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White Butte, Highpoint of North Dakota. Really? More goats?

 White Butte, highpoint of North Dakota.

White Butte, highpoint of North Dakota.

Summit date: August 12, 2016

To get the full context of the title of this blog, first read my post about my climb on Granite Peak and keep in mind I finished that hike only two days before doing this one. The whole thing is quite comical. So yeah, after leaving Granite Peak, I spent the next two nights in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, then swung by White Butte to bag it before heading back to Montana for the highpointer's convention. It's an easy one and can be done in about two hours if you take your time.

The terrain in this area is very weird. It's mostly flat, but then there will be these randomly placed hills, or buttes. While the surrounding land is lush with all kinds of crops, the buttes have an almost badlands feel to them, their slopes eroding to expose the nearly white innards of the butte, leaving their grass covered tops isolated and unusable as farmland. The buttes rise like islands in a vast green sea. 

 Abandoned farm house and windmill

Abandoned farm house and windmill

The trailhead starts right next to the farmer's driveway. This is private property, so every respect should be given. A janky old mailbox is there to collect donations. About two thirds of the route is following a tractor path through farmland. Most of the research I did on White Butte warned of rattlesnakes, so proceed with caution. Luckily I never saw any, but I didn't take any chances. I always hike with my trek poles, only this time I wasn't using them for stability. As I walked through the short grass on the path I waved my poles from side to side in front of me. I figured if there were any snakes my poles would take the hit instead of me. I also tried to walk on grass free sections of the path as much as possible. This was my last big adventure of the week. I didn't want it ruined by a stupid snake bite. I had already had some potentially bad encounters with wildlife at Theodore Roosevelt NP, and I didn't want to add to it. About 50 feet off the trail is an abandoned farm house with a windmill next to it. I would gone over to explore it but I was a little paranoid about the rattlesnakes in the grass so I just checked it out from afar.

About a mile from the trailhead I came to a gate. The butte appears to be fenced off from the surrounding farm land and you have to go through this gate to proceed on the trail to the highpoint. Make sure to close it. It's only a couple hundred yards from this point that you start leaving the farmland and get into the exposed brownish gray rock of the butte. I sort of lost the trail at the base of the butte and had to do some route finding. Once you get past the exposed slopes around the base the vegetation comes back. Some of the shrubs can be thick and ornery, so try not to lose the trail like I did.

 Off trail in the twisted gullies and strange formations at the base of the butte.

Off trail in the twisted gullies and strange formations at the base of the butte.

Eventually I met up with the trail again and finished the short distance to the summit. Total time from trailhead; about 45 minutes. The elevation gain is only about 400 feet, but it's enough for some really nice views. It was a really clear day so the views went for miles and miles. From the summit there is a better sense of what I was describing earlier, how the buttes seem to randomly appear in an otherwise flat-as-a-board landscape.

I played around taking my pictures for a little bit. I didn't spend a lot of time since I wanted to get back to Montana for the convention social that was going on that night. So I packed up and started heading back. This time sticking to the trail. It went through a small grove of trees that I had missed on the way up. I was back down on the flats and through the gate in short order.

I was walking down the tractor path through the fields back to my car when I heard it. It was subtle at first. I couldn't quite place it. I started looking around trying to figure out what I was hearing. I turned around and that's when I saw them. A small herd of domestic dairy goats came up and over a small rise in a field. They came out of nowhere and were coming right for me! I didn't have time to take a video of their approach but I did manage to take enough stills to make a gif, which can be viewed in the gallery below. I think it's actually funnier than a video would've been. 

Just days ago I was living amongst the ever present mountain goats, and now here I was in another state, climbing another highpoint, and interacting with another herd of goats. While the Montana goats didn't shy away from humans (especially if pee was involved), these goats were down right friendly. As a tight group, they came running up to me like I was an old friend. They almost surrounded me. They were curious and checking me out. Maybe they expecting to get fed? I don't know. The whole thing was kind of surreal.

 Some of the locals, with White Butte in the background. 

Some of the locals, with White Butte in the background. 

After mingling with them for a few minutes I wanted to get moving again. So I started slowly walking away from them. They stood there in a group watching me walk away, not moving. Until they did. I got about thirty feet away when they all came running up to me again. They were very cute, but I wanted to get going. I took my trek poles and started banging them together, hoping it would scare them off. It sort of worked. I started moving away again and this time they didn't follow me. They wandered back into the field and disappeared over the same rise they came from. Like that, they were gone. 

A few minutes later I was back at the car. I had to laugh. I seemed to be the goat whisperer that week. At the convention social back in Montana that night I saw some of the guys from the Granite Peak climb and I told them about my second encounter with highpoint goats that week. They thought it was funny as well. Goats; they do make a highpoint more interesting.

Here is a short clip of my encounter with the goats

 

Mount Katahdin, Highpoint of Maine. If At First You Don't Succeed...

 Mount Katahdin, highpoint of Maine. The man on the sign is 'Sniffles', an AT section hiker finishing almost 800 miles of the AT.

Mount Katahdin, highpoint of Maine. The man on the sign is 'Sniffles', an AT section hiker finishing almost 800 miles of the AT.

Failed attempt: July 17, 2013

Successful Summit Date: July 18, 2017

This was a highpoint that ate at the back of my head for four years. The first highpoint convention I attended was in Maine in 2013. I had my hike all scheduled and headed out with some new friends from the convention. We planned on taking the route that would take us over the (in)famous Knife Edge, a nearly mile long ridge with steep drop off the whole way. Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans.

The big thing that killed this attempt was the late start. Baxter State Park runs a tight ship and they control how many people are in the park and when they can be there. Since we were all staying in Millinocket, almost an hour from the trail head, we would have to wait for the rangers to open the main gate, which wouldn't happen until 6:00 a.m. That sounds early, but we were hoping to be on the trail well before that. With the late start we got to Pamola Peak just in time for the midday storms to roll in. When we got to Pamola Peak (at the east end of the ridge) we saw some nasty looking clouds coming in from the west over the summit. Despite being able to see the summit cairn, we made the decision to turn back. I didn't have another chance to attempt it that week, so I returned home having failed to summit Katahdin. For four years I thought about getting back there. It was a bit of a sore spot every time I looked at my map. When the decision was made to hold the 2017 convention in Massachusetts, I knew this was my opportunity. I shall return.

I would take a much different tack this time. Instead of trying to do an eight mile round trip route in one day like before, I would break it up and hike in to Chimney Pond campground for two nights. This would put me just 1.8 miles from the summit. And since I would already be in the park I could start as early as I wanted, with two days to make an attempt. The plan was set. There was only one thing left to do before I hit the trail; drive to New York City to see one of my favorite bands, The Naked And Famous, live in concert. What can I say, I pack a lot in to a vacation.

 The route for my hike in to Chimney Pond campground

The route for my hike in to Chimney Pond campground

So anyway, after arriving at the park I checked in at the gate with the rangers and made my way up to Roaring Brook trail head. This was the end of the road and trail head for several trails leading into the park. One of these is the Helon Taylor Trail, which leads up to the Knife Edge. That's the one our doomed expedition took back in 2013. This time I would be taking the Chimney Pond Trail and not coming back for two days. Once I quadruple checked that I had everything I got on my way. It was getting close to noon and weather was actually nice so far. Either way I wasn't worried about it, I wouldn't be going for the summit until the next day. My pack felt really heavy. I was bringing my tripod and panorama head but other than that I didn't really have any excessive gear. It always takes me a good half mile or so to get settled in to a hike anyway, I guess it was just taking a bit longer this time. Not long after I started I heard the first rumble of distant thunder. It was sunny where I was, so hopefully it would hold off until after I arrived at the campground. 

The trail was somewhat wooded and rocky (though not as rocky as a typical Adirondack trail). There are several landmarks along the way that help break up the hike, such as a stream crossing, trail junctions, and passing a few small ponds. I always find it makes the hike go by faster if there are checkpoints you can use to keep track of distance covered and distance left. One of these checkpoints was Lower Basin Pond. From here I could get my first real view of Katahdin since hitting the trail. It can be seen from outside the park, but the thick canopy prevents any views once you get closer to it. And still with the distant thunder.

 View of Katahdin from Lower Basin Pond

View of Katahdin from Lower Basin Pond

Just up the trail from from Lower Basin Pond is Dry Pond. As the name would imply, it was indeed dry. It looked like a several acre depression full of rocks. I believe it is seasonally filled with water. After passing another trail junction it was just a few more minutes before reaching the campground. Overall the hike in was pretty easy. Not a huge amount of gain and what little there is is mostly toward the end. From Roaring Brook trail head to Chimney Pond campground is about 3.25 miles and it took me about two hours. I wasn't in a hurry and I made a few stops along the way. 

 Lean-to #3 at Chimney Pond, home sweet home for two nights

Lean-to #3 at Chimney Pond, home sweet home for two nights

I stopped by the ranger station to check in, but the ranger was out. I decided to find my lean-to and get set up. No sooner had I found my lean-to and it started to rain. It rained so hard that the trail in front of my lean-to turned into a small stream. It really rained hard for a good 10 to 15 minutes. I was hoping it would hold off until I got to my site, I guess someone was listening. While the rain came down, I got set up. The lean-to was big enough for my two man tent with room to fit another one. This was my first time camping in a lean-to. The obvious advantage is that you are out of the elements a little. I put the tent up but didn't need to put the rain fly over the top of it, though I had it with me just in case. There was an outhouse and a community line to hang food from nearby(because bears).

If you plan on staying at Chimney Pond, or anywhere in Baxter State Park, make reservations as soon as possible. I made mine within days of being able to, which was four months ahead of expected arrival. Baxter SP is notorious for being tight with reservations and access to the park. Maine residents get priority and spaces fill quickly. The fact that I was there from Monday to Wednesday helped avoid the more popular weekend. Don't rely on just showing up whenever and hope to get in, you might be disappointed. Secure a reservation if possible. Visit the park's website here to start planning. 

Once I was settled in I stopped in at the ranger station to let them know I was there. The station is just a dozen yards from the campground's namesake, Chimney Pond which is about 3 to 4 acres in size. The whole of Mount Katahdin, from Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak and over to Hamlin Peak, forms a giant horseshoe shape. It sort of looks like a blown out volcano, not unlike Mount St. Helens, except it isn't a volcano. Chimney pond lies in the center of this horseshoe with stunning views of the eastern slopes of Katahdin. You truly feel surrounded by the mountain.

Back at the lean-to I made some dinner and started getting ready for the next morning's summit attempt. I had been iffy about bringing my tripod. It's not heavy as far as tripods go, but it's still extra weight. And the panorama head is just a small piece of diamond plate steel. Yep, I'm bringing a piece of steel plate with me to hike up a mountain. Katahdin is probably the hardest hike I would consider doing and still bring this stuff. Anything harder and I would just hand hold everything, which I have plenty of practice at.

One set back about my summit plan was the closing of the Dudley Trail, which connects Pamola Peak with Chimney Pond. My original plan was to hike a circuit from Chimney Pond up the Saddle Trail to the high point, across the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak, and then down the Dudley Trail back to Chimney Pond. Unfortunately the Dudley Trail was closed due to damage which meant the circuit was not an option and I would be doing a round trip. I missed out on doing the Knife Edge last time and would most likely not be able to do it this time either. As of this writing (April 2018) the Dudley Trail is listed as closed until further notice. Plan accordingly.

As night set in I tried to get some writing done. I still had an article to write for the Fuze about the Nickelback concert I covered (they were actually pretty good). So I was typing away on my phone's notepad. Not as convenient as my desktop computer back home, but it was working. Surrounded by all this nature and I'm still staring at a screen. Such is modern life. Eventually I laid down to sleep so I could get an early start.

SUMMIT DAY

 My summit route from Chimney Pond. Short but challenging.

My summit route from Chimney Pond. Short but challenging.

I got up at the wee hour of 3:30 in the morning. I wanted to get going before sunrise, which was at 5:00 a.m., and it usually takes me a while to get my stuff together and eat. Once I put my food stuff away and double checked my gear I threw on my headlamp and hit the trail. I would be taking the Saddle Trail from the campground up to the saddle between Baxter and Hamlin, where it hangs a hard left and heads up to the highpoint, Baxter Peak. That was all I planned on, I would assess other options once I was up there. I was determined to make it this time. Getting a much earlier start from a much closer starting point was a huge advantage. I just wanted to beat any afternoon storms. Compared to my 2013 attempt I already had about a five hour head start. 

The first section of trail wasn't too bad. Rockier than the Chimney Pond trail and a little steeper. Where it starts to hit the main slope of the mountain is when it gets interesting. As the big trees start to thin out the brush and shrubs get thicker. And the bugs were coming out as well. I put the head net on for a bit. The steepest section, the slide, is short at only about a quarter mile long but it is almost aggressively steep. Plus it is full of loose rock and poor footing, so take care when climbing it, especially if you're not in front. I was by myself so I didn't have to worry about knocking rocks down on anybody, though I still tried to be careful. 

The good thing about the slide section is that it's above tree line and mostly above the shrubs as well as being nice and wide, which gives you options for picking out a route as you go. In fact, the slide is wide enough that it is visible from at least four miles away. If you take the short nature trail from Roaring Brook trail head up to Sandy Stream Pond you can clearly make out the slide section. The slide also offers you you're first real view of the amazing landscape. I addition to the thick overcast sky, the valleys down below were filled in with fog, and I was in the clear layer in between. The campground wasn't fogged in so it was a nice surprise to see that view. It was pretty surreal.

 View from the slide on the Saddle Trail, with the overcast sky and fog filled valleys set against the rising sun

View from the slide on the Saddle Trail, with the overcast sky and fog filled valleys set against the rising sun

Eventually I made it up the slide to the saddle between Baxter and Hamlin. Up until this point I had no views at all of the western skies. Now that I was up on the table land I had sweeping panoramas to the west, and I didn't like what I saw. Black clouds. Dammit. It's times like this when you have to do some risk assessment and make some decisions. To paraphrase Deadpool, let's pro/con this highpointing thing. Pro: I was only about 3/4 of a mile from the summit with much gentler gain to deal with. I could make it fairly quickly. Con: Getting caught in rain sucks. I've never liked being out in the rain, much less on mountain tops. Pro: Unlike last time, I wasn't dealing with the Knife Edge this time so I would have a fairly safe way off the mountain even if it did start raining and storming. Con: I say fairly safe because that slide section was sketchy enough when it was dry, I'd hate to tackle it when it's raining. As I stood there debating I was also watching the clouds. They seemed to be drifting northeast around the mountain instead of east towards it. That was the decider. I was going for it. 

