Every 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, WV. 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.
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 watch in Gunsight Notch between the north and south faces of the cliffs. On each visit it was considered obligatory to climb it.
But 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 destabilize 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.
Again 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 twenty-second—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.
Believing that sentry ill-starred,
They crept so’s to climb it un-jarred.
No aeon knows when…
But had it failed then
‘T would surely have caught them off guard!