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Leading at Great Falls in VA
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By Kirby
From DC
Feb 8, 2013

Hey folks,

I'm interested in doing some leading at my local crag, Great Falls in VA. It's mainly a top rope area, and the conventional wisdom (repeated across the internet, in guidebooks, via word-of-mouth) is that protection will slip out of cracks, or will break the rock. I've heard first-hand accounts of this as well, e.g. on Armbuster, some guy decked (lightly, apparently a lower piece held, which kept him from smacking the ground at full speed) when his highest cam slipped out of the rock. The piece that held was also a cam, from what I heard.

However, some of the routes there would accept nuts/offset nuts very well. The one example that comes to mind is Lost Arrow. On the Lost Arrow route description page, there's a comment suggesting that one could thread nuts in the crack very easily, and that definitely seems to be the case from my experience on that route.

So, my question is, has anyone lead climbed at Great Falls? Had anyone led Lost Arrow? It seems to me that protecting routes with nuts would work very well there, and the problem of things slipping out would be mitigated by using only nuts. If I head out to Lost Arrow and sew it up with stoppers, am I gonna die? Has anyone done this? Is my reasoning sound? The only thing that kind of concerns me is the idea that the rock might break--but to me, that polished, water-weather rock seems pretty damn solid.

tl;dr: will stoppers protect lead climbs at Great Falls?

signed,
Looking for excitement 30 minutes from my house


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By Jeff Fiedler
Feb 8, 2013

Great Falls climbs are really short.

My concern would be more that you risk decking just with slack/rope stretch. I wouldn't choose to take a real trad lead fall 10-15 feet off the ground.


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By ACR
Feb 8, 2013

I've lead there tons. I would guess most of the lines have been led at one time or another.

Get some experience placing gear on easier routes (well below your max level) and practice making good decisions. Gear is just a tool. You have to use it properly.
The rock at Great Falls is granite. It's generally good stuff but can be polished in places. Learn how and why some placements are better than others. Learn to spot constrictions and protection opportunities. Spotting a trend here? LEARN

I think nuts, or most passive pro, work great out there and at Carderock. Since the routes are short you have to place good gear low and often to keep your butt off the deck if you pop. Also, an attentive belayer who understands what your doing is key.

Have fun. Be safe. Wear a helmet.


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By Rafael Rovirosa
From Las Cruces, NM
Feb 8, 2013

I would not lead here if I were you Kirby. The rock is not good here. It is not granite as stated above. It is schist which is metamorphosed granite and is much more brittle than regular granite like at Old Rag. In setting up top rope anchors with gear, I have seen rock crumble in basically every gear placement made. Even the strongest rock at GF will crumble under the force exerted by a cam or tricam. Nuts are definitely a better option, but I still don't trust the rock. I have done some aiding at great falls and the rock always crumbles under body weight. It may not always lead to gear failure but I have had pieces break rock and rip on me while under body weight (fortunately I was on top rope doing a solo aid so the next piece down did not get weighted). I have only aided lost arrow but I did sew it up with nuts. Essentially each one was an offset and I used maybe 2 cams at the top. The nuts are small and I thought they were spooky but you may be braver than I am. Just to reiterate, its not that the rock isn't hard, but that the rock is brittle; it just flakes off. Good luck, have fun, wear a helmet, and maybe take a lead fall on top rope just to weight the gear and see if it holds.


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By Wannabe
Feb 8, 2013

Kirby and ACR,
I'm gonna try real hard to follow rule #1-- so keep that in mind please. This is the interwebz afterall and tone can be hard to judge.

1. Great Falls is NOT granite. That's just wrong. Read up here if you're interested. The fact of the matter is that Great Falls is a pretty complicated place from a geological perspective and that the different types of rock mixed there can be difficult to tell apart. In the meantime the rock high in schist is well... sh!t.
2. Cams are not the only gear failures that have led to bad falls at GF. There is a much older incident where a nut held but the rock failed and a large chunk sheered off of Armbuster. This is second hand for me but the person relating it stressed that it had been a "good" placement.
3. Lost Arrow is an old Aid route so obviously it takes gear. Even so the guys I know who aid it typically do so on Top Rope! I stress that just because of the number of pieces between them and the deck by the time they get to the top.
4. I've seen gear crumble rock there as it was weighted and the gear shifted slighly as people were aiding.
5. This has been debated to death in the community already and is typically debated in a heated manner.

