Winchester filmmaker scales West Virginia rock face

By Josette Keelor

WINCHESTER — Seneca Rocks isn’t the highest point in West Virginia. That record belongs to Spruce Knob in Pendleton County, but Jesse Von Fange, Chad Heddleston and Jeremy Tooley found a worthy contender. Two years ago, they climbed more than 7,000 feet along West Virginia’s Seneca Rocks. Did they mention that’s a horizontal climb?

They’re not hardcore climbers — just three guys who like the outdoors and have a good sense of humor. When they set out to be the first to traverse the rock band above the banks of the Potomac River’s North Fork, they wrote themselves a storyline, assigned characters to play and filmed the whole thing as a mockumentary — a sort of parody of other climbing films they’d seen.

On a recent morning in Winchester, Von Fange said he, Heddleston and Tooley plan to begin distributing copies of “Almost Alpine” this June.

“The great thing about this film is it’s made by three guys with no film experience, no acting experience, no writing experience,” Von Fange said, “but it’s still all right.”

He said the idea came from a realization of how oblivious many people are of great climbing locations within the mid-Atlantic region.

“So many people who live here are completely unaware of it,” he said. “… You don’t have to go out west or go to Canada to get great ice climbing, you know, you don’t have to go out west to do multi-pitch granite routes and have world-class boldering. It’s all right here.”

Shows and films documenting climbing feats have increased in popularity in recent years, but Von Fange said, “Nobody’s really made fun of it yet, so that was the idea.”

Friends from Sperryville, he and Heddleston spent much of their childhood outdoors in Shenandoah National Park searching for new hiking routes that eventually turned into great climbing routes.

They met Tooley of Maryland when he and Heddleston worked for Shenandoah Mountain Guides in the national park.

While working on the film, the three of them would film everything they did outdoors for two years to use as scenes or outtakes for the DVD. For the climb itself, they spent four days along the rock band, a location they suggest in the film is the world’s best and most difficult climb.

In some ways, it is.

“No one had ever done it before, and no one has done it since,” Von Fange said.

“The idea is to traverse the entire thing. Traversing, you know, is when you climb horizontally across a cliff or something. … It’s like saying it’s the world’s longest climb, but it’s 43 pitches long. A pitch is a length of climbing rope, so it took 43 times across to get up there and it took several days.”

“It’s a crazy climb to do, 43 pitches long, on a rock band that no one ever climbs,” he said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

“The difficult part is the length of it,” he added later.

They had friends leave caches of food and water for them along the route, and Heddleston slept out on the rock face in a camping hammock to enhance his character’s persona as the one who lives and breathes the challenge.

Von Fange’s character buys all the fancy equipment but isn’t really good at anything other than belaying, and Tooley is a family man with priorities beyond the adventure.

The film will show at the Seneca Rocks Cinco de Mayo festival on May 3 at Seneca Shadows Campground in Western, W.Va. Von Fange also plans to submit it to the Skyline Indie Film Fest, which takes place in Winchester in August.

A Kickstarter campaign he launched to finance the making of DVDs surpassed its $3,500 goal over 45 days with $5,156 donated so far by 76 backers. The site is still accepting donations, and donors get a free copy of the film in June.

“I think it’s a nice way for people to make sure they get a copy,” Von Fange said. “Even though we’ve surpassed our initial goal, any money raised from this is just going back into the project, just to make the DVD as nice as we can.”

For more information, search for “Almost Alpine” at kickstarter.com.