For me, Seneca will always be a melancholy place.
However, the memories begin with a slideshow and the image of a dramatic spire piercing the sky. “The Gendarme” answered those wise elders who volunteered their images to enthrall the newcomers. Many months passed, though, more than a year actually, before we finally traveled the thousand miles to the fabled cliffs, leaving early yet not arriving to the banks of the Potomic till long after dark.
Photo Tim Howard
My toes were finally feeling better, only sore at the chilliest of times. Our winter ascent of Mount Washington had been an adventure in itself, with bitter winds, subzero cold. So much had gone wrong on that trip, the broken stove and gaiters, snowshoes that wouldn’t work; the thirst and fatigue. We’d escaped into the Great Gulf, the same place that Hugh Herr had lost both feet then returned to the trailhead the following morning. I remember laughing about the frost on my knuckle until I removed the boots and my toes felt like wood. By now though, the purple and black had sloughed off, replaced by new, healthy skin.
It was Spring Break, a thousand miles south in the land of warmth, yet when we awoke the sky was leaden and grey, temperature barely above freezing. The Gendarme was there, of course, and it wasn’t long until we were celebrating, jubilantly on its summit. There was still time remaining, though, so we ascended “Soler” nearby until the gradient became too daunting and an easier escape presented itself to the left.
Each day for a week we woke up and picked a route or two, and I remember some phenomenal efforts: Simple J. Malarky, Ecstasy, so many others, but each climbed beneath an ashen sky with light rain and snow often swirling past. At night, I’d lie away, listening to the gentle rush of the river, wondering of the morrow or what ever happened to the pretty redhead mentioned in the guidebook. Finally, it was my day to pick a climb, and the most aesthetic line that seemed reasonable was Prune, a 5.6. Of course it was steep and would be daunting in my Nike running shoes. There was a spot on the second, maybe third pitch where I placed something to secure the rope but then everything seemed out of balance and I was teetering then falling through the sky on my first lead fall. The rope and gear did their job, though and soon the pitch was dispatched. Later, just short of the summit there was a choice, either a simple finish to the right or a more direct and challenging line.
Tim on Soler, Dan Kaveny belaying.
This was before any of us had friends or camming gear and I remember slinging a small tree then running the rope out to a wide crack far above that would have been so perfect for more modern gear. Yet here I fumbled awkwardly with the giant hex trying over and over to stuff it securely in the crack but each time having it skitter out with my arms just a little bit more tired. There was a thirty, maybe forty foot fall to the ledge and nothing to stop me, since I’d long passed the usefulness of the tree. My arms were too tired to descend so I decided to press on in desperation, and fortunately reached easier ground above. The nervous laughter, the adrenaline rush swept past yet there was another qualm as well. What if I’d fallen? What would have happened if my arms had failed and I’d plunged to the ledge below?
Inexplicably, the day before our departure finally dawned clear with the warmest of light. Finally, sun dappling through the trees, streaking gently across the crags above. The spectacular second pitch of Soler still awaited, so we ate quickly to savor the pitch that had dissuaded us on that first day.
This time, there were finally others on the cliffs, somehow having emerged with the arrival of the sun. Two climbers chattered away on Frosted Flake, their friends attempting a difficult line to the right. We looked with awe, maybe envy at the 5.11 rating for their route, and ever so briefly I raised my camera but hesitated and the moment passed as Tim asked for the belay.
I wasn’t looking in their direction, didn’t even notice the fall until the sound of his body jolted the morning’s savor. It had only been forty feet, then another fifteen or so after the initial strike to where he came to rest beside a tree. He didn’t look badly hurt, the face, his limbs, and arms were all still intact; there was only that slight smear of blood on the back of his skull.
Of the rest of the trip, I can’t say much; running down for help, lowering the litter repetitively down the steep slopes to the river below as little bits of blood spilled this way and that then watching a hastily summoned helicopter carry him away. That’s what I remember; then staring obliquely up at the sun drenched cliffs wondering how others could still be climbing. After the thousand mile drive, I called home and my parents asked what was wrong but my thoughts couldn’t progress beyond the blood washing out of my sweater, then swirling in lazy patterns down the sink
I returned the following winter to the gale swept slopes of Mt. Washington to climb the famed gullies of Huntington’s Ravine. Damnation Gully was immaculate, Pinnacle spectacular, yet my memories of the trip are mostly of lying awake at night as the winds howled above. They’re of visions of avalanches sweeping upon me from the heights, and the memory of blood on my sweater far away in the safety of my dorm.
Huntington Ravine, Mt. Washington
I had to go back to Seneca; get back on the horse as the expression goes but when we arrived after so many hours of driving the camping was rearranged, swept away by unprecedented floods. The weather that year was magnificent and climbing wonderful but as I said the place will always seem melancholy. Once, a well meaning local cautioned us to be careful as someone had been killed there only a year before and I fled away into private reflection. Dan and I climbed Soler, and with my new rockclimbing shoes I led the phenomenal second pitch to the very summit of the South Peak. We returned to the Gendarme, climbing its overhanging side as well as the easier, yet this time I didn’t feel the elation. It fell, of course, barely a year later with no one astride. That’s surprising, though, I can’t know why it didn’t let go when I was clinging to its overhang.
It’s been half a lifetime now, but the memory of this stranger whose path crossed my own for only the briefest of moments still returns sometimes, maybe cautioning me, I’m not sure. What was the difference between us, we’d both made mistakes: he unclipping from a hanging belay, me continuing well past my final piece then nearly falling. But I’d had luck, or a few stubborn fibers of actin and myosin in my muscles that refused to let go. I never learned his name, somehow I’d rather not know. But, for those who do remember him as a friend or family member, I can say that his influence upon me has been profound, and know that he still lives in my memory, climbing the vertical pitch of the Changeling now so long ago and far away.