The Gendarme: A Climbing Vignette (1973-1987)

The Gendarme

1987_SarahBill001Every few years we, in the Boston climbing group, would go for a week to Seneca Rocks in what was then the town of Mouth of Seneca, West Virginia. We would climb at the ‘Gunks on the way there and again on the way back.

As early as 1973 there was no climber’s shop—only Buck Harper’s general store and an old covered wooden
pavilion with a stage at one end and no electricity. Here was where we camped. A wildly swaying suspension bridge over the Potomac’s North Fork gave access to the Rocks.                              Sarah & Bill>>

We went again in 1980—by which time there was a new climbing store called the Gendarme—an eponymous reference to the fifty foot stone sentinel standing guard in Gunsight Notch between the north and south faces of the cliffs. On each visit it was considered obligatory to climb it.

GendarmeBut we climbed it with reservation owing to its precarious aspect, narrower at its base than in its body—more like a Popsicle than an obelisk. Topping out below it on the climb Banana one could actually see “air” through its base—the “stick” of the Popsicle—a slab of rock seemingly not more than three feet by twelve in cross section.  Over beer in the dark at the Pavilion we would speculate about the effects of the weight and motion of climbers or about how much wind it might take to de-stabilize it. We marveled over what geologic forces might have produced it and wondered about its age. The cliffs in near their present form have been there for millions of years.

1987_WireBridge001Again in 1987 I was at Seneca for a week in late September with my friend Sarah. The suspension bridge had been carried away by floods in 1985—replaced by two cables, one high and one low, for the hands overhead and the feet below. And, of course before we left, we had climbed the Gendarme.

Four weeks later at the ‘Gunks, at the end of a day of climbing, Sarah ran up to me and said:
“Guess what happened at Seneca?”

Without a moment’s hesitation I replied: “The Gendarme fell.”

And so, on October 22nd—a sunny, windless Thursday afternoon—the sentinel collapsed and, with a roar, dashed itself into thousands of shards below.

In contemplation of this event, in relation to the geologic time-scale, it seems Sarah and I had a pretty close call.

 More climbing vignettes:
Bobo to the Rescue
“Travails” With Charley

3 thoughts on “The Gendarme: A Climbing Vignette (1973-1987)

  1. Hi Scott:
    Thanks for your parallel story! Any chance you still have the photo? I might be able to link it somehow to mine. If you do send it be sure to include some information (date, names, etc.).
    My climbing days are long over–I’m 97 and in assisted living–but I keep up with my local cragsters some of whom I have known since the ’60s.
    Berg Heil,
    p.s. My email is


  2. Great story! You did a nice job of capturing the essence of the Gendarme, which I consider to this day the scariest 5.4 climb I ever did. Your comment about geologic time especially hit home for me. On Sunday afternoon October 18, 1987, I led the usual East face route for the umpteenth time. Normally we would just lower off and let the next person clean on toprope, but we had a party of three that day, and for some reason thought it would be cute to get a photo of all three of us on top. There was another group nearby, and someone agree to take our picture. It was really crowded on top of that thing with 3 people there! I learned about the fall from a small blurb in Outside magazine a month or two later, and I know Tony Barnes had a client on top after we climbed it, but like you, I think we had a really close call! Thanks for the memory.


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