You might call it Mount Puzzling

It may be Connecticut's highest point, but its summit is elsewhere

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Maloof
Globe Correspondent / August 9, 2003

SALISBURY, Conn. -- The term "high point" suggests something positive -- the best moment in a day or a life, one's peak performance, the heavenly zenith.

You wouldn't know it in Connecticut, where the highest point gets so little respect that it might as well be called Mount Dangerfield.

Its actual name is Mount Frissell, which sounds like a bad hair day memorialized. You want a convincing name, take the neighboring Bear Mountain. In fact, many people do take it instead of Frissell. When I quizzed employees at two outdoors stores near my home, they knew Bear Mountain, but had never heard of Frissell. Bear Mountain is on the fabled Appalachian Trail. Bear also is the highest summit in Connecticut, while Frissell is the highest point, which might sound like a zen riddle but will be explained eventually.

And of the three New England hiking books I looked at the night before conquering Frissell, all three had entries for Bear, while two mentioned Frissell only in passing, and the other not at all. Finally, the state of Connecticut website lists 2,100 matches for Bear, just 889 for Frissell. You call this a "high point"?

I was about to find out.

. . .

Four other cars occupy the trailhead when my hiking partner and I arrive at 10:35 on the morning of July 4. We're in Mount Washington, Mass., but will hike through three states on this day. You can get to the highest point in Connecticut through Massachusetts or New York. No wonder Connecticut treats Frissell as if it were Black Sheep Mountain.

The dirt road we took in to the trailhead was lined with mountain laurel, and we see more of the white blossoms ahead. As we take our first steps, a solitary guy appears and breezes past us with barely a nod -- odd behavior within the hiking culture. Maybe he is embittered over the disappointment of Mount Frissell.

No other hikers appear as, twice in less than 15 minutes, we negotiate steep stretches of smooth rock. It's already clear that while Mount Frissell is only fifth among state high points in New England, this won't be a stroll along gradual inclines and soft dirt paths.

Frissell, in fact, requires the third greatest vertical climb of New England high points -- 450 feet -- to reach its 2,380-foot peak. As if to signal the change in altitude, the white mountain laurel begins turning pink. A mourning dove walks across some flat rock, and after hiking for 35 minutes we stop to rehydrate. Dragonflies swirl above our heads as we sit on an exposed rock face and take in the view. "From here it looks something like the foothills of Alaska," says my hiking partner, with whom I share a first name but nowhere near the degree of outdoors experience. He worked in Alaska for the National Park Service, but I'm not sure how much his comparison is objective assessment, how much wistful projection.

His greater experience has earned him the position of navigator, and from our vantage he identifies our hated rival, Bear Mountain. My seething is joined by the buzzing of a small plane overhead -- one of four we'll hear and see on our hike today -- and I wonder if that might be the only sign of humanity we will find.

Then a man and two children appear. Kevin Norby and daughter, Erica, 10, and son, Ryan, 9, are from Hopkinton, Mass., and they're on a highpointers' hike (members of the national Highpointers Club try to reach as many peaks as they can). . Norby hiked Frissell two or three winters ago, and says that now "it's interesting to see it with all the mountain laurel." He tries to work such hikes in when he is traveling, and his kids have one fewer high point to their credit than their respective ages: Erica has nine, Ryan eight.

Norby knows about the rivalry -- how Frissell has the mountain laurel, Bear the figurative laurels. "Connecticut doesn't promote this at all," he says. "I bet there's a lot more people hiking Bear Mountain. I told the kids we'd probably see just one person, but we've seen more."

They hike ahead, but after two minutes we find them at the summit of Mount Frissell. As summits go, it's undramatic. There's no view, and the sole clue that we're at a peak is the trail register hanging from a tree in an enclosed metal box.

Some trail register entries allude to the highpointer's mission and sensibility. "John and Judy, The Hiking Grandparents" report that they have "done all New England high points. Katahdin in Maine the hardest. All beautiful." For The Griffins from Dallas, this was "high point #31 -- great night hike with headlamps!" Other entries suggest the "high" in "high point." The aptly named "Mars" (actually from Canton, Conn.) proffered this: "Yahoo! The awe of life, life and the (preciousness) of NOW! Breathing in and Breathing out." And then there was "Yo, I bet you I'm the 1st Korean vegan to make it up here-HA! (Vegan Goddess Sara)."