I didn't waste any time. I got my hustle on and boogied up toward the peak. I barely even stopped for pictures. The whole time I kept an eye on those black clouds. They never seemed to get any closer and continued drifting around the mountain. This was good, but I still didn't trust it. I kept motoring up the mountain. This section is broken up into smaller chunks by two trail junctions that act as those checkpoints I like so much. I could eventually see the summit sign 100 yards ahead. Almost there. And those clouds were holding their course. 

 Me with the summit sign on Baxter Peak

Me with the summit sign on Baxter Peak

Finally made it. I walked up to the sign and breathed a sigh of relief. After worrying about just getting up there all morning, I could now just relax for a bit and take it in. A few yards away was the large summit cairn. In 2013, from Pamola Peak, that cairn seemed tantalizingly close. Almost taunting us to go for it. And now, there I was finally standing next to it. The long wait for redemption was over. 

I got to work setting up my camera and tripod to shoot the panorama. The clouds above and fog below made for some really dramatic views and I wanted to capture them before anything changed. Snacks and rest break would have to wait. As I was shooting I noticed another hiker making his way up the western slope on the Hunt Trail from Katahdin Stream trail head. That section of trail also happens to be the final section of the storied Appalachian Trail, which starts in Georgia and terminates right where I was standing. I wondered if he was a north bound through hiker about to take his final steps after a very long journey. As he made it to the summit sign he hugged it like a long lost lover. I think I had my answer... almost.

I struck up a conversation with him. He went by the name "Sniffles". AT hikers always take on nicknames which become their functioning name while they're on the trail. I found out that Sniffles had started his hike on the New York section of the AT. So a section hiker, not a through hiker. But still, at around 800 miles that's a hell of a section. I took his picture as part of the panorama, viewable at the top of this post. He told me of a couple other guys that were about two hours behind him. I was tempted to wait for them to take their pics as well, but I just didn't trust the weather and wanted to start down sooner rather than later. Sniffles seemed like a cool guy. We chatted for a bit and then he started making his way back toward Katahdin Stream. It was an experience to actually witness an AT hiker takes his final steps on one the most famous trails in the world.

 View from the summit. Chimney Pond is in the bottom middle, the Basin Ponds a little farther back, and then the fog filled lowlands.

View from the summit. Chimney Pond is in the bottom middle, the Basin Ponds a little farther back, and then the fog filled lowlands.

After I took a rest and had something to eat I packed up my gear and got ready to head back down. Had it been a nice day I might have attempted to go out and back across the Knife Edge, but with my paranoia about the weather I quickly took that off the table as an option. The one feature I really wanted to do, other than the summit itself, was the Knife Edge but it just never quite seems to happen. perhaps I'll make it back someday to give it another go. Down I went back to camp.

The slide section was just as sketchy on the way down as it was on the way up. It's steep enough that you have to really control your speed and take measured steps. You can't just go on auto pilot. I met my neighbor from the campground as he was on his way up. The slide feels about four times longer than it actually is. One of my checkpoints was a stream crossing that seemed to mark the bottom of the slide, where the slope really tapered off. Once I was back in the trees it was relatively smooth sailing back to camp. It never did rain, thankfully.

 Sun shining through as clouds roll over the summit. From Chimney Pond.

Sun shining through as clouds roll over the summit. From Chimney Pond.

When I got back to my lean-to I checked the time. It was only 10:00 a.m., not even lunch time yet. I still had one more night in the lean-to and since my objective was complete I had the rest of the day to just hang out at camp and relax. I took a midday siesta, did some more writing, went rock hopping around the shore of Chimney Pond, talked with neighbors. It was just a nice quiet day in the woods.

The weather finally broke a little and became partly cloudy. Nature put on quite a show as clouds started rolling the edge of the mountain, obscuring the view of the summit, with occasional rays of sun poking through. I just sat on the shore of Chimney Pond and watched the spectacle, which was changing by the second. These are the moments us outdoorsy people live for.

It was a good thing I summited when I did. Had I done it later in the day the summit would've been covered in clouds and I wouldn't have seen a thing. It was an awesome show from the campground, but it would've been a white out up top.

My only encounter with the wildlife was with the small furries that can be a nuisance. I had seen rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks within yards of my lean-to at various times. The last thing you want to do is feed them or encourage them in anyway, so I would pick up small stones and throw them near the critters to try and scare them away. They didn't scare easy. As I was trying to scare this one chipmunk, I accidentally got a little too close with my throw and beaned him right in the head. He fell off the back side of the rock he was standing on and all I could see were his four little feet up in the air. Crap! I didn't mean to actually hit him. Now I felt awful. After a minute though, he started to twitch. Suddenly he righted himself and scurried off. Conscience clear.

As night fell the sky cleared up and the stars came out. I got talking with some other people from the campground about space, music, life, that sort of thing. It was a nice end to a rewarding day. The next morning I packed up my lean-to and made my way back toward Roaring Brook.

My 2013 visit taught me a lot of lessons. I wasn't as prepared back then. For one I didn't even have any rain gear with me then. When it started raining I had to borrow a trash bag and make a rain poncho out of it. This time I had a rain coat, rain pants, pack cover, the whole deal. I also wasn't quite prepared for the disappointment of not getting a highpoint. I just assumed I'd get it. It doesn't always work out that way. Now I always have it in my head that just because I try for a highpoint doesn't mean I'll get it. Luckily since then I've gotten Granite Peak and Borah Peak on my first tries, but I also planned for success as much as I could ahead of time. All lessons learned on Katahdin. 

 

Hawkeye Point, highpoint of Iowa. So... much... corn......

 The sunset, and sunrise, at Hawkeye Point, captured over several days.

The sunset, and sunrise, at Hawkeye Point, captured over several days.

Summit Date: July 22 through July 25, 2015

"Iowa has a highpoint?"

That is the normal reaction when I tell people I've done the highpoint of Iowa. To paraphrase Bette Midler; Iowa has a highpoint, it's low but it has one. That's the thing about highpointing that most people don't understand; it's doesn't necessarily mean strenuous hikes and mountain climbing. Sometimes it's about finding that flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. That's a good description of Hawkeye Point. 

 The day I took the bandages off from my collar bone surgery, right before I left for Iowa. No kayaking for me.

The day I took the bandages off from my collar bone surgery, right before I left for Iowa. No kayaking for me.

This was, however, the trip that almost wasn't. My original plan was to leave on July 17th and see the sights on my way to the Iowa highpointers convention which started on the 23rd. This included a two night kayaking trip to Voyageurs National Park and hitting the highpoints of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This came into jeopardy when on July 4th I had a bicycle accident and broke my right collar bone. The first thing I thought of when I broke it was "son of a bitch, I guess I won't be kayaking now." On the 14th, three days before my trip was originally to start, I had surgery to repair it. A metal plate with eight screws was installed onto the collar bone. While the surgery was a complete success, I still had to let it heal. It would be a couple months before I was back to 100%, so I had to rework the itinerary, since kayaking was out of the question. While I had some use of my arm again, I still couldn't even put on a t-shirt. I now planned on leaving on the 21st, the day I took the bandages off. And I decided to scrap the trip to Voyageurs and the Minnesota highpoint all together, and I would be hitting the Wisconsin and Michigan highpoints on the way home instead. I could shift my car at least, so I was good for a road trip. 

So on the 21st I set out for the convention. The good thing was it was super easy to get to. Although the convention was all about the highpoint of Iowa, the host hotel was actually just over the border in Worthington, Minnesota. Both Worthington and my hometown of Syracuse are serviced by US Route 90. All I had to do was hop on the thurway and drive west for a day, and the hotel was just off the exit. I saw a bunch of familiar faces at the hotel. This was my third convention so I was starting to make some acquaintances. Plus, being the third year in a row of showing my panorama photographs, I've made a bit of a name for myself. I'm the 'picture guy'. 

I got checked in, said hello to a few friends, and grabbed a bite to eat. I was only at the hotel for the night before moving down to the campground across from the highpoint for the rest of the convention. I headed out for my first visit to Hawkeye Point. It is only about 15 minutes south of Worthington. As I approached from the north, I recognized the silo from the pictures I had seen. It stood atop a subtly sloped mound off the side of Route 60. To call it a hill would be very generous. Like I said, its a flat spot that's not quite as flat as the other flatness around it. I parked at the campground across the street (where I would be spending the rest of the week) and walked over to the highpoint. From the end of the driveway (the de facto trailhead) to the marker was only about 50 yards. The summit consists of a small concrete platform covered in mosaic, a bench, and mileage marker signs for all the other highpoints. The view from the summit is surprisingly not corn. It's mostly soy fields, although corn can be seen in the distance. I guess they didn't want to block what view there was by seven-foot corn stalks. I took the shots I needed for a panorama, and started formulating what I wanted to show with this highpoint, photographically speaking.  

 Hawkeye Point, the highpoint of Iowa. Just to the left of the silo in case it wasn't obvious.

Hawkeye Point, the highpoint of Iowa. Just to the left of the silo in case it wasn't obvious.

 The view from my campsite across the street from the highpoint because of course it's corn.

The view from my campsite across the street from the highpoint because of course it's corn.

Normally when I shoot a highpoint, it's kind of an in-and-out operation. I don't normally plan for the time of day that I'm going to be there, and I don't usually have the luxury of being able to hang around for days on end to shoot it at different times of day. I have revisited some highpoints, but it was years in between visits. Hawkeye Point was different though; I was going to be literally camped out across the street from it for three and a half days. From my campsite to the summit was about a two minute walk. I would have unfettered access to it whenever I wanted. so my plan was to shoot it at different times of day and create one panorama that transitions between the different times of day as you move from left to right through the image. Not an original idea, but not a common one either and one that I've always wanted to try. The resulting image is at the top of this post. I wound up using only two of the pans that I shot, one sunrise and one sunset. I never know how these things will turn out until I get them on the computer. I also had one other idea...  

At one of the club socials I approached the convention organizer Jim Sutton about doing a special group portrait. At every convention there is a tradition called the watermelon social, dating back to the first convention. Everyone in attendance gathers at, or near, the highpoint and they carve up dozens of watermelons. It's a delicious, sticky feast. So while everyone was there I wanted to get them all lined up in a circle surrounding the highpoint marker. It was flat and open and easily accessible. Of the highpoints that I've been to, Hawkeye Point is one of the few that could actually accommodate such a photo with so many people. Jim thought it would be interesting. Excellent. In a few days I would be taking the largest group portrait I'd ever shot. For being such a non-dramatic highpoint, Hawkeye Point was certainly presenting some creative opportunities that many other highpoints couldn't offer.

Some video during a Hawkeye Point sunrise...

So while I waited for the watermelon social on Saturday to roll around I continued shooting the highpoint. I would end up taking six panoramas of the highpoint at different times of day over the course of a few days. As my plan was to blend these together into one image, I needed to make sure my tripod was in the exact same spot every time, facing the same direction, and that I turned the camera by the same number of degrees from the same starting point every time. Any deviation would just make the photoshop work that much harder. I took photos of the set up with my cell phone so I could get it back in the same spot every time. 

 At the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

At the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota.

I also explored the area a little bit. On the Friday morning I headed west. Hawkeye Point is located in close proximity to two tri-state points. The first one I went to was the tri-point of Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. As I've mentioned, this area is very flat. Since there are no geographic features to go around, the roads here are straight as an arrow for miles and miles. A map of the area just looks like somebody made a reference grid and forgot to put roads on it. But those grids ARE the roads. It was a 43 mile drive and I only turned my steering wheel three times. The tri-state marker was on the corner of an intersection of some rural roads. A simple marker surrounded by farmland. 

The next tri-point was Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota near Sioux City. The drive to this one was a little more interesting as the route followed the Big Sioux River and was a little more scenic and curvy in spots. The tri-point was located at the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers and was part of a housing development called Dakota Dunes. I actually have a separate blog post about this tri-point that you can read about here. After experiencing one of the hottest locations I've ever visited (and I lived in Texas for five years), I headed back to Hawkeye Point. I stopped at a Subway for lunch and a much needed air conditioned break. Holy crap was it hot that day.

Saturday morning came and as I was getting cleaned up for the day at the campground, I decided to see how my shoulder was doing. I hadn't worn a t-shirt in about a month and I now had a crisp, new, bright yellow convention t-shirt that I wanted to wear since there was a bunch of convention stuff happening all day, including the pancake breakfast, watermelon feast, and the banquet. I managed to wriggle into it without too much discomfort. Two days earlier, on Thursday morning, when I was installing my photo exhibit at the convention headquarters, I was heavily favoring my left arm while putting the display panels together. My range of motion still had a ways to go before it was normal again, but I was definitely seeing rapid improvement.

With my ability to wear t-shirts restored, I headed over to the traditional Saturday morning pancake breakfast. This year it was held at Central Park in Sibley, just down the road from Hawkeye Point. The griddle they used was actually kind of interesting. It was circular, about four feet across, and slowly turned. The person cooking could just stand in one spot and eventually everything would come around to the front. I sat with my friend Rick and some others. As we sat around enjoying breakfast and swapping stories, a gentleman involved with the county fair told us about an exhibit at the fair grounds across town. It was a model train display. It was in the basement of one of the buildings there. He asked if we would be interested in a private tour of it. Having had a model train as a kid I was definitely interested. A small group of about 6 or 8 of us finished up breakfast and headed across town.

 A small fraction of the model train display at the county fair grounds.

A small fraction of the model train display at the county fair grounds.

This model train display was amazing.  I've always been fascinated by models and miniatures, and this was one of the biggest model train displays I'd ever seen. It took up pretty much the entire foot print of the building and took some time to really take it all in. So many trains. The little kid in me was definitely geeking out. There were multiple towns, industrial areas, mountains, canyons, forests, tunnels, bridges. The detail on everything was incredible. It was obvious that many years of collecting, curating, designing, and construction had gone into this. 

