Danger lurks in beauty of the trail

August 07, 2005|By GREGORY T. SIMMONS

William "Woody" Heisig stood near a ledge on Annapolis Rock one recent hazy afternoon. Below him, the valley stretched out before him to the west like a green, patchwork carpet.

But the serenity of the view, he learned recently, sometimes can be fleeting.

Heisig was one of two Appalachian Trail ridgerunners working July 1 when a Florida man took a fatal spill off Annapolis Rock, just east of Boonsboro. The area is one of the most popular sites along the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail.

That day, Heisig's usually easygoing work detail changed from making sure campers were keeping the place tidy and not violating alcohol rules to trying to aid a lifesaving effort at the top of a mountain.


"It worries me. I don't want it to happen again," Heisig said. He knows that while serious accidents are infrequent, the rocks can be fatal and with the wrong stroke of luck, "It could be every day."

People familiar with the trail and the rocky outcropping say there usually is one serious accident at Annapolis Rock a year. It is unusual that there are more than six fatalities annually along the length of the Appalachian Trail.

But despite the infrequency of serious injuries, trail authorities, workers and a rock climber who know the rocks said this case was sad because it might not have happened with a little more caution.

A summer vacation

Matthew All, 19, of Sarasota, Fla., made his first hike up to Annapolis Rock the summer after fifth grade, his mother said in a recent telephone interview from her Florida home.

Marjorie All, 42, said when her family lived in Maryland, her son Matt belonged to a Boy Scout troop in Catonsville, Md., just south of Baltimore.

Matt took to the Western Maryland hills, his mother said.

"He loved Annapolis Rocks. It was just a cool site," Marjorie All said. He soon became part of an annual trip to the site to introduce members of a local Cub Scout group to the area.

The Alls, including Marjorie, her husband Ralph, Matt, his two younger brothers and his younger sister, moved to Sarasota nearly six years ago, but Matt continued an active lifestyle.

He took work as a carpenter, and recently traveled to Alaska on a hiking trip that took him over a glacier. His mother recalled that he often would spend his afternoons after work with friends on beaches near their home, dragging the shore bottoms for small fish.

In late June, All, his girlfriend, Ashley Mindermann, and three other friends took off for a car trip to Maryland.

The group camped first at Assateague Island near Ocean City and then drove west to South Mountain on Wednesday, June 29, and planned to camp three nights and drive home on Saturday.

After parking their minivan along U.S. 40, the group made the easygoing 2.5-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, taking the turn-off to Annapolis Rock, which has a managed camping area.

The group had planned for a couple days of hiking and relaxing, but on Friday, July 1, the group had problems from the beginning.

Mindermann, 17, said one of her friends had to be taken out of the mountaintop camping area on a four-wheel drive vehicle after she started experiencing abdominal pains. Another friend went with the girl to the hospital, leaving Mindermann, All and a third friend.

The three remaining friends, waiting for word on their friend's health, took the opportunity to explore the area, Mindermann said. In hiking boots and sneakers, they scrambled into some nearby ravines, and heading back up to the camping area found what looked like a fun rock to climb.

The rock that the three found was only a few feet away from a climbing route known as "Black Crack," one of the more difficult climbs at Annapolis Rock.

All and the third friend began climbing up the easier portion of the rock. The route they chose rose about 25 feet. They worked their way up the outcropping, and eventually made it to sure footing at the top of the rock wall. Mindermann wasn't far behind, but stopped midway, she said.

Mindermann said she didn't think the climb was difficult.

"It was kind of like climbing a tree. You don't need (ropes) to climb a tree," she said.

All, who was standing at the top, became worried that she might be stuck and started making his way over to her, but before he could get closer, he put his foot on loose gravel and slipped, his girlfriend said.

All plunged about 25 feet, according to a National Park Service report.

'He was in bad shape'

It's not clear how long it took someone with emergency training to reach All, but one person who was there believes it was only a matter of minutes before a climbing instructor there for the day was able to start giving rescue breathing to All.

David Gallager, another ridgerunner who works with Heisig, was on his way to the climbing area when he recognized someone with a climbing instruction group, and soon learned of the fall, Gallager said in a recent interview.

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