"And down the stretch they come," I announced just a couple of weeks after thoroughbred American Pharaoh had ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in America's Sport of Kings. "22 years of chasing state highpoints is about to come to an end."
But American Alpine Institute's Team 6 wasn't in the lowlands of Belmont Race Track on Long Island, New York. Instead we were nearly 20,000 feet higher making our way across Denali's "football field" with the summit of North America's highest peak seemingly close enough to touch. Less than two hours later, I found myself choking back tears as I took those final steps onto my 50th and final highpoint. "Yo Adrian, I did it!"
And what a journey it had been. Not just on this breathtaking world-class peak, but starting on Mount Marcy in July 1993 long before I had entertained any kind of thought of traveling all across the United States in pursuit of high places. At just nine days shy of my 46th birthday, my state highpointing journey had stretched across nearly half of my life, often taking a back seat to the more pressing concerns of every day life. But it was never far from my thoughts and always close to my heart.
The first phase of my state highpointing career was as a young State Trooper assigned to New York's magnificent Adirondack Mountains. It was then and there that I fell in love with peakbagging. During the mid-1990s as I first chased the Adirondack 46 4,000-foot peaks and then the Northeast 115 4,000-foot mountains, I would find myself atop not only New York's Mount Marcy, but also Vermont's Mount Mansfield, New Hampshire's Mount Washington and Maine's spectacular Katahdin.
While I was aware that I had stood atop four states, it wasn't until October 1998 that I first hiked a peak specifically because it was a state highpoint. Massachusetts' Mount Greylock won that distinction. Perhaps it was on that hike that the highpointing seed was firmly planted as I found myself thinking that day about an old Times Union newspaper article featuring Don Berens' 50-state completion.
Yet other hiking projects would come first as I chased the Catskill 3500 Club peaks during 1998 and 1999 before dabbling with the New England Highest Hundred list starting in 2000 (still haven't finished that list!).
It was in 2001 that state highpointing really became part of my regular thinking with ascents of Mount Frissell, CT (April), High Point, NJ (May) and Jerimoth Hill, RI on October 7 to celebrate my 10-year anniversary with the New York State Police. I added Ebright Azimuth, Delaware to the tally for HP #9 in January 2002. The following month, I took a long day trip (24 hours door-to-door) to the tops of Mount Davis, Pennsylvania and Backbone Mountain, Maryland. This put me into double digits and I was really starting to warm up as a full-blown state highpointer.
Just two months later, however, a serious car accident took the wind out of my highpointing sails for more than a year. But after I came back to it in May 2003 with my first multi-day trip to Black Mountain, Kentucky, Mount Rogers, Virginia and Spruce Knob, West Virginia, I was officially hooked. A September 2003 trip to Ohio and Indiana bumped me up to 16 and I was also finding that I enjoyed parking my car a good distance from the easier highpoints and mountain-biking to the summit. For me, it has always been about physical movement and my 10-mile ride to Hoosier Highpoint was far more memorable than a mere drive-up would have been.
In April 2004, I applied the bike idea to Clingman's Dome, Mount Mitchell and Sassafras Mountain, and rode the summit roads of each of those three peaks in the same day. The following day, I walked the summit road of Brasstown Bald and found myself up to 20 HPs.
A few months later, it was a chance conversation with my father that led to my only true highpointing alliance. I needed to drive a new Chrysler Town and Country minivan to Kalamazoo, Michigan for a wheelchair conversion for my stepson. From there, my plan was to rent a car and tag the highpoints of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. My Dad asked me if I wanted some company for the ride and I replied that it would be great. So in late August 2004, my Dad and I had an epic 1,300 mile road trip, grabbing his first three state highpoints and numbers 21-23 for me.
From here, we didn't look back and during the next two years, we put together multiple trips to the middle parts of the US, each of us having as much fun as the other. In May 2005, my older brother joined the two of us for a five state swing to Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. In August 2005, my Dad and I picked off Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. And perhaps our greatest trip of the bunch was a five state north-to-south drive right along the middle of the country in May 2006 starting with White Butte, North Dakota and continuing to Harney Peak, South Dakota, Panorama Point, Nebraska, Mount Sunflower, Kansas and Black Mesa, Oklahoma before continuing to Albuquerque, New Mexico for our flight home.