Later in the afternoon it was time for the festivities at the highpoint. Most of the attendees, over 100 people, started gathering at the highpoint for the watermelon social. Dozens of the juicy melons were carved up and eaten. Because the highpoint is essentially flat and used to be a farm, there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out. There were also lots of activities. A rock climbing wall was erected with two auto belays. Wagon rides for families. A mini train pulled by a four wheeler for the kiddies. A local tv news crew even showed to cover the event.

Once the watermelon feast had subsided, I started to think about my panorama. I tend to be very soft spoken, so Nikki Hemphill, who isn't afraid to motivate people, was enlisted to help round up people for the photo. I got my camera gear set up on the marker in the same spot as all the others I had been shooting, just in case. Once everyone had gathered at the marker I started directing them into a loose circle around me. Then I started shooting. I made two passes just to be sure. And with that, I finished taking the single biggest group portrait of my career! As people were dispersing, however, I suddenly realized I hadn't taken one with me in it. I figured it would have been too much bother to get everyone back, so I just used the timer on my camera to take one of myself next to one of the mileage marker signs. I'd just photoshop myself into the shot later. All my panoramas are heavily photoshopped anyway to get all the individual shots together.

 Convention attendees at Hawkeye Point, Iowa. The panorama makes it seem like they are standing in a straight line, when they are in fact encircling me.

Convention attendees at Hawkeye Point, Iowa. The panorama makes it seem like they are standing in a straight line, when they are in fact encircling me.

This would also be the last of the panoramas on this trip that I would shoot of Hawkeye Point as I would be heading back up to Worthington for the rest of the day for the banquet and then making my way east toward home after that. Once the crowd had left, I went back to my campsite and got everything squared away. It was very calm and relaxing at that campground and I almost hated to leave, but it was time to move on.

I had some time to kill in the afternoon before the banquet and decided to check out Worthington. It’s a decent sized town (big enough to host our convention). It sits on the lovely Okebena Lake. The business district has a fair amount of little boutique shops. The thing that surprised me though was the food. The banquet was still several hours away and I wanted to get something to eat. I came across a little Mexican restaurant. I lived in Houston, Texas for almost five years, which is flush with amazing Mexican food so I was somewhat skeptical. Mexican food in rural Minnesota? We’ll see about that. I walked into the place and immediately noticed I was the only white person in there and a soccer game on a Spanish language channel was on the TV. Good signs. The menu was fairly extensive, with every variation on traditional Mexican dishes. I got the enchiladas with beans and rice. It was really good! I would’ve held it up to anything I had in Houston. So there it was, authentic Mexican food in middle America.

Eventually the banquet got under way at the Comfort Suites conference center, with all of us highpoint nerds getting together to celebrate our admittedly weird hobby. I sat with my friend Kenny, who I had met at the Maine convention two years prior. Being the third convention I'd been to, the banquets had a familiar cadence to them. After the delicious buffet dinner, our attention turned to the head table where various speakers addressed the crowd, including host Jim Sutton who thanked everyone for coming and recapped the week's highlights. One of my favorite parts of the evening is the superlatives. Responding by standing at their table, the MC asks who has been to all 50 highpoints, then 45, 40, 35, etc, the oldest attendee, the youngest, who came the farthest, and so on. Then the podium gets turned over to the host of next convention to give everyone an update on what to expect. In this case it was John Mitchler talking about the Montana 2016 convention (read about my Granite Peak adventure here). We all voted on where the convention will be in 2017 (we picked Massachusetts, to be hosted by Mick Dunn). Finally, the evening ended with the premiere of the documentary "American Highpoints" which featured several club members and chronicled a hike up Wyoming's Gannett Peak. 

I said farewell to my friends and acquaintances, dismantled my display panels, packed up the car and hit the road. The goal was to get as far northeast as I could before getting too tired. My next stops the following day were a quick trip to Minneapolis to see the Mall of America an then the highpoints of Wisconsin and Michigan. Then home to Syracuse. It certainly didn't go as planned, but my trip to the highpoint of Iowa was definitely eventful and I got to experience a little corner of America that I wouldn't have gone out of my way for otherwise. And of course, that's one of the best thongs about highpointing.

 

Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. I have seen the top of the mountain, and it is good.

 Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. 2016.

Granite Peak, highpoint of Montana. 2016.

Summit Date: August, 9, 2016

On Tuesday, August 9th 2016 I summited my first big western highpoint: Granite Peak, Montana. It is one of a dozen states in the western U.S. whose highpoint has one or more of the following: remote access, long approach hike, high altitude, and lots of elevation gain. Granite happens to have all those features, along with technical rock climbing just for good measure. It is generally considered the second hardest highpoint after Denali (depending on who you ask). 

I first started thinking about Granite Peak at the 2014 Tennessee highpointers convention. That was when it was voted as the sight of the 2016 convention. I knew I would have to get in shape and do some training for this one. Starting in the winter of 2015-2016 I made a point to start training.  I got out hiking and snowshoeing when I could, regardless of how cold it got. In January of 2016 I joined an indoor rock climbing gym to get prepared for the technical rock climbing portion of the hike. 

 

PRE-TRIP - TEST CLIMBING AND GEAR CHECK

After spending Friday night in Yellowstone National Park, I drove to Sunlight Sports on the main street in Cody, Wyoming. Here, I met the Kenny, the manager of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and the other climbers that I would be spending the next few days with. Nadav would be our lead guide and my fellow climbers were Roger, Laurence, Marc, Al, and Chris. Today's main objectives were to do a gear check and to do some climbing outside of town to test everyone's ability. 

Once we had all been introduced and gotten an overview of the next couple of days we headed west of town a little bit where there was a popular rock climbing spot just off the road. Since the last section of the hike was technical, the guides wanted to make sure everyone was comfortable with the ropes, harnesses, and techniques we would be using. While I was use to the climbing part, and had a handful of experiences with top roping, one technique that was new to me was short roping. This is where a guide is at one end of a rope while two climbers are at the other end with only about six or seven feet of rope between them. The idea is that the guide climbs a pitch first, secures the rope at the top, then belays the two climbers as they make their way up. I passed this part with flying colors. I've always loved climbing stuff and going to the rock wall really refined that skill set. 

Back in town we met up at Sunlight Sport for our gear check. The guides want to make sure we had everything we would need to stay safe and warm over the next couple of days. Unfortunately my gear was a little lacking. Nadav suggested three things; an extra top layer such as a fleece jacket, a warmer sleeping bag, and a different head lamp. My sleeping bag was only a 40 degree bag and Nadav said I would need at least a 20 degree bag. The headlamp I brought with me was designed to clip onto the brim of a baseball cap, not a climbing helmet. I needed one with an elastic band. And the fleece was just for added warmth in addition to the layers I already brought. I would also need a pair of warm gloves.

So between Sunlight Sport and the Sierra Trading Post down the street I found everything I needed. I was hoping to get a synthetic bag since it would be lighter and more compact, but they are a lot more expensive. I went with a down bag, which just barely fit in the bottom of my pack. It was weird to be preparing for such cold temperatures since Cody, WY in the middle of August was absolutely sweltering hot, but I trusted the advice that Nadav had given me. That's why I hired a guide. I had never done anything like this before.

With everything all set i headed up to Red Lodge, MT to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I would be meeting up with the other climbers in the morning to drive up to the trailhead.

 

DAY ONE - TRAILHEAD TO FIRST CAMP

After joining Roger, Al, and Chris for breakfast in town, we met up with Laurence and Marc to start the drive to the trailhead, over an hour away. Half the drive was on dirt roads, but the scenery was amazing. We soon arrived at the trailhead. There was a fair amount of cars parked. Due to the convention, the amount of highpointers heading to the summit was much higher than usual, plus Mystic Lake is a popular day hike in general. Luckily we all found spots. We met Cat, the other guide who would be leading us along with Nadav. We all got our gear together and were given our share of the group gear and food. My pack was a reasonable 33 lbs. I had trained for up to 50 lbs, so this was already a good start. Some gear was already up at the camps, which saved us a few pounds here and there. We made use of the last restroom we would see for several days and finally hit the trail.

It had so far been a nice day. Partly cloudy to start, but those clouds became increasingly more gray the further we went. We made our way up the valley leading to Mystic Lake. Even surrounded by all that rugged nature, there were still signs of civilization, mostly in the form of the pipeline coming from the dam at Mystic Lake, which ran along the valley wall opposite us, and the odd pump house. Eventually we came up and over the dam at Mystic Lake. The view form the dam overlooking the lake is spectacular. Nestled in valley, the long narrow lake stretched out before us. A lot of day hikers were already there, hanging out on the dam and beaches on the south shore. We had no time for lounging about however, as we wanted to get up to first camp and get settled in before sunset. 

 Taking a break on the switchbacks, with Mystic Lake in the background.

Taking a break on the switchbacks, with Mystic Lake in the background.

Once past Mystic Lake, we approached a well known part of the trail simply called the Switchbacks. There are over two dozen switchbacks from bottom to top. This section was the part I was most concerned about heading into the trip because it was so steep. It gains several thousand feet in less than a mile. As it turns out though, it was one of the easier parts of the hike precisely because there were so many switchbacks. The switchbacks add a lot of distance, but they also make it feel like a pleasant hike instead of a grueling climb. Not long after starting the switchbacks those gray clouds that had been gathering finally started raining. It wasn't bad, but everyone stopped to put on their rain gear. Inclement weather was to be expected, especially in the afternoons. Half way up the switchbacks we stopped for a break and to take off our rain gear as it had stopped. Shortly before we reached the top of the switchbacks the rain gear was back out and it was raining again. It was also starting to cool off considerably, so the layers were mostly staying on the the rest of the day.

Eventually we made it to the top of the switchbacks and onto the ominously named Froze-to-Death Plateau. Thankfully it never lived up to it's name. From here it was still over a mile to the campsite. It was a relatively easy mile as the terrain was easy hiking with no trees and few rocks, and what little elevation gain there was was gentle and gradual. Once we reached the campsite everyone dropped their packs and took a well appreciated break.

Once camp had had been set and all our stuff put away, we were free to just hang out and take in the beauty of the mountains. The camp site was only a couple hundred yards from the edge of the plateau so the views across the valley were spectacular. The overcast sky had started to break and the sun came back out just in time for evening magic hour. Clouds still hung over the plateau but the sun was shining brightly above the horizon which made for a stunning display as the clouds above us and the barren terrain around us was bathed in warm, orange light.

 Dinner time at first camp.

Dinner time at first camp.

With nature putting on a show, we gathered around the "kitchen" (a small windless depression near the tents) as the guides cooked up a delicious one pot meal that we all scarfed down while we talked about the day's hike and what to expect tomorrow. Once the sun set it started getting dark and cold quickly. I was glad for that extra layer! We cleaned up from dinner and got into our tents for the night. I was paired with Roger as a tent mate. He would also be my climbing partner on summit day.

 

DAY ONE VIDEO: Mystic Lake, the Switchbacks, Froze-to-Death Plateau

DAY ONE PHOTO GALLERY: Luckily, Laurence was also a photographer, so I had plenty of images of myself that weren't selfies. He was nice enough to let me use the images, so they're mixed in with mine (his contain his copyright stamp, and also have me in them).

 

DAY TWO - FIRST CAMP TO HIGH CAMP

I was up with sun, as I usually am on vacation. Before breakfast I was wondering around camp when I noticed down by the edge of the plateau a pair of mountain goats. This was the first I'd seen them on the hike so far. I wanted to get a closer look, as seeing mega fauna like this in the wild can be rare and so I wanted to take advantage of the situation. I let the guides know where I was going and headed down to the edge.

 Up close and personal with some mountain goats. Aren't they adorable?

Up close and personal with some mountain goats. Aren't they adorable?

In contrast to the dry, rocky terrain that covered most of the plateau, the stretch from camp to where the goats were was soft and grassy, dotted with small streams and deep puddles. All the water was from snow melt from the snowfields uphill from our camp. After a while of zigging, zagging, and hopping around water features, I got down near the edge of the plateau and in close proximity to the goats. They didn't seem too bothered by my presence. For a while we just stood there, maybe a dozen yards apart, checking each other out. They seemed just as curious as I was. 

After spending some quality time with them I let them get back to the business of grazing, and I made my way back to camp, happy knowing that I got in my mountain goat sighting for the trip. When I got back to camp I told Nadav about my lucky encounter. He told me that the goats aren't all that rare and that we'd probably see more of them. He also told us that they have a taste for... human urine. Sure Nadav, whatever. I bet you tell that to all the newbies.

Once breakfast was finished we packed up camp and off across the plateau. Today would be the "easiest" day of the trip. It was only about 2.5 miles to the next campsite with not much in the way of any major elevation gain. There really aren't any defined trails on the plateau, and the Granite Peak summit can't really be seen from the northern half of the plateau or used as a landmark until later, so orienteering is a very good skill to have up there. Of course we had guides who already knew where they were going so that made it a lot easier. 

After leaving camp and getting onto the higher parts of the plateau the terrain became much more rocky, with seemingly never ending scree and talus fields. While not difficult per se, every step does take concentration and becomes mentally tiring after a while. There would occasionally be patches of grassy, relatively rock free ground which made for a welcome respite from the talus fields.

 Endless fields of talus of the way to high camp. The summit of Granite Peak can now be seen in the distance.

Endless fields of talus of the way to high camp. The summit of Granite Peak can now be seen in the distance.

About three quarters of the way through the day's hike we took a break. Nadav addressed the group about a few items. We needed to decide where we wanted to make camp. There was a choice of two designated areas. One would make for a longer summit day hike, but a shorter hike out on the last day. The other would be less distance to the summit but longer hike out. We opted for the closer site which had the shorter hike out on the last day.

The other item was Nadav wanted to see how we were all doing and how we felt about the next day's summit bid. I was feeling great and was super confident about the technical climbing at the summit. I was a go. Most everyone else was also feeling good. Chris said he was opting not to go with us to the summit. He had some issues with the climbing session back in Cody and wasn't feeling really confident about how much technical stuff was going to be involved. He would be staying at camp while the rest of us attempted the summit. It's very important to know your limits, what you're comfortable with, and to know when not to risk something that you aren't sure about. 

