We took Isaac to the “Little Rocks”, a small cliff above Canaan Valley, West Virginia. It would be generous to say the cliff is thirty feet tall. The face is streaked with horizontal cracks. Great for beginners. My parents, Tyson, and I were here to train for a multi-pitch climb on Seneca Rocks.
I led up the right crack. I barely needed to protect the climb, but I put pieces in regularly for Isaac. We had two ropes between the five of us. For a sixty foot climb, Isaac would need to tie in to the middle of our rope and trail the second half for Tyson. My Mom and Tyson figured out a way to tie Isaac in using an extra sling. Once on belay, Isaac climbed a couple steps up to the first piece of protection. Here, Tyson demonstrated unclipping the carabiner from above Isaac’s knot and reclipping it below — “passing” the carabiner. Then Isaac climbed up to the next piece of protection.
Whenever Isaac paused, I looked out across the valley. The gray clouds had started to obscure the top of Timberline ski area. I couldn’t see any moisture closer, but the wind blew damp against me. Isaac’s head popped up at the top of the cliff. I belayed him until he was safely away from the edge. Then we both walked off to the bottom. Isaac started munching snacks. I put on a jacket and returned to the top to belay.
My Dad wanted to climb next. He was unsure if he would remember how to climb and clean gear, but he wanted to try. I looked out while paying rope through my hands. Tendrils at the bottom of the clouds now obscured my view to Canaan Mountain. Still, I didn’t see any rain. I did hear my Mom handing Isaac more snacks. Dad reached the top after a smooth ascent, his fingers and toes rewarmed to climbing. I stayed up top to belay Mom and Tyson.
Mom, too, was nervous starting out. I listened to her commentaries while I watched the clouds. Wisps hurried by the tree tops below me. The damp of the cloud was all around me. I could see only the near side of the valley. Shortly Mom was at my knees. She insisted on climbing the very last block to prove she could. Tyson quickly scaled the cliff, even wearing his hiking boots.
We regrouped at the bottom in the shelter of the trees and pulled the rope. We had concerns about our first ascent. Isaac had been unreliable at passing carabiners. On a real cliff, Tyson couldn’t just reach up from the ground to give Isaac pointers. What would happen if Isaac got stuck on a tricky move? For the next climb, Tyson would try climbing with Isaac.
I ate the snacks Isaac hadn’t yet eaten and then led up the left crack. I stayed to the right away from the grassy variant. Tyson again tied Isaac to the middle of the rope, this time he tied the knots much shorter so Isaac could reach carabiners above him easier. Then Tyson tied himself in 6 feet below Isaac.
Up they simul-climbed. Isaac passed the first two pieces correctly, but then Tyson couldn’t remove my second piece, a tri-cam. Isaac was forced to wait on a ledge while Tyson wiggled it out with his nut tool. Next, Isaac diverted up the grassy crack to the left until he had pulled the rope three feet horizontal from my fourth piece. Had Tyson or Isaac fallen at this point, they would have extended six feet of slack.
We convinced Isaac to walk across a ledge back to the cam. He tucked himself into the gap above the ledge and reached down to unclip the carabiner. Then the two of them continued up. None of us liked the results from climbing simultaneously. On the plus side, with his shorter knot, Isaac was now much better at passing gear.
The clouds had thickened while they climbed. I now had to wipe my glasses occasionally to clear the wind blown fog. Dad had left for a meeting, so it was Mom’s turn to climb. She intentionally climbed the harder straight up route and was quite pleased with herself. Isaac wanted to improve his start, so we let him climb again on top rope.
Next, we needed a way to descend off a multi-pitch climb. All the adults are proficient at rappelling. Isaac doesn’t have a belay device and he isn’t even comfortable being lowered at the end of a climb. We decided to start with a simple lowering clinic.
I tied one end of the rope as a fixed rappel line. Tyson lowered Isaac on the other one. Isaac watched me and mimicked my body pose. He was doing quite well until his feet dropped off an overhang and he swung into the rock. A few blackberries at the bottom cheered him up.
Isaac really wanted to rappel like Mom. We borrowed my Dad’s ATC and rigged Isaac with a backup prusik. My Mom held the bottom of his rope in a fireman’s belay. The two of us rappelled down side by side. At the bottom, I showed Isaac a goofy way to manage the overhang. Rappelling was a success. Tyson, up top, declared it time to head home. He was dripping with solid cloud.
That evening, we read all the Seneca guides. My parents had taken me up a variant of Old Man’s as a kid. That route still looked like the best one, even if it had changed from a 5.1 to a 5.3 in my newer guidebook. For part of it, you have to climb a chimney. We hadn’t practiced chimney technique with Isaac. The face of Little Rocks is flat. To find a chimney, we needed to go to the Medium Rocks.
The “Medium Rocks” are large sandstone boulders a mile farther north on Cabin Mountain. The next morning, the sun was out, but scattered white clouds warned of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Hiking to the rocks, we looked for blueberries. The bushes were splotched with brown. Too dry. Dad pointed out fifteen pound rocks flipped over. “We won’t find blueberries. The bears are already flipping rocks for grubs.” Farther out on the ridge, we saw fresh purple bear scat in the trail. Guess they were finding some berries.