Just like that, in less than two years time, my Dad and I tagged 16 highpoints together. But alas, all good things must come to an end. With just the western block of highpoints left, the mountains were getting bigger and my Dad wasn't getting younger. In September 2006, we took our last highpointing trip together with a successful ascent of Guadalupe Peak, Texas and Wheeler Peak, New Mexico for me while my Dad came up just a little short after a sporting effort for a man in his late 60s.
But even though he was now on the sidelines, my Dad remained my biggest fan as I struck out - often solo - to tackle the western block of peaks.
My Dad and highpointing buddy on the trail to Wheeler Peak
At this point, with 38 highpoints under my belt, I started taking one week-long western trip per year. In September 2007, I met Kathy Wing for an ascent of Boundary Peak, Nevada before continuing solo to the summits of Humphrey's Peak, Arizona and Mount Elbert, Colorado for HPs 39-41. While each of these peaks was memorable, Humphreys proved to be my most exciting highpoint to date as I was treated to the full effect of its intense summit winds on the final pyramid and literally dove headfirst into the shelter of the summit wind walls for relief.
The following year brought solo ascents of Borah Peak, Idaho and King's Peak, Utah (July 2008). It was while ascending Borah's Chicken-Out-Ridge and essentially feeling no fear or discomfort at the exposure that I really began to believe I had a shot at taking this thing all the way to the end.
Borah Peak 2008
September 2009 brought successful solo hikes of Mauna Kea, Hawaii (from the Visitor Center) and Mount Whitney, California (via the 99 switchbacks) with no difficulties encountered. I now found myself with 45 highpoints with the toughest five reserved for last.
Mount Whitney 2009
And this is where the forward momentum stopped. For 2010, the plan was to meet Doug Urban and some of his friends for an unguided climb of Gannett Peak, Wyoming. We literally spent a full year planning every last detail of the climb and in July 2010, we met at the REI in Salt Lake City to pick up a few of those last minute items that you can't take on airplanes. As we broke for the drive to Wyoming, I called home to check on how my one-year-old was doing as she had been sick with a fever. The news wasn't good; she was in the ER with a life-threatening fever of 105. There was no question where I needed to be and I ended my participation in the climb before ever setting foot on the trail.
My daughter recovered fully but my highpointing slump continued into 2011 when avalanche conditions on Mount Hood cut short a March attempt with no serious assault on the upper mountain. I had a fine ski trip but remained stuck on 45 HPs.
And this is when I started to think big. My State Police career was coming to an end 21 years after it had begun and for my retirement, I planned a grand trip with the idea of bagging Hood, Rainier, Gannett and Granite in one big push. Train once, acclimate once, climb once. Go big or go home as they say. I also planned to use the end-of-the-career balloon buyout to finance guided trips for Rainier, Gannett and Granite - the first time in my life where someone else would be calling the shots on one of my trips.
In early July 2012, I hit the ground in Oregon and was quickly thwarted by Mount Hood for the second time due mostly to burnt out late season conditions. Frustrated but not defeated, I completed a training hike of Mount St. Helen's before meeting up with IMG for my guided climb on Rainier. This is where the mountain Gods began to smile on me once again. In a thrilling climb, my IMG group summited in extreme weather conditions as high winds and sideways snow closed in on us during the final push to the top. The hugs and high fives amidst a world of white instantly reignited my passions.
Mount Rainier 2012
With the monkey off my back, I then drove to Wyoming for a guided climb of Gannett Peak with JHMG followed by a second JHMG trip on Granite Peak ... both of which proved successful. It was on these two climbs that I had the pleasure of meeting Cindy Pigott, who taught me more than anyone that mountaineering is about mental strength and not physical might. For back-to-back climbs, she proved to be a joy to be around and the smile seemed to never disappear from her face even when she appeared to struggle. In any event, the trip proved to be a huge success and I returned to New York with 48 highpoints under my belt.
