I want to thank Jeffrey for sharing yet another trip report and his photos with all of us. I met Jeffrey through our Facebook Page where I learned that he has reconnected to climbing at age 32 after a diagnosis with type 1 diabetes this past fall (Black Friday 2012). I was immediately inspired when he shared his story with me and how his approach to management and adjustment was all about teamwork, positivity and determination to find a way to get after it. I am excited to be able to share this guest post and content from others like us who are living powerfully with diabetes in the vertical world. (Steve)
“We’re going camping!” I reminded Jenny about every 20 minutes on our four-hour ride. We rarely get a chance to vacation, but after seemingly endless months of grad school, Jenny finally had a well-deserved week off. Our trips never stray too far from the Mid-Atlantic vicinity; family and friends stretch between Norfolk and New York City. However on this vacation we headed to the mountains. Destination: Seneca Rocks, WV.
Seneca Rocks is where I began climbing in 1994 as an awkward high school freshman. My father felt it might be nice to try an outdoorsy, non-team related activity. He enrolled us in an intro to climbing class at Seneca, and we were hooked. My dad, brother, and I would climb every weekend we could for the next four years. Unfortunately, as I moved out, started working, and went to college, the climbing tapered off. The last time I’d been to Seneca was probably fifteen years ago. I was beyond excited to relive those memories and share them with Jennifer; this was already shaping up to be a very special trip.
As a grad student Jenny gets out to climb maybe once every couple months. She’s competent at top roping moderates, but she’s never climbed anything more than 60 or 70 feet. I wanted her to have some multi-pitch experience beforehand, so the week prior we drove out to Harpers Ferry and climbed a few two-pitch routes on Maryland Heights. She seemed quite at ease belaying from ledges and rappelling, so I felt pretty confident having her follow some 5.easies at Seneca.
My goals for the trip were twofold. Firstly, I wanted to lead Jenny to the South Peak summit. My dad and I climbed to the summit in ’94, but we’ve never made it back since. Secondly, I wanted to see if the climbing school still had the summit register from 1994.
I can’t remember if we had even signed it back then, but if we did, Dad would be thrilled to see a picture of our entry. As the trip approached the forecast looked grim. I took that Thursday and Friday off work, but the weather seemed to disapprove. Friday called for thunderstorms and high winds, but that wasn’t going to stop us. I had some backup plans in mind if we were completely washed out.
Thursday morning we set out on our journey and made it to Seneca by late afternoon. Even the drive was nostalgic for me. I could recognize some of the turns and barns and farms along the way. Upon arriving we setup camp, packed a small bag, and hiked up to visit Seneca’s North Peak. The switchback trail is a mile and a half and rises a thousand feet above the town. We scrambled along the top, tried to pick out our tent in the distance, and snacked. I showed Jenny where I first climbed and some of the routes like Streptococcus, a steep 5.9* I don’t think I ever made it up. The sun was hanging low in the sky so we hiked back down. Each time we faced the rocks I quizzed Jenny on the different faces and features. As we neared the end of the trail a shirtless runner passed us on his way up the mountain. Jenny and I snickered and scoffed at his blatant athleticism. We returned to camp and made some dinner and settled in for the night. We had the entire campgrounds to ourselves. It was a nice change from the city; we could look up and see so many more stars.
Friday morning was rough. During the restless night I remembered how much trouble I had sleeping in tents. Jenny and I made coffee and ate breakfast. Since we would be facing poor weather later, I only wanted to get one climb in for the day. I didn’t want to get all caught up in a downpour, so I chose a single pitch route at the South End of Seneca, Candy Corner, a 5.6*. We made the short hike in and crossed paths with another few other climbers on Totem. Totem is where Dad and I were first taught how to lead climb and place protection. I started up Candy Corner and it was fantastic. A couple spots gave me some pause, but I was able to figure out the moves. The climb follows a narrow dihedral and the end of a Skyline Buttress. The first section is a ramp but quickly rises to vertical with a couple bulges. I’m a decent 5.9 climber but that was a tricky for a 5.6. I must not have remembered the grades at Seneca are a bit stiff. Jenny followed up to the belay ledge without any trouble at all. I was impressed and so proud of her. We looked across the road to the Souther Pillar and another party climbing Roy Gap Chimneys. Jenny and I rapped off, packed up, snooped around Seneca’s “cave”, and then hiked out.
I decided to stop by the climbing school to ask about the register, and I was met by a familiar looking trail runner, haha. After introductions Rob said I should check back tomorrow and ask for Diane. He asked if we were climbing today. I mentioned we did Candy Corner, just one and done. “Oh, we were on Roy Gap Chimneys watching you!” he exclaimed. We chatted a bit more before Jenny and I headed back to our tent for the impending storm. The rain beat down on us for a good two hours, and the wind was trying its hardest to sweep away our tarp. We survived. After the storm passed a few other campers arrived and pitched tents.
