Highpointing on September 11, 2001

[Published in Apex to Zenith #55 – Fourth Quarter 2001]
By: Roger Rowlett

Given the date of my hike (Sept 9-11, 2001) and the fact I’m from New York City, my hike up Kings Peak took and return drive across the country to my home four miles from the World Trade Center took on many special meanings.

There were no omens as I saw the World Trade Center for the last time during the drive to Newark Airport. It’s not an image that will burned in my mind unlike the first time I saw it. My heart always skipped a beat every time I saw it rising up nearly twice as high as the closest buildings around it. It was testimony that I was at the center of the Universe. I expected it to be there when I returned. As far as any other premonitions go, it was usual. With each Western highpoint I always have to give out instructions on where my will is, business and funeral plans, etc. I suppose folks in the West don’t usually do that before hikes — especially thirteeners.

Although I preach the importance of not solo hiking, I was setting out on this journey.solo. I may be Chairman of the Highpointers Club and have one of the most active hiking/camping websites, I hadn’t gone on a camping /backpacking expedition in more than 20 years (I had day hiked all the other peaks.). I had personal goals to accomplish and wanted to get away from the technological rut that had be working 60 hour weeks and weekends leading up to the hike.. And wanted to be cut off from civilization for a couple nights to sort through it. I didn’t want folks knowing that I was such a klutz at camping/backpacking. Besides, the deciding factor for hiking Kings at this team was that the weather would be cool enough that airlines could fly dogs. I wouldn’t really be hiking solo if I had my golden retriever with me.

I almost didn’t make the flight when after being dropped off at the Northwest Airlines counter, I discovered I had left the veterinarian bill of health papers for my golden retriever Zephyr in the car. .Further the counter agent said I hadn’t registered the dog in advance which I thought I had. It looked like the trip was off but they finally relented saying I could go if I paid $275 for him — more than my ticket. If you want something bad enough you will deal with any obstacle.

I was cranky with Newark Airport. Little did I know that three days later hijackers would commandeer a plane from Newark and then be thwarted by hero New Yorkers who fought back and crashed the jet into the mountains near Mount Davis, Pennsylvania. The trip West was uneventful although the Rockies looked scary as they were coated with the season’s first big snow. Everything was white for as far as I could see. Brrrrr. The Salt Lake City Airport had the atmosphere of a small town. The rental cars were just out the door and not a shuttle ride away. It was hard to imagine the world would be converging here for the Olympics. Again there was no premonition of the paranoia that was to come to the city following Sept. 11.

The hike of course was spectacular. Patches of snow were in the shade by the Henry’s Fork Campground. Zephyr went wild at the prospects of rolling in the snow when the day before he had been sweltering in New York. Hikers coming off the trail looked like the walking dead. They had not expected the big snow and were now cursing my website and all guidebooks to the mountain. There shouldn’t have even been the hint that Kings could be climbed in a day. They did have what practical piece of advice — the Painter Basin is probably a better jumping off spot for your summit day rather than Dollar Lake (8 mile round trip vs. 15 mile round trip).

I got my wish for being alone and cut off. There were only two other tents at Dollar Lake. On my summit day, I did encounter or see anybody on Kings Peak until I met a soloist getting ready to set up in the Painter Basin. I thought it was a sort of good omen that all the stars in the skies seemed to form crosses. The morning of Sept. 11 was cloudy. I had not changed my watch to mountain time. It made getting an early start easy. When I started down the trail I almost felt decadent since my watch showed it was 8:30 a.m. although it was 6:30 a.m. locally and the sun had even rose. Buffalo watched across the Henry Fork meadow. It was cloudy. About 9 a.m. by my watch, the sun rose and the clouds broke. Talk about omens. Kings Peak glowed with the sun. I thought how lucky I was to see this. I had never seen any photos of Kings Peak at sunrise. Little did I know that while I was snapping photos of this handsome scenes, planes were crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Roger records the sunrise on Kings Peak on the fateful date, September, 11, 2001.

