IntroductionFor nearly 24 years I have been engaged in a long-term project to visit US state high points. As you will see, this began as a father-daughter project, and blossomed into a family activity for many of the trips. As the result of an 8000-mile cross country trip to attend my 40th college reunion this spring (2009), I visited #45-49 and declared this project completed.
My recent travels took me to the highest points of elevation in Nebraska, Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, and finally to Iowa: state highpoint number 49, and no longer counting! Twelve years ago I declared that I lost my desire to climb Denali, and so now I am finished with this goal. I’ll seek something else to occupy my ambitions for next 24 years. I’ll be looking for a set of experiences that can be worked on a little bit at a time, now and then with great vigor, and alternatively less actively or even put on the shelf for a while, as I did with state high pointing for over twelve years in the middle of the odyssey described below.
OriginsThis quest began 1985, as a result of several personal forces acting simultaneously. Holly and I began to seriously contemplate my leaving a United Airlines career of sixteen years, and we started thinking more about traveling with our daughters on the chance that I might leave the airline industry and its flying privileges. We also were considering that a change may provide the opportunity to raise our two daughters closer to our families in the Pacific Northwest. Lastly, our 10-year old daughter Vanessa and I had just completed several years in the YMCA’s Indian Princess Program, and I was seeking some new activity to engage with her on a father-daughter basis. Eventually my long-held love of maps and of hiking and climbing coalesced with these desires into an exciting idea.
The moment of inspiration occurred one evening while scanning the Rand-McNally Road Atlas, something I did frequently, vicariously traveling about the country. While perusing the map of a Midwestern state (I can’t recall which one) where one would not normally contemplate its geographic highest point of elevation, my eye fell on the tiny notation “Highest point in xxxx”. Hmmm, that’s interesting. I quickly pulled out another of my favorite reference books, the World Almanac. Sure enough, there was a list of the highest points in each of the fifty states. I knew several of them, but the majority were new to me and relatively obscure. Thus was born an ambition: to visit the highest point in every state in the country. I use the verb “visit” advisedly. As I was to discover in studying the subject more closely, the word “climb” applies to, at best, 20 or 25 of the US state highpoints, and arguably to fewer than that.
When we began this enterprise, we had no idea whether anyone else had done it. The highpoints of four of the states (Delaware, Florida, Iowa, and Indiana) didn’t even have names at the time. We were later to learn that the true highpoint in Michigan had only been identified in 1982, and numerous references (including my almanac) referred to a different, lower point as the state’s highest summit. In fact, the precise location of several of the more obscure state highpoints has been re-assessed since 1986. There was no one keeping track of people on such a crazy mission. In fact, the log I kept from the first four years of our adventure would eventually show that there weren’t even summit registers at 22 of the first 32 state highpoints we visited. In short, as far as I could tell, nobody cared.
I built a word processing file on our Apple II+ computer to assemble data about state highpoints and plan our trips. I began ordering USGS quadrangle maps for the highpoints, and eventually built a collection of all 50. The thought that my research could eventually lead to a guidebook even crossed my mind. A list of all 50 in elevation sequence with links to the summitpost.org pages is currently maintained by 2skinners.
The Initial Blitz
1985-1987 – 29 state highpoints in 27 months
Not long after the idea first occurred to me, our family took a short vacation to Vermont, Labor Day weekend, 1985. Vanessa and I planned to hike to the top of Mount Mansfield from the west, but the weather was unfavorable and our hike was cut short. The next day we drove to the Stowe valley on the east side of the peak, and took the toll road to near the summit. From there Vanessa and I hiked the 1-½ miles to the true summit, our first state highpoint (SHP). The quest was on!
Before the month was out, we flew from Chicago to Newark on a one-day trip, rented a car, visited High Point State Park in New Jersey and the trailer park on Ebright Road in Delaware where the highpoint was identified as an intersection of two streets, and returned to Chicago the same evening. It was the first of five occasions on which we visited two SHPs in a single day. But my pre-teen daughter was already beginning to wonder whether this was such a cool idea. Her “summit” picture in Delaware tells it all…”This is really dumb, Dad.”
By the end of 1985 we had driven to Wisconsin to run up the tower on Timms Hill, Campbell Hill in Ohio, and the high point in Indiana now known rather engrandizingly as Hoosier Hill. In February 1986 we drove out to Charles Mound, the SHP of our home state of Illinois. So among our first seven SHPs were 5 of the lowest 10 -- we were certainly starting out easy!
