Welcome to the Wide, Wild World of Highpointing

Welcome to the Wide, Wild World of Highpointing

What motivates America's greatest unknown outdoors organization?

f the 1980s produced a rival, or even a genuine spiritual heir, to the great American naturalists — Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, John Olmsted — we must consider the unlikely case of Jack Longacre, a long-distance truck driver, trailer park owner and writer who lived within sight of Taum Sauk, the highest point in Missouri. That last was no accident, and it nods to the final, and most salient, entry on his resume: founder of the Highpointers Club.

In October 1986, Longacre wrote an open letter to the editor of Outside Magazine, noting that he had observed, in his own hiking to the tallest peaks of various states, "a pattern of comments in [summit] registers in reference to the state highpoints: 'This was my 21st state H.P. ...' 'This was my 12th ...' ... My God! I thought. There must be others out there with no more sense than myself, and I'd like to meet or correspond with them."

Of the 30 people who wrote to him, seven joined him in a motel room in L'Anse, Michigan, in April 1987, for what would be later regarded as the first Highpointers’ convention. The focus was an assault on Mount Arvon, which surveyors had determined to be 11 inches taller than neighboring Mount Curwood, unticking that box on the highpointers' lists. "He had already been to Mount Curwood, but not to Mount Arvon," Jack Parsell, who attended that first meeting, told me on Campbell Hill, the site of the 2011 Highpointers Convention and the highest point in Ohio. (Parsell, a woodworker, ski patrol volunteer and chemical engineer, died in 2015, at 93.) His first highpoint was New York's Mount Marcy in 1939, when he was 17; he finished his fiftieth exactly 50 years later, at the 13,089-foot Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highpoint and one of the pursuit’s biggest challenges.

(Highpointer trivia: Theodore Roosevelt had just summited Mount Marcy when a guide alerted him to President William McKinley's imminent death — and Roosevelt's impending presidency.) 

Mount Marcy, NEW YORK

 The year after the Michigan expedition, Longacre reserved a restaurant's event room for a convention in Flagstaff, near the Arizona highpoint at Humphrey's Peak. "He didn't expect more than 20, he made a commitment for 30, and he had his fingers crossed that enough people would show up to pay the bill at the restaurant," Parsell said. Over the next few years, the club swelled from eight to 30 to 90 to its current tally of about 1,500, and nearly three decades after the "original eight" met up in Michigan, hundreds of highpointers annually gather in an elevated corner of the country every summer. In 2016, they met at Red Lodge, Montana, near Granite Peak, a 12,800-foot summit in Montana’s Bear Tooth range; next year, they’ll travel to Massachusetts’s Mount Greylock, a “drive-up” highpoint topped with a memorial tower that pays tribute to veterans.

Highpoint conventions share certain elements, including the one that will be held next July 20-22 at Mount Greylock: There will be a meeting of the board of directors. There will be a pancake breakfast (next year, at the Golden Eagle Restaurant in Clarksburg, Massachusetts) and watermelon awaiting hikers at the summit, one of Longacre's traditions. Other events are up to local organizers. Suggestions for next summer include a visit to Susan B. Anthony’s birthplace and Cessna flyovers of the Berkshires.

* * *

t each of the conventions, special regard will be extended to 50-state highpointers, who’ve summited peaks ranging in altitude from 345 feet (Britton Hill, Florida) to 20,310 (Denali, Alaska). "Back in ’95, I had … let's call it male 'mental-pause,'" highpointer Kenny Pokera told me, when we met on a patio above an indoor pool at the Emerald River Hotel in Sheffield, Alabama. "And I decided I wanted to climb Mount McKinley." After a 10-day mountaineering course and three weeks on the mountain, he summited Denali, and he was hooked — not on ice climbing, per se, but on highpointing. "You get on a mission, if you want to call it that. You gotta do Nebraska, you gotta go to Kansas, you gotta do Briton Hill in Florida. I would never have gone to Florida; I would never have seen Sassafras Mountain [in South Carolina] without it. All of a sudden, you're seeing areas of the country you'd never thought of coming to.”

 

PANORAMA POINT, NEBRASKA

For many, the quest extends into multiple decades. “I think lots of people start when they’re 30 — and hey, guess what? You’re 45 when you finish,” says John Mitchler, a 50-state completer and the editor of the club’s newsletter, Apex to Zenith.

And once they complete the list? Some simply start over from the beginning. Pokera is on his third tour through the 50 highpoints; when I met him at the convention in Alabama, near the highest point in Mississippi, he was on number 110. “I started the third trip around after 60 years of age,” he told me, “so if someone is silly enough to try it for a third time, to do better than me I guess you're going to have to do it after 60. But I've got 39 to go — Denali, Gannett [Peak in Wyoming], Granite [Peak, in Montana]. None of them are gimmies."