I was to get that news just as I returned to the trailhead about 2:30 my time. A fellow highpointer from California had written a greeting in the register. A man walked up to me and asked how long I had taken to go to Kings Peak. Then came those horrible words. “Then, I guess you probably don’t know we’ve been attacked.” I thought it was some perverse Utah wilderness joke you tell folks who have spent three days in the backwoods. This was followed. “The World Trade Center in New York City is gone and they’ve attacked the Pentagon.” This was a much too specific joke. Then came. “Some of the kids watched it on television.”I can’t say that I collapsed. But I couldn’t stand either. I took a knee with my first comment, “I’m from New York City.” A lot rushed through my head. I didn’t do much in the two big towers but I did a lot of business in the surrounding buildings. If the the two hours came down then it had to affect those buildings too. “What time did this occur?” Then came the horrible news. These people truly were trying to kill people. The man was a teacher who was accompanying a group of Mountain View, Wyoming, High Schoolers to the trailhead for a picnic. During the conversation Zephyr went off to chase balls from the highschoolers. I tried my cell phone which is actually getting a signal at the trailhead but was getting a busy signal in New York. The teacher urged me to listen to the news with the driver on the school bus. I couldn’t do anything for a while. I couldn’t put my pack in the car and just sat for what seemed like forever. I finally wandered to the school bus. The newscasters on the radio were unfamiliar. But hearing it being discussed in such detail gave the sickening feeling that it was indeed real. The driver mentioned that another plane had gone down “somewhere in New Jersey.” They weren’t talking about this on the radio and somehow I held out that things still might be exaggerated a bit. That plane was of course the one that crashed near Mount Davis in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. The bus driver noted that all the government offices were closed. “I don’t know why they would close the BLM office here,” she noted. It helped sitting in the bus talking the driver. It helped talking to the teacher. It helped watching the high schoolers play ball with my dog.

Eventually, I got the strength to drive on to the next step. I wrote a comment in the register, “What have they done to my city?” I will always be grateful to the kindness shown by high school class of Mountain View. I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had gotten the news cold by just turning on the radio. As I drove back to the Interstate, the all rock radio station from Evanston, Wyoming, was now all news from the AP although since they broke with a hard rock station i.d. Flags were already flying in the streets of Mountain View and were already a half mast.

I drove back to Evanston, Wyoming, while I debated whether I would attempt to fly back to New York from Salt Lake City when the airlines were permitted to fly again or drive back to New York City. I knew things were going to calm down eventually. Thoughts of taking advantage of the break to go on to Borah or back to Boundary Peak danced in my head. It’s a big deal for me to get acclimated to the mountains. Now that I did it, it would have been awfully tempting to keep on going. Conflicting these impulses were concerns over whether the airlines who would have their hands full would want to put with the aggravations of flying my dog. And there were my day job responsibilities which include some disaster responsibilities.

I checked into the Motel 6 where I stayed before beginning the hike because they permitted dogs to stay. Then it became real as I saw my television coverage. I made the phone calls to friends and family. All were safe if shaken. Then came the horrible images as I watched the television news coverage for the first time — the shots over and over and over of the planes hitting the towers from every angle…the collapse. In Evanston, I logged onto the Internet at the Public Library. The collapse was already being discussed on the Highpointer Forum under the topic “NYC ‘Highpoint’ destroyed.” Dave Covill and John Mitchler had were among the first to send email in what was to become a torrent of mail from friends and family I hadn’t heard from years. With all the hub bub, things in Evanston were reassuringly “normal.” The local Wal Mart was busy putting up Halloween pumpkins. Folks still walked their dogs along Bear River Park with the view of Unita Mountains in the background. The elk bugled and the bison roamed. If I wanted, I could have thumbed my nose at Utah liquor laws at the drive through liquor store across the road here in sin city, Wyoming. I eventually got through to friends and family. It appeared that my inner circle was safe.

On Sept. 12, I heeded the call of duty rather than adventure and set out to drive back to New York along I-80. The Wyoming Highway Patrol picked me for going 86 mph. After seeing my New York City license, he apologized for stopping me and sent me on my way.

