Though Satto was not a climber, he easily could have been. He had the talent of multiple people all stuffed into a single individual. It has been three years since we spent quality time playing music and hanging out together, as I graduated high school a few years ahead of him. But even when I was a senior and he a sophomore, anyone could easily see what kind of off-the-charts talent Satto possessed. He was a talented cellist, versed in classical and jazz music (he was selected to play in a recent concert at Carnegie Hall); he was a science wiz, seeing as he did research in labs while he was still in high school; he was a student athlete on the lacrosse team. All of these things sit on top of the fact that he was one of the most gentle, humble people I ever knew: always quick to give anyone a friendly greeting. He was also the sleepiest; his brilliance led him to work himself until exhaustion, oftentimes to the point at which he would nearly keel over and off his chair in the middle of orchestra rehearsals. Ultimately, what I want to say here is that, with all of this talent he possessed, he could have easily woken up one morning and decided to learn to climb. Chances are, he would have the core stuff done in a few weeks. No joke.
So even though we fell out of touch recently, it did not diminish the impact of Satto’s far premature death; he was found dead in his dorm room at MIT in late October. I could not (and still cannot) fathom why he decided to give up all that he had in this world, and I knew I could not focus in the urban jungle of DC. I was also aware that, unfortunately, I could not get back to New England for his memorial service. Therefore. I resolved I would make a tribute to him the best I could: climbing a little higher—a little closer to that place where he is watching over all of his family and friends. Satto, I write for you, my friend.
Weather Woes and Getting to Seneca
I normally go to school in Upstate New York, which at this time of year is quickly transforming into a frozen wasteland that will not thaw until sometime in early May. When I decided to study in DC for a semester, I thought, “Well, now that I’m technically in the South, maybe the climbing weather will stick around for an extra month or so.” Much to my chagrin—and I am sure many other people up and down the East Coast—“Snowtober” arrived and dumped snow from Virginia all the way up to New Hampshire and Maine. My family in Massachusetts called and told me some parts of the state were slated to get up to a foot of wet, heavy snow. I am very much into the alpine climbing atmosphere, but there is certainly a fine line between a long day trip for great challenges and a long day trip that ends with suffering, unhappiness, cold, and misery.
My climbing partner, Carlene, and I were really anxious to go climbing all week, but we both started waffling once we saw the weather reports. We knew that Seneca was further inland and would therefore see more snow than the coast-adjacent DC. For a while, we thought about the idea of just gym climbing, and Carlene was the first to cave to the idea. She called Seneca Rocks Climbing School to check conditions. One of the guides said the East Face of the South Peak would be preferable, though we were throwing around ideas of some of the classic West Face routes like Green Wall, Tomato, and Pleasant Overhangs.
After communication back and forth all of Saturday afternoon and evening, Carlene stepped up and changed her mind: “You know what?” She said, “Let’s do it. I’ll pick you up around 6 tomorrow morning.” Stunned, I scrambled to finish my Chinese homework and go to sleep. The next morning, having only gotten about 4.5 hours of sleep after finishing my Chinese homework, I defied my “5 am brain” that demanded I go back to sleep. I grabbed all of my gear, hopped into Carlene’s car and hit the road.
Going through West Virginia did not buoy our spirits: a thick layer of snow was on the ground, heavy fog blanketed the valleys around and within the Allegheny Mountains, and the ridgelines were blasted with snow, frozen into points on the tree branches from the high winds that swept through during the previous night. At one point, the fog thickened and turned an eerie shade of blue (the photo we have of it will give you an idea, but will not do it justice, ha.).
However, upon arriving at the Seneca parking lot, the skies cleared. Though the temps were near freezing—the car thermometer read 34º when we got out of the car—conditions could not have been more picturesque: the sun’s rays streamed through the Gunsight Notch and into the valley and snow still blanketed the treetops. The wonderful contrast came even more from the fact that leaves were still on a fair portion of the trees yet snow still blanketed the ground. To top everything off, the parking lot was virtually empty; two or three cars were parked in the lot at the time, and at least one of the parties was headed for the East Face on the South Peak… more room on the West Face for us! We resolved on my leading the day by taking on Green Wall and afterwards having Carlene take on Ecstasy Jr. So we donned our packs, slogged the Stairmaster (feel those quads burn!), scrambled up some slabs, and set up at the base of Green Wall, both Carlene and I admiring the landscape that seemed straight out of a Victorian-era Christmas book.
The Fun Begins
The first pitch of Green Wall is fairly short. It runs straight up a hand crack with some decent face holds if you look hard enough. The route itself is rated 5.7, but from what I have been told, ratings at Seneca are much like the Gunks: wonderfully (and by “wonderfully,” I mean annoyingly) sandbagged; for dedicated West Coast climbers, I think it might convert to a 5.8. I started up the crack, which was slightly flared at the bottom and realized the challenge that lay ahead of me: the rock was incredibly cold.
