On Easter Sunday in 1939, Don Hubbard, Sam Moore, and Paul Bradt shook the morning snow off their sleeping bags and gathered their equipment as daylight broke behind the towering fin of Seneca Rocks. They did not stay in camp long; the weather was far too cold to lounge around. The team had a lofty goal in mind: to climb the southern portion of Seneca’s serrated gray and white ridgeline.
Seneca’s North Peak is accessible by a steep hike, but its South Peak stands isolated, protruding nearly 900 feet above the valley floor, a place where stone and sky unite. Prior to Hubbard, Moore, and Bradt’s climb, any tale of a South Peak summit was nothing but a rumor. Armed with a thick hemp rope, a few soft-iron pitons to hammer into cracks for anchoring themselves to the rock, and just three new devices called carabiners, the team set off across an old swinging bridge above the North Fork of the South Branch Potomac River. By nightfall, they would make history by completing their bold route that traversed the iconic skyline of Seneca’s South Peak.
Stone & Cloud
I started climbing at Seneca in 2007, and have nearly wrecked my truck several times looking up at its hulking form. I cannot help but become hypnotized by the juxtaposition of sharply angled stone and rounded clouds dominating the landscape, where the rushing waters of Seneca Creek join the wide bends of the Potomac. I know exactly which turn on Route 33 reveals the first view of the iconic rock formation. I always say, “There she is,” even when I’m alone. Seneca is the distillation of everything wonderful about the Monongahela National Forest—it is wild; it is adventurous; it is magnificent. And it’s ours to explore; be it through binoculars or while clinging to its sheer quartzite walls.
But only those of us who have hung from its thin edges with one hand—while the other searches desperately for a decent hold—can understand the vastly different experiences of climbing Seneca compared to staring at it from the parking lot at Yokum’s General Store.
Dave Martin knows Seneca as well as anyone and better than most. Once a climbing guide at Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides, Dave is now director of the Spruce Knob Mountain Center. He’s also been my boss since I started working at the Mountain Center in 2016. One day during our lunch break, we started talking about the generations of Seneca climbers that established progressively harder routes over the years. When the conversation turned to the Skyline Traverse, I thought how exhilarating it must have been to quest into the unknown while using such minimal and archaic equipment.
When I climb at Seneca, I have an arsenal of specialized gear and knowledge of each route that has been collectively compiled in the Seneca Rocks climbing guidebook. I read about Hubbard, Moore, and Bradt’s original Skyline Traverse route, but the description seemed somewhat ambiguous. I knew the original 1939 route started at the southern end of the South Peak and climbed a stair-stepping buttress to a large ledge. From the ledge, the team climbed north across the famous skyline to gain the summit. I had climbed some of this route before, but I was curious as to exactly how they pulled off their historic first ascent. “Oh, it’s a great route,” Dave said in between bites, “we should go climb it.”
Two weeks later, Dave and I stood at the base of Seneca’s South End, looking up at the same scene that Hubbard, Moore, and Bradt likely saw before they reconnoitered their way to the summit some 83 years ago. Bradt described their first ascent in the October 1939 edition of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) Bulletin as starting at a “place near the south end where a slab had broken off obliquely to form a sort of steep and exposed stairway.”
Seneca, however, wasn’t a new place to these early climbers. In 1935, Bradt and Florence Perry made the first documented roped descent by rappelling from the top of the easily accessible North Peak. In 1938, Bradt further pioneered a route into the Gunsight Notch from the walls of the North Peak. But the stand-alone summit of the South Peak, not accessible by hiking and guarded by sandstone walls over 300 feet tall, had not been explored by the team prior to their first ascent.
I was chalking my hands at the base of the route and could feel the familiar sensation of nervousness and excitement while looking high up into the air at where I was about to venture. The sheer scale of Seneca tends to distort things a bit. The way up often looks straightforward from the ground, but things can quickly become interesting as you climb your way through chimneys, over ledges, and up large plates of rock slowly flaking off the wall. This was certainly an ambitious and audacious position for the 1939 team to begin their ascent.