I stopped at the Kimball, Nebraska, Chamber of Commerce, to discussion an issue about maintenance of the Panorama Point trail. Flags were flying and “God Bless America” was on the signs. The Chamber was closed with a note saying they were attending a funeral. When I last visited Kimball I had missed Gotte Park with its shell of an obsolete Titan I nuclear missile (locals call the town “Missile Center USA” because of the 200 ICBM missiles in the immediate area). It seemed ironic as this war begins with a foe we were not certain of that a nuclear missile was now the home for pigeons. Yet this was Nebraska and Kimball’s “Big Red” football team was practicing next door. Zephyr chased the pigeons and thrilled at the well maintained grass in this arid corner. Zephyr was of course to prove a spectacular companion. It kept things in perspective knowing that every hundred we would stop at a rest area for a long (rest areas on the Interstate all had spectacular spacious areas to exercise dogs). I intended to visit Hawkeye Point — a place I hadn’t visited since being there with my parents in the early Sterler Days in 1972. But the prospects of a 340 mile roundtrip side trip off I-80 from Omaha was too much.

I visited my 89-year-old Aunt in northern Missouri for couple nights along with my fourth grade teacher — a relationship that had blossomed after we exchanged pictures of our dogs at Christmas. As I drove, the attack seemed remote. That changed dramatically almost the moment I crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey on Sept. 16 with High Point and the Delaware Water Gap towering to the north. Flags were flying on every overpass. Cars sped wildly about with flags flying (one of which was to sideswipe my van the following day). It looked like the photos of the liberation of Kuwait City.

The WTC, the usual greeting to NYC, on I-80 was no where to be seen. The Empire State Building eventually loomed ahead. And just as I reached the bluff of the Hudson there was the forlorn downtown skyline still smoldering. A sickening green-brown cloud hung in the air. It looked like a volcano downtown — like when the Mount St. Helens summit had blown away and left a smoldering hole. Men with machine guns and army fatigues searched the van ahead of me at the Lincoln Tunnel. I was amazed at how fast I could make it through the city streets. I returned to my apartment. My usual hiking companion had brought in the other three golden retrievers. Normally they would mob me, but this time they mobbed Zephyr. It was reassuring. The odor of the WTC was to settle in that night — a conventional acrid burning building odor coupled with smell of wet cement. There were many things to ponder. My office space was to be doubled up with folks from the collapsed 7 WTC. There were so many stories of narrow escapes — along with one or two of unlucky souls being there when they shouldn’t have. Every trip to Ground Zero became a pilgrimage. Jean Trousdale (her daughter Betsy who lives in the metro area had watched the collapse from her office in Midtown office) visited and we made the trip.

There are many tales of what happened during these days. I will always be grateful that I got a such a snapshot of the U.S. from a highpointing perspective. I have higher and harder peaks to climb but I hope that I never have such a tale to repeat. I always ask people what they were doing when they heard the news.

Here’s another highpointing story from Al Akerson of Pasco, Washington, who visited Backbone on the eventful day.

Three days before (Saturday, September 8th) Elaine and I were standing on the top level of a parking garage in Hoboken, New Jersey looking across the Hudson River at the New York skyline, and we pointed out the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, thinking (like everyone else) that they’d be there for ever. On our trip back home, we wanted to pick up the high point in Maryland which we’d missed on our previous trip “East” in 1999 when we picked up Missouri, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

We left our motel in Hagerstown, MD, the morning of September 11th and drove with the radio OFF. We had some difficulty in locating the access road (in West Virginia) to Backbone Mountain, so I flagged down a women who was picking up her mail to ask directions — Turned out we were right across the road from it! She told us about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, but I thought she’d been watching a science fiction movie on TV, and discounted the whole thing.

We hiked up the road and reached the summit (Hoye-Crest) at Noon (EDT) and found the logbook pages torn out and scattered around the area (See pictures). We took each other’s pictures at the summit (first things first, you know) and then pondered what to do with the logbook sheets. They were sopping wet and really needed to be dried out; however, there didn’t seem to be any practical way of accomplishing that so we carefully picked them up and put them back in the mailbox figuring that it would be better than leaving them out to probably blow away after they did dry out.

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