Granite Peak 2012
Wind River Range
Round 3 with Mount Hood took place in early June 2013. After catching the mountain too early in 2011 and too late in 2012, I planned this attempt in the heart of the climbing season. This proved to be the right call and my Timberline Mountain Guides three-day trip was a home run. We camped two nights at Illumination Rock (one guide with two clients) and on the third day set off for the summit. A last minute change of plans led us onto the old Pearly Gates route and I couldn't have been more thrilled. Right around sunrise on June 2, 2013, I topped out on Mount Hood for my lower 48 completion and number 49 overall.
Mount Hood 2013
And then there was one. The Great One. Two years of planning, nine months of training. I became consumed by Denali. From the early mornings out running up to eight miles or swimming nearly two miles at the local YMCA to the gear purchases to the decision to go with American Alpine Institute, I approached this climb with focus and determination. Ultimately, I was blessed with a great team including five fun clients from Australia and another from the UK. We were also blessed with an epic two-week high pressure system that brought us one perfect weather day after the other. And at 8 PM on June 21 - not only Fathers Day but three years to the day after my State Police retirement became official - it all came to an end in one magical moment. To honor both my father and my family name, I unfurled a banner I had made up before the climb reading simply "Styczynski - Denali - June 2015."
And so it is done. But I used to joke that just because the Highpointers Club ALLOWS you to drive-up to the summits of legitimate mountains like Mount Washington, Mount Mitchell or Mauna Kea, it doesn't REQUIRE that you do so. Human power is always OK. To the same end, I now say that just because I've completed the highpoints doesn't mean I'm required to stop highpointing. In that spirit, I am planning to revisit the summit of Mount Rainier in 2016, this time via the Emmons Glacier route. After that, there is talk of reuniting with my Denali team for a climb of Mount Cook, New Zealand in early 2017.
As the saying goes ... "Never Stop Exploring."
Denali High Camp
Post Script - Rainier 2016
The following Trip Report was originally posted on the Mountains'n'Stuff website in August 2016.
The plan started to come together even before I left the heights Denali at the end of June 2015.
I wanted to climb Mount Rainier again. My July 2012 Disappointment Cleaver Route climb to the crater rim of quite arguably the greatest mountain in the lower 48 had been one of the most thrilling ascents of my life. But three days of unstable weather ended with my International Mountain Guides team summiting in extreme weather conditions as high winds and sideways snow ripped across the plateau of Rainier's summit crater, leaving us all covered in snow and ice and hardly able to see each other even from a rope length away.
Moving ahead three years to 2015 ... a few times during our group meetings in the cook tent on Denali when we spoke of other mountains and upcoming plans, it consistently came back to a second climb of Rainier for me. I wanted to experience the mountain in clearer and hopefully kinder conditions. But I didn't want to repeat the same route. I had heard good things about the beauty of the Emmons Glacier Route and picked the brains of the guides who had knowledge of the mountain. The Emmons seemed like a good fit for me and my enthusiasm for it spread to a couple of my Denali teammates. Both Richard from England and Boris from Australia asked me to keep them in the loop as my plans progressed.
Upon returning home and receiving quite a bit of attention for scaling to the top of North America and completing my 50 state highpoints project, I began to talk about my Rainier plans on Mountains'n'Stuff ... again with my enthusiasm seeming infectious. Three members of the MnS community as well as an old friend from the East Coast were showing interest and the e-mails began to bounce back-and-forth like tennis balls.
Eventually, just after Labor Day 2015, I wound up reserving five spots on an Emmons Glacier Route IMG team scheduled to climb between July 30th and August 3rd, 2016. A long way off to reserve for sure but Rainier is a popular mountain and guided spots need to be secured well in advance.
Over the next several months, the team dynamics would change a bit with two of the MnSers opting out and Richard (who had been late to the party getting his paperwork together) securing one of the openings. In addition to myself, my Denali summit day rope-mates Richard and Boris would be making the journey as would the inimitable John D from New York City.
