Scholarship Winner 2018 – Essay by Caroline Baker

I’m 16 years old and standing on the 13,527-foot summit of Kings Peak, in the Uinta Mountains of Utah, and countless thoughts are running through head. My legs ache from the endless hours and miles of climbing yesterday and today, and my lungs burn to remind me of the insufficient levels of oxygen at this altitude. But, the 360-degree view pushes such mundane problems aside. The rocky surrounding mountains, light-drenched valleys, and sparkling lakes seem close enough to touch in the thin, pristine air. The way the earth precipitously falls away on all sides of the peak is frightening and exhilarating. I’m grinning from ear to ear, and it doesn’t matter that my mind is wondering if my body has the stamina to make it back down. I’m thinking about how foreign, pure, and conquerable the world looks from up here, a feeling the people who won’t make the effort to complete the climb will never know.

Kings Peak will forever be burned in my brain because it was the longest, most difficult highpoint my dad, my two sisters, and I had completed up until we did it, and it definitely left its mark. Our plan had always been to build up to climbs like this one. Before this, I had completed all the highpoints east of the Mississippi River. Most were drive-ups or short hikes that required little planning, but some, like Mount Rogers and Mount Katahdin, made us think about actual hiking logistics, such as water, food, routes, maps, weather, and fitness. In comparison, Kings Peak took preparation to a new level. We had to buy tents, sleeping bags, hiking packs, and a water filter. In anticipation for the climb, we practiced filling our packs and setting up the tents in our backyard. My dad was a Boy Scout and had been in the Army, but he had never attempted anything like this, let alone with three teenage daughters, so there was no one who I knew could confidently get me to the summit.

We flew into Salt Lake City and drove east, into southwest Wyoming. Looking out the rental car window at the landscape, I already knew this was a different animal. The tree-covered hilly and mountainous lands stretched as far as I could see, wild and beautiful. I grew up in the suburbs outside a relatively small city, but now I felt like a real city kid – out of my element. It was both exciting and intimidating. They didn’t say it, but I could tell my 14 and 18 year old sisters, Catherine and Julianne, were nervous to make the climb. I thought, “If they could make it, then I could…maybe.” I prayed – not for the last time – that my dad knew what he was doing. We spent the night in rustic, Native American-themed cabins in Mountain View, Wyoming and had what I hoped wasn’t our last meal at the Crazy Ate Café. Before we went to sleep, we organized and packed our gear, so we could get an early start the next day. Why do these hikes always start so painfully early?
Since we were planning a two-day hike, we waited until it was light to find our way to the Henry’s Fork Trailhead. I thought Mountain View was a pretty remote location, but 30 miles of dirt roads and unlabeled logging trails led us into a different world. At the parking lot, there wasn’t much else to do except shoulder our packs and start down the trail. The first 5 miles was a pleasant hike through the woods along streams with a gentle rise; more importantly, it wasn’t too taxing. Eventually, we broke out of the forest into a vast valley meadow, surrounded by snow-speckled peaks, with Kings Peak far off in the distance behind these mountains. It’s hard to describe the collision of feelings. It was nothing I’d ever experienced before. The enormity of scale and purity of unspoiled wilderness were wondrous, humbling, and daunting. I thought, “This is why people do this.”
But, the hike across the valley seemed to take forever. The miles and altitude with packs on our backs were starting to take their toll. We stopped to eat and rest when we passed Dollar Lake, but a troublesome trend began to develop: Like the rookies we were, we had trouble eating. We just didn’t feel like it, and nothing tasted very good. I wasn’t hungry. I’d eat when I was hungry. We each swallowed a sandwich with some difficulty, knowing we should eat. However, Julianne still hit the wall, for the first time, at the base of the climb up to Gunsight Pass, and our progress slowed to a crawl. We traded to give her the lightest pack and inched our way over enormous boulders to the top of the pass. There, we rested and got invaluable information from a trail runner about running water locations up ahead where we could refill our bottles. This runner was going up and down the mountain in one day, and I was half dead at Gunsight Pass. Luckily, the next mile descended about 500 feet. Feeling good, for a change, walking downhill, a small voice in my head whispered that, tomorrow, I’d have to climb back up this descent. Before the hike, we picked a spot for our camp based on our maps and other climbers’ trip reports on Summit Post. It was perfect: flat and near running water.

