At Rocks, emphasis is safety


Elizabeth Mangin, who will be strapped in a back brace for most of the summer, has learned a painful lesson about rock climbing.

"Don't go climbing alone, be careful, use safety ropes and learn what you are doing," Elizabeth said Thursday.

That was the day after she was discharged from Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where she was treated for five days for a fractured left arm as well as shoulder and back injuries.

On May 26, Elizabeth, 15, a Fallston High School 10th-grader, was severely injured in a 20-foot fall off a portion of the King and Queen Seat at Rocks State Park in Harford County.

The King and Queen Seat is a popular rock formation that hangs 190 feet above Deer Creek.

It lures both experienced and novice climbers to the 900-acre park, which is eight miles northwest of Bel Air on Route 24.

Elizabeth was descending a steep 20-foot facade on the north side of the rocks when she lost her footing and plunged into a crevice.

"I had done it once before, but this time I slipped," she said.

Doctors have told her she'll have to wear the brace and a sling until at least August, she said.

Maryland park rangers and rock climbing experts agree that the best way to prevent accidents such as Elizabeth's is for climbers to use common sense and learn safe techniques before trying to scale steep rock faces like the ones at the park.

Hundreds of visitors come each weekend from early spring until late fall to climb on the rocks.

Some climbers are equipped with rappelling ropes and other essential safety gear, but most come for a recreational change-of-pace.

The view from the lofty outcropping has been a favorite $l attraction since long before the state opened the Rocks State Park in 1951, said Rick Smith, a ranger who is manager of the park.

"Picnickers came in the 1930s on the Ma and Pa [Maryland and Pennsylvania] railroad," Mr. Smith said, "but the main attraction was the King and Queen Seat."

The King and Queen Seat is a natural rock formation that resembles a high-backed love seat with an arm rest in the middle.

Rock climbing as a sport is growing so fast that "we can't keep pace teaching climbing safety," said Eric Cook, coordinator of Outdoor Adventures for the state's Department of Natural Resources' Division of Forest and Park Services.

Mr. Cook, an internationally certified mountain guide, teaches rock-climbing techniques through Harford Community College. He estimated that he instructs about 400 students statewide each year.

"Teaching rock climbing safety is the most sensible approach to preventing accidents," Mr. Cook said.

Twenty years ago, he said, he could have named just about every serious rock climber in the Northeast by first name. "Now, I've got two years worth of names of people who have called about rock-climbing instructions," he said.

Mr. Smith said state parks officials have discussed what more can be done to educate inexperienced rock climbers.

"A fence at the top wouldn't stop anyone from starting up from the bottom," he said. "If kids, especially, want to climb rocks, they are going to climb rocks."

It's not uncommon to have 20 teen-agers climbing at the King and Queen Seat, he said.

Signs stating, "Caution, This Trail Leads to a Hazardous Area" were posted in 1982 on all trails leading to the King and Queen Seat area, Mr. Smith said.

But the risks always are there. Accident records at the park show that since 1988, 13 climbers have been injured, one fatally, Mr. Smith said.

He said that fatality occurred on April 1, 1989, when Anthony Andelmo, 30, of Baltimore fell to his death from the King and Queen Seat.

A 23-year-old Fallston man died in a fall at Rocks in 1984, and a 42-year-old Baltimore man slipped to his death in 1982, according to news reports in The Sun.

For information on climbing classes, Mr. Smith suggested stopping at any DNR or state park office, contacting a community college or calling Dave Taylor, director for Outdoor Discovery, at (410) 974-3771.

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