However, by the end of the first twelve months of highpointing, Mount Elbert in Colorado (arguably the easiest of the five highest SHPs), Harney Peak in South Dakota, and Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Although the latter has a road to the summit, we hiked the final 4000 vertical feet from the Hale Pohaku station. We also completed Signal Hill on Magazine Mountain in Arkansas, Taum Sauk Mountain in Missouri (as a family, on Hands-Across America Day), Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, and White Butte in North Dakota. The experience for Vanessa was getting more interesting, and the following year she wrote a report for English class about the Mauna Kea hike, her first experience of hiking above 10,000 feet. She concluded “I think I learned something important on the hike. That is that I should have more confidence in what I can do, and also that I can do a lot more than I thought.” Our mutual quest was having a character-building effect on her, and building our respect for each other.
Mount Arvon was recognized as highest. We attempted to follow the directions given us to find Mount Arvon, but got lost in the maze of logging roads. Eventually we found what seemed to match the “beaver pond” mentioned in the directions, but after ½ mile of hiking the adjacent trail, it was apparent we were lost. We went ahead and drove to Mount Curwood as originally planned. As late at 1990, Don Holmes’ guide Highpoints of the United States indicated that sources still disagreed as to where the true highpoint of Michigan was. “Until the controversy is resolved, it might be prudent to visit both summits when in the area.” (I eventually returned to find the actual summit of Mount Arvon, now clearly accepted as the state’s highest, on my final push for SHPs in June, 2009.) By the end of 1986 Vanessa and I also had gone to Jerimoth Hill Rhode Island,and the entire family visited Cheaha Mountain in Alabama after Christmas.
In 1987 we maintained the pace of averaging a new SHP about every month, but we began with another disappointment. Our family vacation to Arizona included a Cubs spring training game, a couple of days at the Grand Canyon, and skiing on the San Francisco Peaks. Unfortunately the weather was threatening during the day we planned to climb Humphreys Peak, and we settled for a hike up the adjacent Agassiz Peak. Later Vanessa and I went to Woodall Mountain Mississippi, the entire family went for the Allegheny trifecta of Mount Davis Pennsylvania, Backbone Mountain Maryland, and Spruce Knob West Virginia SHPs, and Vanessa and I hiked to the only SHP that is on the ridge of a peak whose summit is in another state: Mount Frissell, the highpoint of Connecticut. Together to that point we had been to 22 SHPs. In July the family traveled to Vermont again, primarily to visit a DaVinci exhibit in Montreal. Since we had started our highpointing on Mount Mansfield, we used the opportunity to go to the Adirondacks. Unfortunately Vanessa was suffering from asthma, and Mount Marcy was the first SHP I had to do solo. Although it was an enjoyable and interesting 2-day hike, I was sorry Vanessa was unable to share with me the continued success.
The following month we planned a road trip vacation in our new Dodge Caravan. Up to this point, most of our family vacations, long or short, had capitalized on my United Airlines employee flying privileges. But a trip through the Appalachian states offered an opportunity to see much of the country we had not previously visited, to utilize the new family mini-van concept to best effect, and to knock off a bunch of SHPs. In the end our planned itinerary was one state too ambitious. We summited Brasstown Bald Georgia, Sassafras Mountain South Carolina, Clingmans Dome Tennessee, Mount Mitchell North Carolina (highest point east of the Mississippi River), and Black Mountain Kentucky in one 4-day stretch during the trip. We had to forego Mount Rogers in Virginia as time grew short. On the second anniversary of our quest, Vanessa and I flew to Boston and drove the toll road up Mount Washington in New Hampshire. By the end of the year I quit my job with United Airlines in Chicago. On our trip to Seattle we drove to Mount Sunflower in Kansas, and then had a misadventure on the Oklahoma panhandle as I drove off the road near the base of Black Mesa, disabling the van. We retreated from the SHP less than a mile from its base. Nevertheless, by the end of 1987, 27 months into our quest, I had been to 29 SHPs, Vanessa had been to 28, her sister Hillary and my wife Holly had been to an even dozen each. Poor navigation, lack of time, unfavorable weather, and a driving mishap accounted for failure to reach our objective on four others, and Vanessa had fallen short on one due to illness.