Trying to sleep that night, I quickly realized two things. One, the ground wasn’t flat. We had no sleeping mats (another rookie mistake), and the ground was rocky. Two, it’s cold at 11,000 feet, even in August. And, either I didn’t have warm enough clothes, or my sleeping bag was not equipped for that weather. We were supposed to get a lot of calories and energy from at least one meal at camp earlier that night, but I could only force down one sandwich again: a price I’d pay on Day 2. We woke as dawn broke and were treated to a colorful sunrise over Painter Basin. It was only about 2.5 miles to the summit, but it felt like 20. My older sister, Julianne, began to really struggle. She had kicked all of our butts on Katahdin, but a combination of the altitude, lack of fitness, and not eating here got to her. We inched our way up to Anderson Pass. What should have taken 90 minutes took much longer. Then we had to climb the last half-mile scrambling over boulders taller than we were. My father, Catherine, and I all made slow progress toward the summit, but halfway through the boulder field, Julianne reached her limit and sat down. We were only a quarter mile from the top. We cajoled, encouraged, threatened, and tried to bribe her. I was devastated that she wasn’t going to make it after coming so far, and I never wanted to do this climb again with her, but there was nothing we could do but leave her and climb the rest of the way. 15 minutes later, I reached the summit. As I looked around to enjoy the view, I saw that Julianne was moving again. She had found a second or third or tenth wind. She couldn’t quit after coming this far. When she made it, we posed for the requisite group photo on the summit and talked to two hikers who were planning on summitting a few of the next closest mountains, too. We were exhausted, but we couldn’t keep from smiling. This was incontestably our greatest highpointing achievement, so far. If we could do this one, we could do any of them.

Unfortunately, now it was time to get all the way back down to the car. The hike down was notable for a few reasons. As we headed down from the peak, the wind picked up, and it began to snow, sleet, and rain, all at the same time. When we got back to camp, we had to take down and put away our tents, pack up all our gear, and filter another 8 liters of water in an hour-long winter storm. We could have gotten in our tents and tried to wait it out, but how long would it go on? Having summitted so slowly, we were already behind schedule. The short hike up to Gunsight Pass from our camp was torture after already getting up to the peak and back that morning. And, it was still another 10 miles back to the trailhead. We hiked for hours wondering over and over again, “How much farther?” By the time we saw the parking lot, we had two ankle injuries in the group and hadn’t made it to the car until sunset. We hiked 17 miles for about 15 hours that day, and we learned that the trip isn’t over when you reach the top.

Kings Peak wasn’t the highest mountain I’ve climbed, but the 29-mile round trip makes it my longest hike, so far. I’ve been highpointing with my father and two sisters since March 2014, and our travels have taken us across the country, past cities with millions of people and past places so isolated that satellites are our only means of navigation. We’ve driven for miles on dirt roads that I couldn’t find on the map, hopeful that the moving blip of the iPad’s GPS tracker was moving in the right direction. I’ve learned that humans can exist – and even thrive – in places where cell phones don’t have a signal, and there are no stores of any kind for miles. While hiking, I’ve worried about rattlesnakes, bears, and all manner of insects. I’ve been too hot and too cold, hungry and thirsty, and on a couple occasions, injured. Despite all of it, the best part of this is doing it with my family. Long hours in the car and struggles on steep terrain with loaded backpacks have brought us physically and mentally closer in ways that would have never happened without Highpointing.
Like it probably did for most highpointers, my experience started out with a narrow focus aimed simply at getting to the top of a mountain because it was there, because it was a challenge. On our first official expedition, on the way to Mississippi’s highest point, we passed a small unassuming sign with an arrow pointing to the local Coon Dog cemetery. As we drove by, we laughed, but something clicked, and we slowed down, stopped, and turned around. During the hour detour, we wandered, laughed, and discovered what all highpointers do: that it’s not simply about peak-bagging. On the way back home to Birmingham, Alabama, we took the long way, passing a 20-foot gold Egyptian statue in an anonymous yard in a tiny town and then climbed to the top of the longest natural bridge east of the Rocky Mountains. Since that moment, we have made highpointing our excuse for seeing America together. We found a Corn Palace in South Dakota, the Ben and Jerry’s headquarters in Vermont, a UFO museum in New Mexico, and a hundred other places I hadn’t known existed. In the course of chasing America’s tallest mountains, I’ve passed by and stopped to visit many of the country’s greatest landmarks, such as Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, and Yosemite and Zion National Parks.

Just a few years ago, if I had stood at the base of a 14,000-foot mountain, the summit would have seemed unreachable. Now, I’ve learned to overcome obstacles that at first seem insurmountable and that big problems can be broken down into manageable components. I’ve discovered that to climb a mountain I need to be in good physical condition and be mentally tough. Through necessity, I have acquired technical skills, such as pitching a tent, reading topographical maps, and planning the logistics involved in reaching a difficult peak. I’ve learned that I need to work with the other members of the team to distribute the food, water, and gear needed to reach the top. I’ve discovered that sometimes I can race up the mountain ahead of my sisters, that sometimes they need my help, and that sometimes I need theirs.

When I was 4 years old, my family drove to the top of Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest point, long before we knew Highpointing was a thing. I never dreamed mountain climbing would become a hobby of mine or of the myriad places and experiences it would bring me. I never thought I’d be able to do the things I have now done. I’ve set 41 goals and achieved every one. This summer we have our sights set on two more big western highpoints, Boundary Peak, Nevada and the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney, California. Sometimes when I tell people about Highpointing, they smirk and ask if I’m going to climb 20,000 feet to the top of Denali in Alaska. I’ll admit that does seem a bit daunting, and even though I only have nine highpoints left, that one seems like a distant dream. But you know what? Why not?