Not many people get killed here, strange as that seems. A woman once took the wrong trail on a foggy day and walked off the South End. They found her body on a stone pile far below. But for the most part this is a place where it is possible to feel you have control over your life, if first you can answer what it is that draws you up 200 feet above the trees where gravity is absolute and the air whispers a siren song.

Our perch on a ledge is like a raft on an ocean of air. The oak canopies below look soft and inviting, feathered with the saffron buds of early spring. Across the way a climber holds a red sling in his teeth like a flamenco dancer with a rose. Pigeons leap from their cliff-side nests, trading rock for atmosphere like creatures of mysterious power. We would die or live as cripples if we took after them.

This is Seneca, the vertical world, a great gray blade of West Virginia rock, four hours from Washington. It soars almost 1,000 feet above the ground, a place of vaulting walls and airy towers that is one of the premier rock climing areas on the East Coast. Climbing is an enigmatic matter and people who climb are a private lot, versed in what they do, not why they do it. A few weeks ago a 25-year-old climber from Maine, aided by mechanical ascenders, made the first ascent of the Sears Tower in Chicago. "It was the world's tallest building," he explained when asked why. The question on the lips of the Chicago police was, "Are you nuts?" Climbing of any kind makes little sense to cops, editors, mothers and other flatland arbiters of pedestrian reality. I have my own reasons. They are never good enough while I am climbing, but they seem to suffice afterwards.

Of all the things that climbing is -- ego and competition, fraternity and joy -- it is also a form of meditation, a process that unites the wraith-like mind and the bedrock earth. As you grow more expert as a climber, your feet and hands need fewer and less substantial holds. You draw on an inner world with its reservoirs of balance and desire. The rock shows you things about conscious life. You understand what it means to have nothing.

Down in the valley the rangers of the U.S. Forest Service keep the grass mowed around the new Seneca Rocks Visitor Center. Otherwise the copperheads and rattlesnakes venture out of the woods. When the forest service opened a visitor center in 1978, "it was about the biggest thing that's ever happened around here," says Roger Cottrell, a 46-year-old ranger.

The town of Seneca Rocks in the shadow of the cliffs is home or a mailing address for about 600 people scatered up and down the pastureland of the Germany Valley, a long north-south lowland of the mountainous terrain of the Monongahela National Forest, where the highways follow the rivers. A tributary of the Potomac River called the North Fork of the South Branch runs through the valley, separating the cliffs from the road, and into it skips Seneca Creek.

Where the creek joins the river there once was an Indian encampment. Not all that much has changed since then in downtown Seneca Rocks. There are a couple of service stations and general stores, a climbing shop stocked with exotic equipment you probably can't find anywhere else in West Virginia. Tourists park in the dirt triangle where the two main highways intersect, and the town has yet to get its first stoplight.

Perhaps the most sophisticated tableau in all of Seneca Rocks is an exhibit in the park visitor center which features a climbing mannequin clinging to a wall, wearing knickers and climbing equipment and trailing a rope. At the display, 40,000 tourists last year had the opportunity to quiz themselves on climbing ropes, shoes and techniques, and ponder the ultimate question -- Is climbing for you? Any conclusions reached in the visitor center where the great hazard is chipping a tooth on the drinking fountain are suspect. There is no way to grasp the ecstacy or the risk without being up there -- on the rocks that fill the 12-foot picture windows.

Climbing routes on Seneca are known for their steepness, their exposure and for their abundance. The rocks regularly attract climbers from Pittsburgh and the Baltimore-Washington area who flee the confining cities on Friday nights in the dark over the winding mountain roads where you pick up a different radio station at every bend. There are more than 170 recorded climbs at Seneca and during the bellwether days of the climbing season from early spring to late fall, it's sometimes hard to find an open route.

Seneca is the highest summit east of Wyoming's Devil's Tower that cannot be surmounted by simple walking. The pioneering ascent of the South Peak is credited to a surveyor who left his intials and the date Sept. 16, 1908, on top. Legend at the 4-U Motel a mile up the road (U-R Here, says the sign) has it that a Seneca Indian maiden, Princess Snowbird, made ropeless solo forays on the peak much earlier. The princess is said to have picked for her husband the one brave nimble enough for her to the top in a special wedding contest, the sort of contest that could be hatched only after spending a long winter in the limestone caves where the early inhabitants found shelter. (Incidentally, the other suitors either got cold feet or fell.)

