Highpoint quest will eventually lead La Grande man to 50 states

August 30, 2010 11:11 am

In 2007 I completed part of the adventure, without knowing or planning for it, by solo climbing Mount Hood (11,239 feet). Sometime between 2007 and 2008 I set a lifetime goal to climb the 50 highpoints in the 50 states. Some will be climbed with family while vacationing and some of the more technical highpoints will be with climbing partners or guides.


People climb the 50 highpoints for a variety of reasons including fun, adventure and physical exercise. While other highpointers and mountaineers have the “because it is there” motto, I can say with certainty that not all of the highpoints will be “fun.”

I have only completed three of the 50 state highpoints, but my short-term goal is to finish the 10 toughest highpoints (mainly West Coast mountains) in the next five years and focus on the easier ones later. I figure without too much interruption to work and family I can complete one or two trips a year to the West Coast mountains.

I look forward to the East Coast highpoints someday. I have read that you can complete six to eight in one day while driving and walking a few hundred feet from the car — places like Ebright Azimuth in Delaware at 448 feet, 1,803-foot High Point in New Jersey and 812-foot Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island.

I don’t plan to set any records while climbing the 50 highpoints. The current time record to complete all 50 state highpoints is by Mike Haugen set in 2009. He did it in 45 days and 19 hours, a full five days faster than the previous record. Their first summit was the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Then they flew to Florida and hopped in a hybrid SUV and drove 15,000 miles from highpoint to highpoint in the lower 48 states. They finished on 13,796-foot Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

In 2006, Jack Meyers (English) completed the lower 48 state highpoints in 23 days, 19 hours and 31 minutes.

In 1991, Donna and Jack Allsup became the first husband and wife to complete all 50. Kip and Norm Smith completed “All 50 — Over the Age of 60” and became the first husband and wife team to have completed all 50 state highpoints together in 1992. Galen Johnston (12) is the youngest to complete the 50 state highpoints.

On to the highpoint statistics, the toughest six highpoints ranked in reverse order of difficulty are:

• Number 6 — Idaho: Borah Peak, highpoint with a vertical gain of 5,550 feet, 6.8 miles round trip from the car, and summit elevation of12,662 feet. Handholds are used for some climbing, and some individuals may wish rope belays because of exposure.

• Number 5 — Oregon: Mount Hood, highpoint with a vertical gain of 5,300 feet, 8.0 miles round trip from the car, and summit elevation of 11,239 feet. There is climbing on snow fields and glaciers where ropes are required.

• Number 4 — Montana: Granite Peak, highpoint with a vertical gain of 7,700 feet, 22.2 miles round trip from the car, and summit elevation of 12,799 feet. Rock climbing is required and ropes are needed for at least two to three pitches for safety.

• Number 3 — Washington: Mount Rainier, highpoint with a vertical gain of 9,100 feet, 16.0 miles round trip from the car, and summit elevation of 14,410 feet. There is climbing on snow fields and glaciers where ropes are required.

• Number 2 — Wyoming: Gannett Peak, highpoint with a vertical gain of 8,650 feet, 40.4 miles round trip from the car, and summit elevation of 13,804 feet. There is climbing on snow fields and glaciers where ropes are required.

• Number 1 — Alaska: Mount McKinley (Denali). A bush pilot is normally used to fly into base camp on the Kahiltna glacier (West Buttress route). “Carries” are used to move gear and supplies to high camp (usually 17,200 feet). A “carry” is when supplies are moved to a higher elevation, cached and then the team returns to the previous camp to sleep. The next day, weather permitting, the team moves up to the cache and sets up a new camp.

This procedure is repeated several times when climbing the mountain. The elevation difference between base camp (7,200) and the summit (20,320) is 13,120 feet. However, because of “carries,” the route to high camp is usually done twice. Therefore, the elevation gain is approximately 24,500 feet. The distance from base camp to the summit is 16 miles. Again, because of the “carries” the actual distance covered is about 46 miles. Climbing is on glaciers, under extreme conditions, where ropes are required at all times. Extensive preparation, equipment, supplies and teamwork are required. Denali is the highpoint of North America.

