For young climbers, the road trip is a rite of passage. Eschewing such mundane concerns as food and work, they cross the country to visit revered climbing locales such as the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, Red Rocks in Nevada, and Joshua Tree and Yosemite in California.
I was never a young climber. I took up the sport in my fifties. I couldn’t just quit my job and become a nomadic climbing bum. And so I did all my climbing in the Adirondacks, except for one afternoon at a small cliff in Little Falls.
In October, though, I went on a small version of the road trip. For years, I had been promising my friend Scott that I would visit him at his home in Kentucky. So I decided to drive down and do some climbing along the way. In all, I climbed in five places (in order): Ragged Mountain in Connecticut, the Gunks in downstate New York, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and the New River Gorge and Seneca Rocks in West Virginia.
I spent most of my climbing time in the Gunks, the Red, and Seneca. At all three, the rock differs considerably from that in the Adirondacks. Here we climb mostly on anorthosite or gneiss, hard, granite-like rock. In the Red River Gorge, the rock is gritty sandstone, often with pockets, knobs, and small ribs. In the Gunks and at Seneca, the rock is sedimentary conglomerate.
Although the rock at the Gunks and Seneca is similar, the climbing is not. The Gunks are known for horizontal features—tiers of ledges. Although the routes are steep, most offer the climber plenty of footholds. At Seneca, the rocks are tipped sideways, so the sedimentary layers—what would be tiered ledges—run vertically. Because of erosion, the summits of Seneca (South Peak and North Peak) are fins of rock that are only a few feet wide in places.
At Seneca, I hired a guide—Massey Teel of Seneca Rocks Climbing School. On the first day, we climbed to the summit via a classic route called Gunsight to South Peak that follows one of the fins. Talk about exhilaration! As we scaled the narrow ridge, the cliffs on either side dropped straight down for a hundred feet or more. And yet the climbing was not difficult, given the abundance of footholds and handholds. If you go to Seneca Rocks, be sure to do this route.
Massey also led me up some harder routes such as Bee Sting Corner, Dufty’s Popoff, and Soler. All are rated 5.7 in the Yosemite Decimal System, which means they are of intermediate difficulty. They involved crack climbing, face climbing, corner stemming, and pulling over a roof. Difficulty ratings can differ from place to place. I’m not the best judge, but I’d say these were solid 5.7s.
At Red River, my guide was Dan Wilkes of Torrent Falls Climbing. He led me up a 5.8 route known as Whiteout on a cliff called Emerald City. I didn’t know it was 5.8 until after the climb. Since I haven’t climbed many 5.8s, I might have been intimidated had I known.
Later, Dan took me to a 5.10 bolted route called Diamond in the Rough. I had never attempted anything this hard, so I was pleased that I was able to get nearly halfway up without a great deal of trouble, using tiny finger-holds and toeholds. Then I became tired. I fought on to the top, but I often had to sit back on the rope to rest. It was not pretty, but it was just what I needed: to be challenged to my utmost.
At the Gunks, the highlight was High Exposure, a famous route established by Hans Kraus and Fritz Wiessner in 1941. It was a bold climb for the day, as the leader (Kraus) had to pull himself around a blind corner and onto a roof without knowing what he’d find. As it turned out, the roof had plenty of generous holds. Modern climbers know this, but it’s still a scary move. You reach around the blind corner with your right hand, stand and lean back into space, and then find a hold above the roof with your other hand. At least, that’s the way I did it. My leader, Nyle Baker, may have employed a different technique.
Wiessner, incidentally, discovered the Gunks for climbing. He and Kraus put up many of the early routes there. If you’ve read my climbing stories in the Explorer, you know that Fritz put up a number of early routes in the Adirondacks as well—including the popular Wiessner Route on Upper Washbowl.
Wiessner also did a lot of climbing at Ragged Mountain in Connecticut. In fact, his route Vector, from 1935, may have been the first 5.8 in the country. I went to Ragged with my son Nathan at the start of my road trip. Unfortunately, we arrived late in the day and had time for only one climb. Fittingly, it was the Wiessner Slab.
Photos: From above, Phil Brown nears the top of South Peak at Seneca Rocks; Massey Teel of Seneca Rocks Climbing School; Dan Wilkes at the top of Whiteout; and Nyle Baker finishes the crux on High Exposure.