PATC Mountaineering Section New Members Guide


This guide is to answer common questions and assist new members and prospective members. It assumes you are a climber, probably with little experience but maybe a lot. You’ve heard of our group, maybe attended an event, and you want to join and go climbing. How does it work? Do you need gear? What do you need to know? Will anybody climb with you? Read on and find out.


What does the club do?

We do a lot of things.

  • We have scheduled club trips. During daylight savings time we climb at Carderock, MD every Wednesday evening (weather permitting). Usually about 5 PM until dark.
  • We have a monthly club meeting with some kind of show, discussion, and club business
  • Our mailing list and on-line groups are a clearinghouse for members to organize climbing trips, mostly fairly local but some throughout the US and even abroad.
  • We organize teaching exchanges where members with more knowledge and experience share with others on top rope anchoring, rappelling, protection, aid climbing, you name it.

How do I go on a club trip?

First, you join the club, pay dues, and sign a waiver. Then you look at the calendar, emails, and meetup announcements. When you see something announced you signup, or you just show up, depending on the trip. Some trips are suitable for almost anybody, some are not. Here is a quick guide.

  • Feel free to show up to any of the monthly evening meetings, watch the show, and introduce yourself.
  • If you have a harness and shoes, and know how to belay, you are welcome to show up to the Carderock climbing on Wednesday evenings. Even if you don’t know how to belay you can show up, although you’ll probably get less time in. You can show up alone and you can probably work in with others, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask on the list and see if somebody wants to trade belays.
  • For other trips we recommend you ask. Some trips are beginner friendly, some are not. Some you can show up and find somebody to climb with, some you can’t. It is better to ask in advance. See the descriptions below for a guide to some of the areas we go.

What kind of climbing happens, and what do I need to go?

There are a lot of different trips to different places, and it varies a lot. Here is a quick guide. Our "beta" section on the this website has a lot more information about some of these locations.

  • As noted above, for Wednesday evenings at Carderock a harness, shoes, and basic belay skills are fine. If you know how to set up a top rope and have the gear, bring it, but there are usually other people setting up ropes. If you don’t know how to belay at all somebody will probably show you, but seriously you should probably learn at a gym first. It is just more efficient.
  • The casual local crags are Little Stony Man, Buzzard’s, Crescent Rock, Annapolis Rock, and Pond Bank. These are all low enough that top ropes can be set, although there is usually a lot of leading going on. There is usually a walk down from the cliff or an easy rappel. Harness, shoes, and enough hiking gear to stay out all day are all you really need. Since these areas are pretty casual, if you don’t lead and don’t have a partner you can probably find somebody, but we recommend you ask in advance to avoid disappointment.
  • Seneca Rock in West Virginia is a big trip location. Seneca is a multi-pitch, traditional crag with very limited top roping. If you go to Seneca expect to do multi-pitch trad climbing. Expect to do multiple rappels down vertical cliffs to get down. Expect to be out all day before returning to the base, with thunderstorms not uncommon in the spring. There are many leaders in the club who are willing to take a beginner, if that beginner has very solid belay skills, can handle himself/herself safely on multi-pitch climbs, and has the personal gear for a full day of trad climbing. Don’t assume you can just show up and find a leader (though you may). It is very advisable to ask in advance. It is about a three hour drive and we usually camp nearby.
  • The Shawangunks (“Gunks”) in New York are like Seneca, but farther away. People usually have partners when they go to the Gunks. If you are interested you should be working with somebody before hand.
  • New River Gorge is a huge area about 4-5 hours away in West Virginia. Top roping is very possible in NRG, but the climbs are mostly hard. If you don’t climb at 5.9 trad or 5.10+ sport your NRG opportunities are somewhat limited. Know what you are doing and have a partner before you head for NRG.

How about snow, alpine, ice, etc?

Yeah, we do that, too. Locally the pickings are thin, but they do exist. As far as this goes you’ll find a couple of things.

  • The club sponsors an “Alpine Skills Weekend” around Mt Washington in the winter. This is an instructional trip, but its on Mt Washington in deep winter. That means you need to know how to handle the COLD before you try it, because frostbite can happen really fast up there. This trip fills up fast, so if you are interested contact the coordinator as soon as you hear it announced. You’ll need your own set of full winter gear to participate.
  • Some club members go out to various Shenandoah drips all winter in search of local ice climbing. Watch the list for announcements. In general you’ll need your own gear and at least some basic ice climbing knowledge to participate. Some areas are not suitable for beginners.
  • To really get ice climbing in you need to go to Colorado (Ouray!), North Conway, or one of the other ice meccas. If this is really your thing you should talk to the members who do these personally. There is usually a club group in Ouray some time in January.
  • A few people use a place called Gibbon’s Roost along the Potomac (south of Great Falls) for dry tooling practice.

I’m a beginner, how do I learn all the necessary skills to participate?

If you want instruction by people who are professionally qualified to provide it, we can recommend the guide services out at Seneca, and some local folks (REI, Earthtreks, etc.). If you want to learn by doing from people with lots of experience and minimal professional qualifications, there are lots of people in the club. If your belaying skills are solid, you keep the rope untangled on the ledges, and there is a cooler of beer in your car you can probably find somebody who needs a second.