1988-1994 – 12 state highpoints, including some real climbs
Boeing Alpine Club (BOEALPS) , and on the basis of Vanessa already having climbed to the summit of three peaks over 10,000 feet (Elbert, Mauna Kea, and Agassiz) I prevailed upon the leaders to allow her to join me in their alpine climbing class in spite of being only thirteen years old. Although our pace of accomplishment slowed dramatically for lack of access to cheap air travel, the technical knowledge and experience requirements of the more serious climbing SHPs would not be an impediment. In July the two of us climbed Mt. Hood in my home state of Oregon, and the following Labor Day the family drove to Sun Valley and Vanessa and I completed the Borah Peak hike/scramble. The family finished the year with a trip back to Disney World, and the two of us drove up to Lakewood to score the country’s lowest SHP, Britton Hill. Even though our new lifestyle allowed us to only bag three SHPs for the year, the climbs were becoming more challenging and interesting, and the goal more compelling.
At the end of the 1988 I purchased “50HIPTS” personalized license plates for my car, and was ready for more adventures. I became more active in BOEALPS, and discovered in the club library a copy of Frank Ashley’s Highpoints of the States. It was first guidebook written on the subject, and the first time I discovered that anyone else harbored the same ambition Vanessa and I had. We were then over half way to completing the goal.
Jim Hinkhouse. Our mutual interest in climbing soon blossomed into mountaineering companionship. He joined Vanessa and me on his first climb of Mt. Hood in the summer of 1989, via the classic Leuthold Couloir route, a sometimes scary but very aesthetic climb and one of my favorite routes in the Pacific Northwest. It was our second climb of Oregon’s SHP. In 1989 we only climbed two new SHPs, but both were worthy adventures. After a six month hiatus from highpointing, the longest up to that point, our trip to Mount Katahdin, or simply "Katahdin" proved well worth the wait. We had a wonderful experience, including watching a moose stroll though our Chimney Pond camp. We did the full traverse, up the Cathedral Ridge route to Chimney Peak, and then across the so-called knife edge to the summit of Maine (also known as "Baxter Peak"), before descending the Saddle Trail.
The other SHP climb that year was Mount Whitney, the summit of the Lower-48. It was deathly hot, with temperatures in the Owens Valley running 105-110. We hiked the Whitney Trail from Whitney Portal to the Consultation Lake camp on the 4th of July, and summited the following day. Also in 1989, BOEALPS published a 25th anniversary book recounting its history, in which was mentioned the fact that former member Jack Longacre had summited all 50 SHPs. I tracked down Jack at his home in Arkansas, and we soon joined the Highpointers Club he had formed in 1987.
In the first half of 1990, we took a family vacation to New Orleans, and Vanessa and I drove up to Driskill Mountain. That spring Jim Hinkhouse asked me to join him and his long-time friend Dick Wright to teach alpine glacier climbing to members of their basketball team, an effort that ended in an unsuccessful bid to climb Mt. Rainier, foiled by an early season whiteout. Vanessa and I spent a horrid night in the Camp Muir shelter, and retreated with the Rainier Mountaineering guides the following morning. This set the stage for two of our three 1990 SHP climbs to be with the Highpointers group.
In August 1990 we summited Gannett Peak with five other Highpointers. Don Jacobs (the retired Boeing Chief Engineer on the Apollo Moon Program) who was completing his 46th SHP, had placed a notice in the club newsletter. Don organized a trip including Kip and Norman Smith, who eventually became the 23rd and 24th 50-SHP-completers, and two other highpointers, as well as Vanessa, me, and my father, a climber with Himalayan experience including the 1978 American K2 Expedition, who accompanied us on the trip but was unable to climb the glacier because of a recently dislocated shoulder. Gannett ranks among the toughest of the SHPs, being the most remote save Denali. We did a 5-day trip from the north (Debois) side, and had a packer bring in our climbing gear to the second of our three camps on the approach. On summit day we sat out a snow squall in a bergschrund on the way up, and waited out a thunderstorm above the Gooseneck Pinnacle on the descent. What a wonderful adventure!. It still ranks as my favorite highpoint, both for the pleasure and pride of being part of a three-generation climb, and the satisfaction of co-leading a successful glacier climb deep in the wilderness. Don wrote and published a small book about the trip, Climbing Gannett Peak, A Wind River Adventure.
