Survivor of Monument cliff fall wants railing installed; warning signs will go up instead

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Among her other pursuits, Paula Kaplan-Reiss is singing and tap-dancing her way to full recovery from her fall from a cliff off the top of Monument Mountain six months ago.

Her ankle still hurts. But, it's the only bone out of 13 broken that is giving her trouble. And she knows how narrowly she escaped death or a more serious injury.

She is back to work as a psychotherapist, and still is traveling to her vacation home in Canaan, N.Y., her base for the hiking she and her husband love to do in the Berkshires.

But, Kaplan-Reiss, 60, of New Brunswick, N.J., wants to make sure no one else tumbles off Squaw Peak and falls 75 feet to a rock outcropping.

She reached out to officials at the Trustees of Reservations, which manages the mountain. The nonprofit has decided to place new signs and better educate hikers to warn them of the perils around the boulder field at the top, with its "many a hanging crag," as William Cullen Bryant put it in his poem, "Monument Mountain."

Kaplan-Reiss, an experienced hiker, initially wanted a railing installed.

"I went to the eye doctor and was telling him about the accident," she said. "He said, 'Why don't you sue and have your payment be a railing?'"

But, the dangers on Squaw Peak are too broad to be managed with railings, say the Trustees and Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger.

"We've had people fall off the front and the back," said Burger, who has orchestrated many a rescue operation on the mountain.

On Aug. 10, Kaplan-Reiss was standing at the top of Monument one moment, and the next, she disappeared over the edge. Her husband and other hikers never saw her fall and could not pinpoint her location, nor could she answer those calling her name.

Rescuers also were flummoxed and searching until a young man who was hiking with his mother decided to try to find her. He called police on his cellphone, and crawled to the ledge to help her. He and another man stayed with her for several hours, until firefighters rappelled down the cliff to her aid in what was a six-hour rescue operation.

It's not the first time there has been trouble on a mountain with a rich history and lore and which receives more than 20,000 visitors every year.

Burger said that, in the past 10 years, his department, with mutual aid from surrounding towns, has rescued 17 injured hikers from the top of the Squaw Peak trail, most of whom fall on the trail. There were three dog rescues, and a few separate "incidents" on Devil's Pulpit, a quartzite pillar on the north side of Squaw Peak.

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He said Monument can be deceiving.

"It looks like a nice short mile-and-a-half hike right off Route 7," he said. "But, when you go up over Squaw Peak, it's difficult, it's very steep, very rocky, with poor footing and narrow in places."

An inexperienced or unprepared hiker can increase the risks.

"It certainly can keep us busy," he said, adding that dogs should be kept off the top of the mountain. "They have a huge tendency to get themselves into trouble at the top," he said.

He said a rescue like Kaplan-Reiss' can cost about $10,000 in fuel, medical supplies and labor, but most are in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

Brian Westrick, the Trustees' trails team manager for the western region, said the nonprofit will make a multi-pronged effort to educate.

"We're going to be focusing on how we can prepare visitors and hikers for what they're getting into before they even get to the mountain," he said, noting that the website would be updated, for instance.

Those who simply show up will see new signs at the base, the parking area and at other targeted areas near the top. He said this was in the works, regardless, since the Trustees have opened new trails connecting Flag Rock with Monument.

Kaplan-Reiss said the Trustees' plan "sounds encouraging."

"But, I'd have to see it," she said. "I want to inspect them. I want to watch people look at them."

She joked that perhaps a sign should be made with her name on it to remind people of what can go wrong up there.

Westrick said that the noble and iconic mountain can be treacherous in all its distracting glory.

"It's a beautiful thing, and if you're looking out at it, you're not looking at your feet, so, it's easy to see how that could happen," he said of those who slip. "And when people turn around to take selfies, it's really easy to lose footing."

Heather Bellow can be reached at or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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