More seriously, the club does run some educational events. We usually have a New Follower’s Day (or Weekend) for people who are breaking into following multi-pitch trad. We usually have a New Leader’s Day for beginning trad leaders. There are a couple of other events with an orientation toward taking beginners out for multi-pitch. Feel free to suggest topics. Feel even more free to figure out who could teach the topic, plan the event, and set up the logistics.


What about gear? What do I need?

We are not going to provide a complete gear list for all occasions, because there is a lot of variety around here, but here are some quick guidelines:


For Carderock: Harness, climbing shoes, and a belay device. In the summer bring some water, sunscreen, and bug spray. In the winter bring a jacket.

For places like Little Stony Man, Buzzards, other small crags: Shoes and a pack to hike in to the place, climbing shoes, harness, helmet, belay device, nut tool, clothes for the weather, water, lunch.

Seneca Rocks: If you are seconding, clothes and approach shoes for the hike in, climbing shoes, harness, helmet, belay device, a couple of locking carabiners, a couple of long slings, a prussik loop, small pack, water, food. If you are leading you’ll need a full rack and two cordelettes. There are very few sport climbs and most anchors have to be built from gear.


Where does the club climb?

Here is a quick guide to popular areas. You can read more about these in our "beta" section of the web site.


Carderock (Maryland): The ever popular afterwork spot. The approach is less than five minutes from the parking lot. There is one line of cliffs, about 40 feet high. Yeah, it can be pretty hot and greasy in the summer, and it faces west, which isn’t exactly great for the afternoon in the summer, but it sure is convenient. There are climbs every few feet of the cliff. Essentially everything is top roped.


Great Falls (Virginia): Right across the river from Carderock. The cliffs of Great Falls are much more spread out. Some of them take up to 15 minutes or so to hike to, and you have to approach from the top. The variety here is a little greater than at Carderock with a number of good crack climbs mixed in. Access is a little harder, since it is down a twisty road in Northern Virginia and inside Great Falls National Park. A few people lead here, but it is not recommended (the rock is too soft and does not reliably hold gear). Everything can be top roped.


Buzzard’s Rock: Near Elizabeth Furnace, outside of Front Royal, VA. A broken cliff line a few hundred yards long and up to 100 feet high. Mostly slabby friction climbing in the 5.6-5.8 range, with a few harder and easier climbs, some requiring gear to protect mixed in. People mostly lead the routes at Buzzards, but they can mostly be top roped. The approach is a longer hike (45 minutes to an hour), but quite nice.


Crescent Rock, VA/WV border: Easy approach, if you snag one of the few good parking spaces, off the Appalachian Trail. Otherwise a solid walk in. Can do leading but everything can be top roped.


Seneca Rocks, WV: The best multi-pitch traditional climbing reasonably near to the DC area. Takes around 3 hours from DC. The approach is the infamous “Stairmaster” trail. Climbs are 1 to 3 pitches, and going to the south summit (the highest class 5 summit east of the Mississippi) is very popular. Many routes are mandatory multiple rappels off. Seneca has a well-deserved reputation for hard grades, steepness, and some loose rock, but also great views (especially in the fall) and a fun climbing community.


Old Rag, VA: A very complex set of granite cliffs around Old Rag Mountain. This is very unusual for the area, and one of the few places around to practice on granite (very useful if you plan to climb out west). The approach is long (usually two hours) and it is very helpful to have somebody along who has been before. Some of the best crack climbs in the area are at Old Rag. A mix of one and two pitch traditional routes.


New River Gorge: More than a 1000 routes on multiple cliffs above the New River. Most people stay around Fayetteville, WV and drive and hike to the cliffs. Exceptional, world famous climbing. The cliffs are mostly one pitch, and most climbs can be top roped, but it is not really a beginners area. The quality climbs mostly start at 5.9 and go up from there. Quite a few excellent crack climbs.


Little Stony Man, VA: A five minute walk off of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. Very scenic. The cliff is around 50 feet high. Everything could be top roped, but the Appalachian Trail is right at the top of the cliff and the configuration makes it hard to rig top rope anchors (don’t put ropes over the trail). As a result the area is more for leading. The routes are mostly pretty easy (5.4 to 5.7), but because of the rock and the layout it is a poor place to take leader falls.


Sugarloaf (Maryland): Multiple groups of cliffs on a hill. Wide variety of short climbs. Pretty much anything can be top roped (if you can find an anchor). Lots of leading. Mostly easier routes, but there are some hard ones as well.


Pond Bank (also called White Rocks): In Pennsylvania, so it’s a long drive from Virginia but a much easier drive if you live in the 270 corridor in Maryland. Once you get up there the approach is really short. A variety of mostly easier climbs. An unusual number of crack climbs, for the area.


A Quick Progression

  • 1.     Learn the basics of tying in and belaying in a gym. Learning to lead and lead belay in the gym would be good idea, too.
  • 2.     Come on out to Carderock. Introduce yourself. Look at the list for when people gym climb and show up for that, too.
  • 3.     When you see a trip to Buzzard’s, Little Stony Man, or other small crag ask who wants a partner. Try out real rock.
  • 4.     Either learn by osmosis, or take one of the “Gym to Cliff” classes offered by local guides learn to manage the belay ledge, second, rappel, and remove gear.
  • 5.     Come out to Seneca or sign up for New Follower’s Day.
  • 6.     Learning to lead trad is kind of a different story. Ask around the campfire one night.
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