The Highpointing Challenge: A Look Back
Note: The primary goal of the Challenge was to break the record for shortest time to reach all 48 highpoints in the Contiguous US. Despite being unable to reach the goal, I wanted to share the experience of a lifetime with readers.
The Highpointing Challenge had humble beginnings. On a late August day back in the summer of 2008, I left Boston early en route to Mount Mansfield VT, in pursuit of Highpoint #7. I had gotten a little bit more into the Highpointing scene with each passing year and had visions of completing all 50 “some day”. I was accompanied by my colleague and hiking partner, Randy Clukey, and we set out on the Hell Brook Trail just before noon. About halfway up, our trail talk took an interesting turn:
Randy: “How long do you think it would take to do them all at once?”
J.R.: “I don’t know.”
Randy: “We should look into trying to do it.”
J.R.: “Yeah, that would be awesome.”
And believe it or not, that was that. The research began about a month later and while we quickly realized that Denali should wait for another time, we turned our attention to the lower 48. We began to uncover important bits of information (there was an existing record – 23 days, 19 hours, and 31 minutes!), and other logistical nightmares (Charles Mound is only open eight days a year!). Undeterred, we put a plan in place that would take us atop all 48 states in less than three weeks. Sure it was an aggressive approach – sleep in the car, bathe in the stream, pee in the woods – but what other approach was there?
We set out for Katahdin on the afternoon of July 26th 2009. The team was in place: Randy and I would be doing the hiking, while two other coworkers, Lindsey Arthur and Laura Whicher, would also hike at times and help out where needed (primarily with driving). The first day was a critical one: we’d be attempting to summit Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York in less than 24 hours. Our preparation suggested a 1 AM summit of Katahdin, allowing us to get to Washington as the gates opened at 7:30, then a Mansfield drive-up around noon, and finally arrive at Marcy around 5ish, summiting just before sunset. Day 1 was a most successful one, and we exited Lake Placid exhausted and elated, just after 10:30 PM. Special thanks to Cris and Andy for meeting in VT and hooking us up with some Darn Tough socks.
A drive down I-87 took us to Mount Greylock and we followed that up with a sunrise arrival at Jerimoth Hill, RI. From there it was on to my home state, Connecticut. I was greeted by two of my bigger fans at the bottom (thanks, Mom and Dad) and New England was complete. Our next highpoint was High Point (NJ), and from there it was on to Delaware. We found the park bench by the bus stop, took a quick pic, and then it was on to Mount Davis in PA. 10 peaks in 2 days – this highpointing thing was easy!
This highpointing thing wasn’t so easy. Maryland provided our first real setback. We arrived at the base of Backbone Mountain around 1 AM. This is one of those tricky highpoints on a state border – you can’t just climb to “the top” because you might be in the wrong state! Somehow we got turned around (we hadn’t quite mastered our Magellan Triton GPS), and it was back to the car for a second go. This time we were successful and only lost about an hour in the process. Our next issue was finding an open gas station in the hills of West Virginia at 3 in the morning; eventually we coasted into the Citgo in Parsons, cheering mightily along the way.
A few hours later we had reached the top of Spruce Knob and then it was an early morning hike of Mount Rogers, VA. This has the distinction of being the highest non-drivable highpoint in the east. We hit a good rain storm but made it to the top and were back at the car at 11:30 AM, right on schedule. Soaked and muddy, I “cleaned-up” in a nearby puddle. Kentucky was next and I was most impressed with the hair-pin, awe-inspiring drive that approached Black Mountain. One of the great things about a trip like this: having a certain image of a place, then going there, and being proven totally wrong.
Clingmans Dome in TN was next. We were all prepared to wrap Day 3 up with an easy drive up the auto road. Unfortunately we picked the one day to be there they were doing construction (ok, maybe there were more, but work with me here). Upon seeing the “Road Closed” sign, I let loose a few four letter adjectives and questioned all that is right with the world. Realizing our only recourse was to break out the bikes, we eventually accepted the unexpectedly tough trek ahead of us. 14 miles later we had pedaled our way to the top of Tennessee and back just after midnight. Call it “The Curse of Clingmans.” From there it was on to Mount Mitchell, NC, the highest highpoint in the East. Now it was time for a second overnight bike ride. I got less than an hour sleep between the two mountains and was about as exhausted as I’ve ever felt. We made it to the top though and highpoint #16 was complete.
The next few highpoints were a relative breeze. I don’t remember much from Sassafras in SC (“J.R., get up!” Smile. Photo. Back Asleep.). Georgia had a really cool tower at the top and Alabama’s came with a homely campground, which also provided the chance for our first real shower in 5 days. Florida was next on the list. Props to the Sunshine State for putting together a nice little park and monument; all this despite having the lowest of highpoints at 345 feet.
