Jay Wiener’s Long and Winding Road Takes Him to 48 Peaks

[Published in Apex to Zenith #51 – Fourth Quarter 2000]

Fit For A King – Jay Wiener on King’s Peak, July 11, 1999

“…my guide Allan was killed in a fall, while we were climbing the Grand Teton together…I needed lots of diversion to recover from that experience.”

An ABC television series of my childhood, The Patty Duke Show, in which the actress played identical teen-aged cousins, began with a musical introduction: “Meet Kathy who’s lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square, but Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights. What a crazy pair!” My journey to 49 of the 50 highpoints has made me feel less like the insular Patty and somewhat as if I have been “most everywhere” like Kathy.

As with so many things in life, my pursuit of highpoints was happenstance and indirect. I was living in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi in the early eighties, somewhat bored and out-of-sync with the remnants of the Jim Crow South. I found a kindred spirit in Virginia Foster Durr, a remarkable Alabamian, old enough to be my grandmother, who had been a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights movement; in fact, the mentor to Rosa Parks. I am probably the only high-point Honor Roll member who got there through political activism.

After becoming close to Virginia, a cousin said that I should meet Virginia’s niece, Kate Durr Elmore, another remarkable woman. Kate regaled me with stories of her years of climbing in the Alps—which sounded like the coolest thing of which I had ever heard. Many summers later, I have beaten Kate at her own game, having climbed 59 of the 63 4000 meter peaks in the Alps. My political involvement has fallen by the wayside. I eagerly pursue endurance sports instead.

Along the way, I moved from Mississippi to San Francisco. I never appreciated before moving what the proximity to major mountains would offer. It allowed me to train and climb peaks closer to home. I have climbed all 15 of the 14,000 foot California peaks, beginning with Mount Whitney in 1991 (two summers after I moved to California).

As I climbed more, I began to read more about mountaineering and travel elsewhere to pursue my passion. In May 1992, I went to Mount Rainier with a friend who wanted to climb it. The following spring (May 1993), we joined other friends and climbed Mount Hood. During August of 1992, I climbed Mount Elbert, when my parents had use of a cousin’s condominium in Aspen. After having done four highpoints without design, my curiosity was piqued to go to the highest point of every state.

Allan Bard, my mountain guide in the Sierra, told me that he thought that there was a book about state highpoints. My buddy — and fellow Highpointer — Ralph Renninghoff joined me at Boundary Peak in 1997, and Mount Humphreys in 1998, and Kings Peak in 1999. Ralph discovered the Highpointers, and its guide to the state highpoints, and shared the information with me. I was “off and running”.

Meanwhile, my guide Allan was killed in a fall, while we were climbing the Grand Teton together, during the Fourth of July Weekend, 1997. I needed lots of diversion to recover from that experience. I made a list of activities to lift my spirits until I moved beyond the trauma. Par-ticipating in cross-country ski marathons and aggressively pursuing highpoints were at the top of my list. Between Memorial Day 1998 and Labor Day Week of 1999, I visited 42 highpoints, reaching my 49th high-point, Mount Mansfield, on September 9, 1999. Along the way, I saw parts of America which I would have otherwise never seen and deepened my apprecia-tion for the beautiful, special, and var-ied country we have.

When I returned from New England in September 1999, Barbara Johnson—my Jackson next-door neighbor who, along with her late hus-band Dr. Sam Johnson, joined my friends and me at a brewpub in Flag-staff (where Barbara, Sam and I were attending the Arizona Opera’s produc-tion of Wagner’s Ring Cycle), immedi-ately after our climb of Mount Humphreys—asked what was the most memorable of the 49 highpoints. I said that Gannett Peak was the toughest on me, because I was out-of-sorts, the Delaware highpoint was the most tedious, because I found visiting the trailer park to be so boring; Mount Marcy was the most unpleasant, because Hurricane Dennis’ aftermath visited the Northeast, it rained end-lessly, and I became soaked to the bone; Mount Elbert was the most enchanting, because my guidebook promised that “everyone and his brother” would be on the mountain, and my friend and I encountered nary a soul from start to finish, on a breathtak-ing day; and Cheaha Mountain was the most special, because I was there while spending Thanksgiving with my family in Montgomery, and everybody with whom I spoke had fond memories of the good times which they had spent there, a ubiquitous experience of a state highpoint, which probably has no equal elsewhere. (Congratulations to the State of Alabama for making its high-point a state park, building a resort there, and encouraging its citizens to visit!).

When I showed my family my guide to the state highpoints while in Montgomery at Thanksgiving 1998, my uncle, Jim Loeb (who is well-read and scholarly but no outdoorsman) was so charmed by the book, particularly the geography and history contained therein, that he said that he would like a copy. It is easy to forget that our pursuit is more than about outdoor types hiking in far-flung places: The core of the Highpointers experience is the thrill of visiting places where we would otherwise not go, learning more about our country, and exposing family and friends to a world of knowledge which our pursuit allows us.

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