Aiding Crack of Dawn

“What were you thinking? I can’t believe you let me talk you out of this so easily!” the voice on the phone demanded. The voice was none other than my roommate and climbing partner Eric Bauernschmidt. He and I had been lounging about our grubby Pittsburgh apartment twenty minutes earlier discussing whether or not we should go through with our climbing plans for the weekend. A tremendous Nor’easter was forecasted to dump snow on Pennsylvania and West Virginia, promising arctic conditions at our weekend playground of Seneca Rocks. It was Friday morning; we had planned to leave in the early evening and climb Saturday regardless of weather. Considering the potential difficulty of driving through the West Virginia backwoods, not to mention the considerable degree of discomfort we would face, we had bagged the trip and Eric headed off to work. Or so I thought. I hadn’t so much as rolled over on my futon when the phone rang. “Seriously man, when is the last time you really got hosed, you know, the last time you suffered!” he implored. He had a good point, which I considered and readily acquiesced.

Eric and I have a history of interesting adventures, ranging from a week of hiking through thigh-deep mud and daily snow showers in a futile May attempt to climb an icy Adirondack cliff to beating out the entire 70 mile length of a popular western Pennsylvania hiking trail in two days. The trips I find myself on with Captain Spam (a nickname Eric earned a few years back), more often than not involve bad weather, thoroughly dirtbag budgets, a large portion of mental and physical exertion, and accordingly a fair share of dementia.

By early afternoon Eric had skipped out of work and jogged home through the lightly falling snow. We stuffed ourselves with pizza as we loaded packs with various climbing implements. Two years before, we had ascended Seneca in the aftermath of a large snowstorm via one of the easier routes to the summit, consisting mostly of wide, flat ledges connected by short bits of steeper climbing. Climbing the easy snow-covered rock was interesting, but for this trip we had our eyes on a much more vertical objective: the Crack of Dawn.

Seneca is a unique rock on several accounts. The crag is one of a number of fins of Tuscarora quartzite that jut out of the ridge in the North Fork Valley like the plates of a stegosaur. Seneca itself is a vertical crest of rock no wider than a sidewalk on top, with steep rock falling away some three hundred feet on either side to the talus below. The summit soars nearly a thousand feet above the valley floor and requires 5th class climbing to reach, which is a rare thing on the East Coast. Seneca has a long and storied history including use by the military for training purposes during World War II and a reputation for difficult traditionally protected climbs. Of greatest interest to the climbers that flock to Seneca Rocks every weekend, however, are the numerous vertical cracks that split the rock. The Crack of Dawn ascends a south-facing wall known as the Face of a Thousand Pitons, following beautiful hand-width cracks for two or three pitches before ending near a popular descent route.

The Crack of Dawn is a free climb, meaning that it can be climbed without using equipment for the purpose of upward progression. Eric and I were not interested in jamming and crimping our way up the notoriously difficult 5.10 route, especially in a raging blizzard, so we opted to aid climb the route. In aid climbing, the climber places a chock or cam in a crack in the rock, clips into it using a daisy chain, then uses a pair of nylon webbing ladders called etriers or aiders to climb up as high as possible before repeating the process. The rope runs through the pieces below to catch the climber if the piece he is standing on fails. Aid is a laborious process that can take hours for each pitch and requires a backbreaking load of equipment, as each placement only garners the climber a few feet of upward progress. Furthermore, the climber is connected to the rock via equipment that gives much less feedback than do fingertips, so falls are often sudden and unexpected. As such, aid climbing often supplies hours upon hours of sheer terror.

We loaded the car as darkness fell and started towards West Virginia. Conditions were appalling, with several inches of unplowed snow on the ground and more falling by the minute. Crawling our way along the interstate, we gradually gained speed as road maintenance crews took care of the heavy accumulation. By the West Virginia line we were cruising along at 60mph with Axl Rose screaming on the radio. “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby….you’re gonna DIEEEE!” he howled. Before long, the interstate gave way to a road less traveled, up through the mountains and on towards Seneca. What was normally a three-and-a-half hour trip had already taken us nearly six hours (including, of course, a brief stop at Sheetz for dinner). Conditions on the mountain highway were as bad as we had seen. A few steep and winding miles separated us from the rocks, so we pulled into a nearby trailhead, tossed open our sleeping bags in the back of the Subaru and conked out for the night.

We woke up some hours later, dusted under four inches of fresh powder. The car slid and skidded out of the trailhead parking lot and onto the freshly plowed main road. Before I had finished my Pop-Tart and Twizzler breakfast we were in the parking lot at Seneca Rocks.

It didn’t take long to tie up our boots, buckle harnesses, and toss the aid rack and down parka into daypacks. We set off across the snowy parking lot, crossed the low water bridge as meltwater frothed against its upstream side, and hiked up Roy’s Gap Road to the base of our objective. A breathless trudge up the stone staircase affectionately known as the “Stairmaster” brought us to an iced over field of talus, through which I followed Eric’s deft scrambling. We found ourselves on a small platform of rock, some fifteen feet above the ground, from which the south facing crack systems comprising the Crack of Dawn shot skyward.

Seneca was deserted, and for good reason. The sun had risen on a partly cloudy sky, but the bulk of Seneca shielded our west-face perch from its warming rays. As we racked up and flaked the rope, wild winds bore down from the north, carrying stinging snow particles that whirled upward in circles in our corner of Seneca Rocks. Eric started up, his aiders swinging in wide windblown circles behind him. I belayed, snug against the twenty-degree temperatures and raging north wind in my fluffy down parka. Eric was plenty warm, struggling every few feet to haul himself ever higher and snug up his adjustable daisy chains, then sit back and contemplate the next piece of gear. I stomped my feet and wiggled my toes in my plastic boots to stay warm as he inched up the rock. The liter of water I downed before beginning the climb began to bother me, so as Eric prepared a new placement I tied off the belay, took a quick leak and put him back on belay. After two interminable hours, the good Captain had made his way to the first anchor on the climb, nearly 40 feet off the ground.

