The Origins of an Obsession
Highpointing is simply the quest to reach the high point of all 50 states (although the lower 48 are also recognized as completion). Like all great quests, it includes far and perilous travels, with a distant and difficult goal, guaranteeing to transform the participants along the way. The origins of Highpointing date back to one Art Marshall, a railroad telegrapher in Vancouver WA, born 1886. Marshall was a tremendous mountaineer, doing 622 climbs, 281 solo. He completed his quest in 1936, with his 48th Summit, Granite Peak in Montana, and became the first person credited with reaching all state summits. Marshall was a man of modest means, but managed to get to all the states with a rail pass acquired through work, and he was a bachelor, and therefore unburdened with multiple Ivy League tuitions.
|Mt. Whitney, CA|
One of the principal problems associated with the early highpointers was determining the actual highpoint in some of the large, but topographically challenged states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. The early USGS maps were fairly imprecise, the natural topographic distinctions very small, and the highpoint of several states changed with each survey.
|Brasstown Bald, GA|
Highpointing Goes Main Stream
Frank Ashley published the first guidebook to all 48 state highpoints in 1970, with a predictable appeal to the then young and restless Baby Boomers – the race to the top was on. Frank’s book was a bit of a mess, with very poor definition of the one thing that really mattered, what was the high point of each state?
To the rescue came the unlikely duo of Paul and Lila Zumwalt. Paul was a son of the Midwest, who spent his early career working as a surveyor for the USGS in LA, MI, TX, ND, SD, MO, OK and KS. He “discovered” that Mt. Driskell was in fact the highpoint of LA, and the hook was set for life. After a varied and successful career in the Navy and as a civil engineer, he retired in 1977, and dedicated the rest of his life to writing about and surveying the highpoints of the US.
His heart failed him in his later years, but he and Lila traveled America in their mobile home, camping, climbing and writing the endlessly entertaining, Fifty State Summits. Paul and Lila got within spitting distance of all of the lower 48 summits at one time or another, and made a particularly noteworthy summit of Mauna Kea in a driving snow storm. Zumwalt treats each state highpoint as a unique and worthy entity, touching both the humor of the Delaware highpoint (451 ft.) in a trailer park, and the sheer terror in facing a winter storm on Denali in Alaska (20,306 ft.).
By the mid’80’s, highpointing was starting to gain national attention, and even garnered a front page, center column in The Wall Street Journal, a spot also enjoyed by an article on Hindu Sky Burials. Building on this Tsunami of publicity, the Highpointers Club was started in 1987 by one Jack Longacre, a mobile home park owner/operator from Mountain Home Arkansas, and highpointing went main stream.
Highpointing remains a fairly exclusive club. There are only a few hundred people who have completed the entire list, and only six have done all fifty plus the seven summits – Stan Spencer, are you listening? This compares to over two thousand who have climbed Everest.
It is necessary to be a fairly serious mountaineer to be a successful Highpointer, but not sufficient. This quest is about touching the fabric of America – from a feedlot in Iowa to the top of Bora Peak in Idaho – it is a tasting menu. Martha and I are off to enjoy the entire meal, starting with the Great Southern Tour of 2011.