POC Winter Seneca 2003

POC Trip Report: Winter Seneca
January 17th-20th, 2003
By Phil Magistro

Since my freshman year I’ve enjoyed going out on winter hikes…the only problem was that not many folks in the club were up for real cold weather backpacking. Things have improved over the past couple of years, though, so we put a “Winter Seneca” trip on the schedule for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend this year. The plan and goals for the trip were somewhat vague: exploit the winter recreation available in and around Seneca Rocks, WV over the long weekend. Hopefully the trip will develop into a bigger program over the next few years.

In any event, I tossed the idea out to the meeting and was met with a pretty good response. By the time the trip rolled around, we had a group of five: Speedy, Jay, Jamon, Sean, and myself. We had decided to break the trip into two distinct segments: snowshoe backpacking for two days in the Otter Creek Wilderness, and climbing for a night and day with a possibly bivouac at Seneca proper. There were more folks interested in coming down just for the climbing, so we made tentative plans to meet up with any latecomers Sunday night on the rock.

On Friday the five of us met up at the Union and headed south, making the requisite stop at Sheetz in Weston before arriving at our destination. Conditions were pretty bad, snow on the roads made the trip a bit longer than anticipated but got us ready for the three days of pain we were entering. Finding the trailhead proved, as usual, to be the first hurdle, but after consulting the map we found a likely parking lot and geared up. It was getting late, already 9 or 10pm, so we signed in on the trail register and began hiking. The trail was poorly marked (as expected in a wilderness area) and difficult to follow in the dark with the snow cover, so after about fifteen minutes we found a spot and set up camp. Temps were low, in the zero-degree range. The nylon of my tent crackled and felt stiff, and our feet quickly got cold while setting up camp. We had all eaten dinner on the way down, but I had Sean get a stove going to boil some water for hot nalgenes. We got a potful boiled and I asked around,

“Who wants a hot nalgene for their bag tonight?”

I was met with a couple of indifferent expressions.

“I’ll be alright,” came from Speedy’s 4-season tent.
“I think I’m fine,” echoed Jay, and so on.

“They just don’t understand”, I thought to myself, and tossed my hot nalgene in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Our first night passed without event…I was pretty toasty in the -20 degree bag I had borrowed from my roommate. Jamon, sharing the tent with me, said he was a bit cold and didn’t sleep too well, and I lent him my down booties in the morning to warm up his feet a bit. We didn’t exactly manage an alpine start, opting instead to laze about in our sleeping bags as the sun came up. An inch or so of new snow had fallen overnight and the sky had cleared, so by morning our route became a bit more obvious. As we broke down camp, both Speedy and Jay made it known that they would not, in the future, refuse a hot water bottle to sleep with.

“You did have a really strange look on your face when I said I didn’t want one last night,” Speedy commented. Welcome to Winter Camping 101. Everyone made it through the night pretty well, a bit cold here and there, but nothing serious. We ate some breakfast and packed the tents, hurrying a bit so our feet wouldn’t get cold from standing around. Hit the trail by about 9am and found a decent path up the hillside above us. The ambitious plan for the day was to hike about 4.5 miles up and along a ridge to the east of Otter Creek, along the Shaver’s Mountain trail, before setting up camp. Trail conditions made our plan a bit unrealistic, so we decided to re-evaluate things every hour or so.

We made every attempt to keep on trail, but blazes were on average a tenth of a mile apart, serving more as a gentle reminder that the area had once been maintained than as wilderness highway like the Laurel Highlands. As we ascended the ridge, the snow deepened as well, at places drifting to waist deep. We were managing pretty well with the snowshoes, Sean and I breaking trail, Speedy and Jamon following behind, and Jay bringing up the rear. Jay hadn’t had a lot of backpacking experience prior to the trip, but managed quite well given the conditions. Speedy and I kept to our planned course pretty well by way of map and compass, more or less bushwhacking up and along the ridge. Beautiful woods and really good views made the hike seem less strenuous than it was. The occasional blaze was a nice surprise…reassuring us that our route finding wasn’t all bad. We took a few breaks, once stopping to warm up Speedy’s cold feet, once after I took a spill and tapped my kneecap on a buried rock. Saw a lot of deer sign, tracks and beds, on a southeast-facing hillside. On our way through a low spot in the ridge, Sean stopped us with a hand. Not fifteen feet in front of us, a grouse was slowly wading through the deep snow, sinking with each step. After a minute or two of being observed, it took flight, thump-thump-thumping off to a nearby tree.