The Seneca climber's guide reports several attempts on the peak between 1908 and the dawn of systematic climbing in the 1930s. One was by a local bandit who for an unknown reason, perhaps a lifetime of being frustrated by the police, tried to blow up a prominent and delicately balanced pinnacle called the Gendarme.

From 1943 to 1944, Seneca was the training ground for U.S. Army assault teams preparing for combat in the Apennines. More than 1,000 recruits from five divisions took a four-day climbing course, learned how to fix ropes and pound pitons, the metal spikes that climbers and mountaineers hammer into the rock and attach their ropes to. They pounded so many pitons they left an iron legacy. The Face of a Thousand Pitons, and it is estimated that in a year's time at Seneca and two other areas, the Army drove 75,000 pitons into the rock.

"We carried them up in crates," remembers Old Dalen, who taught climbing for the Army that year. "We figured we carried up two tons. Most of the recruits were all rank beginners, 18 to 22 years old. There were 25 instructors, a lot from Switzerland and Austria. I always had the class do a climb at the end; they'd freeze up and I'd have to solo up. We'd climb up from the Gunsight to the South Peak. One time, three refused to go, and one guy got up there and panicked. I climbed up, and he was an awful mess. He had the rope wrapped all round his neck. We had no fatalities though, but three instructors were injured.One, Rudolph Punt, a German, got hit with a rock and we had to take him to the hospital. They bored a little hole in each side of his head and put him in traction. He was killed after the war, climbing in the Bugaboos in Canada. Somebody found his skeleton on a glacier below with the holes in the skull."

Dalen came back to Seneca and married a local girl named Mary Sugar. He's 63, a livestock farmer, and would climb still if he weren't disabled. "I miss going on some of these climbing expeditions," he says. "I used to go with my son John to the Wind Rivers and the Tetons [two mountain ranges in Wyoming]. I miss getting out, the bivouacking, the high country, you know, just to be out there."

Our ledge is a roomy niche as ledges go, on an easy but airy climb called Lower Skyline Direct. We are waiting for a group of neophytes to negotiate the second segment, or pitch, of the route. (Climbs are divided into pitches and pitches are usually calibrated by the length of a 150-foot climbing rope, or a good resting point.) The guidebook says, "the start of the second pitch has filled the hearts of many beginners with the fear of God." That's because to begin the second pitch climbers must creep laterally 10 feet on doubtful footing past a 200-foot shaft of air.

Within shouting distance across a large rock face, two accomplished climbers are craning back to examine rock that thrusts out over their heads, like the bill of a giant baseball cap. They are beneath the hardest part of a extremely hard climb called Totem. It would be easier for a tree sloth to solve the problem they are arout to try, for they must move upside-down underneath an overhanging eave of rock, around the lip and then on up.

Understand that climbers aspire to climb "free," unaided by rope. Hanging on the rope is bad form, for in free climbing the rope is simply a safety line employed as pilots employ parachutes. The leader climbs above the rope, and then he "belays" the rest of his party up. The party members climb free, but if they fall, the leader can check their slip immediately. When the leader falls, it is more serious. He does not have a rope above him, so he has to place "protection," in the form of temporary anchors, in the rock. He clips the rope into these anchors during the course of his climb. The most common form of anchor used to be the piton, but it has been supplanted in recent years by the aluminum nut which, when carefully placed in tapering cracks, can be removed without damaging the rock. In the early days of nuts, climbers used hexagonal-shaped nuts from hardware stores. On the same theory, Scottish climbers protected their routes with small stones which they plucked out of the rivers on their way to the crags; underway, they crammed the stones or "chocks" into cracks, threaded a sling round the protection and clipped in the rope.

With his protection placed, a climber clips into the rope with a fastener called a carabiner, and proceeds to climb until he wants to place another piece of protection, usually every 10 feet or so. The theory is that if he has protected the pitch and falls as he climbs above the rope, he will not plummet back the entire distance he has come. The ultimate extension of lead climbing is to dispense with rope, pitons and nuts altogether and to climb solo.

We got an early start, walking to the melody of climbing hardware being racked up where we had pitched our camp by Seneca Creek. Out of most of the dozen other tents crawled climbers. It was a frost-on-the-sneakers morning. Some headed for breakfast at the 4-U, and others immediately shouldered their lunch-heavy knapsacks and racks of climbing hardware that clanked like a pocketful of silver dollars. They coiled $120 ropes, loosely laced up rock boots as dainty as ballet slippers and set out forthwith for the cliffs.