SO

Kirby I think you knew all this already. If you didn't then my bad but you definitely made it sound like you've asked some people about this. The question I think you ought to be asking is how many people have had a piece of gear catch them at GF. Even there I'm sure some people have.

In the end its a decision you should make about your life and the risks you're comfortable with. I've seen people I respect lead there and I know people I respect who would never lead there. If you're feeling uncomfortable with the risks but still want to lead then there are better areas that aren't unreasonably far to get to and have better rock for the most part.


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By ACR
Feb 8, 2013

It is a broken area with granodiorite intrusions. These surfaces largely make up the Great Falls climbing areas. Mather gorge down to the search and rescue put in area. Gosh, didn't know there would be a geology quiz today.

Having been born and raised in the area and having 25+ years of climbing experience on many types of rock, I can tell you that it is definitely lead-able. A few routes are even led fairly often. Some falls have been taken with little or no problem. Most everyone walks away a happy camper.

Is there flaky rock? Sure
Can pro rip? Sure
Is it the worst I've ever seen? Not by a long shot
Do DC climbers tend to disparage the place? All the time

Use your brain and have a great time.


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By ACR
Feb 8, 2013

Why this would be "debated in a heated manner" is beyond me.

No one is encouraging anyone to just go a jump on anything willy-nilly. But climbing has room for many approaches.

If I misspoke about "granite", I apologise, but granite is a wide term that seems to encompass most of the types mentioned above. It's just not the best stuff out there.

And... This would be a better place to look for the geology of the walls we're talking about.
www.nps.gov/grfa/naturescience/geology.htm


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By Wannabe
Feb 8, 2013

ACR wrote:
Why this would be "debated in a heated manner" is beyond me. No one is encouraging anyone to just go a jump on anything willy-nilly. But climbing has room for many approaches. If I misspoke about "granite", I apologise, but granite is a wide term that seems to encompass most of the types mentioned above. It's just not the best stuff out there.


I agree. I'm not really sure whether its the topic or the personalities involved that typically lead to the intensity of the argument that I often see and over hear. I also agree that climbing is and should include a lot of approaches. I'm not trying to disparage people who lead at Great Falls and hope you didn't take that from my comments.

Its a choice I choose not to make but I also choose not to Free Solo. Even so that doesn't mean I haven't REALLY wanted to lead certain routes. F.I.S.T. would make a great lead I think. I just got the sense from the OP's comments that he's waivering and perhaps wanted someone to talk him into something that maybe he already feels like he shouldn't be doing.

I think self-reliance is important here-- as you alluded to-- the OP needs to get some information, use their judgement and decide for themselves and then live by that decision.

I also think there are better places to lead nearby. I love climbing at GF and just because I wouldn't lead there I don't think that amounts to me disparaging the place.


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By ACR
Feb 8, 2013

Agreed. I certainly didn't mean to imply you personally were disparaging GF. Rereading my post I can see how that might come across. Sorry 'bout that.

There are some climbs at GF that are cool leads and many I wouldn't try. That long easy corner right by the Mather gorge plaque is nice to learn on. It's name escapes me at the moment.


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By Kirby
From DC
Feb 8, 2013

Thanks for the replies, folks.

To ACR, note that I'm not a beginning trad leader looking to break into it at Great Falls. I love seneca, and go there whenever I can.. I've also enjoyed exploring other local areas like Sugarloaf, Ilchester, Annapolis rock and the like. I'm also well-versed in how short the climbs are, and I know I would have to sew it up especially in the first 15 or 20 feet (haha, that's pretty much the whole route).. But your point is well-taken about understanding the particular idiosyncrasies of Great Falls when it comes to placements. Cheers.

