What do you do when you run out of state highpoints to climb?
For Andy Martin of Tucson you create other lists that are perhaps always unobtainable -- Mexican highpoints, national park highpoints and county highpoints.
Here's a conversation with the man who coordinated compilation of the lists of 3,000-plus county highpoints and helped start a very active county highpointers email group.
What was your first highpoint?
This really all started with my dad, who got us interested in hiking, camping, mountains and maps. My dad had polio. It is amazing that he remained an active hiker after a serious bout with the disease. It was inspiring to see him plug away and make it to the top.
Right now he's barely able to walk. He taught me how to bush whack and bush camp. That has come in real handy with state highpoints and county highpoints.
My first state highpoint was Mount Whitney in 1969. I had a sardine breakfast on summit day, a mistake I've never repeated. I did Humphreys Peak later that year. There is a big gap in my highpoint career from 1969 to 1987, when my girlfriend Sarah inspired me to visit the New Jersey highpoint when living back East in Piscataway. We climbed Whitney on our honeymoon in 1988.
How did you find out about the Highpointers Club?
Believe it was about 1990, at the Black Mesa, when we ran across Don Holmes's card. We contacted him, bought his book, and joined the club. No way I would have started on the county highpoint nonsense without joining the state highpointers first, so Don deserves some credit (some would say blame) for getting county highpointing going.
By the way, one of my state highpointing highlights was running into Paul and Lila Zumwalt by happenstance at the Nebraska highpoint. We picked up an autographed copy of his book on the spot.
3. What is your background (where born, school, job, etc.)?
I was born in Pennsylvania and have resided in New Jersey and Illinois for short periods, but lived most of my life in Tucson, and love it out here. I am a recycled mining engineer, currently a computer programmer on UNIX workstations. I attended the University of Arizona at Tucson.
Did you highpoint in Illinois?
I wish I had known more when I was there. I was always interested in geographic features. There weren't a lot of them in Illinois so I entertained myself by crossing every bridge on the mighty Macoupin river in Macoupin county. I had a mechanically suspect Triumph motorcycle back then.
What ignited your passion for hiking?
I always had two passions, one was hiking and the other was collecting mining relics. Back in New Jersey there are not a lot of opportunities for collecting the mining stuff. So this was a perfect time to rekindle my love for mountains and highpointing.
Back then many of us started with the Rand McNally atlas. I went to the Piscataway Library and pulled out the topo maps and basically started Xeroxing the topos of the state highpoints. This was the early 1990's or before.
What got you started on county highpointing?
After I had done most of the states (49), I was looking for something else. You could graduate to state tri-points or low points like Jack Parsell, or try something else. First, I created a list of Mexican State highpoints and National Park highpoints. Jack Longacre was very nice to let us run the lists in Apex to Zenith.
What about the National Park and Mexican highpoints?
They came early. The National Park list was inspired by Ken Akerman.
The National Parks have some of the best terrain around. It was a fun list.
The Mexican state highpoints follow directly from the U.S. and Canadian states. The University of Arizona library is a great resource because they have the maps here. The disappointing thing about Mexico is that I don't think anybody has tried to climb all the peaks.. Or at least I haven't heard of anybody attempting it. For me it's more than just doing the list but I also like to have them used by hikers. It's been a real thrill for me to see some of these lists completed. For example, Idaho just got completed this summer by Ken Jones and Bob Packard, both state highpointers.
I'm not sure if there will ever be a completer of the Mexico state highpoints. My own enthusiasm for climbing them has dropped off quite a bit. It can be pretty dangerous wandering around in the backcountry of Mexico. I tried one in Sonora. There are three points and it got pretty nasty. Bob Packard got interested and we went down. It can be kind of expensive down there for just a weekend. There are a lot of checkpoints. It's not exactly a highpointing hotbed.
We've really got it good in the USA. We've got good roads. Most of the highpoints are accessible politically. There are liaisons with the private highpoints. In Mexico you run the risk that some of the highpoints could be on some drug lord's private realm. You really have to know what's going on down there before you go.
Specifically what got you going on county highpoints?
Counties are the next level of granularity after states. That was one of the big motivations for me. I wanted to keep highpointing. The main thing for me is the mountain. I'm not that interested in the county history so much or going to the county courthouse as some guys do. I wanted to keep going to the mountains.