Our first task, when at last we headed off, was to get across the Potomac tributary, no feat now that the Forest Service has replaced the spavined old cable bridge with a span worthy of the Verrazano Narrows. The old structure was like those spans woven out of 12th century yak hair that expeditioners are always braving in the National Geographic. Planked with rotten boards, half of which were missing, it moved, as a writer once described it, "like a dying snake," as you stole gingerly across. It was not-so-jokingly referred to as the first pitch of Seneca, yet it served the useful purpose of keeping unserious climbers away from the cliffs.

We hiked up a dirt road through oak and maple woods splashed with blooming dogwoods, and came to the foot of the long skirts of broken rock that all cliffs wear at their feet.

The first climb we planned for the day, Lower Skyline Direct, started at the South End of the cliff, a great, sometimes overhung, face formed when a stream cut a gap in the durable Seneca rock.

Seneca is made of a quartz-grained rock called Tuscarora sandstone formed 440 million years ago, a 250-foot-thick vein of rock that runs through the mountains in the area, rising out of hills like the plates on the back of a stegosaurus. The rock is so hard that the river runs parallel, and water only has been able to cut across at widely spaced gaps. Because it was once under ocean, there are fossils on the top of Seneca. Senaca is the most dramatic of the outcrops, a ridge that can be climbed on both sides. Its two main summits are divided by a big notch called the Gunsight. The south peak is no more than 15 feet wide. Getting down can be as tricky as getting up.

The beginners we are watching now, two men and a woman from Washington, are being led by a hearty blond 34-year-old instructor named John Markwell who is charging them $40 a day for his expertise. Markwell runs the climbing store with his wife Helen, and he is one of the few climbers who live near the rocks. He has a cut on his head where he walked into a door recently, and he tends to spill beer with enthusiastic gesticulations. Fortunately he is more graceful on rock. "I'm fine as long as I'm parallel to my environment," he says. "I don't have any trouble lying in bed."

Markwell has placed a series of nuts in cracks in the rock which are attached to brightly colored nylon slings, and in turn clipped them into the rope that trails behind him. Markwell has probably led this route 100 times in his 11 years as a climber and a teacher, and he could probably do it with a knapsack over his head. Still, he places three times as many nuts as normal, and he clips his rope into them all. "I've almost been pulled off this climb by clients," he explains.

At the difficult move over the dizzying 200-foot drop, he puts in a nut with a big loop of rope in it for his clients to hold onto if they get scared and want to "cheat." Hands do want something to hold on to at that spot.

The first man, a climber from Richmond, edges up to the traverse, looks down, grabs the cheat sling and hangs on gratefully before disappearing up and around the corner. Fifteen minutes later Jonathan Amson, an EPA bureaucrat in his 40s, moves to the traverse. He is a macho guy who used to go deep-water diving for a good time. He has taken up climbing "for the challenge" and the economy of it. Oxygen tanks are expensive. He doesn't want to use the cheat sling, but in the middle of the long step, his hand goes up to it anyway, lightly but long enough to swing him past the abyss. The third climber is a black-haired 40-year-old woman named Francine Jacoff. She lives in Chevy Chase. "When I climb," she says, "there is nothing but the moment on the rock. I like the way it feels, I like the way it cradles you." She moves smoothly and deliberately, balancing, shifting her weight, balancing again. She steps past the gap and does not touch the sling.

Meanwhile, for almost two hours the two climbers on Totem, 25-year-old Mike Bader Jr. and 29-year-old Alex Karczewski, both from the Washington area, have been working on the roof of rock overhead. Bader, a brawny brown-haired climber whose exercise regimen includes 100 sit-ups, pull-ups and push-ups a day, and who prepared himself for fearful vistas of big-wall climbing by making three parachute jumps, has been leading the pitch. His job is to climb under the roof as far as he dares, and clip the rope into pitons permanently pounded into the rock by previous climbers. It is exhausting work. The climber holds on underneath the roof, extended horizontally, groping for some hold higher and further out on the roof. The crucial move is to get far enough out on the lip to jam his left hand in a slot and pull up on it. Just pull up on it. There is a place a bit higher for the right hand. For the feet there is just the smooth surface of the rock as the climber brings his legs up nearly to the level of his hands.

Bader has his partner lower him off anchors he has fixed above them, back to their ledge 15 feet below. He stands panting, head down, doughty shoulders heaving violently. If Princess Snowbird climbed Seneca, it wasn't this way. Totem is one of the most difficult climbs at Seneca, rated a 5.10 on a scale of 5.1 to 5.11. Our climb of the morning, Lower Skyline Direct, is a 5.4. (The 5 merely signifies that the climb is a technical roped climb. The second number reflects the varying standards of difficulty.) The ratings are arrived at by consensus, and purport to grade only the technical difficulty of the rock. They do not take into account the weather, which can severely change the nature of a climb, or the security of the nuts and pitons which protect it, nor do they reflect the different kinds of climbs and different skills climbers need. For example, there are 5.11 climbs in Colorado that were first done by women who couldn't do a chin-up.

