It’s not the mountain we
conquer, but ourselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary
Connard, author, engages in an epic outdoor adventure, involving a visit to all 50 US states. Here he "swings from the rocks" while negotiating a short section near the summit of Mt. Katahdin, high point on Maine (AKA Baxter Peak) at 5,268 feet, aided by several hand/foot holds.
Though not "completing the 50 state high points here, Katahdin is memorable, not only for its unique and ample "holds," but that this peak marks the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
* A number of minor edits (shown in parentheses and italicized) have been applied to this article as it originally appeared.
I’m another "Completer" who never started out to do the fifty highpoints, not even when I drove to Clingman’s Dome in 1974 with Belinda, destined to become my first wife. I’ll share a few anecdotes of my journey from Clingman’s Dome to Black Mountain (where I finished).
As an adolescent I’d participated in spelunking on the weekends in Kentucky with friends. No mountains near my Louisville home, not really.
After moving to Redding, California in January 1975, Mt. Shasta’s snow-covered summit initiated me to mountaineering.
Work drew me south to the San Francisco Bay area in late ‘78. I joined the Climbing Section of the Sierra Club on climbs of California’s 14,000-foot peaks, morphed into a peak-bagger.
Dan Tupper led a climb of North Palisade, one of my first trips with the Sierra Club. Our climb turned disastrous when a fellow climber fell off the summit block. He’d declined a belay, like the rest of us, but lost his balance and paid the price.
In 1979 Kenny, a counselor colleague informed me, “I’m going to climb Mt. Rainer. It’s a climb of a lifetime. Want to join me?”
“Couldn’t pass it up,” (I'd told him).
We succeeded. I felt a full-fledged mountaineer, dreamt of the Seven Summits, envied famous climbers, read their books.
On my hike off Split Mountain with Dan in 1986, he explained, “I want to return to Mt. McKinley (Denali) for a second attempt. I didn’t summit the first time. Interested?”
Dan, Bob Nungester (AKA Dr. Bobo), Jesse Stephens and I stood atop Denali one late May evening in 1987, 11:30pm, the sun tracing a shallow arch towards the horizon. We’d timed our summit bid according to weather reports relayed from Anchorage by radio. The party in front of us, enveloped in a whiteout, couldn’t find the summit, but we enjoyed clear views.
Ten days up, four days down, all on snow and ice. We consumed dinner at our soonest opportunity in Talkeetna. Left the restaurant, walked down the street, saw another restaurant, ate a second dinner.
I kept a journal of my McKinley climb, started writing about all my climbs.
In 1989 Dan, Dr. Bobo, Jesse and I, along with a fifth climber, Chris Yager, headed to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in the western hemisphere. Our climb went smoothly, although Montezuma’s Revenge plagued me at the start and frostbite numbed several of my toes on summit day.
Polomonium proved a particular challenge in my quest of the 14,000-foot peaks of California.
A second solo try got me to class five moves I wouldn’t do alone. (Couldn't find my way up the correct gully on my first solo try.)
Within a pitch or two of the summit on my third attempt, a rain/snow storm drove Jesse and I off. We felt obliged to return.
Our next attempt (my fourth) ended when an accident in the icy U-notch caused me a broken rib, a gash over my right eye and a compression laceration on the crown of my head.
Jesse applied his t-shirt as a bandage, said, “It’s good you didn’t lose consciousness. I couldn’t have gotten you out of this notch by myself.”
In January ‘91 Dan and I failed to summit Mt. Cook (New Zealand's highpoint). Looking from Zurbriggen Ridge, the icy slope above intimidated me.
Gale-force winds trapped us in the Plateau Hut at 7,200 feet for three days.
We spent our last night on the mountain in a makeshift snow cave (after losing our way down during a white-out).
In ’93 I scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro, then went on a honeymoon-safari afterwards with my third wife, Janet. (Yes, there was a second wife.)
I compiled my climbs into a manuscript.
Odds and ends of mountains cropped up in my karmic path, had to be attempted, like Mt. Fuji in Japan, a half-day grunt and three-hour bullet train ride from Osaka.
In 2010, working on his fifty highpoints, Bob asked me, “Interested in climbing Gannett, Granite, Borah and Kings with me?”
I considered them a formidable challenge, particularly ‘Chicken Out Ridge’ on Borah, but accepted his invitation.
We fought mosquito hordes in the Wind River Range and crossed a deteriorating snow-bridge to achieve Gannett (Wyoming), preceded a mob of climbers up Kings (Peak in Utah), clawed our way up an icy couloir without equipment to top Granite (Montana), and gingerly navigated ‘Chicken Out Ridge’ to do Borah (Idaho).
A few months later, Bob finished his fifty highpoints. “You may as well do them, too. You’ve already done the ten hardest ones,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, Bob. I’ve even ridden to the summit of Mauna Kea. Wanted to see the telescopes there ever since I hiked Mauna Loa in 1980. I could finish the fifty in one or two trips.”
Bob offered to accompany me across the country on driving marathons to "knock them off," as well as work on the fifty low points, his newest goal.
We divided the country into northern and southern tiers and in two successive spring seasons completion of my fifty highpoints came into sight, and a number of low points, as well. Muddy riverbanks, ocean beaches, lakeshores, two international border agent encounters (Canadian border at the Red River and Mexican border at the Colorado River) mixed with highpoints, formed a collage of distinct locations in my mind.
At the start of our northern tier road trip, I’d discovered Primate, my alter ego. Included him in my writing, (and) posted our adventure.
On the return leg home of our southern tier trip in 2013, “Are you hearing that?” Bob asked me.
A receptionist at the Visitor’s Center in Leadville, CO, had said, “There’ve been avalanche rescues recently, I wouldn’t advise trying Mt Elbert right now.”
“Yeah, I heard it,” I said to Bob. “Let’s continue on towards Wheeler Peak in New Mexico.”
Gusty winds greeted us on Wheeler Peak.
A jet-stream wind threatened to blow us off Telescope Peak in AZ, yet we persevered.
Later in the summer, the snow melted, I returned solo and achieved Mt. Elbert, a half-day hump.
One last highpoint remained. I held my breath. (Hoped to be the first Completer to finish there.)
The leaves, turned fiery hues, rustled in the chilly October breeze as Janet, Primate and I walked the last few yards to Black Mountain’s elevation marker, (Kentucky highpoint). I’d saved Black for my finish. Being from Louisville, I concluded Black Mountain perfect, since no one had finished there, yet.
I celebrated in my quiet way. Recognized I’d achieved my goal of the fifty highpoints … and have many other mountains to go before I sleep.
(* This adventure originally appeared in serial post on "Primate's Big Adventures" blog.)
Photo Credit: Connard Hogan