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Ky. gorge beautiful and deadly to visitors

Nov. 30, 2008 @ 12:00 AM

STANTON, Ky. -- The Red River Gorge area in eastern Kentucky attracts thousands to its beautiful and unique rock formations each year, but some visitors never leave.

But for all its beauty, the craggy rock outcrops and cliff lines can be a dangerous setting. At least six people from around Cincinnati and northern Kentucky have fallen to their deaths there since 1992, The Kentucky Enquirer reported.

The most recent was a man from Hebron, Ky., earlier this month.

The 42,000-acre geological area that reaches into parts of Menifee, Powell and Wolfe counties make it a popular destination for day hikers, overnight campers and rock climbers.

The gorge area offers miles of sculpted cliff line and more natural arches than any place east of the Rocky Mountains. The rock climbing opportunities are world-renowned and hikers can explore more than 60 miles of backcountry trails.

People from Ohio and northern Kentucky accounted for 90 percent of the injuries or deaths reported in the Red River Gorge from 1960 through 2005, according to records kept by the U.S. Forest Service.

Most were young men who stumbled off a cliff at night, and alcohol was often a factor.

"When we go out at night, when we're called out on a rescue, I know it's going to be an 18- to 25-year-old male," said Rob Armstrong, a coordinator on the Red River Gorge Mountain Rescue Team. "Chances are he's going to be from Ohio or northern Kentucky. That's about what we expect."

Despite increased patrols, there have been four deaths in the gorge since March. Three were the result of falls.

The most recent rescue involved 18-year-old Brandy Timerding from Erlanger. She was camping on Nov. 8 less than 10 feet from a 70-foot drop-off. Timerding lost her footing sometime that evening and went over the edge. She suffered head injuries, a broken arm and a broken leg.

She was in fair condition late last week at University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. Her fall happened days after two 18-year-old climbers -- Ben Strohmeier, of Hebron, and Laura Fletcher, of Indiana -- died in a fall. An equipment failure is being blamed for their deaths.

The deadliest spot in the gorge, the Chimney Top Rock overlook, also offers its most breathtaking views of the surrounding forest and rocky landmarks.

Of the 73 deaths documented in the gorge from 1960 through 2005, 19 were killed after they climbed over a barrier on the rock to get to an outcrop.

"They have to jump over a crack in the rocks, which is about 80 feet down to the bottom," said Tim Eling, the Red River Gorge manager for the U.S. Forest Service. "Over the years, unfortunately, a number of people have slipped trying to jump over that opening and have fallen to either serious injury or death."

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