Vanessa and I attended the November 1990 Highpointers annual meeting at El Paso, and summited Guadalupe Peak with the club. It was my 37th SHP and Vanessa’s 36th. At the time we ranked about 33rd and 34th as to number of states completed among the club roster of around 250 members. We had an enjoyable time in Texas, met Jack (with whom I corresponded previously) as well as Don Holmes, Paul Zumwalt, Don Berens, and others who were active leaders in the early days of the organization.
The following year Jim founded One Step At A Time (OSAT). I summited Mount Rainier with him twice that summer, once up the Ingraham Direct route in June together with Dick Wright, and subsequently as a rope leader on the first OSAT club climb, via the Emmons Glacier route. Although I climbed it twice, Rainier was my only SHP that year, and in 1992 I did little climbing because of a disabling relapse of difficulties from three lumbar discs ruptured in a ski racing accident in college. After a year of rehab, the subsequent years I climbed primarily in the Washington Cascades with my growing circle of OSAT climbing companions.
A family trip to Santa Fe afforded the opportunity to grab two SHPs in April 1993. First we returned to Black Mesa, Oklahoma to avenge the disastrous off-road excursion in the family minivan five years earlier. Two days later we climbed Wheeler Peak in New Mexico from the Taos ski area, which we summited thanks a nice set of steps kicked by some backcountry skiiers the previous day, and in spite of a whiteout for most of our hike out the ridge. This was Vanessa's 39th SHP, and is the last we have done together.
In 1994 I invited Jim and his girlfriend Shirley to join me on a trip to Granite Peak. The highest mountain in Montana is among the top five SHPs in difficulty, along with Denali, Gannett, Rainier, and Hood, although it is only tenth highest. We had a delightful three-day trip, memorable for the little Pika that shared our camp, the fresh fish Jim caught for our first night’s dinner at Avalanche Lake, and an exciting climb up the summit chimney during which Shirley narrowly dodged a loose boulder she pulled off a ledge. It all culminated in what Jim coined in different context “a Sound of Music descent” down wildflower-filled alpine meadows.
The Granite Peak climb with Jim and Shirley proved to be my last SHP for over twelve years. Although I still drove around with “50HIPTS” on my bumper, Vanessa left for college, and my climbing focus was on the Washington Cascades. The logs I kept revealed I climbed at least 100,000 vertical feet per year in each of the 10 years from 1993 to 2002, and exceeding 150,000 in 1994 and 1998. During this SHP hiatus, I summited Rainier eight more times and Hood three more times. Our other daughter, Hillary, joined me on my second time up the Kautz Glacier route of Rainier.
I also led two major climbing club trips to South America. The first was an attempt on Aconcagua in 1997, the highest peak outside of Asia. Our team organized all our own logistics and accomplished it without the services of a guide. The climb culminated in the five of us spending fourty hours (two nights) in a three-man tent at 20,320 feet, being buffeted by the White Wind, unable to see where to go either up nor down, periodically applying repairs to our tent. Our traverse from the Polish Glacier route to the Normal Route was my greatest mountaineering adventure, two-weeks from trailhead to trailhead, and the descent revealed that most of the camps above 15,000 feet on the mountain had been abandoned in the bad weather.
It was the trip to Argentina that led me to thinking seriously about where I wanted to focus my mountaineering efforts in the future. The coincidence that the Argentina climb topped out with a camp at the same elevation as the summit of Mt. McKinley begged for significance. I eventually resolved that if I were to ever again invest the emotional, physical, time, and financial resources into another two- or three-week mountaineering adventure, it would be to Nepal rather than to Alaska. I led a trip to Ecuador in 2002, where we summited three peaks above 15,000 feet, including the beautiful Cotopaxi and the challenging Illiniza Sur. But much of Ecuador's climbing is “country club” style, two day climbs with an overnight in a well-appointed shelter. Although time and other priorities have not yet permitted another major climb outside North America, I am still resolved to rank the delightful cultural experience of an international destination far above the prospect of three-weeks on a glacier in Alaska, particularly when the practical probability of objective mountaineering success is only about 50%.
Renewing the Quest
2006-2007 – 3 more mountains
At this point I had completed 41 SHPs. After my Denali decision, I only had eight to complete. Three were strenuous climbs in the west (AZ, NV, and UT), two were drive-bys (IA and NB), two were moderate hikes (MN and VA) and one was an easy hike (MI). I had failed on previous attempts on two: Humphreys due to weather and Arvon due to navigation problems! Spread out across the country as these were, it was certain to take a bit of time to finish them off. In 2006 the chance to renew progress toward the adjusted goal arose in the form of a five-day club trip in the Grand Canyon in December. Six OSATers participated, and one of them, Dan, had been working of Colorado 14ers and other 10,000ft-plus mountains throughout the west. Dan agreed to join me in the hike up Humphreys before the Grand Canyon hike. We had the mountain to ourselves, with a light dusting of snow, calm and clear weather. #42 SHP was completed, and the odyssey resumed.