Once at the Medium Rocks, Tyson, Dad, and I looked for promising routes while Mom tried to keep Isaac from climbing without a rope. My Dad headed to the top of the main cliff. I peered at a couple cracks. None of them were big enough to chimney. I remembered a wider crack in the ravine around the corner. To get there, I had to backtrack and go around the top of the cliff. Tyson found a different way down to the bottom of the ravine. We were about to meet at the crack of interest when Tyson said,
“What’s that? Is that you, John?”
At first, it sounded like a pack sliding, then like gravel rolling down a chute. But the noise was coming from under the slab I stood on. Something large was hissing at us.
“We need to get out of here. Now!”
I ran back the way I came. Tyson, cornered at the bottom of the ravine, ran towards the noise then followed me to the top of the cliff.
All three of us ran back to where we could see Trudy and Isaac. “There’s a bear. We need to leave” we hollered. But the way out for us was also the way out from the den, so we changed course. We ran down and grabbed all the packs with food that might attract a bear and regrouped at the top of the cliff.
No bear issued out from under the rock.
We started thinking instead of reacting. A bear probably would have made a deeper growl. We had heard a hiss not a growl. Fisher? Bobcat? Wolverine? Whatever it was, it seemed mollified now that we had moved to the other end of the cliff. Keeping away from the den, we returned to exploring.
There’s a wide fissure at the far end, but it is too wide to chimney and today was slippery wet. Inside the fissure are a number of other climbs. Tyson eyed them and guessed they would be too hard for Isaac. I found a longer off width crack on the main face. Tyson thought it had potential as an Isaac-sized chimney if only it weren’t wet. With half the main cliff off limits, we looked in places I have never climbed before. I found one knobby crack. Tyson thought it was too hard for Isaac. Isaac wanted to explore too, but he was most interested in caves under boulders. In the end, we found some fifteen foot tall bulges for Isaac.
Had we hiked out here for Isaac to scramble on a few rocks? The clouds to the west had turned to gray rain clouds. Us adults might not even get to climb. Worse, I thought, if Isaac really couldn’t climb the routes Tyson thought were too hard, he might not be able to make it up Old Man’s. Tyson tried to cheer me up by showing me the radar — there was a chance the rain would miss us.
Isaac climbed an easy scamper on the weathered sandstone. We found a short chimney for him. After each ascent, Tyson lowered Isaac to reinforce yesterday’s learnings. Isaac was wobbly the first descent, but great the next two. Isaac objected, though, when I insisted he follow a specific crack to learn toe jams. Why not climb the much easier adjacent rock? Three mini climbs was enough. Next, my knobby crack.
Tyson and I set the anchor. We debated every piece and cord. Meanwhile, Isaac dragged his Grandma off into the caves under collapsed boulders. They returned from a tight squeeze as I rappelled down. I needed to eat. Mom was interested in the crack, so we let her climb first.
She worked her way up with hand and foot jams. Occasionally the hard mineral coating the side of the sandstone made a crisp handhold outside the crack. A third of the way up, the crack tips to the right and rounds out. Mom grimaced, stuffed both feet in the crack, and clung tenuously to the one undercling on the outer face. Inch by inch she moved up until her left hand found a solid handhold on a ledge. She quickly climbed the top third of the cliff, grinning that she’d passed the crux.
Isaac demanded to go next. He didn’t get off the ground his first try and went limp when we coached him for a second try. Here was another reason multi pitch on Seneca wouldn’t work.
I’d picked this climb and I didn’t want to be rained out, so I went next. I climbed the start much like my Mom. At the crux, I shifted my weight right to a friction hold on the outer face. With one arm locked, I easily swung up to better hand holds. On seeing that, my Dad decided he wanted to try.
Dad climbed up to the crux. He slipped off the under cling and fell, stretching the rope five feet down. He rested for a moment, then decided to try again. Tyson explained the moves he had seen me do. My Dad tried something similar and reached the top. We all admonished Tyson to be careful of his knees, but he wanted to climb too. Tyson followed the easiest moves he had seen us do. He reached the top without incident.
Mom wanted to try the crux again now that she had seen our approaches. Only problem — a dark cloud was moving in. A few droplets of rain hit just as Mom started up. With that as motivation, she quickly conquered the crux.
Tyson ran up top to tear down the anchor. All the pieces were still perfectly in place. Isaac invited the rest of us into the shelter of his cave. We packed up and left. It only rained for three minutes. That was enough to slime the rocks beyond recovery.
That evening, we discussed Seneca Rocks. There were too many questions about Isaac’s discipline vs the route. There’s always next year.
We also looked up the animal we had heard. Fisher and bobcat both live in Dolly Sods. From amateur videos online, either could have made the noise we heard. The rocky den is much more typical of a bobcat.
All Photos from the Little Rocks
All Photos from the Medium Rocks