The Moment the Gendarme Fell
All things upon the earth, living or not, are subject to the effects of two natural forces, gravity and time. For humans, gravity and time conspire to wear us down, much as it does material things.
The effects on humans are insidious because the weak force of gravity is at work around the clock. As a former superintendent of the New River Gorge was fond of saying, “Gravity never sleeps.”
If we dare to look in the mirror from middle age on, we can’t help but notice the sagging, folds, and wrinkles in our face, belly and other assorted parts of the body – gravity has been relentlessly tugging us downward.
Given our relatively short lifespan, we think of ourselves and the material world as somewhat stable. We, and everything upon this Earth, are under constant assault by all forms of degradation and erosion – it is how nature works.
Just consider how quickly nature reclaims abandoned houses, villages and even roadways. These are changes we can observe in a human lifetime. So, imagine what millions of years can do to mountains. The Grand Canyon was formed in a relatively short period of five to six million years, offering a dramatic demonstration of erosion.
The Tuscarora sandstone that constitutes the Gendarme was deposited some 400 million years ago. Tectonic forces 200 million years ago lifted the rock that makes up Seneca Rocks 90 degrees into a vertical position.
Although Tuscarora sandstone is erosion resistant, it is not erosion-proof. Hence, Seneca Rocks will shed sections of rocks until it is no more. Remember, the Appalachian Mountains were once as high or higher than the Himalayas.
Let’s now turn our attention to a unique geological event that took place right here in West Virginia in 1987.
Seneca Rocks, formerly Mouth of Seneca, Pendleton County, West Virginia.
For thousands of years, perhaps millions, a 20-ton pinnacle of Tuscarora quartzite rose from the Gunsight Notch at Seneca Rocks, looking all the world like the forward sight on the muzzle of a gun. This landmark, familiar to locals, rock climbers and visitors alike, fell from its airy perch on a sunny October afternoon in 1987.
When the Gendarme fell, it removed a favorite landmark from the view afforded in the little settlement of Seneca Rocks. It has been absent for 35 years, but on each visit, when the stunning image of Seneca Rocks comes into view, my eyes still go first to the empty Gunsight Notch that bridges the north and south peaks.
If you climbed at Seneca Rocks in the 1970s and 80s, you couldn’t help but know Buck Harper, the proprietor of Harper’s General Store. Buck was a favorite of the rock climbers who stayed at his campground – the Pavilion.
He was known for his sharp wit and homegrown philosophy. Buck wore bib overalls – an educated man who comfortably bore the image of a country boy. You didn’t have to know him long before realizing he was “dumb as a fox.” In case you are too young to be familiar with that old phrase – Buck was an intelligent man.
One day after coming down from the rocks, as was my custom, I headed straight to Harper’s General Store to sit on Buck’s porch and eat an Eskimo Pie. It wasn’t long before Buck stepped out to the porch to expectorate his tobacco juice through a knothole in one of the planks – his aim was invariably accurate.
He asked me what I had climbed that day. I told Buck that I had taken a couple of people from Ohio up the Gendarme. He looked up at the prominent spire that stood tall in the Gunsight Notch and said something I have never forgotten.
“It was you climbers that started calling that rock the Gendarme,” he said. “Most of the people around here know that spire as the Chimney. Many would not know that a gendarme is a French policeman.”
In accordance with Buck’s revelation, I never again called the pinnacle the Gendarme when eating Eskimo Pies on his porch; it was now the Chimney when in Buck’s company.
Buck also shared a story that made its rounds for years among the climbing community. He said that many years ago, an “outlaw” toted some dynamite up to the Chimney and set it off, hoping to see the big rock tumble down the mountainside.
The Gendarme didn’t budge, and Buck never revealed who that outlaw was, at least to me.
October 29, 1987
It was a beautiful fall day.
The temperature was in the 50s, and the visibility extended nearly 10 miles. The average wind speed was only six mph, and the maximum wind gusts expected were 21 mph. It was a clear but cool and dry day, a great day to be on Seneca Rocks.
Several climbers were on the rocks that day, including a climbing guide from the Gendarme climbing shop and his students. It is unknown to me if anyone had climbed the Gendarme on that particular day.
Seneca Rocks Elementary School was in session that afternoon when a deafening roar came down from the rocks, causing everyone to head outside to see what was happening.
Upon seeing the enormous dust cloud, a 10-year-old student looked down at his wristwatch. The time that the Gendarme became only a fond memory was 3:27 p.m. Ironically, this young lad just happened to be the son of the owner of the Gendarme climbing shop, John Markwell.
Locals, visitors and climbers alike loved the Gendarme. Its sudden absence was a great loss for many West Virginians.
The Gendarme had several climbing routes that ended on its 25-foot summit. Tradition required that, to claim to have successfully climbed this famous pinnacle, one must stand up on its exceeding small and sloped peak. Once you had completed the climb according to this unwritten rule, you were worthy to purchase a T-shirt at the climbing shop depicting a climber comfortably standing on top.
(Actually, most people are frighteningly close to wetting themselves at this point in the climb.)
This iconic climber’s Mecca is situated just south of Harper’s General Store and remains there to this day. It is worth a visit whether you are a climber or not.
The following climbing description of the Gendarme comes from the 1976 edition of A Climber’s Guide to Seneca Rocks by Bill Webster and Rich Pleiss.
“From the north side of the Gendarme, walk over to the sloping East Face and climb diagonally up and to the left. The crux of the climb has not been done if the climber doesn’t stand up at the top of the pinnacle.”
I have had the privilege and pleasure of guiding numerous climbers to the summit of the Gendarme. After a successful climb, I always took those brave souls down to the climbing shop to get their T-shirts and then on to Buck’s store to get them an Eskimo Pie.
Even though I will never climb again, I will always miss that familiar spire that stood guard over the charming little village of Seneca Rocks.
Our own Ruth Taylor offers her personal anecdote about the story of the Gendarme.
“I had planned a trip to Seneca Rocks with a Hospitality Class I was conducting at Davis and Elkins College. When we arrived early that morning, a large group appeared to be having a wake.’
“They were just standing there staring at the empty space in the Gunsight Notch. We soon discovered that the reason for their grief was that the Gendarme had toppled over just a few hours earlier.”
Loss cannot be measured nor explained in mere words. There is wisdom in Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun.” The Gendarme’s time arrived precisely at 3:27 p.m. on October 29, 1987.