Pokera’s wife Donna sat quietly beside him in a plastic pool chair as he reeled off his plans. At the time, they were a week short of their 28th anniversary. "I thought he was absolutely out of his mind," she said. She stayed at home while he worked his way through the Seven Summits: Argentina’s Aconcagua, the highest point in the Americas; Mount Vinson in Antarctica; Mount Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea, the highest point in Oceania.

"In Papua New Guinea, not only did the climbing worry me, but his life worried me — there were guerrillas, with machine guns, and that was just blowing my mind," she said. "I love to do these things, but he's an extremist. I appreciate it, but I would like to do them with a little bit more moderation."

Donna Pokera has accompanied her husband on all but six of his American highpoints, and she has seen firsthand the unique psychological makeup that highpointers possess: a sense of whimsy and a love of nature that derives its power neither from a Romantic affinity for wandering nor the aimless wonder of the flaneur but a wildly diverse — and distinctly American — set of values. While climbing Denali requires the classical mountaineer's constitution (courage, fortitude, resourcefulness), trekking to the highest point in Delaware begs something more perverse: whimsy, doggedness, a sense of humor.

"They're all insane,” she said. “They've all done insane things, where they've driven miles and miles — one of the hardest things is that to get to all these places, you have to drive thousands of miles — and you're half asleep, and then when you get there, you have to pursue these mountains, which the weather doesn't always permit. We've been in white-out situations where we've had to turn back, and we've been in white-out situations where we didn't turn back. I've actually hated him for it, and said, 'We shouldn't do this — the sign says there are white-out conditions, to turn back.' And he says, 'Oh, no. That's for someone else. That's not for us.'"

I asked if she’d be accompanying her husband on his third tour of the highpoints. "I don't want to do that,” she replied. “Personally, I'm OK with not wanting to do that."

She had all but the biggest western peaks: Granite, Gannett, Hood, Rainier, Borah, Denali. "When I got to 44," she said, "I told myself, ‘That’s 44, and there ain't no more.’"

* * * 

Welcome to the Wide, Wild World of Highpointing
Welcome to the Wide, Wild World of Highpointing

 

f course, each one draws the line in his or her own way. If other hikers regard highpointers skeptically, highpointers themselves draw a thin but meaningful line between the garden variety 50-staters and the more obsessive “county highpointers” — those who set out to visit the highest point in each of the nation's 3,143 counties (or county equivalents: parishes in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska). According to the official County Highpointer FAQ: "If it is not known which is the higher, then all should be visited. If, however, you or someone else has done the necessary comparison with hand level, clinometer, survey instruments, or whatever (sic), then it is only necessary to visit the highest area(s)."

"Those guys are crazy," Pokera said.

"Mindboggling," his wife, Donna, agreed.

"Here's the thing," Pokera said. "To get a county highpoint, maybe you do this killer hike of 1,142 feet above sea level — but there's probably three or four places in that county that are 1,142 feet above sea level, so to be official, you have to do all four of them. Someone told me I was going to be a county highpointer, and I said, 'No, thanks — I'll go back to backpacking.'"

"Those people are nuts," echoed Bill Urbanski, a highpointer who has also embarked on a parallel effort to climb a “Welcome to ...” highway sign in all 50 states. "A couple have infiltrated our club, and I think they're crazy."

Mount ARVON, MICHIGAN

 Jeff Rand is one of those infiltrators. He completed the 50 state highpoints in 1994, and the counties in 2003. His first was Mason County, in Michigan, near where he grew up; he finished in the Wade Hampton Census Area, an area roughly equivalent to a county, in Alaska. ("You have to take multiple plane trips to get to it," he told me.)

“Somewhere like Louisiana, you have bayous that are manipulated by water — one day it’s a highpoint, and the next day it’s not,” said veteran highpointer Mick Dunn. “Plus maybe there are two or three alligators waiting for you.”

So, why, I asked Rand, would he want to visit the highest points of 3,143 counties? Surely the tops of the 72 counties in Wisconsin look fairly similar?

"It's a goal,” he said. “You set a goal. If you take the straight path all the time, life gets boring."

Having dispensed with state and county highpoints, Rand has now moved on to national park units: not just national parks (that would be too easy — there are only 58 of them) but national park units, including military parks, monuments, scenic trails and seashores, stretching from the National Park of American Samoa to Virgin Islands National Park. He had also set himself an additional objective of flying into every state in America. When I talked to him, he was on number 42.

"I've never flown into Alabama," he said. "That would be another goal."

* * *

ther highpointers are adherents of what they call tripointing, or journeying to the points where multiple states (or counties) meet. Still others are on a mission to visit every football stadium. Mitchler, the 50-state completer, progressed from highpoints to national parks to national park highpoints to national monuments to a 50-state tour of wineries (not vineyards: “There are probably no vineyards in Alaska”) to “all the best beaches, the different sand beaches,” he said.

