50 State Highpoint Quest

Published: September 18, 2006

HIGH ON MOUNT MCKINLEY, in the summer of 2003, stuck in a cramped mountaineering tent and waiting out a storm, John Mitchler took out a pencil to write a list. Wind tore into the nylon fabric above his head. The end was coming for Mitchler, and he knew it.

“I decided to write a list of all the people I’d climbed with over the years,” he said. “McKinley was to be my final mountain.”

Mitchler didn’t perish on that high Alaskan peak. Indeed, his party soon made the mountain’s 20,320-foot summit.

But for Mitchler, a 50-year-old geologist from the Denver area, Mount McKinley signified the end of a personal era: For more than 20 years Mitchler had traveled the country climbing peaks and hiking hills in order to stand at the highest point of elevation in each of the 50 U.S. States.

Highpointing, as this state-by-state summit-seeking pursuit is called, has garnered a following of more than 10,000 people, according to Roger Rowlett, chairman of the Highpointers Club (www.highpointers.org), which was founded in 1988. Every state has a highest point of elevation, be it a towering mountain peak or a nondescript knoll in a cornfield. To highpointers, each one of these summits is geographically significant.

“You need advanced mountaineering skills for peaks like Mount Rainier and McKinley,” Rowlett said. “But completing the list also means traveling thousands of miles through obscure parts of the country.”

To tick off Florida, for example, highpointers drive to Britton Hill, a meager slope in the Panhandle with an elevation of just 345 feet above sea level. In Illinois, a state of cornfields and prairie, a 1,235-foot rise called Charles Mound is the destination. Rhode Island’s Jerimoth Hill tops out at 812 feet above the nearby Atlantic waters.

More than a dozen states have highpoints with road access, letting people essentially drive to the summit. Wyoming’s Gannett Peak, in contrast, requires up to 50 miles of roundtrip backcountry hiking in the remote Wind River Mountain Range.

To date, 155 people have completed all 50 highpoints, according to Rowlett. Roughly 10 new people a year climb their 50th state summit and are added to the Highpointers Club’s list of completers. Plaques are awarded to club members who reach all the state summits in a lifetime.

Going to the extreme is not a highpointing requirement, however. Indeed, most of the 50 state highpoints are moderate hikes with elevations of less than 7,000 feet, and climbing all 50 peaks is not the goal of every highpointer. Some people make a goal to see the country and ascend 20 or 30 highpoints with no serious mountaineering involved. Families with young children may schedule a road-trip vacation around highpoint destinations.

Frozen toes and altitude sickness are a real danger on a dozen of the summits. The drive-up peaks in Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio and the like are at the other end of the spectrum. But many states, including Minnesota, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Maryland, offer an in between, with moderate half-day hikes that require just enough effort to provide a sense of accomplishment.

Harney Peak, the 7,242-foot highpoint near Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, for example, necessitates a six-mile roundtrip hike in the scenic Black Hills wilderness. Hikers pass through dense pine forests and vertical spires of granite on their way to the top. The trail gains about 1,500 vertical feet of elevation from the parking lot, which takes most hikers a half-day to complete. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats may be sighted along the way.

Wilderness adventure is an obvious allure for highpointers. But the pursuit also attracts goal-motivated individuals who savor keeping a checklist and marking off each highpoint they reach.

“There’s something tangible and satisfying about having a list to check off,” said Roger Truesdale, a 62-year-old retired physical-education teacher from Bloomington, Minn., who has climbed all 50 highpoints, including 49 of them with his wife Jane. “Highpointing gives you well-defined goals and many people like that.”

The Truesdales, who started their highpointing quest in 1988, took road trips during the summer months to climb several state highpoints at once. On one trip through the Midwest the Truesdales hit 10 summits over a couple weeks. They did the same in New England, driving to the top in flatter states and hiking Appalachian trails in states like Vermont to climb eight peaks on one vacation.

Last summer Roger Truesdale climbed Mount McKinley, his 50th summit. A storm stranded his group for five days, where they hung out in tents and built snow walls to protect the camp from wind.

Like John Mitchler and many other highpointers, Truesdale saved the most difficult climb for last. After the storm passed, Truesdale and his team climbed to the top of McKinley in an eight-hour push from a high camp at 17,000 feet. “It was an awesome way to end the journey,” he said.