Totem, though, requires brute muscle more than balance. After almost two hours of work, Bader changes places with his partner, Alex Karczewski, a machinist who climbs not for philosophical truth but "for the booze-up afterwards." Or so his partner says. Four weeks ago, Karczewski had led a 5.8 climb at Seneca, the hardest lead he had ever done. Now he reaches into a bag of chalk to dry his hands, moves out, clinging underneath the roof. He clips his rope into a piton driven vertically into the rock, close to the lip. This is the hardest part. The tension is high. He reaches up, wedges his hand in the crack, cutting and bruising it as he clutches the hold. He is poised there hanging by one arm more or less over 130 feet of air.

He says, "Oh wow, this is hard."

Karczewski looks down and sees that the last piton on which his well-being depends is loose. Adrenaline floods into his bloodstream and suddenly he is up, over, standing above the roof in triumph.

"When I got my hand in the crack, I had to hang there for a while," Karczewski say. "I couldn't reposition it. It was a one-shot deal. What really made me go was when I saw that pin wiggling. I thought, 'Let's work out the algebraic possibilities of this thing pulling out on me,' then I just got out of there."

It was his first 5.10 lead.

Each year routes considered impossible are climbed, and the scale of difficulty has been upped to 5.13 at some areas. The ante has been raised in other ways too, most spectacularly in the form of soloing: climbing utterly alone without a rope a la Princess Snowbird but even on very hard grades with no marital prospects. A fall soloing means goodbye in virtually all cases, yet soloists, the ultimate practitioners of mind over body, have climbed the immense 4,000-foot walls of California's Yosemite Valley.

Until the mid-1960s, Seneca was something of a climbing backwater so far as difficult routes were concerned. The hardest routes were being put up at a long outcrop in New York called the Schwanagunks. But eventually ego and competitive zeal, two driving forces in the climbing world, began to propel climbers to new feats at Seneca. One of the climbers in this vanguard at Seneca was Matt Hale, who at 24 and fresh from two major expeditions on big alpine routes in Alaska made the first free climb of a route called Agony. Agony is a 5.9 climb up a gloomy-looking, aptly named crack on The Face of a Thousand Pitons. In 1968 it had been climbed with aid, which means the climbers had hammered in pitons and stood on slings clipped to the metal spikes. But it had yet to receive a free ascent.

"Agony was easier than some climbs that had been done in the Gunks, but it was considered the showpiece of Seneca then," recalled Hale, who works for the EPA and, at 37, still climbs, although he has trouble on some routes he used to be able to scamper up in sandals.

Hale had never tried Agony before, but he drank a few beers the night before with a climber named Tom Evans. Evans, whose nickname was the Incredible Hulk, had taken a number of 20-foot leader falls off a piton at the crux of Agony where the climber has to get above a bottleneck in the crack. The falls were inconsequential because the rope caught him and he jerked to a halt in space away from Agony's overhung walls. But the climb had possessed him. Evans even made Super 8 movies of his and other people's attempts on the route. Hale was plied with beer and the next morning found himself roping up at the bottom of the crack, with his every move being documented by a cinematographer.

"I had no idea how hard it was," Hale recalled. "I knew a lot of people had fallen off, and I was intimidated. I was planning to take it pretty casual, but then all these people showed up. There were 20 to 30 people." Spurred by the audience and the immortality of film, he climbed it. The first climber who tried to follow, or in the vernacular, "second" the pitch, had to be lowered off. The next, Bob Lyon, got up, but was so gripped by the experience that he was "blathering like a chipmunk," Hale recalled. The only thing that marred the ascent was that the film ran out just as Hale was at the hardest part, and Agony was not such a cakewalk that he was willing to pause while the director scrounged for film.

Today Agony is standard fare for climbers who are getting in shape for harder and harder ascents, climbers like 25-year old Tim McMillan, an arts graduate from the University of North Carolina. Climbing sometimes serves as a form of self-expression, a canvas for the ego. McMillan considers his finest moment on rock a 5.11 route he blazed in North Carolina, and he calls it, "my masterpiece." The young are always pushing at the old in climbing. High school students get reputations as fearless young tigers, flashing up the most difficult routes at Carderock on the Potomac near Washington. They move on to bigger cliffs, establishing their reputations as "hard men." They mount big expeditions to Yosemite or Alaska, they push new routes. Some die, some press on, but most mellow with age.

