02 February 2012

Safe Harbor open to climbing after more than a decade!

It's been a mild winter in south central PA, to say the least. A freak 10-hour storm dropped a few inches that stuck around a few days. But other than that, I would compare our January weather with the average March. Lame, as far as I'm concerned.

But, when January gives you sunny days in the 60s, it's best taken advantage of.

So my climbing friend Jen asked me to join her for a day at Safe Harbor in Conestoga Township in Lancaster County. I'd never been and was eager to learn about the new spot and get on some real rock.

Jen Smith preparing to rap off of Pro Bono (5.7)
Safe Harbor crag is a cliff line running along the Susquehanna River just to the south side of the Conestoga River confluence. (There is also a crag to the north of the confluence in Manor Township that is not yet reopened.) The cliff are not natural. According to, they were created in the early 20th century to extend the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although climbing along the railroad was probably occurring for decades, the real development of lines came in the mid-1970s by Tony Herr and Don Gallagher, two active Lancaster area climbers. 

Looking up at the line of cliffs, some sections rising 100 feet over the gravel path, I felt my fingers tingling. This was going to be a great day. The sun was shining, making the bolts of nearly a hundred routes glisten. We had the crag to ourselves. The only other climbers we could see were hundreds of feet away, enjoying another section.

Jen and I set up a rope on a slabbing 5.7 to warm up and get a feel for the style of Safe Harbor. Because the place of virtually vacant, we left the rope up some friends joining us later might want to run up it. The lack of climbers was not a lack of popularity, Jen told me. It was simply the fact of it being a Tuesday.

Eric Horst was a protege of Herr and Gallagher. Along with a few other climbers in their twenties, the group developed a handful of trad lines and toprope routes. As Horst writes on, climbers were never bothered by the landowners and were often entertainment for passing train engineers. 

Through the 1980s, the crag saw little growth in the number of climbers beyond the initial group. The rail line was deactivated in 1988 and the tracks were removed in 1989. Although most of the climbers from the 70s had moved on to different crags, Horst and Herr came back in the late-80s to take another look at Safe Harbor. With them they brought sport climbing, a new trend in vertical rock climbing that was just taking off.

A few hours into day, Jen and I met a fellow named Jerry who seemed to know his way around Safe Harbor. He told us about the progression of the crag from trad to sport. We found many rusted bolts throughout the day placed there a decade ago, but most of the lines were already sporting solid protection, an effort by Horst and his friends when the crag finally reopened.

In 1990, a few dozen bolted routes went up and with it came the climbers. Horst writes on that the number of climbers visiting Safe Harbor grew by the weekend. By 1991 more climbers (with drills) came and about 60 new sport routes. As Safe Harbor was the only sport crag within a six-hour drive of the major Mid-Atlantic cities, it saw a lot of traffic. That year also saw the early development of Safe Harbor North, the cliff lines just north along the river of original crag. About the same time, local municipalities and Amtrak -- the landowner -- started to get nervous.

Jen Smith setting her rack to lead Pro Bono.
This is a common problem for landowners in many states. The liability laws of our litigious society mean that even trespassers can sue for injury. It's not a risk many people are willing to take. But fortunately for all climbers in the area, the efforts of the locals who would not forget about Safe Harbor have brought this little gem back to life.

By 1992, the crag was famous. A feature article ran in Rock & Ice magazine in the fall. The newly formed Access Fund recommended Horst and his fellow climbers get the land designated for climbing as a recreational activity as soon as possible. 

It did not happen soon enough, however. In the mid-1990s, the local police made frequent stops at Safe Harbor and removed anyone found climbing, giving them fines for trespassing. That went on until 2004. 

When I asked Jerry about those forbidden years, he wouldn't say much. He admitted that many climbers were caught and told to leave. And that it wasn't a good idea back then to climb here. But when I asked if that really prevented locals from sending their favorite lines, all I got from Jerry was a expression trying not to smile.

In summer 2004, Lancaster County Parks acquired the land through eminent domain and allowed recreational climbing. That was extremely short-lived. By fall 2004, a state court overturned the eminent domain acquisition and gave the land back to Amtrak. Climbing was again off limits.

In 2009, the land was given to the surrounding townships, but climbing was still forbidden because of a concern of electrocution from the overhanging power lines. The lines have since been replaced by higher utility poles and moved about 15 feet away from the cliff lines. 

In early fall 2011, Conestoga Township voted to allow climbing once more at Safe Harbor. 

And thankfully they did, because my friends and I had a wonderful day.

** All historical information about Safe Harbor came from

1 comment:

  1. Let's hear some more details about the routes you climbed and conditions of the routes! :)