I'm also not sure why it's an emotional issue. Does that have something to do with access?

And finally, I definitely agree that we're talking about a personal decision that any potential leader needs to make. The point of this post is to try to better understand the situation based on others' experiences.

Thanks very much for the reasonable replies here. I don't think we've even approached violating rule number one.


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By Kirby
From DC
Feb 8, 2013

Wannabe-- what/where is fist?


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By ACR
Feb 8, 2013

Yeah, I saw your profile. You have some good ticks on there. Seneca is a great place to climb! I much preferred leading there to trying my luck at the falls. Wannabe is right about some of the rock quality... But my beef was always with the crowds. Most days you can find something quiet at Seneca if you stay off the crowded classics.

I applaud your efforts to find adventure closer to your backyard. I hope it works out for you. Later!


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By Wannabe
Feb 8, 2013

F.I.S.T. is down at the Cow's Hoof area past where most people climb. Its usually quiet and is pretty high above the waterline so you don't have to worry when the river is high. Its also nice and shady in the summer. There are some other nice climbs down there as well. FIST is about the closest thing to splitter besides Epigone maybe-- but its much more interesting. Its like cups to fist and then thins out at the top to finger crack with an unfortunate "grassy" spot in the middle. Talk about an ethical dilemma-- I wonder what's underneath that bit of "turf" everytime I'm there. Its also pretty tall for GF. It doesn't see much traffic so be prepared for it to be dirty.


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By climbinbob
Feb 22, 2013

The best leads at GF are Last Exit and Snowflake-both 5.6, and Birds Nest (5.7), although the rock geology is PRIMARILY mica-schist with quartz extrusions. I would not lead there, as there is a big potential for the rock to fail. That, given with the chances of decking, are more than enough for the rangers to ban climbing. Also, if you do break the rock, you have affected the esthetic of that particular climb for everyone that comes after you. Get a Soloist, and lead on a tension line. You still get the excitement of leading, you don't need a belayer, and you needn't worry about flakes or chunks coming down. Be safe!


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By JCM
From Henderson, NV
Feb 22, 2013

Rafael Rovirosa wrote:
It is not granite as stated above. It is schist which is metamorphosed granite and is much more brittle than regular granite like at Old Rag.


ACR wrote:
but granite is a wide term that seems to encompass most of the types mentioned above.



Although it is irrelevant to the discussion at hand here (whether it is a good idea to lead at GF), I must note that these statements are also incorrect. To clarify things, here are a few statements, all of which are certifieably true:

1. A variety of rock tectures are encountered at GF, all of which can be generally described as schist.

2. Schist is not granite.

3. Granite is a specific rock type, not an umbrella term for any grey rock that isn't limestone (this seems to be the way that many uniformed climbers base their rock type identificantions). Schist is not a type of granite; it is a different hting entirely.

4. Schist is not metamorphosed granite

5. Schist is a metamorphic rock, whose parent rock is genertally pelagic (ocean) sediments. These sediments turn into shale, and as the are metamorphosed they turn from shale to slate to schist to gneiss, as the grade of metamorphism increases.

6. Some schist is chossy, but not all is. People like to talk down on schist, largely because it ryhmes with "sh*t". Just because something rhymes, however, does not mean that it is true. Some schist, such at at Rumney, is incredibly solid.

7. I do not know if you should lead at GF. I probably wouldn't; it sounds like more trouble than it is worth.


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By MJMobes
From The land of steady habits
Feb 22, 2013
modern man

I came within 3' of getting messed up there while hang-doggin on what seemed to be a perfectly good .5 or .75.

Cams slide WAY more there than soft Indian Creek sandstone

I have done a few other easier cracks at Carderrock that took stoppers and hexes pretty nice. The rock is not chossy, its slick and soft


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By Kirby
From DC
Feb 25, 2013

JCM wrote:
1. A variety of rock tectures are encountered at GF...


There's no texture at Great Falls!