Elvis & Broadway Show
Soon after leaving the ground, my left leg was shaking out of control—a phenomenon known among climbers as “Elvis leg.” I adjusted my right hand into a vertical crack for balance while I wedged a piece of climbing gear into the rock for protection; this is happening all while hanging above the huge and heart-palpitating precipice of the South End. As I was looking straight down at all that air between my feet and the tops of tall trees, I felt that familiar, nervous lump in my throat.
Seneca is a place of dichotomies: where countless first-time climbers have fallen in love with rock climbing and where countless others have completely unraveled from the exposure, immediately swearing off the vertical life forever. I thought back to the 39ers. The cold weather was likely a factor on top of the gut-wrenching exposure when they made their ascent, and the prospect of the leader traversing this 10-foot section around the corner and then climbing into a steep, unknown gully remains an incredibly daring and respectable feat.
I was even more impressed by their tenacity. I knew they were true adventurers from the stories I’ve heard, but following in their handholds, I realized just how skilled they were in a time before the modern sport of rock climbing. My appreciation for the first ascensionists grew exponentially as I topped out on Lower Broadway Ledge, a ten-foot-wide stage on the East Face of the rocks that sometimes seems as crowded as Midtown Manhattan.
From Humphrey’s Head (the first prominent side profile-shaped spire seen on the right side of the Seneca skyline), a short scramble down and back up to the north brought us to the Cockscomb Chimney. This is where the 1939 team encountered the crux, or the hardest part, of the traverse. Bradt described this imposing feature as the “only real difficulty… the large overhanging Cockscomb halfway between the South End and the Gunsight Notch. Here I drove my first piton. Although we tested it with a lusty three-man jerk, I was glad it was needed only for moral support.”
The Cockscomb Overhang is steep, exposed, contains loose rock, and offers very little opportunity for protection in the event of a fall. To play it safe, Dave and I elected to do a variation of the original route that bypasses the chimney called the Cockscomb Pine Tree Traverse. Even with modern climbing gear—the likes of which the 39ers could only dream—I was perfectly happy to take a look at the Cockscomb Overhang and appreciate its history before safely climbing around it.
The 1939 team’s climbing techniques were vastly different from ours, largely due to the lack of modern equipment. The long, dynamic (meaning stretchy) climbing ropes of today are tied into multiple points of safety-tested harnesses. While one person leads the climb, the other belays with a specialized device and can safely and quickly arrest a fall by the leader. Conversely, the shorter hemp rope the 1939 party used had little dynamic stretch—especially since there were no harnesses.
A belayer simply wrapped the rope directly around their waist to provide what was called a hip belay. A fall with this setup could have the climber’s head quickly meeting their knees as their body violently snapped in half. These rudimentary techniques were used in outstanding early first ascents—like the Skyline Traverse—all over the world. The main safety system for old-time climbers was a simple mantra: the leader must never fall.
Climbing a route in many short pitches, or individual sections, was the norm back then, which means the time-consuming process of anchoring oneself to the rock wall at the end of a pitch had to happen more often. I use a vast array of gear while climbing to continually and safely attach the rope (and myself) to the rock.
The 39ers primarily anchored to natural mountain features like trees and chockstones naturally wedged in cracks. To use natural features for protection as they ascended, the leader had to find a stable position, untie the rope from their waist, thread the rope through or around the natural point, and then tie back in. Dropping the rope was tantamount to a death wish.
Advancements like iron pitons and metal carabiners would not become popular until after World War II when army surplus stores began carrying them, so the precious few available to climbers before the war were used sparingly—what are now relatively easy and safe ascents were extremely bold and dangerous back then.
Nowadays, we have racks with advanced gear like spring-loaded cams, wired nuts, aluminum carabiners, nylon slings, and specialized shoes with the stickiest rubber imaginable. “If those guys had the gear we had today; they’d be climbing just as hard as anyone,” Dave said after we traversed the Cockscomb and began gearing up for the final pitch to the summit.
“They definitely had the mentality,” I said between chugs of water. “That last pitch would have been exciting in clunky, hobnailed boots with the rock still completely covered with lichen.”