We reached the high camp and set up the tents. This would be home for the next two nights. Not long after we set up camp, the goats showed up just like Nadav had predicted. This time there was about a half dozen of them. Never being intrusive, just kind of hanging out on the outskirts of camp. And when one of us would go outside of camp to take a piss, the goats would follow. When we were done and walked away, the goats moved in and started licking the pee off the rocks. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own two eyes. They do in fact have a taste for human urine. We figured it is probably due to the salt content, but still. Isn't nature amazing?

 View from high camp on the plateau.

View from high camp on the plateau.

As entertaining as the goats were, I couldn't help but notice as the evening wore on that I was starting to feel not right. I had a mild headache and my stomach was slightly uneasy. It wasn't enough to put me down or anything, but I was worried about it being signs of altitude sickness. This was the highest I'd ever been for a sustained period and so wasn't sure how I would react. It was mild, but with the climb the next day I didn't want it getting any worse. I let Nadav and Cat know how I was feeling. They said to make sure I stay hydrated and make sure I ate dinner, since I would need the energy whether I climbed the next day or not. 

I was able to eat dinner, if not quite as much as I normally would've, and took it easy for the rest of the night. It was a bit cooler at high camp than it was the night before. Middle of August and I was wearing four layers. It actually was better than that oppressive heat from two days prior in Cody. We had a very early start the next day so we started packing it in to try to get a decent night's sleep. The amazing mountain view, and the ever present goats, would have to wait 'til tomorrow. There was climbing to get ready for.

 

DAY TWO VIDEO: Froze-to-Death Plateau, mountain goats

DAY TWO PHOTO GALLERY:

DAY THREE - SUMMIT DAY

To say we got up at the crack of dawn would be misleading; it was way before that. It was still dark out when we all started spilling out of our tents. Once our summit bags were packed, it was a simple breakfast of bagels, tea, and oatmeal. Then we all geared up and set off across the plateau toward Granite Peak, which with any luck, we would be summiting by lunch time. Thankfully, I was feeling much better than the night before. The headache and queasiness were gone. I was feeling good and ready to get going. Chris saw us off and wished us luck. We headed off into the darkness with only our headlamps lighting the way.

This first part of the hike from high camp to the saddle was fairly mundane. Since it was dark, there was nothing to look at except the person in front of you. It was simply one foot in front of the other, navigating the ever present scree fields. At the edge of the plateau we stopped for a short break. Al had fallen quite far behind, and even after our break he was still out of sight. It was decided to continue on. Al was with one of the porters who was trained and equipped to lead him up the technical part, so at least he wasn't alone. We later found out that he aborted his summit attempt before hitting the saddle.

The hike from the edge of the plateau down to the saddle was a drop of about 700 feet. The slope wasn't to bad, but we would have no idea of how exposed this slope was until later when it was light out and we could actually see it.

 Checking out Granite Peak in the first light of morning from the saddle.

Checking out Granite Peak in the first light of morning from the saddle.

When we reached the saddle we took another break. The saddle was the low point of a knife edged ridge connecting the plateau with the summit area. The first wisps of dawn were finally starting to break up the darkness and we were getting our first glimpses of the summit. It was still fairly dark, but we could see the summit looming ahead of us. Even with my camera, which is excellent in low light, it was still hard to get a decent picture of it. It honestly didn't look that far away (they never do).  We were also starting to get a look at the slope we had just come off of. It looked way crazier now that we could see it than when we were on it.

Our break at the saddle was long enough where once we started hiking again we no longer needed our headlamps, as the orange and red hues of sunrise were appearing over Tempest Peak. This portion of the hike, from the saddle to the summit preparation stop, was one of the sketchiest parts of not just summit day but of the entire trip. We had been dealing with scree and talus for much of the trip, but this section really brought it to a new level. The entire side of the slope was covered in loose rocks often two feet or more in diameter. There was no hiking on autopilot here. Every step had to be carefully measured. Those of us using trek poles not only had to worry about our feet, but we also had to consider where to place our poles with every step. There was almost no exposed solid ground anywhere on this section.

 Shortly after my rock surfing incident. You can still see the terror on my face.

Shortly after my rock surfing incident. You can still see the terror on my face.

About halfway between the saddle and summit prep stop, I had the scariest moment of the whole trip. As I was moving from rock to rock, the next rock in front of me was large (about four feet in diameter), flat on top, and level. It looked stable, or at least I didn't have reason to think it was any more or less stable than any other rock I had stepped on thus far. I made the short hop to it and landed on it with both feet. As soon as I landed the entire rock started tilting and sliding downhill. The motion of it knocked me off my feet and I fell on top of it as it was sliding. My hands went behind me off the trailing edge of the rock. All I could do was look ahead of me at the 1,000 foot slope down to a small lake below. My immediate concern was that my hands would get crushed by smaller rocks following me. Luckily, the rock stopped sliding after only about six or eight feet, and the whole ride only lasted a few seconds, but it was honestly rather terrifying. Once it came to a stop I just sat there for a moment, trying not to think of how truly awful this could have turned out.

Cat was behind me. She didn't witness the slide, but had heard it and saw me still lying on the rock. She made sure I was ok. I could see by the look on her face that what just happened was almost really bad. My heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, I got back up on my feet. I was physically shaking. After a while the adrenaline flushed out of my system and I started feeling normal again. Despite being one of the scarier moments of my life, it actually wan't the worst part of summit day, but more on that later.

After my rock surfing incident, we kept drudging up the talus slope until we finally made it to the summit prep stop. This is the start of the technical climbing section and where the rock becomes nice and stable and doesn't move at all! We would take a break, have some food and water, and relax a little before getting into our harnesses and getting roped up. It was a nice little area; out of the wind, amazing views of the summit and surrounding mountains.

 Taking a break before the final climb to the summit. (photo by Roger)

Taking a break before the final climb to the summit. (photo by Roger)

I found a natural chaise lounge in the rock and vegged out for a bit. No hiking, no backpack, just soaking in the sun and munching on trail mix. Meanwhile, Cat and Nadav were going over their plan of attack for the summit climb. Weather was also a concern. There were some clouds in the distance that had the potential for not being good, but Nadav was confident that we would have plenty of time before any afternoon thunderstorms rolled in.

With that, we started getting ready. We got into our harnesses and split into two rope teams. I was to be short roped to Roger with Nadav as the lead climber/belayer. The other team was Lawrence and Mark with Cat in the lead. Once we were all tied in we headed for the summit. The difference between what we had done up to this point and the relatively short distance we had left was stark. We had a quick descent from the prep area and then a short walk over a small saddle. This trail was on a shelf and plummeted down a very steep slope for thousands of feet. This is where the exposure really started to kick in and the importance of being roped in for protection was evident.

Across the mini saddle, we finally started the technical climbing portion of the trip. This was what I had been training eight months for at the indoor wall and the rock crusher back in Syracuse. I wanted this climbing section to be easy so I could concentrate on just enjoying it. The training paid off since all the climbing felt fairly easy. This was good, since there were plenty of variables I hadn't trained for, such as climbing with a pack, in hiking boots, in the cold, at altitude, with exposure. Even with all those variables it was still fairly straightforward and an amazing experience. 

It took several pitches to get to the top. Each pitch followed the same basic procedure; Nadav would lead climb to the top of the pitch and set the belay, then Roger and I would climb up once Nadav had us securely on belay. Some of the pitches required using anchors, but most were short and easy enough where we didn't need them. Since this was a fairly popular route many of the pitches had webbing in place to set the belay to.

 

SUMMIT CLIMB VIDEO: The following is from my helmet mounted GoPro of the final ascent up the technical portion of the summit climb.

 Climbing up a pitch. I'm in the brown and blue.

Climbing up a pitch. I'm in the brown and blue.

We could usually see Cat's team behind us, although we would loose view of them occasionally. We would wait sometimes so the two teams wouldn't get separated. Since I was the last one on the rope, it was my job to take out the anchors that Nadav had set on a few pitches. We were working quite well together. And my helmet came in handy once. I had stood up into an overhanging rock and hit my head. Because of the helmet I didn't even feel it. I had trained for this at the indoor wall back home and had even recognized a few moves I had done there as i did them on this climb. None of the climbing seemed too difficult. If I had to rate it I'd say most of the pitches were between 5.5 and maybe 5.7. I won't get too detailed about this section, I'll let my video above do the talking. I think it could be easily climbed without ropes, but I wouldn't take the chance. We would later find out that some guy fell a few days prior and died from his injuries. While I am a strong climber, it's not worth the risk. 

After climbing for while, we finally made it to the top! This was it. All the planning, training, expense, effort, it all lead up to this moment. We were at the summit. The view was of course breathtaking. On the side of the summit facing the plateau was a vertigo inducing drop of at least 1,000 to 2,000 feet. We were all still roped in to Nadav and Cat as we made our way over to the summit rock. I was able to get my pictures for my panorama (you can view that at the top of the this post). We took a picture with the four of us posing on the summit.

It really was a great feeling of accomplishment, but we couldn't dwell on it. As Laurence pointed out, we were only half way done. We still had to get back to camp. Big mountains like this are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms, and you don't want to be on an exposed summit when they hit. So after a short break to rest and get some food and drink, we geared up and started the process of down climbing.

On the way up from high camp we had had the whole mountain to ourselves. We didn't see a single other person until we got to the summit, when we met some guys that had come from a different direction. On the way back we started seeing more and more groups heading up. Nadav and Cat commented on how many people there were. Because of the convention a lot of club members (including me and my climbing partners) had scheduled climbs for early in the week. 

 We made it! Roger, myself, Laurence, and Mark on top of Montana. 

We made it! Roger, myself, Laurence, and Mark on top of Montana. 

One group in particular stood out because they were a prime example of what not to do. Sometimes we would have to wait to go down a pitch because another group was coming up. No biggie, you just wait your turn. Well, we waited for the lead climber of one group to get to the top of the pitch so he could set his belay and start hauling up the rest of his team. We waited while he fumbled around with it. Eventually he asked Nadav if he could help. He obliged the man and helped him sort everything out. When he finished, Nadav turned to us and his expression said it all. That guy didn't know what he was doing. And he was the lead climber. This can be so dangerous. That top rope is a literal life line to everyone climbing up. It's sole purpose is to catch you if you slip and fall. If you don't know what your doing with it, someone could get seriously hurt or worse. This isn't the time or place to learn how to do it. What if Nadav hadn't been right there? If you don't know what you're doing, do what I did and hire someone that does.

We eventually made it back to the summit prep area. We took another quick break to rest and get out of our climbing gear. Summit day was divided into two parts; the first part where I felt awesome, and the second part where I felt like crap. Thus began the second part of the day. Once we were packed up and ready to go, we started the hike back across the saddle and over to the plateau. This would again involve a down climb of about 700 feet before going 700 feet back up the other side. As we were heading down to the saddle I started to feel that same feelings as the night before, starting with the dull headache. I tried staying hydrated. I tried ignoring it. But it was always there, slightly distracting at first and gradually getting worse as the day wore on. As I've mentioned, hiking across talus takes all your concentration, and doing it with a nagging headache and a little jolt every time I stepped down to the next rock meant I couldn't rest my brain or get into a flow.

By the time we got down to the saddle I was starting to feel fairly miserable, but I had to keep marching. The comfort of camp wasn't going to get any closer on it's own. It was a 700 foot rise to get back on the plateau, but it felt like 7,000 as we traversed an angle on the talus covered slope. The one cool part about this section of the hike was that we now had a full daylight view of both the summit and the slope we came down from the plateau. It was pitch dark when we did it earlier, but now we could see the full magnitude of it. The slope looks pretty nuts when you can see it. 

I'm sure every experienced hiker is familiar with the idea of false summits, where you spot what looks like a summit but when you reach it you realize there was still a lot more mountain hiding behind it that you still have to go up. Well, the hike back up to the plateau was no different. I spotted a point that I thought was surely the edge of the plateau. Throwing one foot in front of the other, I drudged my way up the slope. My headache was really distracting now. I was taking frequent breaks, which felt good, but only prolonged the climb. I finally reached that point I had been eyeing and found that I was just a little over half way up. The plateau had taken a slight bend here and the rest of the trail had been hidden from view because of it. I just wanted off that damn slope!

 Working our way up the relentless, talus covered slope back up to the Froze-to-Death Plateau.

Working our way up the relentless, talus covered slope back up to the Froze-to-Death Plateau.

Gritting my teeth, I kept on, finally making it up onto the plateau. We had been spread out quite a bit by this point, so everyone regathered for a moment before making the last leg back to camp. I made Nadav aware of my condition. Not that there was a lot to be done, I just needed to stay hydrated and get back to camp so I could rest. It was still about 3/4 of a mile back to camp with a lot of talus still in front of us. At least it was fairly flat now that the damn saddle was behind us. One foot in front of the other...

As I got closer to camp the headache got worse and now the queasiness was kicking in big time. Even though I was now close enough to see the tents clearly, maybe a 1/3 of a mile away, I had to stop. My stomach was not feeling good at all. I bent over, leaning on my trek poles, and closed my eyes, trying to concentrate on making all this crap stop. It finally released and I threw up. It was mostly fluids. So much for staying hydrated. Mark was nearby and checked on me to make sure I was alright. Throwing up did make me feel a little better. The queasiness subsided, but I still had the headache. I mustered up the energy to finish the last little bit back to camp. 

Al, Chris, and the goats were there to welcome back the conquering heroes. Even though camp was only a couple tents surrounded by short rock walls in a barren landscape, it may as well have been a Club Med. Just knowing I was done for the day made me feel better. I checked in again with Nadav and Cat to let them know what had happened. They wanted me to try to get some dinner down so I had some energy, and of course to (re)hydrate. I managed dinner, took some meds, and took it easy. As afternoon turned into evening I felt much better.

 Nature's light show after a long summit day.

Nature's light show after a long summit day.

While we never got hit by the bad weather that was threatening in the distance when we got to the summit prep area, some very gray clouds were now rolling in. Instead of a cold rain, however, we were treated to one the most amazing light shows I've ever seen in nature. The sun, which was now getting low in the sky, was shining through gaps in the clouds and throwing splotches of light on the mountains across from us. The patterns were always shifting and it just kept going for what seemed like an hour, until the sun finally set. And we even got a few snowflakes. We all just stood there watching in awe the whole time. It was really something special.