I landed in Seattle around 5:30 PM on July 27th and my airplane was still on the runway as I received a text from Boris that he, too, had just landed. The timing was so coincidental that I looked around to see if he was on the same flight as me. As it turned out, we were both on Alaska Airlines flights that had started in California but I was coming from San Diego and he was coming from the Bay area, where he was now living after relocating from Australia following our June 2015 Denali trip. Richard would soon join us in Seattle and just a few hours later we all found ourselves in a dark tavern in south Seattle enjoying drinks with one of our American Alpine Institute guides. Four-fifths of our Denali summit rope team was suddenly reunited and we caught up with all of our personal updates deep into the night.
Denali Summit Rope Team Reunion
The following day, Boris, Richard and myself made our way to the Cougar Rock campground in the Mount Rainier National Park, where we would spend three nights and enjoy a bit of acclimatization, souvenir shopping and a light hike on Rainier's lower slopes. Not to mention a healthy sampling of the beverage selection at Whittaker's Tavern in the heart of Ashford.
Soon enough, game-time got closer and closer until we finally met up with John D at IMG headquarters just before our gear check at 2 PM on the 30th. These gear checks tend to be painfully long sessions where you and the guides reach agreements about what kinds of clothing and equipment are most appropriate for the route in the conditions expected to be encountered. More interestingly, we met the rest of our team, which consisted of a father and his two teenagers (son and daughter) from the Seattle area as well as a solo traveler from near my own stomping grounds of Albany, NY. Talk about coincidences! After that, it was off to our last real meal with John D at a local restaurant where we were treated to great food as well as a taste of John's boundless energy and enthusiasm. This was going to be a good trip. I had no doubt.
The following morning, we all hopped into a large van and started our nearly two-hour road trip to the other side of the National Park, where our climb was to begin. Sometime in the late morning hours, we set off down the trail at an elevation of about 4,400 feet with Rainier's lofty summit looming just about exactly 10,000 feet above us. Laden with heavy packs of up to 60 pounds, we made our way slowly through the forest surrounded by the kind of true deep backcountry beauty not so easily encountered on the more popular Paradise side of the mountain.
It took quite awhile for us to reach the snow-line somewhere around the 7,000 foot level but it was a welcome site for me after trekking through the snowless lowlands while wearing my mountaineering double boots in an effort to save weight on my already over-stuffed backpack. Once firmly on the ice and snow of Inter Glacier, we dropped our packs and fanned out for snow school. At this point, I've been through several rounds of snow school but it's always fun to throw yourself around on the frozen stuff and practice skills in self arrest and team travel. We then made our way up to the site of our low camp at 7,800 feet, pitched our tents and enjoyed some dinner while absorbing the magnificence of the terrain surrounding us.
Day two featured a lighter agenda. Similar to the DC Route program that IMG runs on the other side of the mountain, the idea is that an easier second day maximizes your chances of putting out a big effort on summit day, thereby increasing your odds of reaching the top. But "easier" doesn't mean "easy." Right out of camp, we had a steep semi-technical ascent of 1,200 feet on the Inter Glacial while fully roped up and wearing crampons. We eventually reached a point where the Inter Glacier ended and our route spilled onto the Emmons Glacier, which has the distinction of being the largest glacier in the lower 48 states. From this point, we had a fairly simple 500 vertical feet of cruising up to Camp Schurman, which at 9,460 feet would be our launching point for our summit bid the following day.
The summit bid wake-up call came bright and early. Midnight to be exact. After a few minutes of inactivity on my part, my tent-mate Richard asked how I was feeling. "Like I want to go back to sleep" was my reply. "I hear ya, mate" he shot back in his thick British accent as I dutifully began the the nearly two-hour process of waking up, fueling up and gearing up. The insanely early start was important for many reasons. For starters, in alpinism, the best time to travel is when the snow and ice of the glacier is firm and crusty before the sunshine and radiant heat of the day has a chance to turn things to slush and open up crevasses. And on top of that, not only was it a 12-hour round trip to the summit (still 5,000 vertical feet above us) and back, but we had been watching an approaching weather system for several days now. The best guess was that it was going to hit sometime between 10 AM and noon and we wanted to be well into our descent by the time the storm struck.