After a mile or so of even terrain along the ridge, we dropped down into a saddle between the ridge we had been on and Shaver’s Mountain. By this point, we had realized that our 4 miles for the day was going to be impossible. Instead, we planned to try to summit Shaver’s Mountain, then drop back into the saddle where we would camp for the night. We crossed an obvious trail in the saddle that would take us back to the parking lot on Sunday via the headwaters of Otter Creek, for a total round trip of around 5 miles.

Summiting Shaver’s Mountain proved beyond us that day, however. The trail once again disappeared as we began our ascent, and the group began to lag a bit as the wear of deep powder and overnight packs took its toll. About halfway up, our path led through a dense and deep stand of rhododendrons. We took stock of our situation, and decided to drop back down and make a comfortable camp while the sun was still out and temps high.

Making camp on Saturday was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We found a relatively flat spot on the shoulder of Shaver’s Mountain and set up our three tents in a neat circle, stamping our platforms with our snowshoes. I managed to deadman out my tent, using my snowshoes as anchors. I dug out the vestibule, and by the time Sean had the pasta ready I had a great spot to sit and take in the sunset over dinner. Munched some M&Ms as the temperatures dropped and we boiled up nalgenes: this time five of them. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I slept like a log. Sunday dawned clear and cold, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, broke camp, and hiked out to the cars. We took a roundabout route on the way out, hiking down to a closer trailhead and following the access road back to 33. Along the way, we crossed through one of the more interesting features I’ve seen….a bog totally buried under several feet of snow. Plodding along well above the soggy ground was fun…we crossed the bog pretty carefully and got back on trail. By about 11am we had reached the cars and were loading up for round two of Winter Seneca!

The roads weren’t in great shape, but we all made the drive down to Seneca proper. Jay and Jamon had never seen the rock, so they came along for the ride. After a quick stop at Yokums, we parted ways. I called Matt Belfoure to check in and see if we should expect him on the summit later. No answer. So Sean and I loaded up on the junk food, racked up, packed our bags for a summit bivy, and got ready to hit the rock.

The weather was beautiful, sunny, windless, and not too cold. Sean and I debated routes for a minute or two, but the choice was clear: Gunsight to South Peak. We started the scramble, running into some serious ice on the talus field above the Stairmaster. Cut right and got above it without much trouble though, and headed over towards the Gunsight. The approach scramble wasn’t too bad…cold and snow made some of the holds a bit slick, but only on low angle stuff. Packs made the going hard, so we used the rope to protect a few spots. Soon we were perched on the ledge just before the notch of the Gunsight. The wind was moving through the notch….not much of a surprise, but a little bit unnerving nonetheless. I wasn’t too sure I could lead the pitch with my gloves on…just fumbling around with pro in gloved hands wasn’t going to work very well.

Sean slung a tree for the belay and flaked the rope as I prepared the rack, zipped up my shell, windproofed myself as best as possible.

“On belay?” I inquired.
“You’re on!” came the reply.

“Okay…here goes nothing!” I clambered up into the Gunsight and got blasted. The wind was really strong…and cold. I moved quickly to the crux move, throwing in a hex with my gloved hands. I traversed out over the west face, gained a decent stance, and placed some more gear. I took my gloves off for a move or two, clipped a fixed pin for pro and stopped to warm up a bit. I moved pretty quickly over the rest of the climb, climbing barehanded here and there, wearing gloves when possible. I figured that belaying at the bolts on Conn’s East would be too exposed, so I set up a gear belay right on the face below. I was pretty psyched to have sent the route with a pack and boots, under pretty rough conditions. I put Sean on belay and radioed down that he could take start climbing. As he came up, I flaked coils of rope over the anchor and the wind blew them right back off. I screamed into the wind, but my voice didn’t carry three feet. It was pretty intense. Sean came into view below the belay. He had his gloves off for a while and got pretty cold. I shouted down,

“Take your time and warm up man….we’ve got plenty of daylight!”