The goats, however,  didn't seem too fazed by it.

DAY THREE PHOTO GALLERY:

DAY FOUR - HIGH CAMP BACK TO TRAILHEAD

 A leisurely hike down the switchbacks.

A leisurely hike down the switchbacks.

Waking up the next morning I felt so much better. Felt like I had energy again. And it was all literally down hill from here, so any adverse altitude effects should be behind me at this point. We broke down camp, packed up, had breakfast and got ready to hit the trail (or head in the general direction of where a trail would take us had there actually been one). I went to take one last pee before we got going, and of course I wasn't alone. Several goats had followed me and were quite anxious for a little sip. In fact, I had to re-aim in order to avoid peeing on the ringleader's head. Just a few days before I was thinking how lucky I was to have had an encounter with a pair of actual mountain goats. Now I was literally yelling at them to get away from me so I didn't pee on their heads. Certainly makes for interesting stories afterward.

What we had done over two days on the way up we were now going to go down and be back in civilization in time for lunch. As we headed across the plateau we became spread out again. This was par for the course at this point. As long as we could see each other we were good, and on this flat, treeless landscape that wasn't hard to do. We got to the site of first camp, and it seemed a lot longer than two days ago we were there. It was still vacant. It also marked the end of the major talus fields and was much more grassy now. When we got to the edge of the plateau, at the top of the switchbacks, we all stopped and took a break to rest and get a bite. I took my shoes and socks off as I was starting to get a hot spot (pre-blister) on one of my toes. It wasn't bad and luckily it never developed into a blister. 

The switchbacks once again proved to be way easier than I had imagined. Going downhill isn't necessarily easier than going up, but the switchbacks were at just the right angle so I could really motor down them without my speed getting away from me. Laurence and I hiked together for a little while, stopping to take photos of each other as we came down the trail. That's what happens when two trained photographers get together. 

Once at the bottom of the switchbacks, we took another break near the shore of Mystic Lake. It was a really beautiful spot and I can see why so many people make the day hike up there. At this point, Al was starting to have some issues with his pack weight and asked if we would mind each taking a little bit of his stuff. So I took a few items to help out. Then we started the final march from Mystic Lake back to the trailhead. 

 One last group shot at Mystic lake. Al, Nadav, Chris, Mark, Roger, myself, Cat, and Laurence

One last group shot at Mystic lake. Al, Nadav, Chris, Mark, Roger, myself, Cat, and Laurence

As great as hikes like this are, it always feels good to get back to the car. And actual restrooms. With no goats! It was just a pit toilet with no running water, but still. I weighed my backpack with my luggage scale and it turns out that with the camp gear and Al's stuff it came in at 34 lbs, one pound heavier than when I started. Figures. The adventure wasn't quite over yet, though. We all set off from the trailhead and were headed to a restaurant called the Grizzly Bar, in Roscoe, for one last group meal. 

Besides the post office, I think the Grizzly Bar was pretty much the only business in town. And it was amazing. I couldn't help but smile when I used the restroom and washed my hands in warm running water. And I ordered a big greasy burger and fries. While Nadav and Cat were excellent camp cooks, that burger was a little slice of heaven. We sat around the table trading stories of our adventures for a while. I could've stayed there all day, but I had to hit the road, as I had camping reservations at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota that night, a five hour drive away. 

As I said goodbye to my fellow climbers (some of whom I would see in a few days at the convention) and our amazing guide team, I started to feel it. That little lump in my throat. The thought of what I had just accomplished was starting to set it. Even when we summited there wasn't really a lot of time to think about it, as we still had the long march back to the trailhead. So I got in my car, and set the GPS for Theodore Roosevelt NP. As I pulled away from the Grizzly Bar it really started to hit me; I did it. All those months of training and preparation had paid off. I made it to the top! By myself in the car I started saying it out loud, "I did it!", over and over again. I started crying. I pulled over so I could compose myself for a minute. While everyone else in the party had several big peaks under their belt, this was my first real mountaineering trip. I felt a little silly, sitting there crying over climbing a mountain, but they were tears of joy for sure. After a few minutes I had calmed down, put the car back in drive, and continued on to my next adventure.

 

DAY FOUR PHOTO GALLERY:

 

Mount Borah, Highpoint of Idaho. The Great American Eclipse of 2017.

 360 degree panorama from the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho during the total solar eclipse of 2017.

360 degree panorama from the summit of Mount Borah, Idaho during the total solar eclipse of 2017.

Summit date: August 21, 2017

CONCEPTION AND PLANNING

It was about eight years ago that I first had the notion of photographing an eclipse from a state highpoint for my panorama series. I was thinking about what I could do that would be different, unique. I thought shooting an eclipse from a highpoint would fit the bill. I got on NASA’s website and started researching when the next appropriate eclipse would be. The U.S. wasn’t scheduled for an eclipse until 2017, almost eight years away.

The eclipse would be at least partially visible from all of the lower 48 states. The path of totality, where the moon completely blocks out the sun, however, was only visible from just over a dozen states. And of those states, only five would have the path of totality passing directly over their highpoint: Idaho, Wyoming, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.

At the time I had not yet done any of the five potential highpoints, but one of them in particular stood out; Idaho’s Mount Borah. The three eastern highpoints are all easily reached and I figured would be crowded. Tennessee’s highpoint for example, Clingman’s Dome, is in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the nation’s most visited national park even on a slow day. They would also be more prone to low lying cloud cover. Wyoming’s highpoint, Gannett Peak, is notoriously difficult to get to involving a multi day trek, hiring guides, and permits for passing through native lands. Targeting a two and a half minute window to be on summit would be tough to say the least. With Borah standing at 12,662 feet it would certainly be an excellent vantage point to watch it. It was also doable as a day hike but was still daunting enough to keep away the huge crowds, and it was the first state highpoint in the path of totality. My sights were set. Idaho it was.

Over the years I would revisit my plans and tweak them, planning for not only the eclipse, but for other points of interest while I was out there. Kings Peak, the Utah highpoint, looked like a viable option for another highpoint to climb while I would be in the area.

Five years ago, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree from Empire State University, one of my professors suggested I apply for a big art fellowship grant that was to be awarded to a SUNY arts student. It was open to all art disciplines and degree levels. I submitted a portfolio of my highpoint and tri-point panorama photography. I made it through the early selection process. The next stage was to actually show my work and interview with the judges. I put up an exhibit of my work exclusively for the judges. During the interview one of the judges asked where I saw myself in five years. I responded that on August 21st of 2017 at 11:31 a.m. I would be on top of the highest mountain in Idaho to photograph a total solar eclipse. He laughed and said that was the most specific answer he had ever been given to that question. Two days later I got the call that I had won the grant.

In 2016, while climbing the Montana highpoint Granite Peak, I brought up the idea to one of the fellow hikers in my group. He was already well aware of the Borah eclipse and was planning on it himself. We tentatively agreed to meet up for it. This was my first indication that I was not, in fact, the only person planning on doing this. I would later meet a guy at my local rock climbing gym that was also planning on it. And here I thought I would have the mountain all to myself. I started adjusting my vision for the image I wanted to shoot and planned to incorporate the other people who would inevitably be on summit with me.

It wasn’t until I made my plane, rental car, and camping reservations in early 2017 that I finally had the feeling of “this is really happening”. The one thing that was worrying me about the whole thing was the weather. Weather was the one thing that could totally ruin the whole trip. My experience on Mount Katahdin in 2013 showed me that bad weather can indeed keep you from reaching the top. As I really had no back up plan for viewing the eclipse, I was keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Worse case scenario is that I would still be able to see everything get dark, even if I couldn’t see the eclipse itself.

 

ARRIVAL: GOOD FORTUNE AT TRAILHEAD

On August 19th, 2017, I was dropped off at the airport in Syracuse for my flight to Salt Lake City. A plan years in the making was finally getting under way. I tried to stop worrying about the weather. I couldn’t do anything about. If it was good then I’d go for it. If it was bad then I wouldn’t. Simple as that.

On August, 20th, the day before the eclipse, I made my way from Salt Lake City north to the Borah trailhead. The northbound traffic on Route 15 out of Salt Lake City was fairly heavy with all the people heading for the path of totality. I was happy to see far less traffic once I got off of Route 15 in Blackfoot, Idaho.

Although I had a campsite reserved in Challis, a 45 minute drive north of Mount Borah, I stopped by the trailhead to see if maybe there were any spots. The official campground was packed full, of course, but the BLM was allowing people to park and camp along the approach road just below the campground. This was excellent news! I had fully expected to have to make the drive from Challis, but now I was just a ten minute walk from the trailhead. This meant I could get a nice early start the next morning. I claimed my spot and spent the rest of the day walking around the area and talking to fellow eclipse watchers. There was a father and son parked behind me from California that I chatted with for a while.

 Mount Borah from my campsite on the approach road a day before the eclipse. The summit can be seen along with a little sliver of the snow couloir in the upper right.

Mount Borah from my campsite on the approach road a day before the eclipse. The summit can be seen along with a little sliver of the snow couloir in the upper right.

ASCENT: SIX DARK HOURS OF NOTHING BUT UP

That nice early start came at 12:30 a.m. when I woke up to start getting ready. The stars were out so I knew the sky was clear. An excellent sign and quite a relief. I made a hot breakfast and psyched myself up for the long day ahead.

The following video is me sitting in my car getting ready for the long day ahead.

 

Around 2:00 a.m. I stood at the wooden gate at the trailhead with a fresh set of batteries in my headlamp and my day pack all packed. I paused for a moment, staring into the darkness ahead of me. After eight years of thinking about it and planning it and worrying about every detail and hoping the weather cooperated, here it was, the day had arrived. Under a crystal clear sky full of stars, I took that first step onto the trail. I was finally doing it.

The early solo start meant I could go at my own pace, with plenty of time to get to the top. Totality was around 11:30 a.m., so I was giving myself nine and a half hours for the one way hike to the summit. I can really motor on flats and light hills, but steep inclines really slow me down, and Borah is nothing but up. 5,250 feet of elevation gain in just 3.5 miles to be exact. Average round trip times are listed as seven to twelve hours, so I felt I had plenty of time. I took it one step at a time, resting as needed.

One interesting thing I saw on the way up were ants. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about them, but these ones seemed to be… frozen. I would see lines of ants every couple dozen yards that just weren’t moving. I thought they were dead at first, but I touched one and it moved away from me, only to freeze in place again. It was the oddest thing. I’m guessing the cold overnight temperatures makes them super sluggish and they’ll start moving again once the sun comes up.

The following video shows the ants on the trail not moving

 

The early start also meant I’d be doing more than three quarters of the hike in the dark. In a way this was good since I had no sense of the scale of the mountain and I could just concentrate on the trail directly in front of me. Sometimes I could see the headlamps of hikers ahead of me in the distance and I could tell I still had a ways to go. And if I looked behind me I could see the headlights of cars coming up the approach road with more hikers arriving to get their 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. starts. Other than that I really had no idea what was around me. I knew I had hiked through trees for a while. On the ridgeline above the trees I looked over to my left and my headlamp caught the edge of the ridge which plummeted down quite a ways, farther than my headlamp could illuminate. The infamous Chicken-Out-Ridge, which turns many hikers back, seemed like no big deal in the dark.

It wasn’t until the snow couloir at three miles and about four hours into the hike that I finally turned off my headlamp and I could start to see what I had just climbed and what I still had left. I wouldn’t make it in time for sun rise from the summit, but I stopped on the saddle below the summit for some amazing views of the rising sun over the Sawtooth Mountains. 

 After four hours in the dark, this was my first glimpse of what I had just hiked up. The trail follows the top of that ridge, and the forest isn't visible from here.

After four hours in the dark, this was my first glimpse of what I had just hiked up. The trail follows the top of that ridge, and the forest isn't visible from here.

 Sunrise from the saddle below the summit

Sunrise from the saddle below the summit

By 8:00 a.m., after six hours of dragging myself up one of the steepest climbs in my life, I had reached the top. I was tired and sore, but I had made it! There was plenty of time to spare with over two hours until the eclipse hit first contact. And I wasn’t alone.

 "There is nothing more to see, you can go home now." A little summit humor.

"There is nothing more to see, you can go home now." A little summit humor.

SUMMIT: PARTY AT 12,600'

There was already a crowd gathering when I got there, and they just kept coming. There was a small group of hikers that were bundled up in their sleeping bags right on top of the summit. I had heard of people leaving for the summit as early as midnight. And there had been people camped out along the way, which I didn’t even realize was an option.

Conditions when I got to the summit were absolutely perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was cool, but not as cold as I was expecting. There was hardly even a breeze. The views were stunning. While the air at the higher elevations was clear, forest fires far to the west had sent a layer of haze which filled in the valleys far below, giving everything an otherworldly feel.

I met and talked with several people while waiting for the eclipse to start. There were people from all over the place. There was a man from Eastern Canada, another from Florida. There was even a family from Austria. I ran into my neighbors from base camp, the father and son. One man that definitely stood out was Jeff Zausch. He summited shortly after I did, wearing a bright red, white, and blue jacket. He then promptly stripped down to just his boots and a jockstrap with a big furry ‘coon tail on it. I found out that he was on an episode of the TV show “Naked and Afraid” and is the current star of Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival”. I know I tend to have good luck running into celebrities, but I certainly wasn’t expected to see any here.

The following gallery show the crowd that gathered on summit.

 

I would estimate there were between 100 and 150 people on the immediate summit area by the time first contact occurred around 10:30. While the summit area isn’t huge, there was plenty of room for all that showed up, with many setting up along the ridge that ran south of the summit for about 100 feet. I had settled on a spot on the eastern slope of the summit, just above the cliffs.

Check out the video below from YouTube user montagnadilombardia for some breathtaking drone footage of the crowd on the summit of Mount Borah gathering for the eclipse. I'm in there somewhere! It also has shots showing the hike down. Watch on a really big screen if possible.

