Skip to Content

Rock Climbing : Articles : General : Psychotic Reaction

Psychotic Reaction

Submitted by valenzuela on 2004-07-26

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Vote: 1 | Comments: 0 | Views: 6336

A Christmas holiday ski vacation at Canaan Valley in 1987 was the pivotal event that changed the course of my life and led me to climb Champe’ Rocks in Pendleton County West Virginia in the fall of 1993. On the return trip home with my wife and son, we stopped in Seneca to enjoy the view of the rock that runs like the spine of a prehistoric beast. I spied a small non-descript building behind Harper’s Store that advertised rock-climbing instruction. All my life I had been under the assumption that the sport was reserved for correspondents of National Geographic or elite mountaineering clubs in London and New York, but finding out that lessons were being offered to anyone who signed up for them, opened up a new and exciting world for me.

The following summer I talked it up with two of my friends, Nick Kern and Dave Warren. They responded enthusiastically like two drunks being offered a free drink at happy hour. I set up a 3-day class with the Gendarme Rock Climbing School for beginner training.

Our instructors, Tom Cecil and Tony Barnes, gave us a fervent welcome, outfitted us with gear, and marched us to “Luncheon Ledge” on the imposing Tuskarora Sandstone of Seneca Rocks. I have always had a fear of heights. My demonstration of sewing machine legs prompted one of their assistants to mutter that I would never climb. After learning rope handling, rappelling, securing a fallen leader, and climbing safety, we were taken on a full day tour of the rock by Tom Cecil. He worked us up routes, challenging our budding abilities and knowledge. I came away from the experience with a burning desire to pursue the sport. (Thanks Tom!) Rock climbing develops and increases your ability to solve complex problems while under stress, especially handy in the world of capitalism.

On different occasions I hired Tony and Tom to do private guiding for me, and I coerced family and friends to climb. I started running on a daily basis. I studied John Long’s books and the Mountaineering Guide. I read every issue of Climbing and Rock & Ice that I could get my hands on. My efforts were rewarded by an increasing ability to climb to more advanced levels. I successfully led a 5.7 climb and wanted to push the envelope.

I called Dave Warren and we talked up the idea of getting Tom Cecil to stretch us out. Tom was game. Tom had recently started his own company, Seneca Rock Mountain Guides ( ). His guiding and instruction season at Seneca was winding down and the fall winds were getting colder. His migration signs were in full color. Tom usually winters in warmer climes like Thailand or Nevada. He did not pull any punches as he was quick to recommend “Psychotic Reaction” a 450’ 5.9 route that follows a prominent crack up the western face of “Champe’ Rocks”. It is the longest sustained vertical climb in West Virginia.

Dave and I eagerly motored to Riverton West Virginia like two tuna’s chasing cut bait. We arrived at Tom’s apartment in Riverton,West Virginia late on a Friday evening and had a few beers while Tom sorted gear and we told our latest jokes. Our plan was for an early start. At seven AM Saturday morning we were ready to roll. We stopped for breakfast at the 4U Restaurant, made a quick stop at Tom’s equipment room, and headed up WV28 to a break in the fence where we could park our vehicles. We crossed an open cow field (access is closed now). There were dark green cannabis plants dripping with heavy dew dotting the field and the smell of cannabis resin mixed with the aroma of fresh cow dung permeated the morning air. It hit the senses like a stroll through Amsterdam. The cannabis was raised in West Virginia during World War II for the manufacture of hemp rope. It now grows wild in the fields where it was previously cultivated.

The rock loomed above us still warm from the summer heat. Occasionally a warm breeze would caress my face in sharp contrast to the crisp morning air. The foliage was a week past prime time, but still brandishing vivid color. We located the base of the route.

Tom, a deliberate, methodical, disciplined guide, geared up and gave us a briefing of what to expect. I carefully avoided disclosing that my hands were trembling with excitement and fear of the imagined difficulties ahead. I offered Dave a shot of liquid B12 and then gave myself a healthy dose under the tongue (for more physical power and mental acuity, you know). With an exclamation of “Climbing!” Tom moved upward in a poetically smooth series of moves. Dave’s belay seemed short and sweet as Tom ripped off the crux and set up his belay on a prominent ledge at the base of a huge bucket.

