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Submitted by crag on 2003-09-20 | Last Modified on 2010-02-26

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From A Simple Climber - A Simple Word

By: Crag

I would like to try to let you in on a little secret I have come to realize in my un-illustrious 22 years of rock climbing. So if you make it through my little yawn fest you may end up saying to yourself “big freaking deal.” Fine, I don't care, or maybe I care too much. Over the years so much has built-up inside of me that now it is bursting to get out. How unfortunate for you all that I have decide to regurgitate some of it.

Ecstasy, rapture, cheers, mirth, revelry, hilarity, playfulness and so on. Since I am somewhat of an underachiever grammatically, as evidenced by previous attempts to write a story or trip report, I can not use any of the previously mentioned words to describe the inner contentment climbing brings to my life.

That being the case I will have to stick to the simple words or word in this case. In looking at my word my first thought is that the word lacks punch maybe a little too weak. It needs to be more extreme staying line with today's genre'. "No way not going to do it", can't be a conformist. Got to fight for what is left of my independence. That is what attracted me to rock climbing in the first place, because it was different, really different.

Twenty two years ago rock climbing was for nuts, people who had a death wish or something of that nature. "Hey you, what ya' been up to since high school" an old classmate asked. I would reply, "rock climbing." "Rock climbing", my classmate said. "What ya' you mean like Spiderman and $#!&." "Yea, like Spiderman and $#!&." It was lost on them and I did not care because I knew I finally had something in my life that could not compare to anyone else.

I suppose eighteen year olds are always looking to be different. Trying to find something that will get them noticed in a cool hip sort of way. Playing sports is a good way to do this. (Un)fortunately for myself I did not have the size to play football or the ability to compete for a place on the baseball team. As a youth I bounced between the fringe sports in hopes in finding a place where I could be comfortable and not feel lost. In high school tennis filled that role, but living in Western Pennsylvania amongst the steel mills, tennis did not make your old man proud. Most likely he was embarrassed. Maybe that is why he never came to any of my matches in three years, even after qualifying for the state finals in doubles during my final season.

While visiting the Air Force Recruiter I further disappointed my father by not signing on the dotted line. Mostly because I was secretly holding out to see if this obscure College in West Virginia was going to except me. Nine days before for incoming freshmen were to report to campus the acceptance letter came from this unknown college. With not more than a handful of words from both my parents I am left standing in my freshmen dorm room on the campus of Davis & Elkins College.

My knowledge of rock climbing and the secrets it holds until this point was from television ala' Jim McKay and ABC's Wild World of Sports on Saturday afternoons. In August of 1981 rock climbing was still a mystery to me but in less than sixty days I will have attempted to lead my first climb ever, a 5.5. Little did I know this holdout of mine was going to unlock the many secrets of rock climbing.

Two days after my arrival on campus I meet Mark, a fellow classmate, and I am riveted about this place he talks about. A place to go rock climbing, called Seneca Rocks. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of the Monongahela National Forest, Seneca Rocks is about as unique a formation of Tuscarora quartzite you will find anywhere. This geological formation is made of the same stone the Shawangunks of New York are. Due to strong tectonic forces millions of years ago the rock appears to be standing on end like slices of bread. About 250 feet thick at its base and a balance quivering eight foot wide on top of the South Peak. The rock climbing routes are vertical and very exposed at times but thankfully, mostly moderate.

Seneca has two distinct summits, guarded by the forty foot pinnacle that sits directly in the gunsight notch between the two peaks; the Gendarme. French for police, the locals used to call it the Chimney. This little formation had a storied past much like most of Seneca Rocks.

With not much prodding on my part Mark gives me my first taste of climbing by introducing me to buildering. This takes place on the beautiful stones walls of an abandoned three-story mansion on campus called Graceland. A week later I meet Keith, an upper classmen from a fraternity, (thinking beer) whom happens to be a climber from Maryland that was weaned on the cliffs at Carderock State Park. Fraternity fall Rush was getting ready to start and perhaps he was out on the plebe floor looking for new recruits. Checking to see who was worthy not only for the fraternity but maybe also for a climbing partner.

Worthiness, now that is a word I have found hard to come by in my life. Being away from home for the first time ever did have me lonely and scared but I was glad to be out of Beaver, Pennsylvania. (I know, funny place to be from- are we not all from Beaver.) The drinking age in West Virginia was still 18 years of age so getting beer was no problem and neither was pot. The two together had me headed out of control. Davis & Elkins College, better known as D&E or as I used to call it Drugs & Entertainment, was the perfect proving grounds for my new favorite substances.

Trying to put on my best face I got invited to a couple socials at the frat house and while in Keith's room I see this poster of a climber sans rope all encrusted in ice and barely discernible due to the spin drift. I feel myself being drawn to the poster. Right then and there I wanted to be that guy. (Doug Tompkins on Hell's Lum Crag, Cairngorms, Scotland.) With a quick glance over to the other wall of Keith's room there is another poster, the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite with the Tyrolean Traverse set up and a climber mid span on the rope. Beer who wants beer, sorority chicks…no way! I want to be these people depicted in these two posters.