 

At one point after the eclipse had started (but well before totality) I decided to shoot some selfie video, just some travelogue stuff. As I'm shooting, I start to hear people getting excited behind me. I turn around and see a man near the summit marker addressing the crowd. Turns out it was his speech before proposing to his girlfriend. She said yes! And here I had been feeling a little anxious hoping it was a good day just so I could take some pictures, this guy was making a life changing decision! Congratulations to the happy couple!

The following video is from the first half of the eclipse (pre-totality) and includes the proposal!

 

Everyone was in a festive mood, anticipating totality. Unless special eclipse glasses were being worn it was hard to tell that anything was happening at all for most of the eclipse. It wasn't until the eclipse was at about 80-90% that things started getting interesting. The light began to look... weird. Everything took on an erie grayness, not quite daylight, not quite shade. And it started cooling down. Everyone, almost in unison, began reaching for another layer to put on.

 

ECLIPSE: YEARS OF PLANNING FOR TWO AND A HALF MINUTES OF GLORY

The total eclipse was now moments away. Those on the summit ridge and western slopes of the summit were able to watch as the moon’s shadow come into view on the horizon and swept across the hazy Idaho landscape thousands of feet below us. As the leading edge raced across the valley floor the energy in the crowd became palpable. The “oohs”, “aahs”, and “oh my gods!” built to a crescendo until finally the totality engulfed the mountain and the crowd burst into thunderous cheers and applause.

Check out the video below from YouTube user Spencer Ball for an amazing view of the totality approaching Mount Borah.

 

And there it was. An absolutely perfect total solar eclipse. A pitch black moon radiating milky white tendrils across a deep blue sky. There was no need for the special glasses anymore, you could look at it now with the naked eye. The darkness that consumed the region was sudden and dramatic. It was like someone just shut the lights out. At its height the darkness extended for three dozen miles all around us. Where the darkness ended on the horizon there were the yellow hues of a fading sunset, except it looked like a sunset in every direction.

 The eclipse from the summit of Mount Borah

The eclipse from the summit of Mount Borah

I had no time for gawking though. Seconds after totality started, I began shooting for my panorama. Years of planning came down to a two minute window of time in which I had to get all the shots that I needed. As far as shooting it, I really didn’t know what to expect until I was in the situation. I knew how many degrees above the horizon it would be, but didn’t know what that would actually look like. I normally shoot one pass of wide angle, horizontal images all around me for a panorama, maybe a dozen frames. However, the eclipse was just high enough where I couldn’t get it and the ground in the same shot at the same time. So I had to go vertical, which I had never done before. I ended up making three passes of vertical shots to make sure I had the coverage. About 80 shots in total, all in two minutes and all hand held. I opted not to bring my tripod since I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. As I was frantically pivoting and shooting away, I had one big balance check as I stumbled slightly, enough to alarm an onlooker near me. I recovered quickly and kept shooting.

As far as the exposure goes, I didn’t know what to expect from that either. As the eclipse passed the 80% mark I had to start adjusting my exposure to compensate for the darkness. It still took me by surprise just how dark it got when totality hit. Luckily the light was even in all directions so once I saw my histograms were good I could just concentrate on shooting. I ended up shooting everything at f7, 1/100, and ISO 4000.

Once I felt I got what I needed, I had a few short moments to just stand there and watch it. It was truly amazing. Such a simple thing, yet so extraordinarily beautiful. At the last second I picked up my camera and got my only close up of it. I was able to capture the “diamond ring” effect which is visible at the beginning and end of totality.

 The last moments of the totality as the sun reemerges.

The last moments of the totality as the sun reemerges.

After a far too short two and a half minutes, totality ended and the sun reappeared, returning light and warmth to all the revelers who had made the trek up Mount Borah. As we all stood around grinning like fools trying to wrap our heads around what we had just witnessed, we watched the moon’s shadow slide away toward the horizon, heading for Wyoming and points east. And like that, it was over.

The following video is my post eclipse reaction.

 

DESCENT: LONG WAY DOWN

The crowd that had gathered largely dispersed after totality ended. I hung around for a while. After all the planning and effort to get up here I wanted to enjoy it. And I wasn’t feeling any altitude sickness so I wasn’t in a hurry to get down. People who had watched the eclipse from the lower ridges of the mountain continued to summit for a while. I would take their cell phones and take their pictures while they posed on the summit. I even shot one family as part of one of my panoramas.

Around 2:00 p.m. I started the long trek back down the mountain. Weird to think of less than four miles as a long trek. I can normally do ten miles in about four hours at my hiking spots around Syracuse. The steepness of the hike kept me to a snail’s pace. A little down slope is nice, a lot isn’t.

Just before crossing the snow couloir I saw a familiar face. I walked up to him and said “you’re from the club aren’t you?” Sure enough, it was highpoint club member Sjaak Van Schie. He had come here from his home in the Netherlands for the eclipse. I had seen him at the conventions and had spoken to him once or twice. He was on his way up to the summit. He asked what my plans were that evening and that he was staying at a hotel back in Arco with a friend. They had an extra bed in the room and I was welcome to it. I had no plans other than to start heading south back towards Utah. I kindly took him up on the offer. We would meet up later.

 Me and Sjaak meeting up near the snow bridge

Me and Sjaak meeting up near the snow bridge

I continued down the mountain. I passed several groups also heading down that looked like they were having a hard time of it. The steepness of this mountain should not be underrated. I developed some hot spots on my big toes. I stopped to put some pads on them before they turned into blisters.

The hike down was a whole new experience form the hike up, since I could now see what lay ahead of me. It definitely felt longer going down, but I also had amazing views now in the daylight. I could now see the full magnitude of that shear drop off at the ridgeline that I had only glimpsed earlier with my headlamp. Didn’t want to have a misstep there. And the woods below treeline had a whole different feel. Previously concentrating only on the trail in my headlamp, I hadn’t noticed how gnarly and twisted the trees really were. Like something out of a horror movie.

The following gallery is from the hike back down to the trailhead. Most of the descent was like a brand new hike, as I'd not been able to see any of the views on the way up.

 

To show how slow I was going, Sjaak, who i met while he was on the way up and I was headed down, passed me in the woods on his way down. He was practically galloping down. My knee and toes simply weren’t going to let me go that fast. So we met up once I got back to the trailhead. The sun just disappeared behind the horizon as I took my last steps off the trail.

 The final stretch before sunset. I made it to the trailhead mere seconds after the sun totally disappeared over the horizon.

The final stretch before sunset. I made it to the trailhead mere seconds after the sun totally disappeared over the horizon.

EPILOGUE: REST AT LAST

I followed Sjaak back to Arco where we stopped for a bite to eat at a diner. A burger and fries never tasted so good. We went back to the hotel, where I met his friend Sharmon. We all talked about our adventures during the day. I took a shower, my first one in two and a half days. I finally laid down in bed around half past midnight, 24 very long hours after I had first gotten up to start getting ready.

This was such an amazing experience, one that I won’t soon forget. I got to witness one of the most awe inspiring events in nature, and claim my 27th highpoint in the process! Now to start planning for the 2024 eclipse!

 

Tri-point of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Hot. Damn Hot. Real Hot.

 Tri-point of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Tri-point of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

This tri-point was an excursion during my visit to the Iowa highpoint during the 2015 convention. It is located on the outskirts of Sioux City, Iowa, in the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers. During my research I discovered that all land access to it goes through a master planned community called Dakota Dunes (which lies completely in South Dakota). The point of land between the rivers where the tri-point was located is part of Dakota Dunes own little nature park. I decided to contact Dakota Dunes management to inquire about getting access. Plan B would've involved kayaking to the point, but this trip was only two weeks after shoulder surgery and paddling would not have been an option (I had only taken the bandages off three days prior). As it turns out, Dakota Dunes management was more than accommodating. I contacted a woman there named Brandi who worked for the community association. She was most inviting and basically just told me to let her know a week in advance when I would be there. 

I started the day by visiting the Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota tri-point about an hour and a half north of Sioux City. The morning started with cool temps and overcast skies. Perfect driving weather. As I got closer to Sioux City, the skies cleared up and the temperature rose. Keep in mind that my car does not have working AC. When I pulled into the offices of Dakota Dunes it was pretty toasty. Walking into their offices with central air felt sooooo good. I met with Brandi and she was very warm and inviting. I felt like a community member stopping in for a visit. The plan would be she was going to lead me to one of the maintenance buildings near the park. This would be as far as I could take my car. She called ahead to see if there were any maintencace vehicles I could use to go through the park with. This was truly a surprise. Aside from simply granting me access to the property, I had not asked for nor expected any assistance in actually getting there. It would be about a mile and a half from the maintenance building to the tri-point and it was all flat. Normally, I could do a flat mile and a half with no sweat, but considering that the temperature was climbing into sweltering territory and I still couldn't use my shoulder to carry anything (backpack, camera, etc.) this would be a welcome bit of relief. We set out for the 2.5 mile drive from the office to the maintenance building.

When we got there she tracked down the person who had the keys and set me up with my ride. They brought me out to the garage and there it was, a John Deere Gator (sort of a cross between a four-wheeler and a pick-up truck). I climbed in and fired it up. I thanked Brandi for all her help and said I would stop back when I was done. I stopped by my car to get my gear and I was off. There was a series of groomed trails running through the park. There was almost nobody on the trails, so I could get a little bit of speed up and fly down the wooded paths. The park was very pleasant; plenty of shade trees and quiet. Perfect for casual walking and running. After a few minutes, I reached the end of the trails. I was still about a half a mile away from the tri-point, so I would have to hoof it from here. I slung my camera and tripod over my left shoulder, which was very awkward since I always put them on my right. In the video below I mention that I'm about 50 yards away. I was actually over 800 yards. I underestimated just a tad.

The hike along the river bank was very slow going. It was over a narrow strip of rocks and boulders. I tried using my tripod as a walking stick, and I had to be careful since I couldn't really use my right shoulder to catch myself if I slipped or stumbled. Plus it was really getting hot now. Since I left the cover of the trees the sun was really beating down on me. I couldn't get my sunglasses to stay up as they kept sliding down from all the sweat. Eventually I had to get off the river bank and back into the trees, both for shade and ease of movement. I worked my way through brush, trees, and little patches of open area. This area of the park had seen very little development and there were no discernible trails to the point. I finally came out of the woods for the last leg of the hike. 

Where the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers meet is a spit of land that projects out from the mainland of the park. It was about 30 feet or so at it's widest and 200 yards long. It was also totally exposed. No trees except for a few skeletons of some long dead ones. At the end of it was the tri-point. There actually seemed to be something resembling a trail this time leading all the way to the end. It was still slow going as it wasn't a maintained trail at all. It looked more like a wild animal trail if anything. By the time I got to the end of the point I was drenched in sweat. In the video it can be seen that my shirt is soaked. And it wasn't like I was over exerting myself, it was just really damn hot. I believe I referred to it as "hot as balls". Normally I like to hang out at one of my destinations for a bit and take it in, but the heat was getting a bit much and I just wanted to get my shots and get out of the sun. So I got my shots and started heading back.

I stuck to the woods this time and avoided the exposed river bank. It was still extremely humid, but at least I was out of the sun. I made it the half mile back to the gator, fired it up, and headed back towards the maintenance building. I didn't want to turn the gator back in, it was fun bombing around those trails. I wanted to get back to the campground I was at and take a shower. I stopped in at the office to thank Brandi again for going above and beyond in accommodating me and my unusual pastime. She noticed that my shirt was soaked and I mentioned how hot it was. I said goodbye and headed out. On the way back I stopped at a Subway for lunch because I knew their air conditioning would be cranked. It was... and it was glorious.

A short video of my trip the tri-point of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota during the summer of 2015. I do apologize for the horrible audio. Every failure is a learning experience!

 

Guadalupe Peak, highpoint of Texas. Birth of an obsession. And giant freaking bugs.

 Guadalupe Peak, highpoint of Texas.

Guadalupe Peak, highpoint of Texas.

Summit Date: September 6, 2001

This is the trip that started my love of highpointing. I hadn't really given it much thought before this trip. At the time the main reason I went was because I was really into the national parks, and the highpoint of Texas is in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I still love the national parks and would like to visit all of them at some point. So during my time living in Houston, my friend Todd and I took a week off in the summer of 2001 to hit three national parks: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns. 

Big Bend was stunning, with its hiking trails through the Chisos Mountains and views across the Rio Grande into Mexico. Next, we hit a few spots along the Mexican border and the town of Marfa (we tried seeing the mysterious lights but no luck). Then it was on to Guadalupe!

The Guadalupe Mountains rise from the otherwise flat terrain of West Texas and are visible for many miles before arriving there. As we approached from the south, the parks most famous feature, El Capitan, greeted us as it stoically stood watch over the landscape.

After checking in at the park headquarters, Todd and I set up our tents in the campground. We were sitting at the picnic table enjoying dinner and some conversation when the terror struck... Earlier in the park headquarters we saw a display of the local fauna. It included an insect called a tarantula hawk. It's a type of wasp that is several inches across, big enough to throw down with tarantulas. And kill them... So as Todd and I were sitting there at our picnic table, one of these tarantula hawks landed on Todd's nalgene water bottle. It covered the whole top of the bottle. I would have taken a picture of it but I was too busy fleeing in horror from the murder-wasp. I was never a big fan of wasps and this one was freakishly huge. 

 Pissed off tarantula in the parking lot 

Pissed off tarantula in the parking lot 

And the cavalcade of indigenous species wasn't over. Later on while returning to my tent from the restrooms, I came upon a tarantula in the middle of the trail. We just stood there, staring at each other. I was much more fascinated than frightened with this guy, unlike the wasp. I inched closer and closer, never taking my eyes off of it. Eventually I got close enough where I made it uncomfortable and it moved. Fast. It covered two feet in the blink of an eye. In movies they're always shown as kind of slow, lumbering creatures, so I was taken by surprise at how fast it could move. We also met another tarantula in the parking lot. We decided to poke it with a stick (actually it was more like gently touch it with a stick). Either way, it didn't like it. It reared up on its six back legs and its front two legs were raised in the air as if he was shouting "Come at me bro!". I like to think that the two tarantulas and the tarantula hawk found each other that night and had an epic Godzilla/Rodan/Ghidorah style battle royal.

