Rock climbing on the East Coast can be a problem. But only if you have just moved to the U.S.. As a matter of fact, in our collective imagery the great rock walls are only there where the Great Plains end and the Rockies begin. And yet, the Atlantic side of America hides some small gems tucked away in the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountain range in the U.S. Name one? Seneca Rocks, in West Virginia. A place as magical as it is hellish. A place that deserves to be lived.
One thinks of Washington, DC, and thinks of the White House, the Capitol, the Obelisk. Of a city built over a swamp, in that Mid-Atlantic region that is not as posh as New England but not as sleazy as the South. One thinks of that melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities that mark the American capital. On the other hand, one would hardly think that barely 180 miles away from DC lies a small paradise for climbers, with an enormous history. A fair distance by Italian standards, but small for American. “That’s why if someone wants to climb in nature, and lives in Washington, the first destination, the closest and most accessible, is Seneca Rocks” I’m told by one of the regulars at Earth Treks in Crystal City, Virginia, the biggest indoor rock-climbing wall on the east coast, just beyond the Potomac river. After all the opportunity for the short trip that saw me arriving in Seneca is tied to Earth Treks. Take a large community of climbers, transplant it in the U.S. and you will find yourselves drowning in a flurry of Whatsapp messages. The founder of the group, Michael Astran, is the archetype of an American full of initiative and organized. All of it free of envies among climbers, without arguments and bad feelings. What typically takes shape in the U.S. is a carefree atmosphere, made of brotherhood and mutual respect. Not only respect for nature, the famous wilderness we have often written about here in Alpinismi, but particularly for those who are novices. They are introduced to climbing as though they have always been part of the family. And at the first possible opportunity, all is shared: from lifts in a car to material. Without distinctions of class or climbing skills. This is why communities such as Earth Treks work. Because they are democratic. During outings as well.
When Mike came up with the idea of making a trip to Seneca, there was no reason to think twice. The quartzite razorbacks of Seneca are so famous that it would have been worth going even with a flu. The problem, for Paolo and me, two Europeans on their first trip in the direction of Seneca Rocks, is that as usual distances seem endless. But our energy was on par. After months and months climbing on plastic, touching naked rock once again was something that would have allowed us to go through 4 hours in a car in what Americans call the Middle of Nowhere. Leaving Washington behind, with the skyscrapers of Arlington, we began our way along Interstate 66. Not as famous as the Route, but it has its own reasons to be. It’s the road that would take us to the climbing paradise of West Virginia. And we knew what lied in store for us. Long, huge and limitless fields on green hills and ready to bear the summer fruits. And in the distance the Appalachians. The Smoky Mountains, as they are known by the locals, perhaps due to the fog that often envelops them. Living in the Washington bubble it’s not easy to properly understand how lucky one is. Virginia and West Virginia are States with many problems. The biggest of all is perhaps the element that makes them so fascinating: wilderness, pure and raw. Because the unspoiled nature of the Appalachians forms and raises men and women who have no problem telling you that you are an idiot, if you are. Frank and direct, the inhabitants of the Appalachians have another problem tied to the wilderness: infrastructure is scarce and in a bad state. One example? In 180 miles we saw but two schools on our way. Only two. Because this was – and president Trump wants to continue being – a mining area. Especially coal. Fossil fuel hidden under the Appalachians. Once the use of this energy source exhausted itself, in favor of renewables, Virginia and West Virginia started dying. And their inhabitants with them. The two States are infamous for being among the areas with the highest use of opioids – such as Oxicontin – and heavy drugs – such as heroin. Newspapers from the large metropolitan areas, like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, report daily on cases of what are now the biggest epidemics in the U.S. And facing such a reality is not easy. More than once on the journey to Seneca we asked ourselves how deep the malaise must be for the inhabitants of the Appalachians, known by the rest of Americans in highly derogatory terms as Hillbillies. The toothless simpletons of the hills. And an area as incredible as the Appalachians doesn’t deserve such a fame. An area where it is possible to get lost and wonder without a destination without meeting a human being for miles and miles, completely immersed in nature.
