Safe Harbor Sport Climbing with Seth Derr – by Kyle Stapp & Sean Heisey

If you’re not hip to Safe Harbor, you better ask somebody! …wait, I asked them for you.
Enjoy this awesome article from some local climbing legends!
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
Safe Harbor Sport Climbing with Seth Derr
– article by Kyle Stapp
– photos by Sean Heisey
Safe Harbor is Central Pennsylvania’s premier (yep) sport climbing area and for good reason. The easily accessed crag offers quantity with +/- 500 routes that is being added to weekly; quality on some of those smooth schist faces + features; difficulty in terms of range (5.4 to possibly 5.14a+ projects); setting given the crag sits over the beautiful Susquehanna River; and ease of accessibility due to the awesomely flat Enola Low Grade Trail that runs the entire length of the crag. Safe Harbor can also be a phenomenal place to sport climb throughout Winter given its orientation.
The Safe Harbor climbing area is naturally divided into two major sections (North and South) by the Safe Harbor Dam and natural topography. Both Safe Harbor North and South offer similar but unique experiences. We highly recommend you check both out for the full experience.
To help shed a little more light on this historic Central PA (gem of a…) crag, we interviewed climbing and Safe Harbor guidebook author Seth Derr in September 2018. Below is part of that interview we’d like to share:
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
1. Do you have an all-around, all-time favorite route at Safe Harbor? If so, what is it and why?
SD: Probably Armageddon at the Euro Wall. It’s atypical of most Safe Harbor routes in that it’s relatively long (70ft) and slightly overhanging with varied climbing that builds in difficulty to a fantastic little V3 crux near the top. It also stays dry in the rain, which is incredibly important since it NEVER. STOPS. RAINING. Autumn Arch and The Golden Bough are high on my list too.
2. Do you prefer North versus South, etc?
SD: North. South definitely has its appeal, especially the Autumn Arch sector, but North is a little more adventurous with generally steeper routes and more opportunity for solitude.
3. Do you have a favorite wall/area at Safe Harbor? If so, what is it and why?
SD: The Euro Wall has a great lineup of harder, bouldery routes that usually stay dry in a light rain. That, combined with its proximity to the Star Wall probably make it my favorite area, with honorable mention going to the area around Autumn Arch at South. If you can find those routes dry they are fantastic.
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
4. What is the average approach like in the South? North?
SD: They’re both pretty similar and incredibly easy compared to almost everywhere else. Which one you use depends on where you want to climb and the forthcoming guidebook should clear up any confusion there. A bicycle is a useful tool but in no way necessary.
5. What does the future hold for Safe Harbor in the coming years?
SD: Rain probably.
6. What type of climbing does SH offer?
SD: For the most part it’s slabby sport climbing, but there is a fair amount of vertical to overhanging routes as well as a few traditionally protected cracks. Trad climbing there is kind of sketchy though.
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
7. When was SH first discovered and by whom? Any little stories or facts that are of interest to you within those first few years?
SD: I spent a lot of time and energy researching the history for the guidebook, and I’m proud of what I put together there, so without giving too much away I can say that Tony, Hugh, and Hans Herr started scrambling around on the cliffs at South in the mid 70’s, then actual routes began going up when Don Gallagher did Autumn Arch on gear in 1978. After that, those four and some others started plucking off any line that could be protected, along with some that couldn’t. Activity at North didn’t start until much later, when Eric Hörst, Bob Perna, and Grant Horner began adding routes in the early 90’s.
8. Who can we thank for access to Safe Harbor?
SD: There have been a lot of people over the years who have contributed to making Safe Harbor what it is today, but when it comes down to it there are two that we need to thank first and foremost: Eric Hörst and Larry Felton. Eric not only led the charge in initially bolting Safe Harbor South, transforming it from a terrifying run out trad area that nobody ever visited to the popular sport climbing destination it’s become today, he also donated hundreds of hours of his free time toward reopening the area during the decade that the railroad and local bureaucracy conspired to keep it closed to climbing. When it finally reopened, Larry not only added scores of new routes, but modernized the hardware on the old ones as well.
9. What difficulty range (of routes – YDS) does SH have so far?
SD: There are bolted routes from 5.4 to (probably) 5.14a, so there’s definitely something for everyone.
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
10. When does the first ever guide to both North and South come out? Where can we buy a guide once it is available?
SD: We hope to have it out by February. Right now I have about 75% of the route descriptions done, as well as the history and a bunch of other miscellaneous information. We still need a lot of pictures, but Fall should provide the weather and backdrop to get them done. We’re still working on finalizing some details, but I believe it will be available at area climbing gyms and gear shops.
11. How has the guidebook writing process at SH been for you?
SD: Oh man it’s been awesome. I’ll admit that at first I was just kind of looking for a writing project and wasn’t the biggest fan of Safe Harbor, but since we started this project I’ve fallen in love with the area. My goal going into it was to be able to give a first hand description of every route there, and with a few exceptions I’m still on track to achieve that, so not only has it been a great creative outlet, it’s been an opportunity to climb a whole bunch of routes I probably never would’ve done otherwise. Plus, working with Larry Felton and Kyle Matulevich and the countless others who’ve assisted us has been one of the pleasures of my life.
12. What advice do you have for first time visitors to SH?
SD: Well, if it’s after February it would have to be to pick up the guidebook. Not only will it be a great informational tool, but all proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated back to Safe Harbor via South Central Pennsylvania Climbers, so in addition to learning about the area you’ll be donating funds toward securing and improving it for the future. Beyond that shameless book plug, if you’re a new climber or new to climbing outside spend some time at South. There are more easy routes there and their proximity to each other make that area the perfect place to learn. If you’re consistently climbing 5.11 or harder and are just now getting around to visiting the area North has a lot to offer, specifically the area between 2.5 and 3.5 miles on the Enola Low Grade.
13. Any recommended routes for a 5.10 and below climber on their first visit? 5.10 and up?
SD: For the true beginner La Eaglet should not be missed. Other good moderates include Eminent Domain, Mental as Anything, It’s a Fine Line, Locomotion, and Predator. Then there are Autumn Arch and The Golden Bough, which in my opinion are two of the best routes in the state.
Above 5.10, check out Hydroman, Machismo, Flash or Crash, Ruby Red Slippers, Armageddon, Malice, Wonderama, White Stripes, or The Legacy Route.
Safe Harbor. Climber: Seth Derr. Photo by Sean Heisey.
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