Climbing becomes more difficult as you get older. "Any climb involves a risk and you define your risk, but as the years go by, you accumulate a large number of people who have been killed or had an accident," says Matt Hale. "When you are 18 or 19, you can conceive of falling or dying, but not the kind of crippling injury that stays with you all your life. You haven't built a pattern of life that being a vegetable would fit in with." y

Seneca has had only three climbing deaths in the last 10 years. A solo climber fell, one climber pulled a block of loose rock down on himself, and then there was the woman who walked off the cliff not realizing where she was. According to the American Alpine Club, in 1979 in the United States, 40 people were reported killed in mountaineering accidents, including rock climbing. The dangers of climbing are certain, but as the club's executive secretary Frank Delavega says, "The average member of the American Alpine Club dies of natural causes at an older age than the national average."

At Seneca there is more danger from falling rock. Only last month a woman had the tip of her nose sheared off, all her teeth broken, her jaw smashed and a shoulder blade fractured by stone that was probably kicked off by some careless climber. The threat of falling rock is ever present, so much so that when the pigeons start from their cliff-side roosts, there is a heartstopping moment when they look like plummeting stones, if you are on the ground gazing up.

The nature of risk is something climbers have been turning over for many years. Hale's climbing partner, Author David Roberts, wrote some years ago in the climbing journal Ascent: "Behind climbings's mystique of adventure, toughness, footloose vagabondage -- all much-needed antidotes to our culture's built-in comfort and convenience -- may lie a kind of adolescent refusal to take seriously aging, weakness of all kinds, the slow and unspectacular course of life itself."

On summer weekend evenings, after a day on the rock, as many as two dozen climbers gather at the Gendarme climbing store, united by their love of beer. Beer seems to be as important to climbers as rope itself, and the party after a hard day on the rocks is as much a part of the lore as the climb. At the Gendarme, surrounded by spools of nylon webing, color photographs of classic climbs, carabiners bunched on the rafters like bananas, maps and knickers and helmets, climbers swap stories, check out new equipment, read the scabrous notatrions in the first ascent book, and carry on the beery traditions. The tyros are wide-eyed, the old-timers seasoned and sage. Tonight there is a young red headed woman who followed her boyfriend up Triple S, a 5.8 and one of Seneca's classic routes, and she sits quietly on a log bench as stories are told of past rescues, the days great climbers dropped in for the weekend, historic exploits and celebrated characters.

Some neophytes are not shy. Jon Amson of the party of beginners stops in and buys $170 worth of equipment. In the shop he moves like a proverbial "hard man." When a spool of sling jams overhead, he says, "Let me untangle that for you," and clambers up on the glass counter: a first ascent perhaps.

The nightlife at Seneca, a relatively insular place, lacks the raucous romance of the Gunks, where a band of topnotch climbing cut-ups known as the Vulgarians rose to fame as much for their moves in the bars as for occasionally making nude ascents on the cliffs. But the party lingers in the Gendarme well past midnight, and sometimes it moves over to lingering campfires along the creek.

Alex Karczewski put down a bottle of chocolate liqueur. In the morning it was back to the rocks. He climbed Marshall's Madness, but the last thing he was sure about was why he was up on a 5.9 climb with half a bottle of chocolate liqueur throbbing in his head.

Why is still what I wonder about too, and I'm not fond of liqueur in any flavor. I read something Jeff Long, a climber and writer, wrote that makes a nice end run around the question of why people climb. Long had tried to climb the Transamerica building in San Francisco. (Buildering is one of the many derivatives of rock climbing.) He was wondering why the cliffs man makes, the smooth glass and steel towers of modern architecture, are so inhuman. He came to the conclusion that it is because they are so difficult to climb.

I have my own reasons for climbing -- I like the contact that strips away illusion. Even though I have always felt more comfortable with geography than culture, it seems no small thing to have touched the world as earnestly as someone who climbs can touch it, or to have in your palm the sensous memory of a mountain. I remember yesterday starting out on a pitch, climbing hurriedly at first, feeling discordant and out of touch. But I grew calm, absorbed in the task. I saw quartz grains and tasted the dankness in a shadowed rock chimney. I paused once half way up, up there in that transcendent region of the air, over the reborn trees, above the planing hawks, and I felt as if I were part of some enormous chord.