After tangling with the local wildlife, we called it a night and got an early start on the summit trail. It was a beautiful day for hiking. The skies were clear, it wasn't too blistering hot, and we already had one big hike under our belt this week so we were feeling confident. It was going to be a fairly long day. The trail to the summit is just over four miles from trailhead to summit, with an elevation gain of around 3,000 ft. Nothing to it but to do it. We began the long climb to the top. Unlike the hike in Big Bend a few days prior, this hike was nothing but up. We kept marching our way toward the top. Eventually my legs stared feeling heavy. The closer we got to the top the more on autopilot I felt. One foot in front of the other, over and over again.

 Todd and I at the summit of Guadalupe Peak.   

Todd and I at the summit of Guadalupe Peak.

 

Then, just like that, we were at the top. We made it! The top of Texas. The view from the summit was spectacular. I could see for many miles. And now El Capitan, the feature that towered over us when we approached the park, was situated below us. We stayed at the top for about an hour, just taking in the view. One interesting feature that stood out was the salt flats to west of the park. In the panorama above, they are the lighter areas in the distance to the right of center. 

While at the top we made the obligatory play on words drug joke about being higher than anyone else in the entire state of Texas. In my head though, I really thought about that idea of standing of the highest point in a state. Its not something a lot of people get to experience, or for that matter, realize that its even a thing to be experienced. It would be a few more years before my next highpoint (Mount Marcy, in my home state of New York in 2004), but it was this trip that planted the seed of a goal to visit all the 50 highpoints.

 

Supermoon Eclipse time lapse

I met up with some people last night to watch the eclipse and brought my gear with me. It was a beautiful night for it. I thought it was going to be too cloudy, but the clouds went away right before it started and didn't come back until it was almost over. Clear skies for almost the whole thing!  I didn't set out to do a time lapse composite, but a friend on Facebook planted the seed, so I figured why not?

I used a Nikon D800, a 70-210mm f2.8 zoom lens, and a 2x teleconverter (for a total of 420mm). Because of the teleconverter, the widest I could open the lens was f5.6. Even with all that magnification I still couldn't come close to filling the frame. Ideally I would have had at least a 1000mm f2.8 lens. Here is one of the full moon shots in its original full frame.

Exposures were a little tricky because there is such a huge brightness difference between the fully lit moon and the eclipsed moon. With the lit moon I was shooting around ISO 2000, 1/1250 @ f27. I tried to keep my shutter speed fast to reduce camera shake and moon movement. As the moon became eclipsed however, I had to really change the exposure just to be able to see it. For the full eclipse I was shooting around ISO 6400, 1/50 @ f5.6. You can really see the difference in the seventh moon from the left in the composite. I wanted to start capturing the shadow side of the moon, but in doing so I had to blow out the thin crescent that was still lit.

I did try going above ISO 6400, but the image starts to get pretty noisy at that point, and the blacks start to wash out. Here is a cropped example to see how grainy it looks at those really high ISO speeds.

 

The composite image was simply done in Photoshop by dragging and dropping just the moon from each frame onto a larger canvas. I made slight adjustments to the density of each moon just to even them out a little, but other than that the color you see in the final composite is how the camera captured it. The arch of the composite is not the actual trajectory of the moon, that is my own simple design that I thought looked cool. The moon actually went almost straight up from the horizon. Clouds rolled back in before the eclipse had fully finished, so the full moon at the right end of the composite is a copy of the moon from the left end of the composite. I wanted to finish the sequence so I allowed myself that one cheat. Also, the composite does not proportionally represent the time duration of the eclipse. The center image of the fully eclipsed moon was the longest portion of the event, lasting over an hour.

At one point I managed to capture an airplane passing near the moon. All you can see are the lights on the plane, not the body of the plane itself. Its the three lights at the bottom of the image below. Another time while readjusting the camera (which I constantly had to do as the moon moved across the sky) I was looking through the viewfinder and saw a shooting star! I wish I had captured that! Even if I was quicker I wouldn't have captured it since I was using the camera's self-timer set to 2 seconds to help reduce camera shake.

It was a fun and much needed night out of the house (I've been dealing with a cold the last few days and haven't gotten out much). I met some new people, drank some wine, took some pics, and witnessed a wonder of nature!


Mount Rogers, highpoint of Virginia. OH MY GOD!!! LOOK AT ALL THE FUZZY PONIES!!!

 Mount Rogers, Virginia state highpoint. 2014.

Mount Rogers, Virginia state highpoint. 2014.

Summit Date: July 21, 2014

Mount Rogers is the high point of Virginia, and is located at the western end of the state. It was my first summit in the series of peaks known as the "Southern Six-pack". These are six state high points that are all relatively close to each other, They include the high points of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Mount Rogers is the only one of the six that requires an actual hike, with the rest being drive ups. While not a technical hike, it is a decent length, about 8 miles round-trip. A portion of the trail to the summit follows the famous Appalachian Trail. The lower sections of the trail are open, grassy pastures with large exposed outcrops of rock. As you get closer to the summit it becomes more densely wooded and less rocky.

But that's all the boring academic stuff. When people talk about Mount Rogers, one thing always comes up; wild ponies. While researching this trip I read that Grayson Highlands State Park (the park you have to hike through to get to the summit) is home to over 100 wild ponies. While an exciting prospect, I tried to keep my expectations of actually seeing any of them to a minimum as it is a large park and they are free to roam anywhere within it.I recalled my visit to Isle Royal National Park, an island in Lake Superior famous for its isolated wolf and moose populations. Three days on the island and I didn't see a single wolf or moose. With Mount Rogers I would've considered myself lucky just to get a distant glimpse of the ponies. And on the hike up to the summit that's all we got; distant glimpses. Just two or three times on the way up did we see little brown specks against the sea of green in the distance. After 4 miles and a couple of hours we made it all the way to the summit without a single wild pony encounter. Not once did we cross paths with any of them. While it was a beautiful hike and I did get the summit, I was really hoping to meet some of those wild ponies. On that front, it looked like this trip was going to be a bust.

But then we still had the hike down…

As we came out of the denser woods surrounding the summit we came upon a clearing. And there they were. Wild ponies! It was a group of around five individuals, a few dozen yards off the trail. We tried to approach very slowly and quietly so as not to startle them. I wanted to see how close we could get. We got closer. And closer. And closer. They didn't really seem too shy. One in particular was very friendly. He approached us, checking us out. At one point he started trying to eat my boot. So there we were finally getting to see the storied wild ponies of Mount Rogers. After hanging out with our new furry friends for a little while they slowly started to wander off, as did we. We continued on our way down the trail excited about our encounter with the local wildlife, grateful for that one chance to see them.

And then we ran into another group of them. And another. It was as if all the ponies knew they had missed us on the way up and were now making it up to us on the way down. I lost count of how many ponies we saw altogether. Several dozen at least. They were even hanging out right at the last fence before the final stretch back to the parking lot. I don't know why but they had suddenly come out in full force on the way down. And it wasn't just the ponies. We also came across a small group of cattle. One was a gigantic bull with huge horns. I was a little wary of him but he didn't seem to mind us at all. We eventually made it back to the car and continued on our way to our next stop,the tri-point of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. This would definitely go down as one of the highlights of my high pointing adventures.

Check out the gallery and video below to see the beautiful Mount Rogers and it's adorable wildlife.

A short video of my trip to Mount Rogers, the highpoint of Virginia, from July 21, 2014.

 Shiri and I at the summit of Mount Rogers.

Shiri and I at the summit of Mount Rogers.

 

Tri-point of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. My car meets its match.

 Tri-point of North arolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 2014.

Tri-point of North arolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. 2014.

The first three posts in this series (Sassafras Mountain, Ebright Azimuth, and Charles Mound) were all looking at state highpoints that I have visited. Well, there's another type of point that I go to that not a lot of people think about: the tri-point. These are simply where the borders of three states come together. Everyone is familiar with the four corners in the American Southwest which comprise the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Four corners could be thought of as a bunch of overlapping tri-points. With the exception of Hawaii, all of the states have tri-points with other US states, Mexican states, or Canadian provinces.

This particular tri-point is deep in rural Appalachia, and not far from Mount Rogers, the highpoint of Virginia which we had just hiked earlier in the day. There wasn't much left of the day, but the descriptions I had of it showed there was a rugged dirt road leading right to it. I had taken my car (an all-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4) through some pretty gnarly spots so I wasn't too overly concerned about getting there. I got off the main road and through the village of Whitetop, Virginia, to where the dirt road started that led to the tri-point. It was a run-of-the-mill dirt road with houses and farms dotted along its winding path. (Side note: every road in Appalachia is winding.)

The directions I had mentioned a gate that I would be driving through and to ask permission to go any farther. I eventually did come to a gate (which was open) and stopped at the residence nearby to inquire about the tri-point. This is where I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. As I rolled down the driveway of the rundown looking property, I saw two men working on a piece of farm equipment. I got out of the car and approached the two men (I left the car running just in case). Both men were covered in grease and looked like they hadn't showered in… a while. The older of the two men had a beard and not much in the way of teeth and did all of the talking. The other man, who did not look quite as old but still had white hair, stood silently to the side. His greasy arms hung at a slight angle away from his sides. He just looked at me with a blank expression through his thick horn-rimmed glasses and never uttered a word. I asked about the tri-point and it took a few tries to communicate what I was talking about. It was hard to understand what the man was saying. This went beyond the quaint Appalachian drawl that everybody is familiar with. This felt more akin to being in a foreign country and trying to communicate across a language barrier with one of the locals. I finally learned that I was about 3 miles from the tri-point. I'm surprised I didn't start hearing banjos.

I continued up the dirt road for about two more miles. That's when the condition of the dirt road started to rapidly deteriorate. The ruts became worse. I was in low gear moving at a crawl. I could not simply drive straight down the road. I had to weave from side to side following the contour of the ruts in an effort to not bottom out. I was doing well until, while trying to cross one of the ruts, I felt my car bottom out and my engine became tremendously loud. I knew right then that I had damaged my exhaust, most likely hitting one of the pipes coming off the manifold on a rock. I just sat there in dread for a few minutes hoping it wasn't as bad as I thought. Worst-case scenario was that I had sheared the manifold right off the engine block. I decided to try and continue on, and as I tried passing over the same rut I started spinning out. That was it. I wasn't going any farther in the car. In the following picture you can see where I left the car. Just off the passenger side you can see two dark patches in the dirt. This is where I spun out as I tried to cross the rut. The picture doesn't do justice to just how bad the road actually was. To go any farther I would've needed a proper off-road vehicle, such as a Jeep Wrangler or a Toyota FJ Cruiser.

 My car on the way to the tri-point. This is as far as she got. 

My car on the way to the tri-point. This is as far as she got. 

Now I had to decide whether or not I should continue on at all. It would mean going on foot, but I didn't know exactly how close I was (or how far). I didn't have a good enough cell signal to really use the GPS on my phone. What did work, however, was that the map app on my phone was still registering my current location. I could see the dotted lines indicating the state borders and the dot indicating my current position, and that was it. I tried switching over to satellite view, which would've helped for figuring out landmarks, but I simply didn't have enough signal for it to work. If the standard map view was reading right, then I would be able to tell how far I was by how fast my dot was moving in relation to the borderlines. I decided to continue on foot. As the sun was getting close to setting, I really wanted to hustle to get to the tri-point. Shiri was with me but she said to go on ahead so I could start taking my pictures and she would catch up. I loaded up my gear and headed off. I kept a close eye on my cell phone and studied my movement as I made my way down the road. My dot was moving quite briskly so I knew I wasn't too far. I also noticed that the road got even worse as I went along, with the ruts becoming quite deep. As it turns out I was probably less than a half-mile from the tri-point.

A short clip of me from the tri-point of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

After successfully getting to the tri-point and taking my pictures, we made our way back to the car and started back toward town. The closest city to stop and get repairs was Bristol, Tennessee. The city is famous for its NASCAR racetrack, so I knew there would be somewhere there that could take care of my car. However, there would be one last piece to the adventure before we would get there. As we rolled through the village of Damascus, Virginia, I saw a cop car and had a gut feeling they were going to notice me. Keep in mind I basically had no exhaust and my car sounded like a jet engine. Sure enough, it pulled out behind us and a few blocks later put on its flashing lights. The officer was actually pretty cool about it. I explained what happened to the car and that I was on my way to Bristol to get it fixed. He didn't give me a ticket and even gave me something saying that I had been pulled over for it once just in case I got pulled over again between there and Bristol.

After spending the night at a hotel in Bristol, the next morning I took it right to a Toyota dealership to get it fixed. After getting there early so I could be first in line and waiting for about an hour they told me that they would not be able the fix it without special ordering a part which would take a day or two to arrive. Spending a day or two in Bristol would have totally thrown my plans for the whole middle of the week out the window. The guy gave me some hope though by telling me that another garage that they work with often that does custom welding might be able to help. I took it there and within an hour they were able to fix it. And it only cost about $80. With my car once again purring like a kitten we hit the road again and headed for our next destination which would be Mount Mitchell, the high point of North Carolina.

Also of note was the discovery that Christmas trees are a major regional crop in the area. Starting soon after we left's Mount Rogers, we started to notice the fields of Christmas trees. Around where I live in central New York you'll see the occasional Christmas tree farm. So it wasn't that the site of a field of Christmas trees was strange, it was more the sheer scale of it. This was a major crop in this part of the country, Much like how you'd see cornfields driving through Iowa. It was just one of those funny things; you don't think of Christmas trees as being a crop, but there they were, field after field of them.

 Standing on the tri-point of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Standing on the tri-point of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

 

Charles Mound, Highpoint of Illinois. A farmland stroll.

 Charles Mound, Illinois state highpoint. 2014

Charles Mound, Illinois state highpoint. 2014

Summit Date: September 7, 2014

Most of the 50 state highpoints are located in parks of some kind, whether it be local, state, or federal. This makes them open to the public. Charles Mounds, however, is one of the few highpoints that are located on private property. While physically very easy to get (a gentle one-mile stroll up a dirt road) in terms of access it is one of the trickier high points to get to. The property owners are nice enough to allow highpointers on the first full weekend of the four summer months. However, this means that the highpoint is only accessible to the public for eight days a year. I planned my visit for the last open access day of 2014, Sunday, September 7.