Last Summer my climbing partner, Yuri Mereszczak from Boise, and I climbed my second highpoint (Yuri’s first) in July, Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). We also attempted Mount Borah (Idaho, 12,662 feet) in May but we came up short after an early summer thunderstorm rolled in when we were 700 feet from the summit. Lightning, thunder and rain are downright scary when you are in the clouds, and we were the tallest objects on the ridge. Not to mention we were holding metal ice axes and trekking poles.

This summer we entered the lottery for a Mount Whitney climb (14,494 feet) but didn’t get selected. The lottery allows up to 100 overnight climbers each day to access the Pine Creek trail (standard route). Unfortunately there is only one other route to gain access to the upper mountain but it is much longer and fallss under the same lottery permit system. One hundred climbers is not a large number of people when you consider how many people are attracted to climbing the highest point in the continental United States.

Needless to say, we might be applying for the lottery for several years before being selected.

Our backup plan for this summer was to climb Gannett Peak (13,804 feet) in Wyoming if we were not selected in the Mount Whitney lottery. The nice thing about the Gannett Peak climb is that a permit is not needed. In addition, we are planning on returning to Mount Borah in Idaho this October for our second attempt.

Yuri and I started planning our trip to Wyoming in late spring this year after finding out we were not selected in the Mount Whitney lottery. It turns out that it is not as simple as packing, driving and climbing like many other highpoints. It is a logistical puzzle to pull off a successful trip.

You have to take into account travel time to/from Wyoming at over nine hours each way. In addition, the backpacking route is one of the most remote places in the United States and requires more than 40 miles of backpacking roundtrip that leads to three or four days minimum in the deep wilderness at elevations over 10,000 feet. I’m happy to report that on Aug. 7 we successfully summited Gannett Peak.

While on the summit of Gannett Peak, Yuri and I got a chance to visit with a fellow highpointer and found out he had just completed 28 of 50 highpoints. Even though he had been climbing for more than eight hours and was only half way, still having to climb down safely, he had a grin from ear to ear. He knew that he had just completed one of the toughest and most remote highpoints in the United States.

That conversation has motivated me to continue climbing the western highpoints, even though it is a monumental challenge — both physically and mentally.

Of the three climbs I have completed, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Gannett Peak, none of the climbs could be described as “fun.” All three have life-threatening obstacles that you have to cross like glaciers, crevasses, and bergschrunds. This makes me question why I climb mountains, but that is a completely different story for another time.

All three climbs were at elevations above 11,200 feet and very cold with high winds even though we were climbing in July and August. Two of the three are well above 13,500 feet where oxygen pressure is less and a simple act of putting on your crampons can take your breath away.

Of the three, Gannett Peak was definitely the toughest for several reasons. The four-day round trip in the deep wilderness, multiple 10 mile backpacking/climbing days, altitude above 11,000 feet and a 16-hour summit day made it the most intense physical and mental test of my life to date. That is until I climb Mount McKinley in Alaska someday.

In return for climbing these highpoints I have some lifetime memories of remote locations most people have never been to or seen. We get 10 or 20 minutes of time on top of these amazing summits and a few summit pictures.

In addition, I have an unspoken mountaineer bond with my climbing partner, Yuri, whom I truly trust with my life.

I keep a journal of my adventures and it allows me to capture my thoughts and details of each highpoint adventure. Reflecting at the end of each summit day I was exhausted, hungry and on the side of a remote mountain far away from my family. Even though the physical and mental exhaustion is hard to overcome, deep down inside I have a sense of accomplishment that lasts for days, weeks or months — until I start planning for the next trip.

I am hopeful that many of the Midwest and East Coast highpoints will be less serious and can be enjoyed with my family.

Simply put, words cannot express the feeling of achieving a goal by standing on top of a state highpoint. If you are looking for a lifetime adventure to share with family, friends or other highpointers that incorporates traveling the United States, then highpointing might be for you.

For additional information:

http://highpointers.org/ and http://www4.wittenberg.edu/academics/hfs/tmartin/highpointing/hparticle.html