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By Dave Rockwell
Mar 26, 2013

I posted an extensive photo-essay on this very topic in August on my own blog:

davefiddleswithcameras.blogspot.com/2012/08/leading-on-wissa>>>

My own bottom line is this: The rock is no worse than Seneca's, (maybe better) but not as good as Old Rag, to compare to two different local rock types. The leader needs to raise his game and calibrate carefully to the rock, so to speak. I've led numerous climbs at Mather, including F.I.S.T. and Two Lane; I've included specific comments on many of them. It's not really different than leading anywhere else: rely heavily on your own best judgment.


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By Dave Rockwell
Mar 26, 2013

Actually, Great Falls has excellent texture, but only in places not heavily climbed or water-polished.


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By cjon3s
From Sterling, VA
Mar 29, 2013
Hanging at Seneca

I'll add in that I lead there. Heard the stories and warnings not to do it. When I started leading, I became more and more interested in doing it here.

I've had a cam hold on a very short fall. Bomber placement and the rock didn't budge.

For those interested... other fun leads:

Sand Box Crack (5.6) short but fun
Pride (5.4) long for GF and easy to see up
Layback Corner (5.4) the climb below the plaque, sketchy start but bomber gear in the crack
Romeo's Ladder (5.6) where I fell. Seeping a few days after rain, slid right off.

I take caution when I lead here and make sure I'm not in over my head, but it's an enjoyable place to do it with a nice atmosphere by the river. Be careful, be smart, and you'll be fine.

Enjoy!


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By Kirby
From DC
Mar 29, 2013

Dave,
My understanding is that Seneca rock (when not loose of course) is actually extremely hard Tuscora Quartzite, and that it's actually some of the best around in terms of strength--aka, I can place tiny nuts there and feel fairly confident on them.

I would say of course that Old Rag's granite is more solid, less chossy, but I would imagine the difference in rock strength between the two is not all that high. Pure subjective guesswork and anecdotal conjecture, but still. I'm usually always right, and handsome to boot.

Also, thanks for sharing the photo-essay! I'm digging into it now, looks fun.


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By Dave Rockwell
Mar 29, 2013

Kirby -

I agree - I've always trusted my placements at Seneca to a high degree. But of course the conformation of the rock lends itself to stuff falling off. I've been to Old Rag many more times than to Seneca, and never had falling rock there, whereas at Seneca I've nearly been hit three times, and also dropped rocks three times, one of them a foothold I was peacefully standing on that snapped off. But a good nut placed in a nice straight-in crack is as strong at Seneca as anywhere.


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By BJ Sbarra
From Carbondale, CO
Mar 30, 2013
el guapo

As someone who's done a fair bit of leading at GF, I'll chime in here. I no longer live in the area, but grew up 5 minutes away and have lead most of the routes that make for good leads in the 5.9 and under category. I've never seen gear pull out, but if people say it happens, then I'm sure it's worth paying attention to. I've caught falls on nuts there, but agree it's probably best to tend towards the cautious side. Take more of a "headpointing" mindset to the routes here, and you can still have a good time, while being relatively safe.


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By climbinbob
Jun 26, 2013

To ACR-
The rock at Great Falls is NOT granite. It is a metamorphic rock of mica-schist primarily with quartz extrusions. Those are the shiny things that are really slippery. Yes, you can lead at GF, but it is not recommended, because of the geology. If large chunks of rock pull, not only will you probably get hurt, but you have ruined a climb for lots of other people. It's primarily a top-rope area, and the last thing we need to do as a climbing community is to have the park service shut it down. This almost happened several years ago, because of some rare and endangered flora. Go to the Gunks, the New, or Seneca to lead.


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By Dave Rockwell
Jun 27, 2013

Your identification of the rock type is correct, but your implication that large chunks might fall off at any time is not. In thirty years of leading, toproping and bouldering on this rock, I've had exactly two holds snap off. One was a small hold high on Backscratch, and the other an "oyster" foothold at Carderock on a very cold day. Experienced leaders evaluate the rock conformation very carefully and place accordingly. Inexperienced leaders should proceed very systematically on climbs that are easy for them. Even more so at Seneca than at Great Falls, I would add.


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