The start of this climb, once you’re off of the ground about 4 or 5 feet, requires a long stretch or leap for the shorter folks. The rock had fallen away leaving a small overhang. Dave made four attempts at this early difficulty. His exasperation caused him to request a release to ground where he studied the wall. His forearms were bulging with blood from the exertion. On the fifth go, with some well-executed moves, he made the grab and mounted the face. He climbed the crack through the crux and powered on to Tom’s belay.

Having seen those guys make the necessary maneuvers up the first pitch, I thought for sure my problems would be minimal but I also struggled with the start. Once you’re over the initial difficulties, the route follows a nice crack that I used for left foot and hand jams. The quartzite on the face has enough irregularities for edging and crimp holds. I was getting into the groove. Each move felt better than the last. My mind was effortlessly in sync with the wall. I made a series of hand and finger jams up to a large flake that overrides the crack. The flake is two feet thick and leaves a six to twelve inch gap that wants to suck you in. Tom cautioned against this and advised a lie-back move while smearing some difficult to find bumps and crystals.

The flat light of the morning made it all the more difficult. This is the crux of the climb. A fresh surge of adrenalin powered me ahead of my intelligence. I yelled falling, released my grip, and lost all I had gained on the flake. Damn!! The self-doubt started creeping in. Tom was quick to realize my potential head problem and gave me some encouraging words. Dave challenged me with “Pussy”. I shook off the setback, ignored Dave and re-did the lie-back while searching for better foot placement. Halfway up the flake, a rounded ledge allowed for a false rest and made exiting the flake a real strainer.

The belay was crowded. Tom had Dave set up for his belay and Tom was quick to exit the ledge. He climbed up the left side out onto the wall. Tom commented that the handholds get quite numerous once above the bucket. He vanished from sight and only the steady threading of rope up the wall confirmed his presence. My fear had vanished; the exposure had no effect due to my continual weekend climbing at Seneca. Dave had only been climbing sporadically, and I could sense his nervousness. We sat in silence while he fed rope through a belay eight. The colorful fall view from our perch was invigorating. Tom’s “Off belay!” broke the silence and brought us back to reality.

Dave climbed out onto the exposed face and reassured me that the holds were numerous. He disappeared into the void above my field of vision. I shivered in the morning air as the sweat cooled my arms and legs. A fist sized chunk of rock shot from above followed by a whooshing sound and the miraculous reappearance of Dave. His eyes were closed and his arms were crossed over his chest. “ Dave,” I exclaimed, “we’re rock climbing not bungee jumping, or strength testing the equipment!” He opened his eyes and the look of relief was written all over his face. I reached out and pulled him onto the ledge. Shaken, but not stirred, and with few words, he re-climbed the pitch up to Tom. This little eye-popper released a fresh pint of adrenaline into my bloodstream. I was a tad excited by what lay ahead. Dave’s aerobatics had me thinking that these guys were just minimizing the difficulties.

When I moved out onto the wall I calmed down. The rock provided, as Tom had promised, good pockets and knobs from weathering. It was an easy run up the pitch to his belay. The second belay point is quite spacious with room to sit and relax. The crack forms a nice keyhole on this belay, and you can see through the fin of stone. The opening framed the reds, yellows, and oranges of the mountain beyond.

If Tom was regretting any discount he might have given us, he did not show it. Dave had run up the pitch creating some rope slack. A knob that he used for a right foothold just above the bucket broke away. The fall had definitely shortened the life of that rope. Tom’s Grigri had arrested Dave’s fall nicely. We enjoyed the view and Dave and I entertained ourselves with a full recount of Dave’s airborne adventure one hundred sixty feet off of the deck. We snacked on some Power Bars and basked in the rays of the October sun.

Tom climbed the last pitch, set up his belay and greeted each of us with a triumphal smile as we rounded the summit. He added a sling to the colorful mass draping from two chrome-moly eyes and removed some of the deteriorated ones. We lingered before our decent and Tom tempted us with climbing at “Red Rocks” in Nevada that winter.

Tom’s in Thailand this winter putting up routes between guiding forays. Dave’s retired the climbing sport. I’m out of shape and contemplating the purchase of some ice climbing gear at Ebay. Maybe I can resurrect some interest in my aging buddies with a different medium.


Twitter  Facebook  StumbleUpon  Delicious  Digg  Reddit  Technorati

Add a Comment