Saturday morning started much like Friday morning: I was again exhausted from lack of sleep. My initial plan for the day was to lead Jenny up Skyline Traverse, then take Conn’s West to the summit, but with the wind still whipping through the valley I didn’t think Jenny would have too much fun hundreds of feet in the air trying to climb without being blown off the rock. So we decided to head to the Lower Slabs for some top rope fun. Before we hiked in, I stopped by the climbing school again and met Diane. We flipped through maybe a dozen registers she had on hand but could only find entries as far back as 1995. So close! I was mildly disappointed, but at the same time I wasn’t even sure if we signed it in the first place, oh well. We still had a chance to achieve our first goal. So back up the North Peak trail we went. I couldn’t remember ever climbing the Lower Slabs before, so this felt new and exciting. We dropped an anchor on Scuttle, a 5.7* crack. The crux is getting off the ground and onto a narrow ledge 10 feet up. The rest of the crack is pleasant with an off-width section near the top. We both send it without issue. I pulled the rope and decided to lead it just for good measure. Jenny cleans the route, but the start gave her much more trouble on the second go. That happens to us often. We broke down Scuttle and moved up the hill to Discrepancy, a 5.8* crack with a superb finger lock. This was a great route, very challenging but doable for us. Jenny had to sit at a couple spots to figure out the sequence but she muscled through it and reached to the top. From the same anchors I wanted to try The Warlock, a 5.9+* face just to the left of Discrepancy. This was a tough route. Very thin and blank at the bottom, but a little more forgiving as you trend up and right towards Discrepancy. I had to sit on it twice to work out the crux. I’d love to return and ‘send it clean, something to look forward to. After The Warlock I wanted to cool down and lead another 5.easy. At the other end of the slabs was Wap Suck #4, a 5.4 “vegetated corner with dead tree”. As the name implies, it sucked. A pretty unremarkable climb, only to be punctuated by an even worse descent. Once at the top we had to traverse back across the slabs to a hardly visible rappel tree. We bushwhacked through thickets, over rotting trees, on top of loose rock and moss. Jenny was probably more gripped than she let on. We reached the rappel and made it down safely to our packs vowing never to return to that debacle. We hiked out and drove back to our tent to find the campground bustling.
Saturday was our last night camping; we had one more day to make it up the South Peak. I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous. Since my climbing hiatus, I’ve only been at it for a year and a half. I still feel like I’m learning and relearning new things with each trip. When it comes to climbing I tend to be a bit pragmatic, cautious, and realistic. I’ll top-rope just about anything, but I only like leading routes I know for sure are well within my abilities. Especially when visiting new areas or crags, I feel much more at ease with someone who’s been there before and ‘knows the ropes’. Furthermore, I’ve only been climbing with diabetes for four months. I haven’t climbed anything more than two pitches or needed to bring up my meter with me for any extended time. Thinking about taking care of all that mess, dialing in my insulin doses, climbing with a pack, and what snacks to pack just consumed my brain. I felt like I was dragging the love of my life into uncharted territory. I stayed up with the flashlight reading and re-reading the guidebook, studying the route descriptions and descents until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
Sunday morning was a little easier to wake up. Jenny and I had coffee and oatmeal again. Since we had to drive home that evening I felt we should skip Skyline Traverse and just hike up the ‘Stair Master’ right to the West Face. In preparation for a long day of climbing, the night before I took only half of my daily insulin. And in preparation for Stair Master I halved my mealtime insulin with breakfast as well. Jenny and I racked up and started in. We passed a bunch of other climbers at the parking area taking their time. We made it up the road, across the stream, and began the arduous Stair Master. As we passed the Ecstasy Buttress we noticed a climber hanging out way up at the first belay ledge. We continued on. To reach Conn’s West you must climb the first pitch of Old Man’s Route, a long traversing 5.3*. Jenny and I arrived at Old Man’s to find a father and son following their climbing instructor to the summit. I chatted with the father for a minute as his boy, age 11, was doggy paddling up the blocky ledges. I told him about my dad and I, it was quite nice. In the mean time Jenny was a little more concerned with staying warm while waiting for the sun to heat up the West Face. As we waited, all my fears and apprehension from the night before vanished. The climbing didn’t look that steep. It didn’t look that high. Didn’t even look that hard! I mean, if this eleven year old could do it…. As the father moved off the first belay ledge it was our turn to climb. We tied in, changed shoes and were off. The first pitch of Old Man’s was pretty straight-forward, easy, ledgy, fun. I belayed Jenny up without issue. From here we were at the bottom of two corners, one on to the left was an off-width/chimney flake/corner and to the right was a crack corner with two trees. Both lead right up to our next belay ledge.
