My occasional Savage River checkpoint duty station was a mere 70 miles away from the “Great One,” as referred to by the Athabaskan people of Alaska. At 20,320 feet, it is the highest peak on the North American continent. Denali (Great One) was the name given to that tallest of mountains by the native people, a mountain so tall it can be seen from more than two hundred miles.
I spent three summers working at Denali National Park and Preserve, and I took a lot of pictures of Mount Denali because it was often obscured by clouds. When it was clear (only about 30 percent of the time in summer), I used my camera to record its appearance. Some years it was hidden more often, and on one occasion, I ran into an elderly visitor who had traveled to Alaska on 17 vacations without ever seeing the mountain in all its glory.
What was more rarely seen by tourists were the climbers who attempted the summit. By far, the majority of climbers (around 1,000 a year in the late eighties) would start their expedition at the mountaineering ranger station in the small town of Talkeetna. The town can be accessed by a turn-off from the northbound George Parks Highway and is about 140 miles from the main park entrance. Climbers would get their permit, and after being briefed on the conditions and the use of “Leave No Trace” practices on their trek, they would catch a flight from one of the authorized air taxi companies that would take them to the Kahiltna glacier. Then they would embark on an expedition that might take three weeks for a successful summit attempt and return. After their rigorous journey, some of the weary adventurers would make a separate trip to check out the touristy section of the six million acre reserve.
Those high-altitude visitors would often stick out from the rest of the crowd. For anyone that spent time on the mountain, they would develop “raccoon eyes,” that is, a face that is tanned by the penetrating ultraviolet rays outlining the protected and goggled optical area used for vision. Even on cloudy days, many a climber has been sunburned by the powerful light waves that get amplified on the reflective snow, and for those that don’t protect their eyes, the possibility of snow blindness increases exponentially.
A book being acquired by the library provides an example of the solar challenges climbers take on. On the cover of “Beyond Possible” (pictured above), the face of alpinist Nimsdai Purja shows the signs of a weathered climber. The book chronicles his record-breaking quest of ascending all of earth’s 8,000 meter (26,000 feet plus) summits in less than seven months. Following is the link to our catalog where a hold can be placed on the item. If books aren’t your thing, the documentary “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible” is now showing on Netflix, and I recommend it. Also, a young reader’s edition of the book is on order as well.
During my first summer in Alaska, I contemplated a future summit attempt of Denali. Then I learned more about what it takes to mount an offensive and the risks involved. I heard about a former mountaineering ranger, Jonathon Waterman, and the book he had written titled “Surviving Denali.” His book detailed all the fatalities that had occurred on the mountain between 1900 and 1986 and described what happened, or probably happened, to those individuals that perished. On average, only 50% of those that seek the summit achieve that goal. Statistically, one in one hundred that try the endeavor die as a result (Mt. Everest is one in ten). Reading about the difficulties and learning the probability of death led me to appreciate summiting efforts vicariously.
Mountain climbers are people with greater ambitions than I. Those that summit the highest point on all seven continents is but one example. Then there are those that try to reach the summit of the highest elevation in every US state. That seems to be more my speed (minus Denali). There is an organization of such people, and the name of “high pointers” is ascribed to them. Peak bagging could be used, but generally, bagging a peak means mountain climbing skills are used to accomplish the feat, and in the majority of states, mountaineering skills are not needed (think Florida, whose highest point is a whopping 345 feet above sea level).
There appears to have been an evolution in proving one has reached a state’s high point. Traditional photography was one method. However, in the old days, dragging along camera equipment was not necessarily so convenient. Leaving a marker or an object that was later recorded by another party was another way. A third approach would be the illegal confiscation of an official US Geological Survey marker or benchmark. They provide a fixed point and an elevation allowing accurate survey measurements to be taken and recorded. There are thousands of these markers spread out throughout the United States, and they are protected by law. They are firmly affixed to rock or set in concrete posts buried in the ground. To retrieve one would not be easy. To replace also is not an easy task, especially if it is on top of a mountain peak.
A Kansas man, Charles L. Novak, is one person whose avocation was surveying the countryside. He held several positions on the survey crews and worked his way up the ladder. His life was a nomadic one early in his career when his duty station changed about every three weeks. For many years, he and his wife and kids lived in a travel trailer as he bounced around from one job site to another. Other families of the various crews were in a similar position, and although one might think the frequency of changing schools would have a detrimental effect on the children’s education, all three of the Novak’s children graduated from college. His son, David, went on to become the co-founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest restaurant/drink companies, Yum! Brands include Pepsico and Taco Bell.
To learn about Charles’s amazing life story, checkout from your KCKPL –
Fortunately, someone had the bright idea of allowing the private sector to duplicate the markers and sell them as mementos or souvenirs of the buyer’s adventure. I have two of them, and my wife has a third.
The evolution of documenting one’s peaking experience has now swung back around to photographic evidence. Within just a few moments, the world can see what a person has accomplished due to the prolific abundance of cell phones and social media (one can usually get a better signal on these high points!).
Every state has within its boundaries a natural elevation point that is the highest in the land. The location of many is not particularly noteworthy nor highlighted by the state’s tourism department. Several are on private property (as is the case in both Kansas and Nebraska), and the owners may not be so excited about troves of iPhone-carrying tourists trying to record the moment of their summiting accomplishment. In the neighboring state of Nebraska, the landowner requests visitors to put their admission fee in the collection box at the gate of their fenced property. Plus, visiting the site can be hazardous, not because the 5,424 feet in elevation is surrounded by treacherous cliffs, but due to the possibility that temperamental buffalo might be present in the pasture, and the bison may not be too thrilled with your appearance!