“I know the question is why — why can’t I just go out and enjoy a few of the national parks?” he continued. “But there’s a satisfaction in pursuing a list. I know some people who won’t go to a summit on purpose because that’s not important to them. But I’m not especially fond of some of the climbing. Halfway through the climb, it’s not like, ‘Oh, man, this is the best thing in the world.’ I’m afraid of heights! But getting near the top and then achieving it — that’s where I get the euphoria.”

(More highpointer trivia: A few years ago, Mitchler, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, invited members of the local climbing community to his birthday party. One of the invitees left a voicemail with his regrets: Aron Ralston, a fellow 50-state highpoint completer who was headed out on the trip that became 127 Hours.)

Mick Dunn, who hosted the Maine convention in 2014, offered his own explanation: “The thing is,” he said, “we’re listers. We can’t refuse a good list.” When I spoke to him during the Maine event, Dunn was working his way through National Hockey League arenas as well as kayaking the largest lake of every state (“That’s one me and my girlfriend made up”). Dunn abandoned his peak attempt on Denali at 15,450 feet in 2009, after cerebral edema forced him down to a lower camp and eventually off the mountain, while the rest of his team successfully summited. “I hiked probably 300 feet in denial before going down,” he says. “You know that feeling in the back of your mind? That, ‘This is your doom’ call? I had that.” He grew philosophical. “When I die, whether it’s today or 20 years from now, the result will be the same,” he said. “I’ll have a list of mountains I’ve climbed, and an even longer list of mountains I want to climb.”

* * *

he highpointer who could have spoken most plainly about the motivation behind this pursuit was probably Longacre himself: “I thought there were a lot of other idiots doing the same thing I’m doing, so I wondered where in line I [was] with them,” he said in an interview with Roger Rowlett in Apex to Zenith. “I just wanted to meet highpointers.” He died on October 15, 2002, after a yearlong battle with cancer during which he was able to attend one final convention, a month earlier, in Oklahoma. Friends drove him to the summit of Black Mesa, and he and an elderly Paul Zumwalt — a surveyor, one-time military governor in Korea, and the author of Fifty State Summits — sat on the summit in lawn chairs, greeting highpointers as they reached the top. “He was really on his last legs at that point,” said Jean Trousdale, his close friend, who passed away in January 2016. “He spent most of the convention in bed.”

BLACK MESA, OKLAHOMA

Longacre’s last wish was that his ashes be spread atop the 50 state highpoints. Or, as he wrote in his own eulogy, "It is my impassioned desire that my ashes be placed on the top of the continent's loftiest peaks, allowing the rains to wash them down and over the lands. Then, I would become a part of the world and not hidden beneath it as I would be in a grave." Or, as he said to Rowlett: “It’s in my will. I want to be on the mountains. That’s where I belong.”

Trousdale was entrusted with the task. "Jack had 50 little 35mm film canisters with the name of each state written on them, and he showed me exactly how to seal them," Trousdale said. "He couldn't see me quite getting to all 50 highpoints."

Trousdale — so devoted to Longacre’s club that she had its name tattooed on her thigh — did what she could, scattering them on Taum Sauk shortly after his death and then along Black Mesa a month later. Highpointers volunteered to carry them up Granite Peak, Borah Peak, Gannett Peak, to Denali and Mauna Kea; another carried them to New York City the day of the city-wide blackout in 2003, before which the "New York" film canister was photographed at Yankee Stadium, Rockefeller Center and the viewing platform of the Empire State Building. Friends volunteered to take them to Mount Fuji in Japan and Aconcagua in Ecuador, the highest peak in South America; soon, Longacre's ashes had climbed six of the Seven Summits, all but Everest.

"There was a fellow I heard from, Stuart Smith, who'd done a few highpoints,” Trousdale said. “He was going off somewhere and wanted to know if he could take ashes, and I said, 'Sure.' He'd already completed the adventure grand slam — the Seven Summits and North and South Poles — and he said he wasn't going back up to Everest, but he was going to the Himalayas to climb Lhotse." Then, as Smith ascended the Lhotse face, he met another climber, a Mexican attorney named David Liaño Gonzalez, who was planning to ascend Everest. (In May 2013, Liaño Gonzalez, who has successfully scaled Everest five times, became the first person to climb the mountain from both its north and south sides in a single season.)

"A couple weeks later, I got a call from Liaño Gonzalez, and he sent me a picture [of Everest’s peak] and said he was sorry he couldn't take a picture of them scattering the ashes because it was too windy," Trousdale said. "That's how we got the last of the seven highpoints, and it's at that magical place that Jack Longacre's ashes rest." Trousdale has continued meting out Longacre's ashes for years at suitable events. "At this point, I'm using itty bitty Ziploc bags," she said. "We're just about out of ashes. He wasn't a big guy,” she said, “but he had very heavy bones."

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