I flew from Syracuse to Chicago the night before and then drove a rental car from Chicago to Scales Mound, which is only about a mile from the trailhead. I slept in the parking lot of the town park. I've gotten used to car camping with my RAV4, which I built a bed for and is actually quite comfortable. So when I decided to crash in my car for the night I didn't think much of it. Well, my small rental sedan was definitely not made for car camping. My 6 foot frame trying to fit in the back seat just didn't really work. Not to mention it got cold. I had only packed a small backpack and wasn't expecting it to get cold overnight. The next morning however, once the sun came up it was quite pleasant.

I arrived at the trailhead just before sunrise. I use the word "trailhead" loosely, as the trail is actually a dirt farm road leading from the street up to the private residence and the highpoint. Even though the trail was only a little over a mile long with not much elevation gain, it still felt like the environment changed a few times on the way up. The first part is a long flat stretch with a cornfield on one side and a wooded gully on the other. Once the trail starts to go uphill it becomes wooded on both sides. Eventually the woods give way to large bean fields. On the far side of these fields are a few barns and a little pond. Then it becomes wooded again for the rest of the way up to the highpoint. Once at the summit there are views to the north of more fields and rolling hills.

The whole experience was very peaceful. The skies were clear and there was no wind, no traffic, no hordes of tourists. I had the summit all to myself while I was up there. On the way back down I ran into some fellow highpointers and traded stories with them. One of them was a retiree who, in his younger days, had worked for the National Park Service and actually lived in Fort Jefferson, located in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. I also ran into another highpointer who was visiting from the UK. I'm glad I was able to make it for one of the open access weekends. This also marked my 20th High Point.

 Trailhead for Charles Mound.

Trailhead for Charles Mound.

 The summit path through a section of woods.

The summit path through a section of woods.

 The sunrise over a field of soybeans.

The sunrise over a field of soybeans.

 Looking back toward the town of Scales Mound.

Looking back toward the town of Scales Mound.

 The view to the north of the summit.

The view to the north of the summit.

 Me with the summit sign.

Me with the summit sign.

 

Ebright Azimuth, Highpoint of Delaware. Rock bands and space shuttles.

Summit Dates: September 3, 2004, May 17, 2010, December 7, 2013, January 1, 2018

Of the 27 highpoints that I have visited, Ebright Azimuth is by far the easiest one to get. While many of the others aren't exactly difficult, with this one you can literally stop your car, open the door, step out, and be at the summit (although the precise location of the summit is still somewhat in dispute). It's at an intersection in a suburban neighborhood at the northern tip of Delaware. It's so easy in fact that I have visited it four times. Usually when I visit a high point, I have made special plans to visit it and the whole trip is centered around it. With Delaware however, all four visits to the highpoint were the result of simply passing close by on my way to somewhere else and figuring I would stop by since I was in the area.

My first visit to Ebright Azimuth came on September 3, 2004. My friend Brooke and I were on our way to Atlantic City, New Jersey to go see my favorite band Van Halen perform live in concert. The high point was not far off the route to AC. Unlike today when you can just put in the location in your GPS, at the time GPS was not widespread so I just relied on instructions I found online on how to get there. It's well marked so it's not that difficult. When we were there we were approached by a woman who lived around the corner. She appeared to be the unofficial welcoming party for the high point. She told us a few tidbits about the high point and even gave us a little brochure about it.

 

 Brooke and I with the summit sign. 1st visit, 2004.

Brooke and I with the summit sign. 1st visit, 2004.

Unfortunately, the panorama that I shot on that visit is essentially unusable. Despite it being a beautiful day for shooting, my technique at the time was not as good as it is now. I was still shooting on film and my exposures were all over the place. I was using the auto aperture setting on my camera which made each exposure slightly different and resulted in a panorama that would've taken much more work than I wanted to put into it. I now know, of course, to keep the exposure consistent for the entire set of images for best results. It would be six years before I would have the opportunity to reshoot it.

To the right is a picture of Brooke and I with the summit sign. At the time it was located across the street from where it is now. In the panoramas below it would have been by the bushes on the corner near the left end of the image.

 Ebright Azimuth, Highpoint of Delaware, 2nd visit, 2010.

Ebright Azimuth, Highpoint of Delaware, 2nd visit, 2010.

 Launch of Atlantis on May 14, 2010.

Launch of Atlantis on May 14, 2010.

My second visit was on May 17, 2010 when I was on my way back from a trip to Florida to see the next to last launch of the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center. Seeing the launch was one of the coolest things I've ever witnessed in my life, and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to see it. I was positioned about 7 miles from the launch pad and I couldn't have asked for a better day. It wasn't too hot, there was a gentle ocean breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. I shot the image on the right with my 210 mm lens, and even then I had to crop out about 80% of the image to get this composition because I was so far away from it.

The only bad part about this trip was the night before the launch I was bitten by about five fire ants. I had encountered these little bastards when I lived in Texas and they're not fun. They bit me on my right foot which swelled up to the point where I drove myself to the emergency room after the launch.  They put me on a steroid regimen for the swelling and by the time I reached the Delaware highpoint a few days later the swelling had come down considerably.

At the high point I was finally able to rectify my mistakes from six years earlier and capture some decent exposures to make a nice, clean panoramic image. The resulting panorama from my second visit is also the only one that I've made so far which incorporates a selfie. I don't normally do it, but it just seemed to work for this one.

  Ebright Azimuth, Highpoint of Delaware, 3rd visit, 2013.

Ebright Azimuth, Highpoint of Delaware, 3rd visit, 2013.

My third and final visit to Ebright Azimuth was in the wee hours of December 7, 2013. Just like the previous two visits, this one occurred as the result of going to a separate event and this just happened to be on the way. My girlfriend Shiri and I are fans of the band Sponge (who saw the height of their national popularity during the mid-90s). She has seen them so many times that she's actually friends with the guys in the band. They were doing an East Coast tour and we were driving from Shiri's home in Brooklyn to the bands gig in Baltimore, Maryland. The high point was just a few miles out of the way.

I normally don't plan too much as far as trying to be at a highpoint during a specific time of day. Usually I have a small window of time to be at a highpoint and get my images, either because my travel itinerary doesn't quite have the flexibility to hang around all day or because the nature of a hike dictates what time of day you get to a highpoint.

 Shiri being serenaded by Vin from sponge in Baltimore, Maryland.

Shiri being serenaded by Vin from sponge in Baltimore, Maryland.

 Shiri with the summit sign. Her first highpoint!

Shiri with the summit sign. Her first highpoint!

With this one I wanted to try something a little different. I had never tried a nighttime panorama from a highpoint and this was a good opportunity to do it. I opted to wait until after the Sponge concert and make the visit on the drive back to Brooklyn. This way I wouldn't feel rushed thinking I had to hurry up and finish so we could get to the show. Sponge shows usually go till after midnight and then we hang out with them afterwards, so by the time we got to the highpoint it was almost 3:00 in the morning. Being early December I had several hours before the sun would come up so I knew I had time as far as that went. However, being early December also meant that it was cold, and on this particular night it was also raining which made it feel extra cold. I set up in the exact same spot that I had on my second visit and started shooting. Shiri was there to hold the umbrella over me while I shot to keep me in my gear somewhat dry. I needed my bare hands to operate the controls on the camera and as a result my hands got so cold that by the time we got back to the car they actually hurt quite a bit. I had to just sit and let them warm up a little before I could even drive. But I got the shot!

UPDATE:

Added my fourth summit of Ebright on New Year's Day of 2017. And in keeping with tradition, I only stopped because I was on my way back from something else. The day before, my friend Brooke (who was with me on my '04 summit) and I went to Baltimore to see comedian John Oliver perform. On the way back Brooke wanted to stop at the Baltimore Ikea. It was far enough off our original route we took down that Google maps suggested a different route on the way home. A route that took us right by Ebright Azimuth. So of course I had to pop in for a visit. It was pretty cold out, so we were there just long enough to take some selfies and we were on the road again. To date it's only my second winter highpoint. The other being Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.

 New Year's Day on Ebright Azimuth. I wonder if I was the first highpoint of the year?

New Year's Day on Ebright Azimuth. I wonder if I was the first highpoint of the year?

 

Sassafras Mountain, Highpoint of South Carolina. Please excuse the mess.

This is the first in what will be a regular series of blog posts about my highpoint/tri-point panorama photography. Each post will give a little background and behind the scenes look at one photo. I've started shooting video in recent years, so I'll try to include it whenever possible along with other photos of the area.

First up:

 Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina. 2014.

Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina. 2014.

Summit Date: July 22, 2014

This image of Sassafras Mountain is probably one of the best examples of my philosophy about my highpoint/tri-point photo series; whatever it looks like at these locations, that's what I shoot. Many times the locations I visit are very scenic and picturesque, which is great, but my goal is not to take pretty pictures. My goal is to capture these places however they happen to look. In this case, it happens to involve fallen trees and construction equipment. The summit of the mountain is being converted into a visitors center, not unlike its southern highpoint neighbors North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. I just happened to visit during that awkward transition stage after its more natural state and before the development is finished.

My camera for this image was placed right next to the USGS marker. A giant rock with a metal plaque on it about the summit had been moved to the far side of the green tractor on the left of the image. The summit was officially closed to visitors because of the construction, but was easy enough to access. There were no other visitors so I made a run for it! And just so you don't think that the entire area looked like a clear-cut forest, just below the summit was a lookout platform with views of Georgia and Tennessee to the west. It was late in the day and the sun was going down, which made for a really gorgeous view.

 View to the west of Sassafras Mountain.

View to the west of Sassafras Mountain.

 Standing with the summit marker surrounded by fallen trees and construction equipment.

Standing with the summit marker surrounded by fallen trees and construction equipment.

 Rock with marker plaque.

Rock with marker plaque.


I also shot a short video while I was on the summit. I apologize for the shakiness! 

 

Maine 2013 roadtrip video journal finished!

This has been a back burner project since last summer. I've finally finished editing my video journal from last year's trip to Maine for the highpointers convention. It takes place over the span of a week and chronicles my visits to Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Maine. I shot all the footage with an iPhone 4S and a GoPro Hero3 Black. It was edited using iMovie. About 9 of the images in my portfolio were shot on this trip and the locations and finished images are featured in the video. Enjoy!

 


New Work! Katahdin & Carleton

I've been inactive on the photo front for a little bit. Life and stuff. Well this past weekend I did some catching up. I FINALLY finished the panorama stitch of Mt Carleton (highpoint of New Brunswick). This pano has been mocking me for months. As usual, having the sun in the image is problematic. After several failed attempts at the composition I wanted, I tried it a different way and somehow, it just fell into place (still not easy, but I got it to work). I also put together a another pano from scratch (Mt Katahdin from Pamola Peak) and worked on my latest travel log video which will hopefully be done sooner rather than later. A very productive weekend!

 Mt Carleton

Mt Carleton

 Mt Katahdin from Pamola Peak

Mt Katahdin from Pamola Peak



First real field test of new camera; panoramas and concerts

A few months ago I purchased a new Nikon D800 and this past week I was finally able to really put it to the test, especially it's low light capability. Recently I caught four dates of the Sponge/Spacehog tour. I have always enjoyed shooting concerts, but they often have the issue of not being very brightly lit. With my old D200 I could never set the ISO much higher than 640, 800 tops, before the image quality really fell apart. It helped when I got a couple f2.8 lenes. Even then I was shooting at a 1/60 sec or slower, which resulted in a lot of motion blur. 

With the D800, however, not only am I passing the ISO 800 mark, but am shooing at speeds of ISO 4000! The image does get just a little grainy at these high speeds, but is still more than useable. Plus, I now get to shoot at faster shutter speeds to capture the action of the musicians playing and running around stage.

On the way to these shows, I was also able to stop at a tri-point and state high point for my ongoing series Unlikely Landscapes. One site was shot during dusk and another at night, and both were shot in light rain and frigid cold (this was the first time I had shot a high point at night). The D800 came through again, I was able to get decent exposures in poor lighting conditions with no problem. I've been blown away by the low-light capabilities of the D800, which was the selling point for me rather than the 36 megapixel rating.

I'm still using DX lenses, however, which means I'm getting a cropped image (15MP instead of 36MP). Considering though that my D200 was only 10MP I'm still getting a larger image and the same lens coverage. I'll get proper FX lenses for it one day, but for now, for my purposes, my f/2.8 DX lenses are d 

Check out below for the results of the images of Ebright Azimuth at night (the high point of Delaware) and the tri-point of Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. For the concert images, go to my Facebook page (link below).

 Tri-state point of Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. 2013.

Tri-state point of Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. 2013.

 Ebright Azimuth, Delaware state highpoint. 2013.

Ebright Azimuth, Delaware state highpoint. 2013.

Building a sleeping platform in my 2001 RAV4

I shot this video earlier this year before my trip to the Ohio and Indiana high points, but just recently was able to finally edit it together. It's the process of making the platform in my car for sleeping on an storing things under. I later used it when I attended the high pointers convention in Maine and slept on it for the first half of the week. It works like a champ and I can't wait to use it again!

 

 

Our border with Canada

Here is a short video about the border with our neighbor to the north, Canada. Pretty interesting. It talks about some of the irregularities in what looks like a really straight border. In July on my way to the Highpointers convention, I photographed three of the tri-points that lie along the border with New England. The tri-points of New Hampshire, Quebec, and Vermont and Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec is on what I believe is called the "Slash". A fifty foot wide no man's land where all the trees have been cut down that runs the entire length of the border from east to west. I'm sure I'll be running into the slash again as I still have over a dozen tri-points on the border to visit.

 

 

Thilde Jensen book

Just got my copy of the new Thilde Jensen book "Canaries". Thanks Thilde!! The book deals with the sub-culture of people living with multiple chemical sensitivity. Definitely check it out if you get a chance.

2012 roadtrip

Here is the video for my roadtrip last year to visit and photograph a few geo-extremes in southern New York and New England It's about 26 minutes long.

  

This is a travel diary of my trip in the fall of 2012 to photograph several geo-extremes in New York and Southern New England; the southern and eastern most points of New York, the highpoint of Rhode Island, the tri-point of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, along with places in between.