The reverse is true as well. The majority of high points are in public reserves or parks that welcome visitors of all types and inclinations. However, just because they are on public land does not mean they are easy to get to or easy to ascend.
I barely documented what is needed to reach our North American continent’s highest point. Ample financial resources to cover climbing fees, outfitting, and transportation are imperative. Sufficient time must be allocated for a safe journey allowing for contingency actions due to weather and other circumstances. Then there are physiological considerations for peaks above 8,000 feet. For a description of some of those risks, this link describes a safe approach to venturing higher than 2,438.4 meters (8,000 feet) for most US peaks.
The ease of accessing the US highpoints is a relative term. In 2019 when my wife and I returned from a trip that included hiking the Grand Canyon from rim-to-rim in a single day and repeating the task three days later (a one-way distance of about 24 miles with over 11,000 feet in elevation change), a friend of my wife was sharing her recent vacation accomplishment. Initially, her claim of going to Tennessee’s highest point, Clingman’s Dome (elevation 6,643 feet), sounded rather impressive. I believe she mentioned she purchased an “I hiked Clingman’s Dome” t-shirt as well. Such shirts are often worn proudly by the owners (we considered buying Rim-To-Rim-To-Rim shirts but decided against the idea). I later learned this Great Smoky Mountain National Park site includes a parking lot one-half mile from the observation tower. So much for being impressed.
However, there is another way to get to Clingman’s Dome as part of a vacation venture that would sway my opinion. The Dome is one of seven state high points that are part of or reasonably near the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as many people know it, traverses 14 states and is 2,200 miles in length. Most through-hikers that complete the trek typically take about six months to finish. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 3,000 hikers a year attempt to hike the entire length of the trail, with about a quarter of them being successful.
Unknown is the number of hikers that hit all seven state AT high points. Not all of them are directly on the trail, and their elevations range from a low of 1,800 feet to Clingman’s Dome height of 6,643 feet. Successful hikers going from south to north are rewarded with Maine’s high point on Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus at 5,270 feet.
The popularity of attaining some of the US state summits has led to restrictions to help reduce the negative impacts of hoards of people. The highest peak in the contiguous United States belongs to Mount Whitney, in California, and the US Forest Service limits the number of hikers to about 160 people per day during the climbing season. A lottery is used for the different permits, and the single-day use permits are good for, you guessed it, twenty-four hours. It is strongly advised that one should attempt the summit as a multi-day backpack trip camping out several nights along the various routes. The reason is that the most popular route is a twenty-mile roundtrip, starting out around 8,000 feet and going to the precipice of 14,505 feet. Many trekkers start their one-day-only venture between one and three o’clock in the morning to try and make the summit before potentially hazardous lightning storms occur in the afternoon and to provide enough time to complete their trip in the time allotted.
In 2001, my wife summited Mount Whitney at the end of her 19 day John Muir trail odyssey. Carrying a 70-pound pack over the 200 plus miles of trail at an average elevation of over 8,000 feet conditioned her body to tackle Mt. Whitney seemingly well. She ditched her pack at the trailhead and surprised many hikers at her ability to pass them without huffing and puffing.
Later we would tackle a state’s high point together.
Not far from the oil-rich plains of the West Texas Permian Basin lies the Lone Star State’s Guadalupe Mountains and the state’s tallest summit, Guadalupe Peak. About 50 miles away in the neighboring state of New Mexico, I worked for three years on an escarpment of the range that contains some of the most amazing caves in the United States at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (to read about my time there, consider reading this article). However, the closest I got to the elevation of the Texas summit while stationed at Carlsbad was when I assisted on a controlled burn of “the Bowl” in November of 1998. The “Bowl” is situated above 8,000 feet in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Close to, but not as high as, Guadalupe Peak.
Nine years later, my wife and I returned to the area, and we decided to camp near the visitor center and hike up to Guadalupe Peak the next day. The Guadalupe Peak trail is eight and one-half miles for the roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. Our trip in cloudy conditions lasted about four hours. We were the only ones on the trail as we hiked in during mid-week in early October.
According to Guadalupe Mountains National Park,
“A stainless steel pyramid marks the summit. It was erected by American Airlines in 1958 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Overland Mail, a stagecoach route that passed south of the mountain. One side of the pyramid has the American Airlines logo. The second side displays a U.S. Postal Service tribute to the Pony Express Riders of the Butterfield Stage. The third side displays a compass with the logo of the Boy Scouts of America.”
Bragging rights could be bestowed on those that hit the high points in all fifty states. To my knowledge, there are no trophies awarded.
I have lived in six states and visited the other forty-four. I do not claim to be a High Pointer member. As a matter of fact, the only state high point I have been on is Guadalupe Peak. I have come close to others. The notoriety of Pikes Peak, which I hiked to in 2018, may make some assume it is Colorado’s tallest summit, but it is one among 58 peaks in Colorado above 14,000 feet. Mount Elbert is the highest at 14,433 feet near the town of Leadville. In 2003, my wife and I hiked within a couple of miles of the top while hiking the Colorado Trail. She asked me if we should take a spur trail to the peak. I was reluctant because I wasn’t sure I should try something too strenuous at the beginning of my first mountain backpacking trip.
At that time, I don’t think I knew of the High Pointers club or the website peakbagger.com. If I had, I might have made some detours during all my travels to try and reach the highest points in the United States.
Want to become a High Pointer? The Peakbagger website is a valuable source of information. There are trip reports, comments, pictures, and links to other sources and maps that provide a clearer picture of how easy or difficult the task may be to get “To The Summit.”
And speaking of tallest peaks, a recent acquisition to the library is about the first ascent of Mount Denali.
(All photos from author Steve Oakes’s collection unless otherwise noted)