So, after a summer of working in Washington, DC with no car and no one to climb with, I've finally had a chance to get out to Seneca Rocks, WV during the past two weekends. Last weekend was pretty low-key as far as climbing - we climbed a fairly spectacular, but very easy 5.5 on the east face of the north peak, the name of which I don't even recall, after which we headed up to Dolly Sods with a backpack full of beer to a birthday party. This Saturday, V. Kelman and I decided to get a good day's worth of climbing in, so we drove up Friday night, crashed in the campground and got a nice early start on Sat morning (it was surprisingly cold for a long time!).
Neither of us is particularly hardcore - 5.7 is about the hardest that we lead for trad climbing. So, we decided to start the day with something easy - a 5.5, and then maybe try something a bit harder, depending on how we felt - maybe two more routes, a 6 and a 7. Looking in the guidebook, my eyes turned to a route with a rather bland-sounding name: Conn's East. It looked perfect: 4 pitches of 5.5 climbing ending close to the south peak. Seemed like a beautiful, yet easy route similar to what we had done last week, but longer. Since it was still pretty cold on the west face, we decided that the sun would actually be nice so we settled on it.
The first surprise was finding the route itself. It turns out that getting to Upper Broadway Ledge isn't as easy or obvious as the guidebook makes it appear. To make a [very] long story short, just getting to the base of the route took us at least three hours, and included soloing a move that I estimated to be around 5.7 instead of the promised 4th class scramble.
Finally, we arrive at what looks to be like the base of the route - a huge left-facing flake-corner system. The guys to our left were climbing Soler, which is the next route according to the guidebook, and the confirmed that this was indeed Conn's East. I geared up to lead the first pitch. Almost from the beginning, I was taken slightly by surprise by the awkwardness of the moves - getting onto the first ledge involved some delicate balance moves which I wasn't expecting for a 5.5.
Attributing my difficulties to not enough sleep, an excessively long approach and being out of practice, I continued. Almost immediately I was presented with another challenge: something of an offwidth crack, with a chockstone blocking it. Maybe I hadn't been paying attention earlier but somehow I didn't recall many 5.5 routes having offwidths. I began to wonder whether it was possible that we were on the wrong route. The offwidth went easier after I realized that there are some good footholds on the wall to the left, but I still thought it was a 5.7 move.
Climbing out of the chimney and onto a huge flake, I now faced something that completely befuddled me. Just out of reach was a small ledge, which was obviously my next destination. How I was exactly to get there, however, was an interesting question. To my left, on the opposite side of the chimney, was a vertical to slightly overhanging fist-sized crack from which I could potentially reach the ledge. I liked the fact that it was well protected so, stemming across the chimney I got in a medium Friend as high as possible and gave it a shot. It felt doable, but certainly not 5.5 and to close to my limit for comfort - besides a fall from here would almost certainly mean hitting the flake and possible a spinal injury, which is the last thing I wanted.
Not knowing what to do, I yelled to Kelman that I think we're off route. He offerred to give it a try, so I set up a belay and brought him up. He briefly tried my approach, then became convinces that this can't be the correct way of doing and decided to try something else. We both noticed that if you step off the flake to the right, there are some small footholds. By grabbing the top of the ledge he was able to traverse over and then mantle onto it. It turned out to be a lot easier than it looked because there was a hidden jug just ahead on the ledge. A few moves later, however, it was his turn to groan. From my vantage point I didn't really see what the big deal was, but, having gotten an idea of the nature of this route I wasn't surprised. He finally got through the tough spot, slinging a small tree that some poor soul had rapped off (I can just imagine how that must've felt...).
Unsure of whether we were on the right route, we decided that he will climb to the next conventient place from which it's possible to bail, and then decide. This turned out to be a larger tree a bit higher. I came up. We decided that even if this isn't our route, which should try to continue and maybe get onto ours. So, he handed over the rack to me and I continued. It went much easier from here. I continued trending right, going up a short chimney then then right, out onto a huge flake once again. It was really easy with tons of knobs and features, but the exposure was tremendous.
Soon I spotted two-bolt anchor on a ledge. I now realized that this was indeed our route, because the anchor was exactly in the place where it was described. I climbed up to it and clipped in. At that moment another guy climbed up to the same anchor. The ledge was big enough for two parties so he clipped the same bolts (I had also clipped a nearby pin as a third point so I figured it's OK). I confirmed with that party that we were indeed on Conn's East. I didn't know whether to be happy or dissappointed - because, if what we'd just done had been a bit more than what you'd expect from a 5, then the next section looked downright scary. From the end of our belay ledge, the route went up gentle but steady overhang about 20 feet high with nothing but air below and no protection after the eyebolts on the ledge. I looked at it and was secretly quite happy that it was Kelman's lead.