The beginning of Day 5 took us across the gulf to Louisiana. The scene for Driskill Mountain is something of a cross between the sport of Highpointing and the Blair Witch Project. An old abandoned church and cemetery await your arrival and yeah, at 4 AM, I was a little spooked. Dodging the cobwebs and giant vicious-looking spiders on the trail wasn’t much more fun, but we prevailed. From there we decided to go to Paris (Arkansas, that is) and tackled Magazine Mountain. Then we made a pit stop in Memphis to fill the tank, get an oil change, and most importantly some Southern Cookin’! After a week of energy bars, bananas, vitamin water, and tuna…my God, that pulled pork sandwich put me in a very happy place. We then drove up Woodall Mountain in MS which was nice, but I don’t remember much else – think I was still hung up on the pork.
Our next stop was Taum Sauk in MO. This might have been a relatively insignificant highpoint but for us it marked somewhat of a milestone. It was highpoint number 24 on our journey, signifying the halfway point (at least in terms of number of highpoints). An early morning arrival at Hoosier Hill, IN, was next and then it was on to Campbell Hill where my college friend Mike Krinov was nice enough to meet up. We enjoyed a Sam Adams on top of Ohio before departing for Illinois.
We made a quick stop at Chicago O’Hare to pick up Laura, who had school obligations the previous week. We got to the airport around 4 PM which was perfect. This left us just enough time to get to Charles Mound during daylight hours on one of the four weekends a year it is open. This was a major relief as much of our schedule was dictated by this restriction. We caught a stunning sunset in the chairs provided by the Wuebbell’s and highpoint #27 was complete.
An overnight stop at Timms Hill, WI left me wanting more. A nice enough highpoint to be sure but just wish I could have caught a view from the tower during daylight hours. Then we made our way into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the town of L’anse. I had been looking forward to this stop for some time. Something seemed cool about visiting the UP and something seemed even cooler about visiting a town with an apostrophe in a funny place in the UP. Ah, the countless hours in the car and many random thoughts associated with it. L’anse was cool, especially the welcoming sign right on Lake Superior. We successfully navigated our way to the top of Mount Arvon before setting off for Minnesota.
We completed Mt. Eagle around 6 PM. After nearly a week on the road we were only an hour behind schedule. That’s right: we had budgeted 161 hours for our first 30 highpoints. In reality, it took us 162. One of the more satisfying moments on the trip – all the hours of research and preparation were truly paying off. Of course, there’s a reason I bring our precision up at this point. After completing Eagle, we drove back to Lutsen to pick up Laura and Lindsey who were doing laundry. Things were looking good until we noticed our bike rack, minus the bikes. We had forgotten to rerack them following the hike and had to backtrack on dirt roads 23 miles each way. So much for precision.
Day 8 began around 4 AM at Hawkeye Hill, IA. Apparently the folks around there aren’t used to visitors at this time. The local Sibley police approached us thinking we were hoodlums looking to cause trouble at that hour. We explained we were just a bunch of kindred souls looking to break an anonymous highpointing record. No further explanation was required.
South Dakota was next. What a state! The Badlands, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the Sturgis Bike Rally, and the impressiveness of Harney Peak, our highest highpoint to date, all made for a memorable half-day. Then came North Dakota. I never would have guessed snakes would be the primary concern there, but we tiptoed our way to the top, completing our 33rd highpoint in 8 days.
Part of me wishes the story ends after Day 8. But to tell the true story requires telling the story in its entirety. As we rolled into Granite Peak MT, we knew it would be our toughest challenge to date. The SW Couloir Route had been suggested to us, which was less technical in nature. We embarked on the 29-mile trek around 5 AM, with hopes of reaching the top and back in a day. Attempting a day trip was a calculated decision that would require certain sacrifices – namely not giving ourselves time to acclimatize and packing as light as possible (no rope, tent, crampons, etc). By 1 PM we were a few miles from the top and had run into a vicious hailstorm. We waited that out, then began our final ascent. Unfortunately the gully that is typically clear at this time of the year was covered with snow and ice (not researching this was a critical error on our part). We were left to free climb the side of the gully as snowfall began to intensify. We got within a few hundred feet of the top but could go no further. 17.5 hours later we were back at the car, demoralized but not defeated.
We needed a break from Granite and headed to Idaho next. Borah Peak provided a great challenge – we got our money’s worth on Chicken Out Ridge – but we successfully made it up and back in a little over six hours. We felt good about getting back on the right track and embarked on a return trip to Montana for a shot at redemption.
We knew we’d need to get lucky with the weather at Granite. We didn’t. A downpour awaited us at the trailhead and the forecast didn’t look much better. We never got started. Overnighting it was a possibility but that would have left us three days behind schedule, dimming our hopes of breaking the record. Dwindling funds had also become a concern. The Challenge was over. We made a quick stop in Denver to meet with Big City Mountaineers (we were helping raise money for under-resourced youths) and two days later we were back in New England.
In the end I take a lot away from this experiment called the Highpointing Challenge. Am I disappointed we didn’t break the record? You bet. We dedicated ourselves to this cause for nearly a year and in the end we didn’t make it. That sucks. Do I regret doing it? Not even a little bit. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the everyday routine and let the years pass by. But we had a crazy idea and went for it. To me, that’s living. Would I do it again? I don’t know, that’s a tough one. But in the meantime, I’ll keep climbing.