300 feet above the ground on either side of the fin, and the suspension bridge, now looking like a miniature model, shows us how far we’ve come. One member of our party, an adventurous retiree named Donna, busts out a shrimp cocktail from her daypack. Trying to balance the general anxiety of being perched upon the tiny point of a giant rock fin with the general appreciation of our view, we toast to our position with saucy shrimp and crack jokes to promote some calm.
For those not used to exposure, the downclimb from the summit can be trying. We shout words of encouragement while our guides coach each climber down. I swing my legs around, hang my body over the edge, and begin the steep descent. I’m pleasantly surprised by the general physicality of the descent, my left arm throbbing as I hang from each successive rung and transfer my lanyards with my right.
After the headwall, we traverse to the north along the east face of the east fin for quite some time on easy terrain. My girlfriend turns back to me giggling, and says, “I feel like I’m walking a dog, except I’m walking myself.”
The more we move north, the closer we come to greeting the steeply rising mountainside below. Given the extreme exposure we experienced on the headwall, the safety of the approaching ground is comforting. A few vertical clips up and over the top take us back to the west face of the east fin, and, more importantly, to terra firma. I unclip both of my lanyards for the first time in nearly five hours, and sit on the earth with a sigh of relief.
As an avid rock climber, I’m used to (and still frightened by) hanging precariously from my fingertips several feet above my last protection point, tied to a single nylon rope, my arms pumped and exhausted, and my mental state just as shaky. I figured the Via would be a casual walk in the park—I couldn’t have been further from the truth. Although the well-placed rungs provide plenty of solid handholds, those with a cliff scaling acumen can find just enough natural hand holds to make the Via more of a rock climb than a strictly steel adventure. From the outset, I made it a personal challenge to use only the rock for my hands, but was stymied in several places where the holds were simply too small for my strength—fortunately, there was always a “thank God” rung just within reach when my fingers gave out. Even with my relative fitness level, my arms became quite tired on certain portions, specifically the downclimb from the headwall.
The NROCKS Via Ferrata is a serious undertaking and a one-of-a-kind adventure. The full moon tour is even more unique, unlike anything else you can experience in the Mountain State. It was exhausting, frightening, and absolutely exhilarating. And you should do it immediately. Sync your adventure cycle to the lunar cycle, watch the weather, and prepare yourself for the climb of a lifetime.
By the Numbers:
- Rock fins traversed: 2
- Elevation gain: 1,085 feet
- Number of steel rungs: 179
- Length of steel cables: 1 mile
- Bridge: 150 feet high, 200 feet long
- Number of steps on bridge: 138
- Max height above ground: 300 feet
- Time to complete: 3.5 – 5 hours
- Trips in 2016: 477
- Youngest person to complete: 13
- Oldest person to complete: 82
What to Bring:
NROCKS supplies the harness, safety gear, and helmet. Climbers should bring a small daypack with several liters of water, snacks, and layers (warm mid-layer and rain shell; hat and gloves for cold days). Sunglasses and sunscreen are recommended for daytime trips; bring a headlamp for full moon tours. Plenty of resting spots and rock ledges are great for photo ops. Be sure to bring your camera or GoPro—any photo equipment needs to be able to be attached to your body or backpack.