I remember the first time I climbed at Seneca; Thanksgiving break 1992. Three of us skipped out from Thanksgiving family duties and drove 2 hours north from Charlottesville Virginia. Paul, Dave and myself. Paul and I had gone to the same high school and had been climbing together for a couple years. Dave was new to us.
We had met Dave only a month or so prior in the New River Gorge field. Before the New River became known to the climbing world and before the Feds moved in and forced us to camp in private campgrounds, climbers used to camp out in a field down in the bottom of the gorge. It was cold, the sun disappeared early and climbers gathered around campfires to talk shit. Sometime rednecks drove though drunk and belligerent and there were stories of fisticuffs in the early morning hours. Those stories always included a drunk fat redneck and some wiry sport climber who proceeded to beat the shit out of Joe Redneck- whether those stories were real or imagined around a campfire I’ll never know.
The night we met Dave was a typical early fall night; groups gathered around a fire, other groups cowering secretly behind vans with coveted stash. Dave wandered up and without a word, helped himself to our stash.
Dave pretty much instantly became a fixture in our group and when Thanksgiving break came he proposed we all meet at Seneca for a day. By then I had been climbing for two years but had yet to climb any multi-pitch. And so when Dave proposed that he would lead Paul and I up Seneca we jumped on the chance.
We reached Seneca in the early morning hours and made a quick stop at the climbing shop – The Gendarme. The shop, still in operation, is named after a famous rock pinnacle at Seneca that collapsed in the early morning hours of October 22nd, 1987. We stopped by because Dave had a specific climb in mind which featured a nasty off-width. And this was back before most climbers had #4 camalots and other wide gear.
Dave, wiry, shifty and skinny, walked into the shop and announced, “We’re going to climb Solar” and the shop owner solemnly and ceremoniously handed us a piece of pipe with a hole drilled through the center and a piece of cord tied through it.
And then we were off. Across the headwaters of the Potomac which is so small in the mountains of West Virginia, and up through the woods to a sketch – don’t dare fall – 4th class scramble to the roadworthy sized Broadway Ledge to the base of a giant wide crack: Solar. Two pitches. 5.7. Or should I say, Seneca 5.7, which one quickly learns is a respected grade.
We roped up and Dave led off. 50 feet of 5.7 rock with decent gear to 100+ feet of wide arm and knee bars. The pipe clanged against the rock as Dave ascended. A clang that over the years we learned to recognize as the sound of Solar. These days you no longer hear the clang and people talk about carrying a #4 and a #5. The clang and the magic of carrying or watching someone carry the pipe up the first pitch and the shout of thrill when the pipe eased into the crack and the climb felt safe for a brief instant was a moment that instilled a sense of adventure and pushed me onto a path that I followed for many years.
We followed and I ceremoniously removed the pipe and we regrouped on a small ledge 150′ above Broadway Ledge. Paul lead the second pitch. Wildly overhanging with huge holds. The gear is good but it keeps getting steeper and steeper until your body hangs way out over from where you started and suddenly you’re pulling over a lip and onto a ledge and 2 steps puts you on the top of Seneca with nowhere to go but down.
The three of us sat around on the summit looking in all directions elated and giddy. Then unroping and a careful downclimb to the rap anchors, where we safely descended. But our high lingered for days and weeks. And because we kept climbing the high lasted for months that turned into years. We were just kids and while we certainly didn’t find anything on Seneca that day beyond temporal satisfaction, we all discovered that we needed to keep searching.
Not much later Dave quit school to become a climbing bum and moved to Hueco Tanks, Paul graduated from college and moved to the mountains of Colorado and I moved to Anchorage so I too could be near the mountains. We’re all still searching. And I like to think that those choices all came from that day at Seneca and the sound of that pipe and Dave’s yell when he placed it and the sun on the summit and the shop owner’s smile when we handed the pipe back to him because he saw our smiles and he knew.