"Go right from the ledge - you will reach good holds" was the advice both in the book and from the party at our ledge. Kelman didn't like that - he said it was too scary. So, he went up straight through the overhanging crack. What he didn't realize was that from there he would actually have to climb down and traverse to get to the next belay ledge. Thankfully he set a piece so that I wouldn't have a pendulum going over his crack. When it was my turn, I actually found seconding here harder and scarier than leading the first pitch (and some of that wasn't easy as I had mentioned). How Kelman - who barely climbs 5.9 on toprope -had managed to climb through here without falling was a mystery to me. The hard part over, next came the scary part - the one situation where being the second is actually worse than leading, the downhill traverse. Luckily it was pretty easy, but it scared me a bit nonetheless.
By the time I got to the belay, I, admittedly, was seriously thinking of bailing from this route. I had expected a relaxing climb and instead had gotten my ass kicked. So, as one might imagine I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of leading the next pitch, which looked scarcely better than the previous one, at least the first part. Nevertheless duty called so I went for it. Same concept at first - climb to the end of the ledge, and then up. This time, it was something similar to what I've encountered on the first pitch. The huge flake up which the route went formed a sort of off-width, with a slight overhang. Taking the OW on directly would probably make it about 5.11, so oviously one had to make use of the left wall somehow. How was fairly apparent in this case - there were a series of small footholds on the wall, which in combination with some elbow jamming could be used to get on top of the flake and into the final chimney, which would put me almost onto the summit ridge.
I stepped up onto the first small ledge, reached as high as I could and threw in a large friend behind the flake. I knew that its value was questionable in case I fell, as it was a flaring crack; besides since I had to use a long sling to avoid rope drag around the flake, I would end up hitting the ledge anyway in case I tanked. I gave it a try. It felt to shaky to follow through so I downclimbed. I tried again. By now, I felt that after my performance on toprope on that previous pitch, I shouldn't be leading anything at all. After two more attempts, with much shame I told Kelman that unless he wants to give it a try I'm for bailing. Somewhat reluctantly (on one hand he had also had enough, on the other he really wanted to finish the route), he went for it. After two attempts he went over, confirming that it was pretty scary, as imagined. Next was some comic relief as I watched him bellyflop over a chockstone in the upper chimney (though I understood that I shouldn't really be laughing...). Finally he reached what seemed like the summit ridge and set an anchor.
I was on toprope again. The flake that I had been unable to lead wasn't really as hard as it seemed; I had just been too bummed out about the previous pitch and too nervous. Pissed off at myself for pussying out, I decided to somewhat make up for it by attacking the chockstone straight on and trying to do it without bellyflopping (We'd been warned that there was no graceful way of getting over it). In the process, I ended up bellyflopping far worse than Kelman, and nearly got stuck in the chimney headfirst with my feet up in the air...it really must have been a sight worthy of America's Funniest Home Videos. For a minute, I was unable to get out simply because I was laughing hysterically. Eventually I got a hold of myself and managed to get on top of the chockstone, and out of the chimney.
It turned out that the belay wasn't actually on top of the ridge but just below it. I was very happy, because it meant I would get another chance at leading (And a spectacular pitch, too, because most of it would be right along the ridge to the south summit). By now I was REALLY angry at myself and my mood changed from nervous to determined. The crux was getting up onto the ridge. From the belay ledge at the top of the chimney, I had to make a boulder move on a slight overhang, with no protection so any fall would be right back onto the ledge. It wasn't actually that hard; and in a few moves I was on the summit ridge.
Suddenly, all the shit the route had given us was worth it. The ridge was the most spectacular location I've ever encountered in East Coast climbing. Two feet wide and dead vertical on both sides. It literally felt like being on top of a giant razor blade. I made a placement of two nuts in opposition, being happy to actually use something I've read about in Freedom of the Hills, so that Kelman wouldn't have a pendelum while getting out onto the ridge, and proceed to traverse it. I set one more piece on the ridge, then stepped over a cleft and went for a pair of rap bolts on a ledge just below the crest.
The guys who were about to rap suggested that we use our two ropes to make it a single rappel, instead of the three that it normally takes. Kelman and I welcomed the idea. When Kelman got to the belay, he said that the ridge was more scary for him than anything else. I felt only sligthly relieved...
After one of the longest vertical rappels I've ever done, we were back on Broadway Ledge. We now saw the blue-marked trail which we should have taken up to get here...feeling kind of stupid we made our way down it and onto the main trail.
Conn's East was a lesson in humility. It taught me a lot about how much a bit of exposure can add to a given rating. It's an awesome route and I would like to give climb it again, this time knowing what to expect and hopefully in better style than the first time. In retrospect, if one knows how to do all the moves and does it with a cool head it's not really that hard. Still, if I were to compare it to other traditional routes that I've led, I would give it at least a 5.7 rating. But hey, grades are probably given for a reason, so Conn's East will remain a "Seneca 5" - a great way to make beginning leaders shit their pants.
But seriously, it's a wonderful route and I encourage anyone who comes to Seneca to do it - just have the right attitude.