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Beware: Enjoy state parks, but watch your step

Climbing to the Pinnacle at Crowders Mountain

Stephanie Anderson tripped and fell to her death on Saturday, May 16, 2015.
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Stephanie Anderson tripped and fell to her death on Saturday, May 16, 2015.

As I hiked the Pinnacle Trail at Crowders Mountain State Park this week, past signs warning about hazards ahead, I kept thinking of how Stephanie Anderson had traveled this same peaceful path a few days earlier and then, when she reached the very top, fell to her death.

Other hikers I talked with along the way also felt sobered by the news. But they, too, were undeterred.

“I’ve been doing the mountain every other day for the last 12 or 13 years,” said Charles Williams, 50, of Kings Mountain who hikes to stay fit. “I’m scared of heights, so I never get near the edge.”

Anderson, 48, of Marvin, fell 150 feet off a sheer cliff face at the Pinnacle on Saturday as she was posing for photographs with her husband and one of her three daughters. Mourners remember her as a woman of faith, a substitute teacher and part of a close-knit family.

Her death is among 14 from falls at state parks over the past 10 years (excluding suicides), according to state records. There were two other deaths at Crowders in Gaston County, four at Stone Mountain, three at Chimney Rock, two at South Mountains, and one each at Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain.

With 15 million visitors last year, parks officials point out that deaths from falling – although tragic – are rare. But as the outdoor season kicks in, Superintendent Larry Hyde of Crowders had this advice: “Be aware that there are inherent dangers. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, where your footing is, what’s in front of you, what’s behind you.”

And this: “Watch out for those who can’t watch out for themselves.”

Hyde was referring to children. In 2008, a 2-year-old boy broke free of his mother’s hand and fell more than 100 feet to his death from a cliff at Chimney Rock State Park.

Four of the people who died over the past decade fell from waterfalls at South Mountains and Stone Mountain.

“At the top of the 80-foot waterfall, there’s a barricade around it and a dozen signs saying it’s a dangerous area, and still people climb over the barricade,” said Jonathan Griffith, superintendent of South Mountains State Park. “Stay on the designated trail. Follow any warning signs that you see.”

I had never thought much about the two warning signs on the Pinnacle Trail at Crowders until Anderson fell. The Pinnacle is the park’s highest peak at 1,705 feet. Halfway up, and again at the end, bright red letters advise:

“AREA CONTAINS HAZARDS ASSOCIATED WITH ROCKS, STEEP SLOPES AND CLIFFS.”

And in bold: “INJURY OR DEATH POSSIBLE. STAY ON MARKED TRAIL.”

“We try to limit the number of signs we have to have,” said Adrian O’Neal, chief of operations for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. “If we have to put a sign up, there’s a good reason it’s up.”

An uphill climb

The 2-mile Pinnacle Trail starts off easily with a pleasant, shady walk along a gravel path through the woods. This week, white blooms of mountain laurel peeked out through the forest green.

As you veer west toward the summit, the climb begins. The flat path gives way to rocks and roots and occasionally boulders. The only way forward is to scramble up and over.

The trail then turns along a series of switchbacks until the last quarter mile or so, which is a tough uphill climb. At the very end, you have to scramble again over rocks, this time nearly straight up.

Tonya Grigg, 35, of Kings Mountain was hiking the 4-mile round trip to get in shape for a visit to the Grand Canyon. Hikers often train at Crowders for bigger mountains, some carrying heavy backpacks.

“Accidents can happen,” Grigg said. “But I hope they don’t do anything to ruin it.”

On Wednesday, the state’s chief park ranger and safety inspector hiked up to see whether additional safety precautions are needed. They decided to add two signs at the overlook with a more explicit warning. Rather than saying that injury or death is possible, the signs will say that deaths have occurred. (Another person died from a fall there many years ago, O’Neal said.)

“At this point in time, we are not making anyone stay away from the edges,” said Hyde, the park superintendent.

A scary drop-off

On a clear day, from the Pinnacle overlook, you can see the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance. Tuesday was a clear day. To the right were the closer South Mountains. To the left, the lone hump of Kings Mountain.

If you hike a few hundred yards east along the ridge, you can often see Charlotte’s skyscrapers.

“It’s awesome,” said Leanne Arias, 20, of Lincolnton, as she set out food and water for her black Lab, Molly, who made the hike, too. “It’s crazy how far you can see from up here.”

Much of the overlook is ringed with rocks, but there’s a wide V-shaped opening where hikers often pose for photographs. From there, the drop is 150 feet. That’s where Anderson fell, O’Neal said.

Caitlyn Ostovich, 20, sat far back. “I get dizzy when I get close,” she said. “It freaks me out.”

It freaks me out, too. I have hiked to the Pinnacle dozens of times and never ventured to the very edge.

Not Garrett Hawkins, 20, who works at Ben & Jerry’s on Fairview Road in Charlotte. He clambered right up onto the rock face and peered over into the abyss.

Leland: 704-358-5074

10 tips for hiking at Crowders and other state parks:

▪ Stay on designated trails. Stay away from cliff faces and waterfalls.

▪ Do not hike alone. Hike with a partner or group.

▪ When in high places, remember that others may be below; do not throw or dislodge rocks.

▪ Wear proper footwear.

▪ Avoid steep drop-offs and slick areas along rivers, creeks and streams. Boardwalks and bridges may also be slippery when wet.

▪ Should you plan a long hike or side trip, make your plans known to park staff.

▪ Be prepared for emergencies. Bring a cellphone and the phone number of the park to use during emergencies.

▪ Bring water for you and your pets.

▪ Avoid overexertion. Heat and wind may be tiring and may cause dehydration.

▪ Wear sunscreen.

Source: N.C. State Parks

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