But then the Frissell-doubting takes over: "terrible view, good climb" from one, and "What a surprise! This hike is much nicer than we thought it would be."

Just a few minutes later we have walked down from Frissell's summit to the high point of Connecticut, marked by a tarnished, green, 4-inch metal stake protruding from rock. This also marks a state line -- Massachusetts on one side, Connecticut on the other. It was no zen riddle after all: Bear Mountain's summit is 2,316 feet -- 64 feet lower than the south slope of Frissell, located in Connecticut, which is 137 feet lower than Frissell's summit, which is located in Massachusetts.

My hiking partner observes that "It's kind of disappointing that you have to go down to get to the high point." The Norbys pose for some snapshots to serve as high-point attainment evidence. By now we've been hiking for just over 40 minutes and welcome the cool breeze while envying the turkey vultures for their view -- all we get are foliage-obscured snatches of other mountains. "There are actually some people who haven't found the high point," Norby says -- yet another explanation for Frissell denigration.

Another highpointer happens by. Steve Hoffer is heading to Rhode Island the next day, which is one of five days each year when people are allowed on the private property that includes the Ocean State's most magnificent peak -- all 812 feet, 25-foot vertical climb of Jerimoth Hill. Hoffer is trying to do all of New England's high points on this trip from his home near Las Vegas. His eventual plans include Alaska -- Mount McKinley's 20,320-foot peak (the highest in North America) and 24,500 vertical climb, which my hiking partner estimates would cost $10,000 for a guided climb. Hoffer seems unfazed -- maybe because he is studying for the priesthood, maybe because his 6 feet 8 inches accustom him to altitude.

The two of us, plus the Norbys, hike on. In seven minutes we have found the tri-state marker (add New York). "Some people collect three-state markers and four-state markers," Norby notes.

We linger around the 4-foot-tall stone marker -- timewise, this has become the least efficient hike of my life -- and soon are joined by Ron and Dani Smith of Cleveland, Tenn. They also are heading to Rhode Island tomorrow, which probably helps explain the relatively mall-like crowds that have descended upon the usually neglected Frissell. "This is our eighth [high point] this week," Ron says. "We hope to get to 14," though both he and Dani seem uncertain about her readiness for Katahdin.

As for Frissell, "The trail makes it more strenuous," says Ron, "but a lot of others are longer."

OK, time to hike on. No, no, here comes someone else. They should rename this place Mount Tokyo-Subway-Car-At-Rush-Hour. Kevin Sweeney of Burlington, Mass., looks as if he has wandered onto the trail from a tennis court -- he's in a white sleeveless shirt, white shorts, white socks, and white sneakers. "I forgot my boots in the car," he explains. While this is just his fifth high point, he says he already has one of the toughest under his belt: Oregon's Mount Hood, an 11,239-foot peak that requires a 5,300-foot vertical climb.

When we finally head out, the Smiths and the Norbys go in one direction, we three in another. My hiking partner is using a combination of map reading and trail assessing to make decisions. He leads us left, the trail widens to four feet, and we cross a non-babbling brook and a cairn that he theorizes marks an unused trail. Soon the mountain laurels give way to a sea of ferns. Light seeps through the trees onto the ferns, and after we cross a brook that does babble, the ferns are joined by mountain laurels, the ferns disappear, and we're among mountain laurel and green brush.

Two young couples pass us -- one pair carrying huge packs, the other couple with nothing but shirts on their backs. "Did you lose a bet?" I jokingly ask the two pack mules. "No," says the female, unsmiling. "I'm going to fly."

"The meeting point of two subcultures," my hiking partner says after they leave, "parasailers and highpointers."

I question how well they get along. One's goal is to gain altitude, the other to lose it. My goal is to spread the word about Frissell -- even with its weak view, lame name, and all that high-point-but-not-summit confusion, it was the high point of my day.

David Maloof is a freelance writer who lives in Belchertown.

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