He put his gloves on and finished the pitch, warming up his cold fingers a bit at the belay. Not wanting to delay things any more than necessary, Sean put me on belay and I sauntered across the snowy summit ledge, placing pro at every convenient crevice. I ended up at the cozy belay on the true summit, threw in a few bomber hexes, took up the slack, and starting bringing Sean across. Suddenly the rope went tight…..could he have fallen? I radioed across,

“Hey there, you ok??”
“Yeah, I’m fine. My hand slipped and I’m on the rope…I’m just going to prussic back up to the ledge.”

Whew….glad I protected the summit traverse as heavily as I did! A few minutes passed and the rope went slack again. As I was sitting on the summit, I thought I heard a yell…but it was indistinguishable. I took a look around and sure enough, there were two ant-like figures waving from the parking lot. I waved back, but couldn’t make out their calls. Guess we would have company after all. A second or two later Sean radioed over to let me know he was back on and climbing… and before I knew it we were sitting on the summit ledge contemplating the completion of our day’s adventure.

We had both had enough fun for one day, so unrolled our sleeping pads and bags, fired up Sean’s dragonfly, and chowed down on some Lipton rice and pasta. We boiled up a couple nalgenes of hot chocolate and settled in until Matt and Emily arrived. Sure enough, just about when we had packed up dinner, a faint cry came from somewhere down below Conn’s West. I scurried across the ledge and hung my head out over the void. The beam from my Tikka didn’t even begin to reach the ground, but I called out and two pinpricks of light swung up towards me from the ground.

“DROP A LINE” came the distant cry. I grabbed the ropes, scrambled down to the belay on Conn’s West, and fixed a 200ft line for the pair to ascend. In the fading twilight, I could see a storm brewing over the next ridge. By the time Emily had frogged her was up to the belay ledge, it was snowing. Matt came up after her, dragging a 50lb pack with both of their bivy gear. He had to ditch the pack halfway up…so he and I spent a while hauling the monster before scrambling back up to the summit ledge and turning in for a long, cold night.

It snowed all night. And blew. The wind came up off both faces so hard that I could feel it tugging my sleeping bag, even tucked back into the corner of the summit bivy spot. I was out in the open, just a load of synthetic insulation keeping the wet out. It didn’t stay out long…but I stayed warm enough. By morning I had a few inches of fresh snow on top of my bag and a few more inside with me. No problems though….I layered up and dried out pretty quickly. Sean had no problems staying warm overnight, sealed up in his Gore-Tex bivy. However, come morning, he commented that he had blisters on his fingertips! Apparently he had gotten them very cold coming up the Gunsight…fortunately he had sensation and feeling. Still, the fingers needed to go home.

It was still snowing….in fact, conditions were downright nasty, so any thoughts of climbing went totally out the window, and we wasted no time in getting the gear together and preparing to rap. I wanted to rap Traffic Jam in one shot to the base, but Matt and Emily had left some gear on Conn’s on the way up, so we did the two rappels and got on the ground in short order. I wanted no part of descending the steep ice slope that had formed over the talus field on the descent, so Sean and I elected to rappel the Burn straight to the bottom. Matt and Emily insisted on hiking down, so we split up and headed down our separate ways. Sean and I arrived at the car ten or fifteen minutes before Matt and Emily…and by this point he had some pretty large blisters on his fingers. Matt and Emily made their way down to the cars; we took a few pictures for posterity, and headed home.

All things considered, the trip went pretty well. Everyone (both on the backpacking segment and on the climbing segment) learned some valuable lessons about just how hard to push in seriously cold conditions…and the trip raised the bar for future winter POC outings.

Update Feb 25th 2003: Sean’s fingers ended up fine, though he did have to wait out a few weekends of ice climbing and backpacking before being totally healed. Moral of the story is that frostbite can happen pretty quickly so pay attention to your toes and fingers when it’s cold outside!

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