Being on the West Face, we knew that we would not catch any of the sun’s direct rays until later in the day, and of course, there was not way I had the ability to climb Green Wall in gloves, let along even handle all of my gear without potentially dropping something when I pulled it off of my gear loops. The gloves would remain hanging from my back loop until I got to the belay station. However with every move, I felt the texture of the sandy texture of Seneca’s Tuscarora Quartzite underneath my hands less and less. Though I knew I was not getting pumped out, I soon began to fear that not being able to tell the quality of my hand placements might cost me a fall. I had protected twice farther down the pitch, but I had run out a little too much in hopes of finishing the pitch before my hands went completely numb and could not feel the rock at all. I thought that it would be a foolish thing to go out to pay homage to Satto and instead hurt myself in the process. It seemed very self-defeating. I turned my focus to my feet, and thankfully it re-inspired my confidence to push through to the first belay station.
Carlene came up the first pitch at a good pace, pausing occasionally to take a picture or two of the wonderful landscape.
We stood at the base of the second pitch staring up into the most sustained section of the climb. The second pitch consists of a very steep dihedral that has three bulges, the second of which is the true crux bulge of the second pitch. I feared the cold in my hands again. Even though I had my hands in my gloves for the better part of 20-25 minutes, I thought they would chill rapidly. Thankfully, I underestimated the combined power of the adrenaline of being on lead along with the increased temperatures of the mid-day sun. The second pitch will eat up your active pro if you elect to protect via the gaping crack right in the corner.
If you look around along the right side of the dihedral, there are a few smaller cracks and features that can accept passive pro, though these cracks will narrow out and reappear throughout the pitch. Sustained climbing brought me to a ledge full of shattered rock. Seeing no good belay station that did not involve an awkwardly placed tree or one of a myriad of chockstones/potential missiles down the cliff, I elected to climb one ledge further up, where I found possibly one of the most bomber nut placements I have ever placed… ever. Carlene continued to cruise through the pitches, even when she was carrying a second rope for our rappel (in order that we would avoid doing three rappels with my rope) as well as her small technical pack, which we (un)affectionately named “the pig.”
She did not seem to sweat it very much though, as she pulled through the crux and arrived at the belay station. A short scramble pitch led us onto the South Summit, which at that point of the day, was basking in late fall sun. Following the signing summit register, I stood atop the South Peak looking at the mountain falling away on both sides of me and up at the sky towards the place to which I hoped Satto had gone. I realized that October 30 was also his birthday. He would have been 19. I thought (and thought about it more intensely once I got to the base of the climb), this was a quirky birthday present, but I wanted to do something for him. I dedicated the climb to him.
Following the rappels down the mountain (and some epically sized slipknots in the rappel ropes), Carlene launched into her lead. Ecstasy Jr. is also another one of those classic Seneca climbs that is ”wonderfully sandbagged.”
We soloed through the first pitch, a slabby and somewhat dirty pitch up to the first station. Though it is 5.4 on the Seneca scale, it is most likely a 5.5, even a 5.5+ in these circumstances since Carlene lead the crux (second pitch) in complete darkness, only illuminating the point in front of her with her headlamp. This route also involves a roof. Even though it is not a big roof, I cannot really see how there could be such thing as a “5.4 roof move.” Carlene made it a spectacular climb. We descended back to the parking lot by 9:30pm. During most of the duration of the second climb, we were the only team left climbing on Seneca; two lone headlamps bobbing in the darkness, both visible from town. We both popped open an Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout while sorting gear, enjoying the peacefulness of the night, I feeling happy that I did a little something for an old friend.
Concluding Thoughts and Musings
On a topical level, it may seem odd to alpine climb in the name of a guy who never really participated in the sport much. However, like I said before, if someone gave Satto the idea to climb, he would most likely do it. More importantly, he would take genuine interest in it whether he was doing it himself or listening to someone tell him how fun it is. He had such a great quality of character. I just wanted to do something for a friend who had been nothing but kind to me in the time we knew each other. Even when we fell out of touch, I still feel that our friendship was something that I would always keep around with me, and I know he touched so many other of his peers in the same way, too.
Peace, Satto. Happy (belated) Birthday. May you find in the next world what you could not find here.
"On a topical level, it may seem odd to alpine climb in the name of a guy who never really participated in the sport much"
As a matter of fact I find it odd for anyone to climb in the name of someone else (be it a close who's dead or for the children of Africa). I only climb purely for my own fun, if/when I feel like climbing, so I simply can't get how people can climb for anything else (unless pro climber). But reading this kind of TRs broaden my perspectives!