My long time friend Guy Cloutier told me about the pioneer of county highpointing, a fellow named "Altimeter" Bob Walko. He was called "Altimeter Bob" because he hiked around with a big aircraft altimeter. Bob identified and climbed the Arizona county highpoints way back in 1977. I gave Bob a call, and he got me hooked on the idea of following in his footsteps in Arizona. For me the state highpoints always came first, but I sort of migrated into county highpoints after fulfilling my dreams in the state arena.
What inspired you to actually write the book?
As I investigated I saw that there were already lists of county highpoints in a few western states. While it was straightforward to find the highpoints of states with mountain ranges, it becames a challenge in flatter areas. I was sure ready to quit after 25 states. The states of real interest to me were the 12 in the West and the 13 in New England. I really didn't want to tangle with Iowa. But Carl Mills and other folks volunteered to help out on the remaining 25 states. The cohp hobby is fortunate to have hiking guidebooks by John Mitchler and Dave Covill (CO), Gary Suttle (CA), and others for NY, UT and ID.
Do you have any publishing experience?
My previous book on collecting Blasting Cap Tins.
How did you find these people?
I initially met these people through the state Highpointers Club. The Club's directory is very helpful. In a lot of Clubs its membership is secret but with the directory I could contact people. I don't think I would have done 50 states if I hadn't run into other people.
What was the research process?
Basically in my case we have a very good map library at Tucson at the University of Arizona. They basically have every USGS map ever printed. They're all in one place. They let you check them out in big quantities. Sometimes I would check out 50 maps and take them home. That way I could spread the work out over evenings for two or three weeks.
You start out at the state level. You look for the mountain ranges and you can spot some highpoints right there. Then you work your way down to the 1:100,000 scale and 7.5 minute maps. I would always look at the 7.5 minute maps which are the "bible". While those maps are not always 100% correct, the cohp listings basically reflect what the USGS shows on these maps.
The secret is not to put the 7.5' quads in a stack and work from top to bottom. You don't want to look at every 7.5' quad. I would filter them on the 1:100,000 scale map. I could look at them and know that this area of the county is too low and can safely be ignored.
I put pennies on the prospects for the highpoints.
I think a lot of it is you like working with the maps. It's a fun game for some. For the most people it's not so entertaining.
My guesstimate is that it takes on average about half hour to work up a county high point. The flatter they are the more work is involved. A little relief can really save your bacon in a flat place. That makes its easy to eliminate a lot of terrain.
What were the toughest areas?
Northern Missouri and southern Iowa is one of the toughest areas around. You will be counting 20 or 30 places all tied for the highpoint. Louisiana as a state is one of the toughest. I kept putting it off and finally Roy Schweiker got the ball rolling. It's flat down there, and infested with all sorts of man made hills. Any time you are close to the Mississippi River bottoms you're going to have plenty of trouble in the highpointing game.
You kind of learn as you go along. I did start with the easier states out west. Somebody starting from scratch with say Iowa would find it a daunting process. You kind of want to work your way into it. You learn some tricks as you go along.
Luckily for me, Bob Walko and others had already done some of the work before I even started, like David Olson in Colorado, Dinesh Desai in California, Dub Bludworth in Utah, and John Roper in Washington. In addition, working on this project turned into a group effort, with Carl Mills, Fred Lobdell, Roy Schweiker and Mike Kornbau all adopting one or more states. There is no way I could have done all this on my own.
Have there been many corrections to your list?
Literally hundreds. They've been reported by so many folks it is hard to list them, but David Olson deserves special mention. He has great "eyes" when it comes to nit-picking topo maps.
Most corrections are not very serious when it comes to actually reaching the cohp. However, there have been a few major goofs found, and there will be more, unfortunately. I estimate perhaps 1 in 50 listings will have serious errors. Hopefully many have been found and fixed.
On the bright side, several states were independently "re listed" with no differences found.
Given the way state high points have "migrated" over the years, and the recent errors in CO and AK low points found in USGS listings, I'd say we have done well by comparison.
Do you hike with your family?