Sensing my waywardness Keith decided I needed a little intervention, a confidence booster. On September 29th, 1981 he takes me bouldering to a place just outside of town. After a couple traversing sessions he showed me a small overhanging problem near the top of one of the boulders. Wearing a pair of borrowed PA's I launched into a series of moves that were ingrained in my body's mind since I was a child. I reached high with my left hand, into a vertical crack where my fingers magically locked-off, allowing me to pull with all my strength. It felt completely natural to me. I was able to get my right foot next to my right hand and in one swift motion I pulled over the lip of the small overhang. For a second I could not hear Keith's adulation's from the ground. I was over taken but this incredible feeling of joy. I do not know how else to explain it. I was somehow transformed to a different place. A place where I was meant to be, time has proven this to be true.


How simple a word; joy. At the young age of eighteen years I was over come with it. The smile that graced my face for the rest of that entire day was clearly evident. It was so recognizable.

The following weekend I was riding in a friend’s car screaming around hairpin corners to my first trip to Seneca Rocks. My partner for the day was Mike, a fellow freshman from Florida of all places, but by my deductions had all kinds of climbing experience. We set out to climb Lower Skyline Direct,(LSD), a multi- pitch 5.4 up the Skyline Buttress of the south end. Tying a Swiss-Seat around my waist and lacing up a pair of borrowed climbing shoes, EB's, I was ready to test my new belay skills. Mike did not place any gear on the entire climb so I was not sure why I was belaying but it was good experience.

By the time we reached the Summit ledge it was getting dark. Not that I would have noticed, I was too busy scrambling over every ledge I could find looking at the incredible views. With a quick lesson in rapelling we are on the ground hiking through the Hemlock Grove down through the switchbacks leading to Roy Gap Road. I am filled with this incredible feeling again - joy. Mike breaks out a pipe and the ensuing effect only heightens my feelings.

A couple days later I notice a sign-up sheet in the cafeteria for a non-accredited class in rock climbing being taught three times a week for four weeks, cost fifteen dollars. Scraping together the cash my roommate, Alan, and I head over to the student center with a couple other guys from our freshmen floor. We meet our instructor, Steve and settle in to watch two films. The first being Solo and the second was El' Capitan. I was beginning to feel the hook being set in my mind as I watched with great excitement these two films. At the end of the movies Steve hands out to each of us our very own copies of Royal Robins Basic Rock Craft...Joy!

The last class with Steve was our group’s second trip Seneca Rocks. Whizzing over the mountain roads in his beat-up Subaru station wagon I took notice of the unusual terrain. It helped paint a picture in my mind where for a moment I drifted off in a dream of great adventures to come. The west face of Seneca Rocks came into view and my daze was wiped clean as we rocketed around the last turn headed towards Roy Gap Road. That view, wow! I never have gotten used to it. The rock draws me in every time I revisit her. The joy of being excited, like when I bought my first pair of Fire' (FeeRay) climbing shoes or my very first sit harness, a two-piece Troll.

Alan and I along with Steve and some of his friends were hiking up the west face switchbacks towards the Hemlock Grove. Steve made sure we stayed on the trail and fought the temptation to cut across the poorly marked switchbacks. When we arrived at the Hemlock Grove we were greeted by Mike from Florida and his partners for the day, Doug and Mark. I asked Mike if he is going to lead anything today, "nah" he replied. "I am afraid I might fall" he replied. Seems Mike was coming down off of a three day trip with some "friends" named after the climb he had me on previously and was severely lacking in sleep. We bid each other good luck and parted ways.

Arriving at the base of Le' Gourmet, Steve quickly racks-up and scrambles up the first pitch to set a top rope anchor. Alan and I are going to do our first lead climbing with the security of a top rope, Alan first then I. Everything went better than expected. After a couple laps on the first pitch we moved around the corner to Le' Gourmet Direct a 5.5 that goes strait-up a shallow south facing wall to the Old Man Traverse Ledge.

Alan and I were not the best of roommates and he was not going to be out-done by some Millhonky from Beaver. His friends back home in the more affluent town of Monroeville; PA would never let him live it down. This jockeying for positions was because Steve had brought up the idea of leading this climb without the security of the top rope. It was going to be our first lead! I could feel my pulse in my neck as Steve began belaying Alan up the first 15 - 20 feet of the climb.

Guided by advice and encouragement from Steve, Alan placed several stoppers and small hexes. Alan climbed steadily to the base of the crux and was stopped dead in his tracks. He made several attempts to enter into the crux but he backed off each time. Alan rechecked the security of a small Forest Stopper and made one last all out effort but could not muster the courage, as I knew he had the strength. Down climbing he reached the ground untied from the rope took a swig of water and handed me the rack, challenging me to out better him. If he could not do it I certainly could not as well.

It was all I could do to hide my anxiety I shouldered Steve's rack, checked the water knot on my Swiss Seat and the figure eight tie-in. However, the only thing that I could feel was the blood vessels in my neck pounding away. It was so pronounced that anything audible was background noise. I thought a vein would explode at any second. Going through the well rehearsed belay and climbing commands Steve gave me a quick wink as if to tell me this was going to be my day. Climbing on top rope up to Alan's high point I placed a small Chouinard Stopper slightly above Alan's last piece and entered into the crux.

