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Mountain climbers to rappel down Washington Monument

September 26, 2011 |  2:56 pm

Photo: Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, talks about earthquake damage suffered by the Washington Monument. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press The Washington Monument will continue to be off-limits to visitors in the wake of last month's damaging earthquake, officials said Monday. But there's still plenty to see.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday, mountain climbers will simultaneously rappel down each of the monument's four sides to examine the extent of the damage suffered by the landmark. That's the only way authorities can get a detailed look at the exterior of the monument, which stands just over 555 feet tall.

“The good news is that it is structurally sound," Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said at a news conference Monday. "The original architects knew what they were doing.”

A Denali National Park ranger will lead the mountain climbers' slow-and-careful "expedition" down the sides of the monument.

The monument's elevator system was damaged in the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that rocked much of the East Coast on Aug. 23. Several of the monument's exterior tiles also cracked. All damage seems to be in the top 100 feet of the monument.

Jennifer Talken-Spaulding, a National Park Service ranger, recalled touring the damaged areas shortly after the earthquake: "When I walked up and saw daylight coming through the cracks at the top, it just broke my heart,” she said during the news conference.

Since the earthquake, rangers have been using a foam-like filler and caulk to try to minimize water seeping in through cracks in the monument's mortar that are up to a quarter-inch wide.

The Washington Monument is both the world's tallest stone monument as well as the world's tallest obelisk, and is considered a must-see for visitors to the nation's capital. On a normal day visitors can take a 70-second elevator ride to the observation deck 500 feet above the National Mall.

The only view of the observation deck that the public can see these days is in a newly released video showing the reaction of the 12 visitors and single ranger who were there when the earthquake struck.

Monday's news that the monument would remain closed to visitors was a disappointment for tourists. Many had expected the news conference to outline the extent of the damage -- and perhaps announce a reopening date for sightseers. For now, visitors are relegated to touring the monument's grounds.

There is currently no timetable for repairing or reopening the monument.

The Aug. 23 earthquake was centered just outside Mineral, Va., and was felt from the Carolinas to Boston and beyond. The quake also damaged Washington's National Cathedral, although it remains structurally sound. Several spires and decorative elements on the architecturally significant edifice were either damaged or snapped off.

For tourists still seeking a sweeping view of the Washington skyline, the National Park Service recommends the Old Post Office Tower, which has a 270-foot observation level and a century-old tower clock with the Bells of Congress.

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-- Alexa Vaughn in Washington and Rene Lynch in Los Angeles

Photo: Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, talks about earthquake damage suffered by the Washington Monument. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press

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