...love the crags you're with.When one is hopelessly obsessed with the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, it can be pretty depressing to spend most of the year in Virginia. There are mountains here, yes, and some very nice spots in them, but it isn't the same by any means. There is rock climbing as well, but it is not the kind of thing that makes the covers of magazines. Still, you make do instead of pining away for what you can't have.
One of the great things about Great Falls is that you can combine technical rock climbing and whitewater kayaking into one outing. With routes from 5.0 to 5.13 and rapids from Class 2 to 5+, there is something for anyone who likes some challenge and thrills on both rock and water.
About a week ago, I got an invitation to go on a climbing trip to Seneca Rocks. Although I’m no stranger to technical rock, I haven’t been on too much of it lately, it would be my first roped climbing in three years, and it would also be my first multi-pitch climbing ever. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I wanted to get out and practice a bit by soloing some of the 5.1-5.5 routes along the walls of Mather Gorge at Great Falls.
(Now, in case anyone reads into this that I’m bragging about free soloing 5.5, I’m saying now that I’m not. There are some people on SP who can probably jog up 5.5, so I’m not trying to glorify myself here. But I'm happy and comfortable sticking with around 5.4 as my soloing limit, and it's made me a better climber, too; going without a rope even on "easy" Class 5 makes me pay a lot more attention and think a lot more than I do when I'm on a rope on something harder.)
Using my kayak to access the crags let me add some extra fun and scenery to the day, and combining kayaking and cragging is becoming increasingly enjoyable to me these days.
So I ran a few rapids, chickened out on one of them, swamped once, and climbed a bunch of stuff. Plastic bags kept my shoes dry as I cruised from one crag to the next. I stopped to check out wildflowers and great blue herons, and I checked out good-looking chicks hiking the trails on the gorge’s rims. A good day. Montana and Wyoming it ain’t, but it’s still nice to have such an area so close to home. When you can’t be with the crags you love, love the crags you’re with.
First stop: O-Deck Rapids, so named because they are directly below one of the observation decks on the Virginia side of the river, just downstream from the falls themselves. It is a Class 3 rapid, and in higher water I might be okay on it with my 9-foot recreational kayak, a Dagger model that is something between a whitewater boat and a full-blown rec kayak, but in the very low conditions this day, there were some large rocks and holes exposed that I thought would give me trouble. I’d recently seen some people in whitewater boats run that section, but I wasn’t ready for that yet, not at my skill level or in those conditions or in that boat. But I scrambled around on an island that few other than kayakers and birds ever set foot on, and I enjoyed views of the rapids and falls that most others don’t get. (A couple years later, and in true whitewater boats, I did run those rapids, many times, and they were a blast.)
Then I moved on, going downstream on the Class 3 rapids just before the fish ladder, past the fish ladder, and through S-Turn (Class 2-4, Class 2 this time).
Next it was over the pitifully reduced Rocky Island waves, Class 3 at higher levels but in these conditions all but gone, to Dihedrals, one of the most popular crags at Great Falls because of the quality routes and quick, easy access.
There, I threw on shoes and climbed Jay’s Discovery (5.1), Beginner’s Chimney (5.1), a harder variation of Beginner’s Chimney (more like 5.2 or 5.3), and the upper half of 5.6 R.I.P. (the upper portion is more like 5.3 or 5.4, in my opinion). I also fooled around a bit on 5.4 Layback Dihedral and talked to some guys who were newcomers to Great Falls and getting ready to climb Pride, a fun 5.4 route up a shallow crack and dihedral.
After that, it was a short, gentle float down to Seclusion, another popular crag with a concentration of good routes. Nubbin (5.1) and Stan’s Lead (5.5) were my targets, and I was glad to find that Stan’s Lead, which I really think is a bit easier than 5.5, seemed easier than it ever had before despite my not having climbed it in over two years. In addition to that, I climbed around on the Seclusion face, where I still failed to see where the 5.7 namesake crack route is; the cracks are apparent and the route as described in a local guidebook seems easy to spot, but I apparently am somehow missing the 5.7 aspect of the cracks, for I am not someone who breezily solos 5.7.
Early in the morning, which was when I was there, Seclusion lived up to its name; not another person was there.
Just downstream from Seclusion is a nice rapid called Wet Bottom Chute, wide and with good waves and a three-foot drop. It is Class 2, I have run it a number of times in four different boats, and I recently watched with some amusement as some guy trying to impress his girlfriend in a tandem kayak swamped the boat and sent them floating down the river, so of course I got a dunking. In the middle of the chute, there is a large rock, and I managed to get stuck on it momentarily, tipping and then capsizing the boat. Thinking about irony, I held on and floated until I reached an easy place to get out, flip the boat, and drain it.
Time to start contemplating the prospect of going home and resuming domestic responsibilities. Beyond Wet Bottom Chute, the river passes several more crags, including some routes only approachable by boat or rappel, before reaching a ramp often used by SAR groups putting in to practice. That’s where my river trip ended this day; I got out, set the kayak on the little cart stashed behind the seat, and wheeled it back about a mile to the parking lot.
And after stowing the kayak in my car, I went to the observation deck and stood there like a typical tourist, watching a real kayaker run the falls themselves.
That’s a Class 5 I won’t be soloing anytime soon.