My wife Sarah and Molly age 11 and Jane age 9 hike with me. We've taken them to some of the state highpoints and they've done all the Arizona county highpoints. We really ran the rascals ragged on the counties. Molly has been up Humphreys twice. First time I carried her up. Jane was 6 or 7 when we hiked up a couple years ago. There are several county highpointers who hike as a family. Ken Jones came down to do the AZ county highpoints with his wife Karen and kids Evan & Colin. We had to keep up with the Joneses. In addition, Ken Oeser, wife Annette and daughter Alexandra have made a family project out of the Tennessee county highpoints.
Do you have a favorite county highpoint?
One in my backyard -- Mount Lemon. I've put a geocache up there. I've done a lot of training hikes there. Anybody growing up in Tucson knows the Catalina Mountains are a great escape from summers heat, and a place to go in winter. If ever you move away from Tucson you will really miss them.
The Rainier summit was the most emotional. I teared up a bit. It culminated my state HP quest, and was my third try on Rainier. Was lucky to enjoy fantastic weather on that third try - three storm free days.
Bunker Hill, the Lander cohp in Nevada was also special, as Guy Cloutier and I jointly completed Nevada there, and enjoyed the hike, views, summit register, etc.
How did you get county email group going?
State highpointers might not realize how few of us there are in the USA. Perhaps only 1 American in 100,000 (think of a single person in a packed Rose Bowl) is a club member. I thought the member roster in the Apex to Zenith newsletter was a great way to let you know about other highpointers in the area, and wanted to do something similar for county highpointers.
Email is very helpful in getting folks in touch, and generating a sense of community. An initial private email group of hardcore county highpointers fanciers has evolved over time into firstname.lastname@example.org, though we are pretty small (less than 200 active participants) when compared with many groups.
I've enjoyed seeing the support the highpointing hobby has received from those knowledgeable about computers. The highpointers.org and your americasroof.com sites are good examples of this, as is the initial work Mike Fedor did for county highpointers, and the current cohp.org site maintained by Adam Helman.
How has the hobby changed since you started?
Well, there are a lot more of us, state and county highpointers both. It is nice to see our hobby grow, but we also have an extra responsibility to treat the land we hike on, and the land owners we come in contact with, with a great deal of respect. There is now a high chance that others will be traveling in our footsteps.
What are some of the hot topics from the group?
Access is a real tough one for us. We have a strong contingent of "purists" that insist on no substitute on getting to the true high point. This makes it difficult when the county highpoint is on a military base or in Jack Nicholson's backyard. Some states are just not going to get completed to the satisfaction of the purists due to access restrictions. Folks out west have it easier, though the issue is still a tough one, as seen by the Colorado Mountain Club and Culebra peak, one of the 14ers, that lies on private property with highly restricted access.
America is built on private property. I don't want a bunch of highpointers showing up in my backyard unless they call me first.
If it's in a guy's backyard you go up to the door and ask permission. I try to explain the hobby and have a free list handy. Some of them get interested, some don't. But they're pretty nice about it. They're naturally concerned about trespassers or vandals damaging their land. We have a pretty non-threatening hobby. 9 out 10 times there's no problem with access. On the 10th time you may run into a situation like Culebra Peak where the landowner can be very restrictive.
If your hiking list is limited like the 14ers or the 50 state peaks you can work through those issues over time. Dave Covill has done a great job in Rhode Island. You've done a great job in Kentucky.
With the county highponts, when you have 3,000+ points and maybe only 50 or 100 people chasing after them, there's no way to resolve all the landowner issues 100%. Some places are just going to remain off limits. In addition, as time passes access will change for better or worse as land ownership changes.
What have you learned from the process?
Probably not as much as I should have.
Kidding aside, Arizona hikers generally fall into the snow challenged category, and I'm no exception. Having to chase after Mount Hood and Mount Rainier in quest of my state goals has pushed me quite a bit in this arena, though I will wait for the snow to melt on Denali.
What is the best thing you've experienced?
Corresponding with, meeting, and hiking with fellow mountain lovers. At the end of the day, it is not the peaks you've climbed, but the relationships you've built that counts. Have really enjoyed the state Highpointers conventions I've attended, as has my family. I am also privileged to know some of the premier hikers of our times, folks like Bob Packard and Bob Martin (no relation), who have hiked more summits than I could manage in 10 lives.
Is there anything that is not rewarding about the hobby?
Oprah still refuses to feature me in her book club.