Park Service Bans Climbing at Harpers Ferry

Access Fund and Mid Atlantic Climbers (MAC) are pushing back on the National Park Service after an unsubstantiated ban on climbing in the Virginia and West Virginia sections of Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.

Photo courtesy of © Mark “Indy” Kochte

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, less than an hour from Washington, D.C. It has been a regionally important climbing area since 1939, the date of the earliest known ascent of Maryland Heights. In the late 1970s, local climber Rob Savoye wrote the first guidebook and left copies with rangers to help visiting climbers with route finding. For the past 40 years, this quirky climbing area has attracted Mid Atlantic climbers looking for a little adventure.

Mid Atlantic Climbers (MAC), an Access Fund affiliate local climbing organization, has been working with National Park Service staff on climbing policy, stewardship, and education initiatives that support seasonal raptor closures and efforts to control recreation impacts in the park. The climbing community has an exemplary history of compliance with park regulations, and climbing access has been stable.

That changed suddenly in the summer of 2017, when the park superintendent closed all climbing in the Virginia and West Virginia areas of the park. This decision was made without any explanation or opportunity for the climbing community to provide input. Train Tunnel Wall, The Pillar, Skink Rock and the Stone Fort, Loudon Heights, and bouldering areas in the Virginia and West Virginia portions of the park are among the closures. These walls provided multi-pitch climbing opportunities that don’t exist anywhere else in Maryland.

MAC and Access Fund staff teamed up to meet with Harpers Ferry staff to negotiate a solution. Over the course of two meetings, NPS staff presented three primary concerns with climbing at Harpers Ferry:

  1. The park needs to study the potential impacts of climbers
  2. The park is not aware of the extent of the climbing resources
  3. The rock is not good enough for climbing

In response, MAC and Access Fund sent the park a complete inventory of climbing resources in the park (including GPS coordinates), explained that the rock quality is sufficient for climbing, and offered to participate in an environmental assessment of the climbing areas. We also offered to work with park staff to develop a climbing-management plan that would address the park’s concerns and allow collaboration with the climbing community. Thus far, the park has largely ignored our proposals, which align with best practices for climbing management at National Park Service areas across the country.

This blanket closure is at odds with the long tradition of collaboration between climbers and the National Park Service. We have worked closely with NPS staff for decades on climbing-management strategies for national parks across the country, and this ban sets a dangerous precedent for other NPS climbing areas. MAC launched an advocacy campaign in February, asking climbers to submit letters to the park superintendent. Access Fund has requested another meeting with park officials next week, and we are committed to reopening the unique and historic crags at Harpers Ferry.

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