High Pointers: Derek Miller is searching for a high – in as many states as possible
By Derek Miller
For The Salisbury Post
Have you ever had the desire to reach the highest point of elevation in every state? If you have, you might want to become a “highpointer.”
Highpointing can range from an extreme sport or strenuous activity to an afternoon drive. You can climb one high point, or all 50. You can go by yourself or with a group. Families, singles, couples and kids all can take part. The best thing about highpointing is that it’s a motive for seeing the country.
There’s even a highpointers club. More than 2,700 members of all ages and ability levels honor the motto of late founder “Jakk” Longacre to “keep klimbin’.”
There is a rating system for high points based on the “easiest standard” route for each summit under good conditions, with 1 being easiest and 10 the most difficult.
This notion of attaining the highest points in every state has appealed to me for many years. It is only recently that I have considered following up on my long-time dream. Being 48 years old and having a bad back, I realize that 50 high points most likely will not happen. However, I can’t think of a better reason to see the country. What can I say other than I love to be outdoors and I love to climb mountains?
I have achieved five of the 50 high points already. Not all were climbed with the intent of achieving the ultimate goal. However, the more recent high points attained were clearly in my cross hairs for going ahead and seeing how many I could knock off.
Each of the five high points I’ve encountered was vastly different from the others.
Mount Mitchell, the highest point in North Carolina (6,684 feet), was by far the easiest to achieve of the five I’ve hiked, with a difficulty rating of 1. While the elevation appears to be intimidating, this high point is a drive-up, so it is easily accessible. Mount Mitchell can be climbed year-round, depending on the weather.
The most striking image while going to the top is the landscape. A park ranger explained to me that an insect called the balsam woolly adelgid is killing off the Fraser fir and red spruce trees. In addition, they are also being hurt by acid rain, ice storms, high winds and high ozone levels. (I found a similar situation at Clingmans Dome.)
The weather the day I hiked Mount Mitchell, in October 2004, was relatively clear, giving me great views of the peaks of both Black and Craggie mountains as well as the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains.
In July 2007, I hiked Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet, with a 2 difficulty rating.
Clingmans Dome straddles the boundary line between two states. The highest peak in Tennessee, it’s also the third highest in North Carolina and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, a 2,174-mile footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine.
The first thing you notice as you approach the top is the 45-foot circular observation deck. Walking up the ramp to it reminded me of walking up to the upper-level seats in a sports stadium. The structure definitely stood out in the natural setting. On clear days, the observation tower provides a panoramic view of 360 degrees and offers a look at the whole of the Great Smoky Mountains and beyond, including seven states. Unfortunately, the dome was engulfed with clouds the day I climbed, offering views only of vapor.
Along my journey up and around Clingmans Dome, I encountered quite a bit of wildlife, including red squirrels, chipmunks, ravens, broad-winged hawk, robins, woodpeckers and much more.
Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York (5,344 feet) is by far the most remote high point that I tackled. From the parking lot, you hike 6 miles just to get to the nearest trailhead. Several trails lead up to the summit, but even the easiest trail can only be described as wet, rough and in sections quite steep. Taking the shortest trail to the top makes a roundtrip distance of 14.8 miles.
Don’t forget the 6 miles back to the parking lot.
Mount Marcy is rated a 6 for difficulty. The best time to climb is June through to September, since there is usually heavy snow cover the rest of the year. But I found out the hard way that August is no walk in the park, as some of the most violent lightning storms occur during this time of year. Several times I had to take cover high above the tree line to avoid lightning strikes ó quite unnerving.
Getting to the top through the high winds and lightning storms was well worth it. I was able to see Mont Royal in Montreal to the north (62 miles) and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east.
Mount Washington in New Hampshire (6,288 feet) is by far my favorite high point to climb, with many alluring qualities that made me return for a total of three hikes. This northern New Hampshire landmark stands alone for grandeur and isolation among neighboring peaks. It is a truly intimidating mountain as you look up from the highway that leads to the trail head parking lot. Although the hiking distance is not lengthy (4.2 miles to the summit or 8.4 miles roundtrip), the terrain is steep with long stretches of large jagged rocks to climb, which helps earn it its 6 difficulty rating.
Mount Washington has by far the worst weather conditions of any high point I’ve climbed. The summit is famous for its dangerously erratic weather, holding the record for the highest wind gust directly measured at the Earth’s surface, at 231 miles per hour, back in 1934.
About three-quarters up the mountain, signs warn climbers to be extremely cautious of avalanche danger, high wind alerts and hypothermia. Mount Washington is notorious for its avalanches, with about 100 recorded every year. Scores of hikers have died on the mountain in all seasons, due to inadequate equipment, failing to plan for the wide variety of conditions which can occur above the tree line, and poor decisions once the weather began to turn dangerous.
On my three Mount Washington climbs, I encountered the full spectrum of human emotion, including panic, doom and gloom, physical pain, mental and physical exhaustion, adrenaline rush, excitement and joy. Most of the problems revolved around physical and mental fatigue and disorientation.
It was normally the weather near the top that caused me much stress and discomfort. Two of the three climbs up this high point I became engulfed in thick, soupy fog and subsequently got extremely disoriented, with only a few feet of visibility, causing me to go into panic mode.
Only when I could hear cars going up the auto road or the Mount Washington Cog train could I reorient myself.
Once at the top of this beautiful mountain, you are truly blown away by the sounds and sights of mother nature. For me it was a tremendous therapeutic moment of peace, tranquility, exhilaration and pure joy. I will always love this mountain.
In June 2006, I hiked Mount Whitney, he highest point in California (14,494 feet) and the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. This high point was by far the most difficult of the five that I have climbed ó it was rated a 7 for difficulty. The main trail to the summit is 11 miles long, for a roundtrip of 22 miles.
This mountain demanded a great deal of preparation, planning, fitness and acclimatization. I had to obtain a permit for the specific days I was going to be on the mountain. Daily quotas are in effect from May to October to limit the number of hikers.
This journey required a tent, sleeping bag, trekking poles, bear canister, pack-out kit, mess kit, etc. It was clear that I would have to spend at least one night on the mountain. But I was to later find out that the equipment I had was not going to be nearly enough. Rangers and other climbers informed me that the mountain had a great deal of snow at the higher elevations, and that I’d need crampons and ice axes.
I struggled more on this highpoint than any of the others. I struggled with the technique of using the crampons along with the ice axes. The altitude later became a major problem for me as I had difficulty with headaches and dehydration. Thankfully, adrenaline kicked in, supplying me with enough energy to reach the top.
It was a truly magnificent sight to observe the massive peaks of the High Sierras. Unfortunately, I did not stay at the summit long enough to really absorb as much as I could. But I signed the register book, took some great photos, shook hands with other climbers, then set out to descend the mountain.
Whether you are a family who enjoys scenery, an avid hiker, or even an outdoorsman like myself, highpointing is something you may want to experience.
Although achieving the highest point in each state may be the ultimate goal, the love for the outdoors far outweighs the importance of any tally sheet.
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For more information, go to www.highpointers.org.
Derek Miller is retired from the United States Air Force. He lives in Salisbury with his wife and two children.
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