It was the Fourth of July 2001 and Mary Ann and I were celebrating something really special. Not only were we celebrating our 4th wedding anniversary on the 4th of July, but we were also about to stand on top of my 50th state highpoint on Kings Peak, Utah. For Mary Ann it was number 49 & 9/10 for which she earns a unique distinction. Utah was particularly memorable for me because in 1997 it was also where I ran my 50th state marathon. Climbing the 50 state highpoints has brought countless memories of which I’ll share a few.
My first memory of reaching a state highpoint was in 1979 when a group of us climbed Mt. Elbert, Colorado. At the time it about did me in, and was one of the hardest physical activities I encountered. The farthest thing from my mind was the idea of an organization whose purpose is to climb all of the 50 state highpoints. It would be 17 years later that I met my wife and together we would join this unique club in pursuit of just that very thing.
Living in Colorado during the late 70’s and early 80’s was the perfect backdrop for climbing as I easily became hooked. At first I began collecting nearly all of the fifty-four 14,000 foot peaks, then eventually started climbing other high points out-side Colorado. After acquiring Frank Ashley’s book Highpoints of the States I added Mt. Hood (OR), Mauna Kea (HI) and Mt. Whitney (CA) to my list. When my work took me east in 1985 my climbing days subsided and got replaced by running marathons. I fig-ured there were no big mountains in the east so I began collecting different state marathons. During the next 10 years I climbed intermittently but saw the goal of running all 50 state marathons get-ting closer. This dream finally came true at the St. George Marathon (UT) in October 1997. Oddly enough there is a similar group to the highpointers called the 50 State & DC Marathon Club.
The highlight of my life came when I met Mary Ann while running on the Paulinskill Valley Trail a Rails-to-Trail footpath near our home in Augusta, NJ. The initial conversation consisted of my plans to climb Mt. Rainier, which she had completed, and Mary Ann’s plans to climb Mt. Hood that I had done years ago. This was truly the start of a good thing as we each found soulmates in each other. In 1996 she joined me for my Maui, Hawaii Marathon on the condition that we would climb Mauna Kea (again). When I ran my Florida Marathon we drove and hit all the southern and mid-Atlantic state highpoints en route. Every vacation was centered upon highpointing and marathoning. In time, we managed to finally join the High-pointers Club since we were becoming true highpointers.
In 1998 Mary Ann was a prominent member of an all women breast cancer survivor team, on an expedition to Mount McKinley called “Climb Against the Odds”. A documentary by the same name was filmed and aired nationwide on local PBS TV stations. (Visit the Beast Cancer Fund website at http://www.breastcancerfund.org/climb_return.html for complete story, also see reference page 33, issue #47 Fourth Quarter 1999 Highpointers Club newsletter). Unfortunately due to severe storms and illness the team made it to only 16,200 feet and did not summit. Of her teammates that were forced to go down Mary Ann was the longest remaining breast cancer survivor on the mountain. The following year Mary Ann and I returned to Alaska together for her second attempt.
For nearly two weeks we climbed strong before she succumbed to severe high-altitude sickness at 19,200 feet. In my mind, this gallant second attempt earned Mary Ann the 9/10 fraction toward her highpointing state total. The next day on June 8, 1999 I was fortunate to summit Denali carrying the prayer flags in honor of, or in memory of, all cancer victims. Words cannot explain the emotion and triumph I felt standing on top for the thousands of people who bear the load of cancer.
1999 was the also the year I took a sabbatical from work for Mary Ann and I to live our dreams. We purchased a new truck with slide-in camper and headed west. That summer we completed all of the hard summits on our first attempts including Granite Peak (MT), Gannett Peak (WY) and Borah Peak (ID). Granite was far more difficult than expected. The rock presented some real technical challenges. Gannett Peak was especially enjoyable with the long approach into Titcomb basin with some of the best wildflowers I’ve seen anywhere. The glacier travel reminiscent of Mt. Rainier made us keenly aware of how remote this peak is. That year concluded with five state high-points remaining. It was Memorial Day weekend 2000 when we flew into Duluth (MN) to capture the three Great Lake highpoints. This year (2001) on the same weekend we revisited Rhode Island for the prearranged opening just to make things official.
Finally, with two states remaining we flew to Las Vegas on June 29. The following morning we drove to Trail Canyon where we spent the night en route to Boundary Peak (NV). We used an easier access from route 264 at mile-post 25 as compared to the suggested milepost 19 & 20. Mary Ann and I reached the summit slower than expected but we were the only two people on the summit. We enjoyed perfect weather and extraordinary views on our 49th state highpoint. The following day consisted of driving to Evanston, Wyoming to prepare for our final climb of Kings Peak (UT). Our plan was to hike in from the north and camp at Dollar Lake at 10,785 feet elevation, a distance of about 7 ½ miles. The mosquitoes were in full force and obviously on vacation like us for the 4th of July holiday. We awoke at 5am to get an early start. The hike up to Gunsight Pass was pleasant and was highlighted by a sighting of a moose. Once over the pass we remained high at about the 11,800 foot level to save over a mile en route to Anderson Pass. From the pass it was an easy scram-ble to the summit. We made it – our 50th state, on our 4th anniversary, on the 4th of July – a triple celebration!
So, this story is a recount of how memories are made. Completing the high-points is just one facet of a lifelong journey. It has taken us to so many places in this country most people would have little reason to go to. For me running marathons in all 50 states compiled with finishing all the 50 state highpoints has brought memories to last a lifetime. Mountains, Marathons and Memories will remain our theme. What’s next you ask? … 46 more years to our 50th anniversary!
See you on the trails…John & Mary Ann
[Published in Apex to Zenith #54 – Third Quarter 2001]