Making stemming moves with my feet and pushing against the rock with the palm of my hand I found myself in an awkward chimney position in an open flaring section off rock. Amazed that I was not going to slide out of this notch I began to calm myself enough to reach high above my head for a small ledge and a bent piton. Blindly clipping the piton I let out a huge sigh of relief, as I was able to do the last move out of the crux. The pounding pulse in my neck was replaced by a surge of adrenaline racing out the top of my head. Every hair was standing on end. I was incredibly happy.

Taking notice of my position and the incredible views I found it very interesting how I was not the least bit afraid while clinging to the side of this rock. It is amazing how I could intently focus on this little TV like screen directly in front of me tending to my hexes, carabiners, rope, hand and foot holds. The next moment I was leaning out from the rock, relaxed and looking all around. What joy I have found. Moving between these two focal points I climbed comfortably to a small alcove with a sloping ledge. Clipping another old piton and placing a hex my euphoric state is broken by loud crashing sounds and screams. Nothing in my immediate view seemed to be wrong but I could feel that my joy was slipping away.

I am able to recognize a face down below; it is Doug. He is running down to the Gendarme Climbing Shop for the litter. Mike has just fallen somewhere off of the west face and lies precariously on the ground against some small trees just south of the top section of Slab Area. “Mike fell” is the unimaginable thought that raced through my mind. But, he said he was not going to lead today. Steve calmly asks me to put in a three pieces of protection and try to sit on the slopping ledge. Clipped in to hand tied slings and about four different pieces of protection, Steve ties his end of the rope off to a tree and escapes the belay to go help the others with Mike. Immediately to my right is another climber working through the crux moves on Neck Press, a 5.7 rated climb. I can see he is struggling and is also shaken with what he has heard. He makes it to the ledge at the end of the first pitch and sits down to collect his thoughts. We look at each other silently contemplating what has just happened.

What seemed like an eternity, more like ten minutes, Steve returns to lower me so that I can assist in the rescue of Mike. Alan was already at Mike's side when I got there. Oh my God the blood. I was not sure exactly where it was coming from but there was plenty of it. Another party had joined in the rescue and was giving an account of what happened. Mike, Mark and Doug where soloing up to the start of the second pitch of Greenwall via Banana then traversing right. It is some where in between the top of Banana and the start of the second pitch of Greenwall where Mike fell. Hitting the trail at the start of Banana did not stop his momentum. As I scrambled down off of that trail I could see that he must have either bounced off of the ground or cleared it completely and tumbled down another forty feet or so. Now where was my joy? Gone, replaced by fear for my new friend’s life.

Assisting in the rescue took about three hours. I was amazed how everybody pulled together setting up belay points down to Roy Gap Road. Amazingly as we crossed the creek to the road Mike is still conscious. One of the rescue personnel from the Gendarme climbing shop asked Mike to name the president of the United States. Mike replied "%@#$ing Reagan". We all busted out laughing as we walked towards the waiting ambulance across the swinging bridge. It would be months before we learned of Mike's recovery but he was back in Florida complete with artificial joints and thinking about climbing again.

That evening Alan was on the phone to Mike's parents telling them they did not have to worry about him climbing anymore. Hell, my parents did not even know I had started climbing so I figured there was no need to tell them that I was not going to quit. To this day I do not think my mother knows of this incident.

Although Keith was not at Seneca when Mike had his accident it had an impact on him along with everyone else in our small climbing community. It was Keith who led the charge to get back on our collective horses. I can recall the grin on Keith’s face as he strolled in to our Sociology class holding a box from REI. Tearing through the packaging tape like a child on Christmas morning it contents reviled six bright shinny new Bonattia modified D carabiners. We did not wait the obligatory 20 minutes for our habitually late professor, Dr. Stoner, before we bailed.

It was mid-fall and the weather was great, about 70 degrees. We both took turns leading Ecstasy Jr. I recall vividly sitting atop the third pitch with the afternoon sun warming my face looking out through the pines at one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen. The trees were on fire with vibrant fall colors, the joy had returned.

Keith and I stop at Buck Harper's Store on the way out for a quart of beer and frozen Snickers. Of course we could not leave with out chatting with old Buck himself and experiencing his patented West Virginia handshake. The grip on this man would lead you to believe he could have climbed anything up on the rocks.

To make sure our groove was properly intact we boulder or buildered almost everyday after class and stole as much time on weekends away from beer and sorority chicks as our other urgencies would allow. The following spring I returned to complete Le’ Gourmet Direct with Keith.

Looking back on my first few months of my climbing career I am amazed how lucky I was to meet the people I did. To them I am eternally grateful for their willingness to let me be apart of their lives. Especially Keith, he was mostly responsible for getting me started.

The End


Lost Arrow Tyrolean

Tried to find an online picture of Tompkins on Hell's Lum but could not.


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