I’ve been there: forty feet above the slow waters of the Potomac on a top rope that seems a little too slack, my belayer growing torpid, even the banter among social climbers on the riverbank dying in the tropical heat. Two mosquitos settle onto my sweaty back as my fingertips slowly grease off the polished quartzite in Carderock, Maryland. In slow motion, I pitch off the rock with outstretched arms, simultaneously dreaming of cooler climbs in the higher mountains out west.
Fortunately for you and your forbearance in the summer swelter, there’s always a shady side at Seneca Rocks. These mountains aren’t very far out west—West Virginia, of course—and for four generations climbers on both sides of the eastern continental divide have fled the dog days by escaping to the Potomac Highlands for an alpine day at Seneca. Higher elevations, windy mountain weather, and shaded cliffs beckon when temperatures in the nineties, humidity, and bugs afflict the lowland crags.
Organizing a stint of breezy climbing at Seneca is not a difficult task. Highway access is better than ever—especially from the east. Once you arrive, local restaurants along with Forest Service and private campgrounds provide Maslow’s basic needs of food and shelter. If you need professional guidance, there are two long-standing climbing schools in Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides and the Seneca Rocks Climbing School.
Even with the advent of the information superhighway, roadways along the Potomac’s German Valley are lined with little more development than the family ranches and distantly spaced homesteads that have been here for over a hundred years. Aside from a few rooms at Yokum’s, motels are 30 to 45 minutes away in the surrounding towns of Petersburg, Franklin, and Canaan Valley. In the most beautiful sense, this is the land time forgot.
But this not the land geology forgot—the striking formation of Seneca Rocks rises 950 feet to an altitude of about 2,400 feet above sea level at the confluence of Seneca Creek and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Looming above Seneca to the east is the 4,000-foot ridgeline of North Fork Mountain. To the west are the locales of the Allegheny Front like the 4,100-foot plateau of Dolly Sods and the 4,863-foot West Virginia highpoint of Spruce Knob. Hence the climate: it’s cooler with ample precipitation and the mountain weather can be quite volatile.
Upon entering the quaint village of Seneca Rocks, you’ll be distracted by the huge West Face. The crag is a freestanding, blade-like structure of Tuscarora Sandstone aligned on a northeast-southwest axis. The East Face, while equally impressive, is hidden to all but those who explore on foot. Shady and cool into early afternoon in summer, the routes of the West Face are magnets for the wiser early-riser, while the shaded routes of the East Face attract the adventurous.
An East Coast alpine start of six a.m. will allow more than enough time for the steep 45-minute approach up the West Face Trail, a mid-morning break, and three or more pitches of climbing before the sun begins to crest over the summit ridge at around two in the afternoon.
During really hot weather, the discerning party must consider their energy-conserving options. By early afternoon many west side climbs and the popular Face of a Thousand Pitons and Triple-S corner becomes a blazing reflector oven.
As the day progresses, climbers can escape the worst heat with a rappel down or hike around to the smooth, pale walls of the East Face. Its northern reaches begin to fall into shade the soonest. By 3:30 p.m., the sun has finally stopped blazing on the East Face, but solar energy can emanate from the stone for an hour.
If you’re near the summit, know the forecast and check the sky to the west and north while you still have a view—the prevailing winds come from that general direction and so, too, do the exciting summer thunderstorms. It’s all too easy to go from applying sunscreen one moment to huddling, borderline hypothermic, in a gale-swept dihedral the next.
Seneca is similar to the alpine, so start early, plan well, and pace yourself. Include plenty of time to get back down safely whether you have a headlamp or not (which you should). Bring twice the water you think you’ll need and rest for a while when the sun is highest. On the very doggiest days, you can even bail to the swimming hole on the Potomac as part of your break. After all, it isn’t dark until after nine, the approach isn’t so bad, and the gear is much lighter nowadays.
Tony’s Dog Day Picks
Old Man’s Route, 5.3: Three easy breezy pitches on the upper South Peak.
Ecstasy Junior, 5.4: Starts low on the Southwest Corner and leads to upper South Peak routes in time to beat the sun.
Conn’s West Direct, 5.5: A good variation off of Old Man’s.
Critter Crack, 5.6: High on the West Face of the South Peak, a harder variation to finish Old Man’s.
Greenwall, 5.7: High on the South Peak, a wild three-pitch route to the summit.
Ecstasy, 5.7: Three pitches, short approach, links up with more shady routes up on the West Face of the South Peak if you get an early start.
Triple S, 5.8+: A classic single-pitch journey to squeeze in before the reflector oven heats up.
Marshall’s Madness, 5.9: Two or three pitches just left of Triple S.
Crack of Dawn, 5.10: Variation to complete Marshall’s Madness.
Muscle Beach, 5.11: To the right of Ecstasy, short approach, but get an early start because the South End gets sun by mid-morning.
Skyline Traverse, 5.4: Short approach and the cool, deep chimney leads to upper the climbs on the South Peak of the East Face.
Conn’s East, 5.5: Rappel from the summit to start this long and interesting route on Upper Broadway Ledge to avoid an arduous approach in hot weather.
Dirty Old Man, 5.6: The first pitch is the best, gets a bit loose at the top of the second as the name suggests.
Soler, 5.7: A wild two-pitch route straight to the summit, more technical and continuous than Conn’s East.
Lichen or Leave It, 5.8: A delicious finger crack high on the North Peak. Above the anchors is the easier but literally cooler corner of Bear’s Delight (5.5).
Streptococcus, 5.9: More tasty finger locks high on the North Peak. Drop just downhill to find Lichen or Leave It.
Castor and Pollux, 5.10: Bet you can’t climb just one! Just off Upper Broadway Ledge, these twin routes take a while to cool off on hotter days.
Spock’s Brain, 5.11: Next to the twin giants of mythology on Upper Broadway, so take some time to cool down before trying to figure this voyage out.
Mister Jones, 5.11c: A sport climb left of Soler.
The Changeling, 5.11c: A traditional thriller to the right of Soler.
Tony Barnes wrote the book—literally—on climbing at Seneca. The third edition of his original guidebook, Seneca: The Climber’s Guide, is still available for your dog-day, route-crushing pleasure.