The following year Dan and I decided to climb two desert state highpoints, Kings Peak and Boundary Peak in early July. We were joined in Utah by Richard Wynne, a co-worker who has been picking off SHPs for a number of years. Both climbs came off without a hitch, although the drive across Utah and Nevada in the heat of early July was memorable! Boundary Peak was the last of the twelve SHPs over 10,000 feet I was going to climb. I was down to the last five SHPs to finish my quest.
The Completion Expedition
2009 – 5 final state highpointsI did not have an opportunity to go to any of the final five in 2008. Although I began the year by retiring on my 20th anniversary with Boeing, it didn’t take long to experience the cliché that retirement is busier than working life. I seemed to be climbing less than I did when I was working five days a week. However, as I planned to attend my 40th college reunion in Boston in June 2009, the idea to drive there and back intrigued me. Our Prius makes long driving vacations practical regardless of gas prices. My fantasy career was always long-haul trucker. The last time I made a road trip across the continent was in my senior year in college, when I hitchhiked across in 75 hours to visit Holly, then my fiancee and now my wife of forty years. It was a natural. The itinerary for my own version of the Great American Road Trip quickly evolved into a plan to visit five SHPs remaining on my list.
Panorama Point Nebraska, my wife Holly’s fourteenth and final SHP. In Virginia I hiked up the rugged Appalachian Trail to Mount Rogers on a beautiful day, passed three groups of wild ponies and perhaps a dozen other hikers. After my reunion and visit with daughters and granddaughters in Boston, I began my return to Seattle alone in the Prius. On the second day, my 62nd birthday, I found Mount Arvon without a hitch. I was disappointed, however, in not being able to find the geocache near the summit in spite of 10 minutes of searching. Geocaching is my new form of geographic collecting. The road trip provided an opportunity to get into the hobby more seriously, collecting about ten geocaches a day while on the road. In addition, the new diversion helped break up the monotony of a long road trip. It worked both ways. The following day I drove to the Eagle Mountain trailhead, and spent the morning and early afternoon on the 8-mile round trip hike to complete my SHP#48.
Finally, on the 16th of June, twenty-three years and 288 days after I'd begun, I exited I-90 at Worthington Minnesota, where I dutifully called Donna Sterler per the guidebook. I hadn’t bothered to check the Highpointers nor summitpost.org pages, and didn’t realize she no longer owned the farm where Hawkeye Point is located. She politely thanked me for the call, and I detoured south, crossing the Iowa border, and turned into the farm. The highpoint didn’t look anything like the guidebook pictures, as the cattle feed structure was gone, replaced by a mosaic marker, a granite marker, a signboard with a 50-state license plate collection, and a group of signposts pointing to the other 49 SHPs. What a fitting spot to end my quest! Having accomplished this, I wasn't a bit self-conscious about writing an entire page in the Hawkeye Point log book. Then I looked for the geocache on the site. Alas, I came up dry again, the second cache at an SHP in three days that I couldn’t locate! The only evidence of a cache was an empty piece of Velcro, used to attach the cache container to the hiding spot. I hope this isn’t an omen, indicating maybe my new hobby isn’t going to work out so well. As I said in my DNF entry in the online Hawkeye Point geocaching.com log, “Life is full of high points and low points, but rarely are they the same points!” Nevertheless, I drove back to I-90 to complete my journey home, satisfied that my journey of nearly 24 years had come to an end.
I started my quest for SHPs before highpointing was recognized as a verb in the language or as a pastime for climbers, hikers, families, travelers and adventurers. Coincidentally Jack Longacre, founder of the Highpointers Club, completed summiting all fifty SHPs just a week before Vanessa and I began our quest. According to current Highpointers Club records, when we began about seven people had completed all fifty, and twenty had completed forty-eight. My ambition changed about 70% of the way through the task. Today, the Highpointers Club lists over 400 people who have completed 48 states , over 200 of whom have done all 50 . I’m now on the first list, and have no intention of joining the second.
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Thanks -- Keep Climbing Mountains, and Don't Slip!