You travel and travel, and then beyond the small towns where the only elements to keep you company are gas stations, a rural bank and the inevitable fast food restaurant, you reach the area where depression ends and fun begins. That’s right, because the area around Seneca is special. Since it is a particularly poor area from an economic point of view, it is difficult to find climbers among the locals. It’s the Monongahela National Forest. Among the coal mines and steel factories lies this green lung. In the middle, the blade-like rocks of Seneca. Impossible not to see them from the parking in front of Harper’s Olde General Store, which is a bit of everything: restaurant, pizzeria, hunting and fishing store, and minimarket. Seneca is completely enclosed in this area between the Route 33 and the Route 28. At the crossroads, with the walls behind us, we see the store ahead, next to a small (but well-stocked) climbers shop-cum-museum, while on its right stands the renowned climbing school of School. On the other side another minimarket, Yokum’s, which is noted for having an excellent WiFi signal. That’s it. Done. And if you try checking your phone? Zero. No signal. Nothing. No point trying to twist and turn looking for one. Simply, in this corner of West Virginia there is no signal for telephones. Some say it is Seneca’s fault, which blocks the signal from the transmitters on the other side. Some say that the transmitters weren’t installed by choice. We’ll never know, but it’s not a big problem, except for the rescues to the expeditions on the routes of Seneca. In fact, locals take a fatalistic approach. If a party doesn’t return within a set time, the search begins. Communication therefore is crucial for safety. It is always the case in the mountains, but even more so in Seneca.
And then there is the rock. Beautiful, hard, labored. It’s a type of quartzite that is only found on the east cost of the U.S. Also known as Tuscarora, famous too for the Gunks in the State of New York, another pilgrimage site for climbers on this side of America. Seneca, though, is famous for another record. It is the only peak on the east coast that requires climbing skills to be reached. That is why it is so loved. Despite its walls were most probably climbed by native Americans, the first confirmed ascent dates to 1939, by Paul Bradt, Don Hubbard and Sam Moore. The three, however, once on the summit of the northern peak found a peculiar inscription: “D.B. September 16, 1908”. Someone, therefore, had already put their feet and hands on that peak. But the mystery, one century on, remains. And the routes? There are over 400, between 5.0 (Yosemite Decimal System, more or less the first grade on the French scale), and 5.13 (8a in French climbing). Translated, Seneca is perfect for any kind of rock climbing. And this is also what makes it so famous. “It’s like one massive crag, with the difference that here the routes are long and immersed in nature”, comments one of the youngest members of our group, who will take on rock climbing for the first time, after having started on plastic. “A theme park for climbers”, the guides call it. But even this is an understatement. Because in an area of a few square miles one can truly find themselves in the middle of nowhere. It’s not just a climbing choice, but also meditative. In the era of non-stop connectivity, it can be stressful for some to have nothing but themselves, and the rock. This might be also why many Washingtonians are in Seneca on the weekends when the weather allows it.
And there is not just Seneca, too. A few miles away crags abound. Reeds Creek, for example. Technical routes, this time on limestone, that don’t forgive who is too used to looking at the color of grips and holds rather than reading the rock. Or like Smoke Hole. Places forgotten by God, by the American presidents, but not by climbers. Like Mike Gray and Tyrel Johson, who live a few miles away and started a decade ago taking care of the crags and the paths. And it’s not so rare to see Mike out and about Reeds Creek. Massaging vigorously his thick white beard he walks along the paths that lead to the wall and every now and then stops to chat with someone who, with heavy arms and out of breath, has just completed one of his routes. He congratulates them, talking with the typical drawling accent from the South, and then leaves, smiling and gloating for every small personal success. Better to have just few people but good ones, Mike must think feeling proud for his guide, the only one available along those crags and rich in detail.
That’s right, because the community of Seneca, Reeds Creek and Smoke Hole is not jealous of its crags. Quite the opposite. In an area where economic recession is felt every day, where people die overdosing on pain killers, it’s the small things that count. And, as in Mike’s case, a smile is enough after an arm-wrecking route to wipe out the hardships of the day. Because it might be true that Seneca is not Joshua Tree or Yosemite, but the charm of the Appalachian is unchanged. And there to be discovered first hand.