Harpers Ferry Climbers Fight to Regain Access After Widespread Closures

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Dan Montague on the steep and stout Sign Route (5.10), Maryland Heights, Maryland.

Dan Montague on the steep and stout Sign Route (5.10), Maryland Heights, Maryland.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is home to rock escarpments and boulders in three states—Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia—that have been popular destinations among local climbers since the 1970s. However, since the spring of 2018, nearly all of the rock climbing areas in the national park—everywhere in VA and WV, as well as Maryland Heights, the most popular crag in Harpers Ferry located in MD—have been closed for what the Access Fund and Mid Atlantic Climbers have called “unsubstantiated reasons.”

It began in June of 2017, when Harpers Ferry Superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg released his superintendent’s compendium, which prohibited rock climbing in the VA and WV sections of Harpers Ferry. A superintendent’s compendium is a document which allows the superintendent of a park “to develop local rules to be responsive to the needs of a specific park resource or activity, park plan, program, and/or special needs of the general public,” according to nps.gov.

While it is well within the Superintendent Brandyburg’s authority to prohibit rock climbing in Harpers Ferry, the Access Fund does not feel the closure is justified.

“We are not claiming that the superintendent doesn’t have the authority,” said Erik Murdock, policy director of the Access Fund. “We are claiming that it is unsubstantiated and unnecessary and there is no reason to close climbing access to an important climbing area like this.”

Climbers have been enjoying the rock in Harper's Ferry for decades: Ed Bollack and Rob Savoye after an early ascent of the Sign Route (5.10b/c R) in Maryland Heights, circa 1979.

Climbers have been enjoying the rock in Harper's Ferry for decades: Ed Bollack and Rob Savoye after an early ascent of the Sign Route (5.10b/c R) in Maryland Heights, circa 1979.

The justification for closure, per the compendium, is this:

“Justification: Due to limited and treacherous access for rescue personnel, their locations near or within culturally sensitive areas and general poor rock quality, and a lack of available legal and safe parking, these areas within the park are closed to all climbing related activities. A public closure to climbing of these areas will serve to mitigate the potential risk to the visiting population and those engaged in search and rescue activities associated with climbing. A less restrictive method to accomplish this goal will not be effective.”

The justification mirrors the conditions of hundreds of climbing areas across the country where climbers, land managers, and local officials have worked in conjunction for all around positive outcomes. This is what the Access Fund and Mid Atlantic Climbers hope to do. “We would like to work with the park to come up with a mutually beneficial solution,” said Murdock.

Furthermore, a landslide in the spring of 2018 on Sandy Hook Rd that required repairs put in effect a temporary closure to rock climbing on Maryland Heights, the most popular climbing destination in Harpers Ferry. Nearly a year later, the closure is still in effect. According to Mid Atlantic Climbers, “the landslide is not located near the climbing areas identified in the temporary closure, and the park never closed the Maryland Heights hiking trail to the public.”

Torey Alford on Black Anorexia (5.9+) , Maryland Heights.

Torey Alford on Black Anorexia (5.9+) , Maryland Heights.

Harpers Ferry is just an hour drive from Washington D.C., the closest opportunity for outdoor rock climbing to the major metropolitan area. Climbers can enjoy mellow to hard bouldering, a variety of trad and toprope routes, and multipitch routes. Maryland Heights is the tallest cliff face in the state and is home to several 3-pitch routes. “I climbed there and I thought, ‘This is legit,’” said Murdock. “It’s real climbing, you can get up high and place gear and it’s a beautiful area.”

Harpers Ferry may not get much national recognition, but it is still an important area for a strong, regional climbing community. It is also important for organizations like the Access Fund and Mid Atlantic Climbers, and their constituents that there is an open, ongoing discourse with the Parks Service regarding climbing access.

“It is an access issue right now effecting kind of an oddball climbing area that is regionally valuable, but this is not a precedent that we want to allow,” said Murdock. “We do not want to allow the National Park Service to shut down a climbing area and not provide ample justification, and perhaps more importantly not provide opportunities for the climbing community to participate in a process to resolve any issues.”

Currently, Mid Atlantic Climbers is running a climber/citizen letter campaign to Superintendent Brandyburg, demonstrating to the Parks Service the importance of rock climbing in Harpers Ferry to the public. You can participate in the campaign here, via Mid Atlantic Climbers.

“We are optimistic about this project,” said Murdock. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take [but] we are in it for the long haul. We will stay on it for as long as it takes.”

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