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Cliff-Scaling in the Alleghenies
December 25, 2011 - Jodi Burnsworth
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At the intersection of Routes 33 and 28 in Pendleton County stands before you a prominent and visually striking formation known as Seneca Rocks. Rising 900 feet above the confluence of Seneca Creek and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River, Seneca Rocks consists of a North and a South Peak, with a central notch in between. This notch was occupied by a prominent pinnacle known as “the Gendarme” until it fell on October 22, 1987.
Seneca Rocks is one of the most imposing examples of Tuscarora quartzite in eastern West Virginia. The rock is comprised of fine grains of sand laid down about 440 million years ago, and with the geologic activity that followed, the ancient lapetus Ocean slowly closed and this underlying rock uplifted and folded. Erosion stripped away the overlying rock and left the remnants of the arching folds in outcrops, such as Seneca Rocks.
Evidence suggests that Native Americans during the Archaic Period camped at the mouth of Seneca Creek. The “Seneca Trail,” the famous Great Indian Warpath, followed the Potomac River, allowing Algonquian, Tuscarora, and Seneca nations to travel the area for trade and war purposes.
Around 1746, the first European visitors to the region were surveyors, but it took another fifteen years for the first settlers to arrive. The great wilderness of Seneca Rocks was visited and sketched by well-known writer and illustrator David Hunter Strother around 1853. Known by his pseudonym “Porte Crayon,” Strother’s sketches were reworked and published twenty years later as a popular wood engraving in an 1872 Harpers New Monthly Magazine (as shown to the right).
Although it is unknown who the first person was to climb Seneca Rocks, the Native Americans are assumed the most likely to have first scaled the rocks prior to European settlers reaching the area.
Documented climbing history begins in 1935 with a roped ascent of the North Peak by Paul Brandt and Florence Perry. However, the historic ascent of Paul Brandt, Don Hubbard, and Sam Moore in 1939 found the inscription “D.B. September 16, 1908.” Throughout the 30s and 40s, only a few climbers attempted to climb Seneca Rocks. During World War II, as part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area, the U.S. Army used Seneca Rocks to train mountain troops in assault climbing in preparation for action in the Apennines of Italy.
The West Virginia Maneuver Area was a five-county training ground in the Allegheny Mountains used to train soldiers in low-altitude mountain operations. The area was selected due to its similarity to the mountainous terrain of Italy and other areas within the European Theater of Operations. Seneca Rocks, along with the Blackwater Canyon, was utilized for mountain climbing instruction. In July 1943, a detachment from Camp Hale, Colorado, instituted high-angle rock and assault climbing instruction at Seneca Rocks. Instruction ranged from simple rock scrambling to tension cable work with pitons, including rigging skills and use of assault ropes with pulleys. Each class concluded with two tactical night climbs on unfamiliar rocks. Between July 1943 and July 1944 when training ended, more than 100,000 “cliff-scaling soldiers” were trained in the WVMA.
Due to the hardness of the Tuscarora Formation and the degree of climbing difficulty, Seneca Rocks is a unique opportunity in the east. There are over 375 major mapped climbing routes, with two climbing schools nearby who train prospective climbers in beginning and advanced rock climbing. One also offers a climbers rescue course. Both the East and West faces of the North and the South Peaks offer single and multi-pitch routes up to 300 feet in length. The South Peak is rumored to be the tallest peak east of Devils Towers in Wyoming.
Rock climbers aren’t the only visitors that can enjoy the spectacular views. A 1.3-mile trail ascends 960 feet to provide access to the Seneca Rocks overlook.
On September 28, 1965, the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area was established within the Monongahela National Forest by an act of the U.S. Congress. However, Seneca Rocks themselves weren’t purchased by the federal government until 1969.
The original visitors’ center was opened in 1978, survived severe damage from the 1985 flood, but was destroyed by arson on May 26, 1992. The current visitors’ center, known as The Seneca Rocks Discovery Center, was completed in the fall of 1998.
Note: As a follow-up, I recommend watching Rob Whetsell’s “The Cliff-Scaling Soldiers of West Virginia.” From the Augusta Heritage Center’s Master Series, the documentary “uses rare photographs, film footage, letters, and firsthand accounts from participants to recount this forgotten chapter in the nation’s history.”
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Engraving of The Rocks of Seneca by Porte Crayon (David Hunter Strother)