My watch read 1:51 AM the last time I checked as my rope team set off into the night with our headlamps blazing the way. The lead guide placed willow wands at regular intervals to assist us with route-finding if our descent was to take place in the storm. After an hour and about 1,000 vertical feet of gain, we took our first break. As we got back to our feet after 15 minutes or so, I think we were all a bit surprised to see John D begin to descend with one of the guides. He had put out a magnificent effort in our three days on the mountain and he would later say that he didn't want to slow the team down ... magnanimously giving up his own shot at summiting so the team could get the job done before the weather rolled in.
Sunrise on Rainier
Onward and upward we continued to go at a steady rate of 1,000 vertical feet per hour followed by our regular breaks for snacks and water. My legs felt good and I remained confident that the weather would be the only thing that could stop us. The stars continued to shine above before eventually giving way to the rising sun. The rising clouds below us and a more ominous-looking bank of clouds to the northwest, however, continued to hold our attention. But all 10 of us (now 3 guides with 7 clients) remained focused on moving ahead. We ended our last break in the bright sunshine at an elevation of about 13,400 feet and began the summit push to the 14,410-foot summit. It was clear and cold until we we rounded a corner a couple of hundred more vertical feet above when we began to feel the blast of a biting 30 MPH wind that would now stay with us the rest of the way. My rope team consisted of one guide plus Richard and myself. During the final stretch, we passed and moved ahead of the other two rope teams as we increased our pace in the push to the top.
And finally, we crested that last little bit and were on top of Washington! Upon reaching the summit register box, we unroped and hoped to find some protection from the wind amongst the rocks while awaiting the rest of our team. It was to no avail though and our stay atop Rainier was a chilly one indeed. But clear as a bell. I fully soaked in the views that had eluded me during my 2012 trip and gazed down into the awesomeness of the crater. Eventually, we back-tracked just a bit and went out to the more exposed Columbia Crest where we tagged the USGS marker and had our photos taken. For myself and Richard, this was the second major US peak for which we had been summit day rope-mates in the last 13 months. Boris soon joined us atop Rainier and, despite some significant blistering issues, seemed to relish the summit experience as much as Richard and I.
Mount Rainier Crater
We made it back to high camp just about exactly 11 hours after we had departed and not a moment too soon. We skipped our last break and picked up the pace as the weather began to close in on us. We couldn't have been more than 500 yards from high camp when the snow started. But the wind that soon followed was the kicker. I retired to my tent within minutes of getting back to camp and didn't move from my sleeping bag until the following morning when it was time to pack out and head back downhill 5,000 more vertical feet to the trailhead. The wind ripped the tents all night and sleep was fitful at best. Several teammates said they hadn't caught even a single wink.
But it was all OK. We had done what we came to do and spirits were high during our descent.
Normally, this is the point in my trip reports where I say what I'm planning to do next. But this time, there is no "next." I had talked about it with my wife ever since returning from Denali. Win, lose or draw, my second trip to Rainier was to be the end of the line for me as far as "big" mountains are concerned. The last time to board an airplane to go climb a peak. It's all been more than I had ever hoped it would be ... this journey of mine all across America to the tops of some of this nation's greatest mountains as well as to the backwoods of places like Louisiana and North Dakota. I walk away from it with a satisfied smile on my face.
Local Media Interest
At the beginning of September 2016, I was contacted by local reporter Paul Post, who expressed interest in writing a story about my 50-state completion. Earlier in the summer, the same reporter had done a very nice story on Maddie Miller and Melissa Arnot when they passed through the Saratoga, NY area during what turned out to be a successful attempt at setting a new speed record for completing the 50 highpoints. I had read his story and knew Mr. Post had a pretty good feel for the whole state highpointing thing and agreed to be interviewed.
Much to my surprise, the story wound up running on the front page of two local newspapers, one of which included a huge blow-up of my Denali Styczynski banner photo. Was very pleased with how it turned out.
Denali Summit Day Dispatch
Just as this report started at the top of Denali, it shall also end at the top of Denali. Here is the call by American Alpine Institute lead guide Andrew Yasso in what will almost certainly go down as the most thrilling day of my life.
The last few steps
A long road