Highpointers go for the top in every state -- even the flat ones

Email|Print| Text size + By Joe Glickman
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2004

Eleven-year-old Galen Johnson, son of the famed Alaskan mountaineer, Dave Johnson, in 2001 became the youngest person to have climbed all of the United States' high points. The oldest, 77-year-old Cal Dunwoody, started with the country's highest point, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska, and nine years later, in 1999, finished up with the lowest, Florida's 345-foot Britton Hill.

The speed record for climbing the highest point in each of the 50 states is 66 days, 21 hours, 47 minutes -- mind-boggling when you consider it takes most people three weeks just to climb McKinley. One hyperkinetic hiker hoofed up six high points in 24 hours. There's also a record for the first 50-year-old to climb all 50 and - well, you get the idea.

More than a few of the 2,834 members of the Highpointers Club are highly goal-oriented. The rest are a diverse group of climbing nerds, enjoying a seemingly endless road trip with a vertical orientation.

In 1997, my friend Nels Akerlund, a photographer, proposed we climb all 50 and document the journey in a book. Given that we would have to stand on the high points of Florida, Delaware, and Louisiana -- not to mention a few in cornfields in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois -- the project sounded goofy as well as expensive and impractical. Still, I liked the idea of connecting a vast geography thematically, of seeing parts of the country I had never seen en route to a bunch of picturesque mountains. I particularly liked the prospect of climbing McKinley.

Nels and I met that May in Austin, Texas, and headed west through fields of wildflowers to a remote, rugged, starkly beautiful national park 110 miles from El Paso. Guadalupe Peak, named in 1692 after a Spanish saint, is the top of an ancient reef in a long-gone sea. Standing 3,000 feet above the Chihuahuan Desert (8,749 feet above sea level), birds of prey soaring on the thermals, I felt elated. Back in the car, however, I was keenly aware that we had 49 more to go.

High points fall into roughly four categories: drive-ups, easy walk-ups, hard hikes, and technical climbs. At 12,633 feet, Humphreys Peak in Arizona, our second high point, had the reputation of a straightforward walk-up. But 44 inches of snow had fallen recently. There was an overhanging cornice along the summit ridge and gusty winds pushing us toward the precipice. Hours into our snowy slog, we met three men returning from the top. I mentioned our high-pointing ambitions. One of them launched into a story about a friend who had stepped through a cornice on Mount Whitney in California and plunged to his death. Though it's the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, the standard route on California's high point was supposed to be, like Humphreys, just a long, hard hike. Given that there are plenty of Western peaks considered more treacherous, given that I had assured my wife our venture was low risk, this was not the kind of news I was looking for.

It took us six hours to climb Humphreys. The view was magnificent, but by the time we reached the top, I was so dehydrated and sunburnt, and my feet so blistered, that all I could think about was getting down. I had read countless books about climbers suffering in the hills, and had absorbed the message that climbing was a metaphor for life: "difficulty-met-with-resolve-builds-character" kind of thing. But two peaks into the project, my determination turned to doubt, then dread. If I'm dying in Arizona, I thought, how bad will Alaska be?

When we set out six years ago, 58 people had climbed all 50 state summits. By the time we completed our final high point in July 2002, the number had nearly doubled. (The latest count was 125.) To accomplish our goal, we drove about 12,000 miles and flew about as far again to Alaska and Hawaii. Toting up gas, motels, air fare, and food, we spent roughly $30,000 and 150 days to join the club.

Initially, we thought we could blitz the project in less than a year, but that first 30-day, 10-state journey from Texas to California and back through the Great Plains taught us a few things. First, on big, snowy mountains we were clueless. Second, we had underestimated the scope of the project by a factor of 10. Still, we had found that no matter the size of the peak, high points were special places. Even "summits" like Mount Sunflower in Kansas (elevation 4,039 feet) and Panorama Point in Nebraska (5,424 feet) (a mostly flat, barren field littered with cow pies) had social, military, or spiritual significance for scores of people, many of whom had traveled far to reach the top.

A year later, we were at it again. The 13,528-foot Kings Peak in Utah and 12,662-foot Mount Borah in Idaho were arduous and gorgeous, but manageable. Gannett Peak, however, a 13,804-foot mountain deep in Wyoming's Wind River Range, and known for its fierce weather, and Montana's 12,799-foot Granite Peak, the last of the 50 we scaled, raised the bar to a frightening new level.

