By Norman Michaels
Time for the observation.
It’s two degrees outside with 60 mph winds gusting to 90. It’s snowing, so I have to retrieve the precipitation can to measure the amount of new snow fall. The fixture that holds the can is out in the open area between the Stage Office and Tip Top House. That means full layers of clothing, hat, gloves, goggles, crampons and ice ax.
Most of the snow that falls on the summit blows away into Tuckerman Ravine, so the ground is hard-packed slippery snow and ice. So, whether we’re searching around the summit for a missing hiker, going to check on Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lake of the Clouds hut, doing the routine weather observations and outside maintenance or just going for a hike in our free time, in my seven-plus years at the Observatory I had lots of experience tromping around in crampons and ice axe.
What I didn’t have were the technical skills to climb Mt. Rainer, Mt. Hood and other big peaks out west that were in my mind to summit.
It started when my wife, Charlotte, and I were in Albany, N.Y., visiting our friends Bill and Margaret. We had all just returned from hiking Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in the state. Previously we’d hiked Mt. Washington, Katahdin and Mt. Mansfield, the tallest mountains in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont and we got to talking about other state highpoints.
It was the year 2000. On the internet we found not only a list of all the state highpoints but an organization called the Highpointers Club dedicated to climbing all of them.
I thought it was a good idea to take up that challenge.
Looking at a map of the locations of the highpoints of each state, the summits of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland are all pretty close to one another. Two are in parks you drive to and one is a short hike, so we made our first dedicated highpoint trip there and along the way we learned the real secret of the highpointing hobby—finding amazing places you’d otherwise never go to.
We chanced upon a beautiful Pennsylvania state park, Ohiopyle, and camped there along the scenic Youghiogheny River flowing through it. Nearby we happened upon Fallingwater, a house by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and stopped for a tour. We were now officially hooked on highpointing.
New Hampshire is a great place to live and hike. The White Mountains and Presidential Range are a training ground for climbs around the world and I knew I needed to improve my skills and knowledge to tackle some of the state highpoints in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.
I took workshops with and hired guides from the AMC, International Mountain Equipment and Chauvin Guides International. I learned avalanche awareness, how to climb rock and ice and how to properly and safely travel on steep snow and glaciers. I joined Summit Sensations, a New Hampshire-based mountaineering club, and set my sights west.
In the next dozen years I made 14 trips out there. On Mt. Rainier, my Summit Sensations team had four days of good weather as we summited via the Emmons Glacier route. Conversely, the one-day climb of Mt. Hood took four attempts. Once, altitude sickness of one team member caused us to turn around at 11,000 feet. Another time we camped at 9,000 feet to get a good start but woke up to a raging storm. It eventually abated enough for us to retreat. Storms and too much snow made conditions too dangerous for a summit attempt on my third visit there. Finally, I hired a guide, the weather and snow conditions cooperated, and he and I had an easy day.
On a Summit Sensations trip we climbed Boundary Peak in Nevada and Mt. Whitney, California, via the Mountaineer’s Route. We found much to see in that area, from the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to Manzanar, the World War II Japanese Internment Camp.
There are far fewer people and roads out west and the wilderness is vast. It’s a two-day backpack trip to get to the base of Gannett Peak, the highpoint of Wyoming, then a summit day of glaciers and rock, then two more days to get back to the trailhead.
It was a four-day trip to Granite Peak, Montana’s tallest, up and over Froze To Death plateau, where the wind never ceased and afternoon hail storms were common. The ascent finishes with technical rock climb. I hired a guide service to lead the way on these two.
Two of the remaining harder ones were Utah and Idaho and I did those with a Summit Sensations team. King’s Peak, the Utah high point, is about a 30-mile round-trip hike. We did it in three days then had a rest day at Craters of the Moon National Monument, a vast ocean of lava flows with scattered islands of cinder cones and sagebrush, before proceeding to Borah Peak.
The 12,662-foot high point of Idaho, Borah Peak, is only four miles from the trail head to the summit but with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. At around 11,000 feet the trail ascends Chicken Out Ridge, 600 feet of hand over hand scramble with 1,000 foot drops on both sides.
Another year, Charlotte had a conference in Denver. I went along and we took some extra time to visit the Nebraska and Kansas highpoints, raised bumps on the rolling plain. But we were amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of huge windmills we passed on the western edge of the high plains.
Likewise, we took the opportunity of a wedding in Albuquerque to hike up Black Mesa, the highpoint of Oklahoma. And, yes. We sung the show tune at the tall obelisk that marks the top of the flat mesa.
Along the way we found Capulin Volcano National Monument, the original Santa Fe trail and the remains of the old forts that protected the trail.
Over the years we took several winter vacations to the highpoints of the southern states. We walked the nearly deserted white-sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle. We realized it’s a long way from Palm Beach, in another time zone, actually, and not some snowbird paradise as daytime temps are only in the 60s.
We learned that highpointing is a wonderful couple’s activity. We planned, flew, drove, navigated, dined and hiked together all around the country. We dodged ponies on Grayson Highlands, Virginia, and rattlesnakes on White Butte, North Dakota. We found Bob Dylan’s childhood home and Paul Bunyan in Minnesota. We discovered many National Parks and Monuments we didn’t know about, including Isle Royale, a Lake Superior island. We did 36 highpoints together.
Our Albany friends had retired and moved to North Carolina. On previous trips there we went to the summits of the surrounding states, saving North Carolina for last.
Charlotte and I had started with Bill and Margaret 17 years ago, and on a beautiful fall day in 2017, warm and windless so we were able to spend a long time on the summit, the four of us summited Mt. Mitchell together for the finish of my 48 contiguous state highpoints.
Norman Michaels was a weather observer from 1971 to 1974 in the old Obs building and from 1992 to 1996 in the Sherman Adams building. He and Charlotte are blissfully retired and live in southeastern New Hampshire. Norman is the current Summit Sensations Equipment Manager.