“Rope fixed, jug away!” he cried, and I gladly fixed my ascenders to the rope. By alternating my weight between the two ascenders, waist then legs, stand up, slide up the waist ascender, sit on it, crunch up and bring up the leg ascender, and repeating the process, I moved quickly up the line. I met Eric at the hanging belay, sweating from the exertion. We noted the midday sun peeking over the fin of Seneca, painting the rock mere feet above us a warm shade of orange. By the time we had exchanged equipment and sorted out some confusion at the belay anchor, the sun was upon us. I shed my parka and started aid leading towards the crux overhang.

The climbing was suburb…perfect placement after perfect placement on a dead vertical wall. Eric fed rope as I moved upwards, each minute creeping by as he hung from the anchor below. The hours slipped by quickly for me on lead. Before long I noticed the crack I was ascending gradually widening, so I decided to move right into a tiny crack just below the prominent overhang high on the route. Two options presented themselves for my upward progression: a microstopper or a cam hook. Microstoppers are tiny bits of steel or brass on wire, designed to slot into constrictions in thin cracks and hold at least body weight. Cam hooks are “L” shaped pieces of steel that, when inserted sideways into a crack and weighted become highly secure yet easy to remove. Knowing that my poor microstopper would likely never leave the crack if I placed and hung on it, I opted for the cam hook.

Stretching as far as I could reach from the highest step in my aiders that I dared tread, I slotted the cam hook into a stable though shallow placement and clipped my aiders to the hook. Retreating to the lower piece, a bombproof cam, I gingerly oozed my weight onto the cam hook. To my utmost delight it held my weight, and I began steadily moving upwards on the piece. I was in a perfect place and announced my rapture to Eric, “Cap’n! Life couldn’t be better! Hanging from a hook on a beautiful wall of vertical white rock, moving steadily up in the aiders, basking in the sun….”

PING! The lip of the tiny crack around the cam hook shattered under my weight. A succinct “Uh oh” escaped my lips as I whistled downwards, ten feet, twenty feet, thirty feet. For the second time in my climbing career, I fleetly considered why on earth I was still falling before feeling the rope come tight, stretching to absorb the impact of my fall.

As I had been making my slow but steady upward progress, Cap’n Spam had been shivering down at the belay. Unbeknownst to me, he gave me a foot or two of slack and tied off the belay, freeing his hands to wriggle into the down parka. As I waxed on about the delights of leading the pitch he pulled the jacket over his head, when he suddenly found himself rudely ripped upwards off his belay stance. As I came to rest mere feet above him, he squirmed out from under the coat, looked up at my flabbergasted expression, glanced at the tied-off belay device, and cried out, “Dude, the knot held!”
Eric laughed and I howled with exuberance at the cam hook dangling from my daisy chain and the tremendous length of rope running up from my harness to the camming unit that had arrested my fall. ”You’re in the jungle baby….you’re gonna die!” rang in my ears as I clamped a set of ascenders onto the rope and jugged back up to my high point.

“Not to rush you, but we’re about to get hosed here man,” Captain Spam intoned from the belay, indicating gray storm clouds rolling over the next ridge westward. The micronut slotted perfectly where the cam hook had failed and I had soon gained the upper reaches of the route, though, as feared, it resisted all efforts at removal when Eric later followed. I plugged piece after piece into the perfect crack, moving as rapidly as possible as the sun moved west to hide behind the impending snowstorm. Nearly two hundred feet off the belay, the crack began to widen again, from finger width to hand to fist to arm, then opened up into a full-blown chimney.

I despise chimneys. I find nothing fun about thrashing about in a narrow slot of rock, battling to bodily scrape my way upwards inch by inch, rear end and elbows and knees all unhappily employed to gain higher ground. Despite my fervent aversion, chimney there was and chimney I would climb, so I unclipped my daisies and jammed my entire body, plastic boots and all, into the slot. A few terrifying minutes of flailing and cursing found me on a snowy ledge, pulling through the last desperate moves of our prize climb. Having reduced our hefty rack of equipment to an anorexic selection of gear, I fiddled a few odd pieces into the rock and fixed the rope for Eric to ascend. At last, the work was done!
At last indeed! We had woken at sunrise, began and climbing only two hours after. As I stood on that small ledge watching the wind whip loops of climbing rope in great circles behind my ascending partner, the sun broke free from its imposing gray blanket to cast her last few minutes of precious warmth upon my bent and beaten figure. Those few minutes I spent enraptured by the sunbeams striking down upon the winter whiteness of the North Fork valley, curiously lacking familiar belay duties as Eric climbed the fixed rope.

The moment was soon over as Captain Spam swung into view below, disparaging stubborn pieces of gear as he worked his way up to my comparatively idyllic perch. After fighting his own battle with the chimney below, he emerged onto the ledge. We wasted no time in removing ourselves to more comfortable surroundings. Eric took the lead, scrambling up a snowy ramp and around the corner to bring us to the topmost of fixed rappel anchors as the sun slipped below the horizon. As we descended to the rappel, the wind made one last effort to amp up the suffering by sandblasting the Captain and me with cold biting snow crystals. Three rappels later and one rapid but cautious descent of the Stairmaster found us back on Roy’s Gap Road, hiking out amidst snow flurries and once again contemplating just what drove us to do these things.

“You’re going to write a trip report for this, right?” Eric demanded. “You oughta call it ‘The Only Thing Falling Faster Than the Barometer Was Phil.’” I chuckled as we hiked down towards the Subaru and home.

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