The 25-mile, one-way hike to Gannett's base camp wound past glacial lakes and stark, jagged peaks. Just above us was a steep switchback feature called Dinwoody Pass. On summit day, our third on the trail, we left camp single file at 2:30 a.m. with our headlamps on. By 11 a.m., we were 300 vertical feet from the top, eyeing the sheer, snowy, summit ridge. As we neared the ridge, we were greeted with light snow and gusty winds. For 15 minutes, we debated which way to go, up or down. Then the storm intensified and the decision was made for us. We descended in a whiteout in winds so fierce we fought to keep our feet.

Rehashing the climb later in our fetid tent strewn with wet socks and Capilene, Ryan Hokanson, our ultra-mellow, ultra-tough, 23-year-old guide (whom we had hired through an outfitter in Jackson Hole) pointed out that the mountain wasn't going anywhere soon. We could return.

Indeed, I plan to try again.

Weather, however, wasn't our only obstacle. On Granite Peak, we spent seven hours on vertical rock, at altitude, with plastic climbing boots and packs. I was a nervous wreck, but we made it. Back at our camp on the auspiciously named Froze-to-Death plateau, I felt I had broken through a psychological barrier that allowed me to think of myself as less coward and more climber.

Over the next few years, Nels, a resident of Rockford, Ill., and I would convene in Vermont, Georgia, Minnesota, and Hawaii to bag a few more high points. What seems most remarkable now is how much happened between our first and last climbs: My mother died; my daughter, a babbling toddler when I left for Texas, learned to read; Nels got divorced and started a new relationship. And in the middle of it all, 9/11.

While the country sat glued to the TV staring at images of smoking ruins 2 miles from my home in Brooklyn, Nels and I drove through fields of corn and soy to Charles Mound (Illinois), Hoosier Hill (Indiana), and Hawkeye Hill (Iowa). Five days after the collapse of the Twin Towers, farms and silos were a welcome contrast.

The following fall, we capped our eastern tour in Maine, home of Mount Katahdin, the grandest peak in the East. The rest of the high points in the Northeast, with the exception of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, were pleasant, pacific, or pretty. Both 812-foot Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island, guarded by a zealous owner, and 448-foot Ebright Azimuth in Delaware, marked by a sturdy sign on a suburban street corner, were delightfully goofy.

That's precisely why people climb high points. While Rainier, Hood, Gannett, and Granite connected us, perhaps tangentially, to a fraternity of "real" climbers, scaling Mount Frissell in Connecticut, Mount Davis in Pennsylvania, or Backbone in Maryland was less about conquering an inaccessible piece of real estate than absorbing the culture surrounding a place that was considered high by virtue of its location. When we climbed the 535-foot Driskill Mountain in Louisiana, we spent more time at a cemetery behind an abandoned church featuring five generations of Driskills than we did on the summit. The short hike to the top of the 3,506-foot White Butte in the Badlands of North Dakota was pretty cool, but the crux of that climb was learning about life on the Great Plains from the grizzled homeowner who had lived at the foot of the mountain since his bootlegger granddad set up shop there during the Depression.

Then, five years after we began, there was McKinley, the mountain native Alaskans call Denali, the Great One. Our guide, Vernon Tejas, 49, the first man to solo Denali in the winter, was one of Alaska's most decorated climbers, and the journey was memorable. Sixteen days after landing on the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of the highest mountain on the continent, I stood at 20,320 feet on a much sought-after mound of trampled snow. Savoring the 360-degree view in the thin, 15-below-zero air, I'd like to say I traced a jagged line in my mind connecting all the greasy breakfast joints, funky motels, lumpy tent sites, endless miles of driving past strip malls through small towns to this spot. In fact, I was trying to stay warm and obsessing about the trip back down the sketchy summit ridge that fell to oblivion on either side.

Looking back, that fractured, episodic trip was part of an ongoing education about American history and our quirky regionalism. It taught me about pushing past fatigue and fear and about the drama in even the most mundane landscape. Leslie Stephen, a literary critic and father of Virginia Woolf, wrote in about 1870: "I believe that the ascent of mountains forms an essential chapter in the complete duty of man, and that it is wrong to leave any district without setting foot on its highest peak."

From more than a century before the Highpointers Club was officially founded in 1986, Stephen's sentiment captures the club's spirit perfectly.

Joe Glickman is the author of "To The Top: Reaching for America's 50 State Summits" with photographs by Nels Akerlund (NorthWord Press, 2003).

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