Conversations about Cliffs: Hiking Safely around the Vertical

Michael Murphy November 13, 2020

The fall in western North Carolina is awesome because the weather is typically perfect and it is cool enough to hike for hours without getting too hot. It’s a lovely time when the leaves change and we suddenly get bathed in a beautiful blanket of oranges, yellows, and reds. Encouraged by the lack of heat, we get outside to witness the breathtaking views, beyond what we see in the day-to-day. 

Often these adventures draw us into the vertical and cliff faces with large openings in the trees lure us closer to the edge.

High mountain faces and peaks give us an opportunity to shift our perspective upwards. And upwards there are views of the surrounding landscapes, the stars shining brighter, and light pollution fades away. 

I’ve done a ton of hiking around the east coast, and I’ve also enjoyed quite a few hikes out west. On these many hikes, I’ve noticed that the trails often meander close to the edges of cliffs or sudden drops without much warning. 

So, let’s talk about cliffs.

Looking through my Instagram feed, I came across a picture of a friend of mine precariously perched on the edge of a mountain. Without ropes. Without proper climbing gear. Without any experience. It startled me. Why is he sitting there? Is it really worth all of this danger just to throw a ‘pic on the gram?’ It seems that once we live in a mountainous area for more than a year, suddenly we’re “mountain people.” We give ourselves a pass to lose our respect for these magnificent mountains because it’s exciting to be close to the edge of a cliff, it’s enticing.

Why am I so worried about people falling off of a mountainside? Well, according to a study of fatalities in US National Parks from the years 2007 – 2013 the third highest cause of fatalities among park goers was falling. 

The data further shows that a majority of these falls happened either while walking or on a hike. Most falls did not occur while rock climbing or mountaineering. 

In the exam for the American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor certification, you are docked points for being too close to a cliff’s edge without some sort of tether — and we’re the professionals. On a flat ledge (no slope) you can be one (1) body length away from the edge without losing points on your exam. On a sloping ledge, you have to be at least two (2) body lengths away from the edge to be considered safe during the exam.

And this is while we’re in technical climbing shoes, wearing harnesses, and being cautious because of our proximity to the cliff. So if that’s how we behave as climbing instructors, it makes sense to act more cautiously while hiking near a cliff’s edge when you’re, for example, wearing Chacos with socks after it has rained. 

My intention is not to scare people out of hiking near cliff lines and mountain top overlooks!

Instead, I want to bring awareness to our sometimes calloused approach to how we treat large drop-offs. It’s not that being near cliffs will suddenly make you tumble off, but having awareness around them certainly helps.

Here are a few tips I have for cliffside hiking:

  1. Wear sturdy shoes with good tread. This is not the place for your beat-up Nikes with smooth bottoms. A textured sole is very helpful when hiking in the mountains!
  2. If the cliff has a slope towards a drop, stay well away from the edge, at least 10 feet. 
  3. If it has been raining, double that distance
  4. Remember, no Instagram post is worth endangering yourself, or those around you.

Returning to a respectful view of these mountains can enhance the experience of being in their presence– and, I think we can all agree that we should do it safely. 


Michael Murphy

Climbing Director

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