So Conn’s West is a 5.4* and the book describes it as being to the right of a 5.9 off-width corner, Clarke’s Climb. Both these corners looked like fun and doable so I set off past the two trees. The route was decent enough, but about half way up the stances for placing gear were getting a bit awkward. At the next piece my arms were starting to feel it. Then at the next I needed to rest and shake out. I sunk a Metolius #4 cam into a solid diagonal crack on the right side of the corner, called down to Jenny to “Take”, and had a seat. At this point I was thinking this may not be the 5.4 after all. Jenny asked how it was going and I said, “It’s tricky for sure, but the belay is just right up there.” Maybe 6 or 7 feet above me was a little platform then another 8 or 9 feet was the belay ledge. After my arms relinquish I started moving again. Trying to layback the corner wasn’t all that positive but I finally got a right hand up to that 2 by 2 foot platform. My left arm was elbow deep behind a flake in the crack, I smeared my right foot to get a right elbow over the edge, as my left foot slipped. I caught myself but at this point my shoulders were hunched onto this little platform and I couldn’t see my feet. I saw a sharp little horn in the back corner and wrapped my right fingers around it, only for a split sec “Falling!”
Boom, done, over. Before I could even finish “ing!” I was hanging from the end of the rope, fifteen feet below a just moment ago. I looked up. There’s the #4 still in that crack. I looked down. Jenny asked if I was alright. “Yeah. just gimme a minute.” It was a clean fall, I didn’t get flipped, nor did I swing into the rock. I hung there for a moment collecting my thoughts. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I pulled myself back up to the piece using the rope, swapped out the draw for a biner and had Jenny lower me back to the belay ledge. I was completely gripped and my arms were super pumped. I was not about to try that again. Even if I could make it, Jenny would even have more trouble getting through all that mess. I was so shaky I felt like my blood sugar was in the basement. Jenny retrieved my kit and I checked my glucose. 156. I guess good old adrenaline was the culprit. I tethered into the anchor, struggled to untie my eight, pulled the rope out of the cam above, and then tied back in. I told Jenny I was about ready to just rap off and head home. “Really?” she asked. I could hear the surprise and disappointment in her voice. “Lemme look around the corner.” I went back on belay and traversed 10 feet to our left, to the off-width/chimney flake/corner. Right as I got there a helmet popped up at my feet. “Hey there” I said. “I saw you take that whipper” he replied, “You get your piece out?” “No, its still up there for someone more deserving,” I joked. “Ah, don’t be so hard on yourself” We chatted for a minute, Matt confirmed they were on Conn’s West and we were on some 5.7, the name of which he couldn’t recall. Jenny and I waited for Matt and Skip to climb through and we queued up behind them. This pitch was clearly easier, although climbing the chimney with a pack was still quite cumbersome. At the belay, I was going to lower off to retrieve my cam but there was already another party below us and I didn’t want to hold anyone else up. Jenny followed the chimney pitch like a champ. The last pitch was Conn’s West Direct Finish, a 5.5 south facing corner, and the first bit of sunshine we felt all day. A couple spots gave me hesitation but it was a nice climb. Jenny enjoyed the interesting cracks and features. As we reached the last belay,Matt and Skip were all ready to rappel down. Matt said if he were able to ‘King Swing’ over he’d grab my cam for me. I told him I appreciated the gesture but I’d snag it on the way down.
Jenny and I scrambled the last little bits to the summit. It was all of 5.0/5.1 caliber, but I stayed roped up and on belay to keep Jenny at ease. We had the South Peak to ourselves for a bit. We ate a snack, took in the view, snapped some photos, and signed a new entry into the summit register. It was almost 4:30 and I was ready to get going. A few others reached the summit as we departed. We scrambled back to the rappel station and began our decent, three rappels to solid ground. A party below us relayed up that my cam was below waiting for me. At the last station I was happy to see that #4 hanging from the chains.
Jenny and I reached the bottom, changed shoes and made our way back to the Stair Master. The way down took quite a toll on my knees, but we made it out. Driving back to our campsite we passed a car parked by the restrooms. There was Skip sitting in the passenger seat. I pulled over and the four of us talked for a while. Matt told me how much difficulty Ecstasy, another 5.7, gave him that morning. I mentioned how we saw Skip up there as we hiked in. I thanked them again for retrieving my gear and offered to buy them a round. They declined because of the long drive ahead of them. Jenny vowed to pay it forward. We went on to break down camp, pack the car, and grab a bite to eat at the Front Porch Restaurant. I took another look at the guidebook and there it was, Conn’s West Corner Start, a 5.7 dihedral with two small trees near the base. Not sure how I missed reading that the night before, but oh well. It definitely made the trip a bit more interesting. Jenny and I finished dinner as the sun set. We hopped in the car and headed home thoroughly exhausted.
I’ll admit, my eyes welled up as we drove off. I was just so incredibly happy to share such a fun, exciting, and challenging experience with my love, Jennifer. And to give her a first hand tour to some of my fondest childhood memories. I was so proud and thankful for her patience and positivity. From battling the camp stove, to a torrential downpour, from treacherous bushwhacking, to catching my fall, Jennifer was by my side, encouraging me every step of the way. Without her, that trip would have been a miserable disaster. Thank you, dear, for such an amazing time.