A Higher Calling

New England: The quest of the Highpointers Club is a lofty one: to stand atop the highest point in all 50 states. If you are so inclined, the Northeast's stubby Six Pack is an easy place to start.

August 29, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff and Candus Thomson | Ernest F. Imhoff and Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

On the first day, we scaled a 3-foot pile of rocks that marks the rooftop of Rhode Island. At the end, we walked wind-blown for hours along a knife-edge ridge on a 5,267-foot mountain in the Maine wilderness.

Call our quest "Into Thick Air."

Highpointing -- hiking or driving or both -- to the top of each state is a hobby of collectibles. This time our goal was reaching the highest spot in each of the six New England states in six days.

They weren't Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet the nation's highest mountain, but they weren't the lowest points either (Florida, Delaware, Mississippi and Louisiana have that distinction).

One might argue, however, that with the New England Six Pack, we made mountains out of molehills.

Many folks who do this sort of thing belong to a national group, the Highpointers Club, which has 1,610 paying members. Sixty-three of them have stood on the highest spot in each of the 50 states; 110 have done so in the lower 48.

The Highpointers figure they're no weirder than people who collect stuffed frogs, handcuffs or doorknobs, or go to conventions of German prisoner-of-war re-enactors.

They have a Web site with a list of summits and testimonials (www.highpointers.com), and a how-to manual in Don W. Holmes' "Highpoints of the United States."

Holmes, a retired engineer for Rockwell International, began his own quest in 1970 with Mount McKinley, Mount Whitney and Mount Rainier: Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in altitude.

"After I got those, it was all downhill," he cracks.

Many highpoints can be reached by car; any way you reach the summit is OK, says Holmes.

One thing most of the summiteers have in common is Holmes' blue-and-gold paperback with the shot of Rainier on the cover.

"You see one that's all dogeared and dirty, and that's the biggest compliment you can get. It means it wasn't just put on a shelf," says Holmes.

Highpointers get together every year near one of the nation's high points, this year from Sept. 7 to Sept. 11 they'll be swapping stories in Missouri, at the foot of 1,772-foot Taum Sauk Mountain.

Highpointing is anything but a solitary pursuit. For safety's sake, some of the technical peaks need partners or guides for roping up to cross-glaciated areas.

"I dragged my family with me the first couple of times," says David Pomeroy, a Department of Defense economist from Alexandria, Va., who conquered all 50 in less than two years. "But I met some of my best friends literally at the top of each state."

A self-described regular guy, Pomeroy trained by wearing an 80-pound pack as he climbed the 15 flights of stairs at work four times each lunchtime.

"I've always loved to travel," says Pomeroy, 46, of his hobby. "It was a personal challenge with a well-defined goal."

Highpointing isn't the only form of peak bagging. One of us has climbed all 65 mountains in New England over 4,000 feet. The other has bagged everything with altitude in Maine's Acadia National Park. In July, we hiked Pike's Peak in Colorado, the first 14,000-footer believed ascended by a non-Native American in the United States, and the inspiration for "America the Beautiful."

Starting out small

The New England Six Pack appealed to our roots. We were lured north to do a George Mallory, the Englishman who kept trying to be the first to stand atop Mount Everest "because it is there."

Altogether, we motored 800 miles, pitched tents at the foot of each summit, gained and lost a total of 28,800 feet in altitude (14,400 up, the same down), hiked 40 miles, slapped our share of mosquitoes, lost a few pounds and captured some breathtaking vistas. The climbs took from mere minutes for the Everest of Rhode Island to 10 hours on what at times seemed Maine's escarpment to Hades.

Our first bag job -- Jerimoth Hill -- is little more than a bump in the road off Route 101 in Rhode Island near the Connecticut line, yet highpointers and even one Everest mountaineer consider it "America's most inaccessible" summit.

Brown University owns the summit, but a retired music teacher owns the 100-yard "trail" to the top and refuses to allow hikers to cross his property.

"The last time somebody got on, I threatened to break their camera equipment," Henry Richardson proudly told the Wall Street Journal.

We walked down a driveway and into the woods and hopped atop the 3-foot pile of rocks. At 7:35 a.m., we sheepishly posed for summit photos and slunk passed Richardson's house.

(Fortunately, not everyone puts out an unwelcome mat. The Sterlers are tickled to have Iowa's 1,670-foot unnamed summit on their farm. They keep a log for visitors to sign.)

For us, it was back in the pickup truck for a 110-mile dash to our next trailhead.

If a mountain can be a downer, Mount Frissell is it. Connecticut's high point is not a mountaintop, but a pitiful weed patch with no views on the slope leading to the 2,380-foot peak in Massachusetts. It's like eating a salad without dressing, then leaving the steak.

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