High in the Sky
With the Cockscomb climbed, the 39ers traversed a narrow ridge to the middle of Windy Corner, where they climbed a short, overhanging crack filled with chockstones to arrive on the Summit Ledge. From here, they cruised upward until there was nothing else above them. On the 2,197-foot summit of the South Peak, they built a small rock cairn to mark their achievement and took a picture of themselves triumphantly braced against the wind.
Bradt’s description in his PATC Bulletin write-up represents the first-known written description of the South Peak summit, providing context for anyone who had looked up at Seneca and wondered what it was like on top:
“At this peak, the rock is about six feet wide, or one should say thick, and drops substantially vertically a couple hundred feet on both the east and west sides. To the north, the rock drops more gently for a hundred feet into the Gunsight Notch.”
Dave and I ate lunch on the summit in a warm summer breeze while turkey vultures soared high above the ground yet still far below our throne. I soaked in the exposure as clouds floated over the Allegheny Front seemingly at eye level to the west. Perched high in the sky on that giant Silurian-age sandcastle, I thought about our state motto of Montani Semper Liberi, Latin for “mountaineers are always free.”
The freest I’ve ever felt are the days I’ve spent high on Seneca. The adrenaline rush of the climb faded as a rolling calm settled over me. I simply wanted to stay there in that South Summit moment forever, where time and the horizon line stretch off into the hazy blue of eternity. Seneca is a place of unrelenting balance and getting to the top is only half the adventure—one must also get down. In excellent style, the 39ers didn’t settle for going back the way they came. Bradt’s 1939 PATC Bulletin article details their continuation into the unknown:
“As the sun was getting low, we started exploring the way down into the Gunsight Notch. The two rocks which we had hoped to use as belays in roping down were not suitable; so we explored other possibilities. A climb directly from the South Peak into the Gunsight was abandoned as too doubtful for climbers who had been in the cold wind all day. Finally we climbed down part way, then Sam roped down the east side for fifty feet while I held the rope on a firm but small belay. Thus suspended, Sam was level with the notch and only about twenty feet from it; so it was an easy matter for him to run back and forth on the vertical wall until he was swinging enough to reach handholds in the notch. While this procedure was perfectly safe for anyone who knows the rope as Sam does, he said he would have felt a mite easier if it had been more like daylight at the time.”
Once in the Gunsight Notch, Bradt could follow the route to the North Peak he had scouted in 1938. But this time around, it was dark and Bradt had to use what he called the “touch system” to climb by feeling his way up a large ledge to reach the summit of the North Peak and the hiking trail. Halfway down the established trail from the top, the 39ers met a rescue party charging up the mountain to initiate a search since they had not returned before dark.
If there is ever a beat-up white truck with a lot of stickers on it in the Seneca parking lot after dark, that’s me. I am somewhat infamous for allowing myself to become benighted—watching the sunset from the South Peak never gets old. I’m also a caver and possess no qualms about rappelling in the dark. But there has been a memorable time (or three) where my headlamp was not in my pack and I had to stumble down the steep climber’s trail using Bradt’s touch system.
While the 1939 Skyline Traverse was the first officially documented climb of Seneca’s South Peak, the 39ers found an inscription carved into the summit that read “D.B. Sept. 16, 1908.” Although the 1939 team clearly wasn’t the first to stand atop the South Peak, this legendary route remains an outstanding climb. This winding multi-pitch journey was likely the longest rock climb in eastern North America at the time, and it was done in bold style up an aesthetic and athletic route.
Looking up at Seneca from the Discovery Center parking lot as we put our gear in the truck, my eyes traced the skyline and the route we had just climbed. I traced other imaginary routes over the towering face. All these routes present genuine opportunities for adventure like that experienced by Bradt, Hubbard, and Moore. I envisioned a lifetime’s worth of elevated days spent reigning atop the world. Just the thought of being in some of those exposed positions shot electricity into my toes, and I automatically started cracking my knuckles in anticipation of the next quartzite quest on Seneca.
I thanked Dave for a great day as we got in the car. “We’ll have to come back soon,” he said.
I took one more look up at the giant fin and took a deep breath. “I can’t wait.”
Kyle Mills is a writer, outdoor educator, and climbing guide. He lives at the Spruce Knob Mountain Center and is working on a book about his adventures in the North Fork Valley.