On the summit

Taum Sauk Mountain, 1772ft

Date climbed: 10:12am Dec 31, 2010

Matthew, Eric, and Keith Gilbertson (dad)
12/30/10 – 1/3/11
States Summitted: MO, AR, LA, MS, FL, AL, GA
Max elevation: 4784ft (GA), Min elevation: 345ft (FL)
2700 Miles of Driving | 120 hrs

Cool YouTube video our dad made: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iPMHHF81_A

Author: Matthew Gilbertson

Every state has a highest point. Some are tall. Some aren’t. But if you’re trying to climb the highest point in every state, they’re all equal. So Florida’s 345-ft Britton Hill counts just the same as Alaska’s 20,320-ft Denali even though, as we discovered, it’s not quite as difficult to climb.

With Denali in May 2010 we had attained high point #34. We needed to knock some more off the list. We had a big missing chunk of states in the southeast that were within striking distance of our home in Kentucky. So we decided to visit them over Christmas Break. We decided to go fast and light. Our most important piece of gear was our Silver 3329lb Mazda-Six. 170 horses would be helping us on our journey.

For our initial planning we used Google Maps. Our goal was to climb the highest points in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia in less than 5 days. We would start and end in Berea, KY. It seemed the shortest route at first would be MO-AR-LA-AL-FL-GA (~2800 miles). But Mississippi’s Woodall Mountain was inconveniently located in the middle of what would have otherwise been a perfect loop, so it seemed like there were multiple possible routes. We tried several route permutations on Google Maps and couldn’t get much less than 2800 miles.

Then it was Matlab to the rescue. One of Eric’s labmates had been working on the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” which seeks to find the optimal path to visit N nodes. Eric decided to adapt the solution strategy to our problem, and made an 8-by-8 matrix of all the possible path lengths. Using Matlab he found that the fastest route was actually MO-AR-LA-MS-FL-AL-GA (2700 miles). So Missouri was fist on our list.

Hi-pt #1: Taum Sauk Mountain – 1772ft (Missouri):

Crossing the border into Missouri

Eric and my Dad drove to St Louis and I rendezvoused with them at the Greyhound Station. I had been visiting Amanda’s family in Kansas City. After a few traffic jams, wrong turns, and non-existent roads we headed south into the Ozarks.

Taum Sauk turned out to be less of a pushover than we had expected. The higher we drove the thicker the fog became. Even on Mt Washington I haven’t seen fog that thick. We inched along and finally made it to the state park at the summit. We set up the tent by the car’s headlights, which pierced through the dense fog.

Eric and Matthew on the summit

My GPS indicated the summit was only about 500 ft to the west. (We had entered in the GPS coordinates of all the high points from Wikipedia beforehand.) We figured we might as well go for it now since it was so close. But it turned out to be impossible to navigate by headlamp in the dense fog. It was like trying to swim through milk, and expecting goggles to improve your visibility. We turned around and went to sleep in the tent.

It poured and blew all night and we woke up soaked. But visibility had improved. Following the GPS we bushwacked toward the “summit.” Turns out the GPS coordinates were off by about 500ft, so if we had tried to find the summit the previous night we probably wouldn’t have seen much. You couldn’t actually tell by topography alone the difference between the true high point and just another pile of leaves.

Soon we spotted a big rock in the woods and a trail leading up to it from the other side. It was the summit of Taum Sauk Mountain. We had made it. Our 211-day high-point drought since Denali had ended.

Eric juggling on the summit

Now it was time for our traditional summit rigamarole. We need to get pictures of me and Eric jumping, a picture of Eric juggling, and some summit rocks. And we needed pictures on at least two cameras so if one camera was lost, documentation of our accomplishment would still survive. The more high points we climbed the longer the checklist. I think on Clingman’s Dome (our first high point) back in 1996 we were satisfied with just a single picture. Now we’ll probably have to start over on all those early high points so we can collect rocks from them.

Whew. Our first high point had been exhausting. We had hiked over 1000 ft with an elevation gain of 3 ft. We hoped Arkansas would be more merciful.

Hi-pt #2: Signal Hill on Mount Magazine – 2753ft (Arkansas):

On our way to Magazine Mountain we toured the boondocks of the Ozarks. The area was surprisingly forested and sparsely populated. We hadn’t expected such remoteness in Missouri and Arkansas. The roads were so infrequently traveled that once while I was driving we came upon a big tree that had fallen across the highway. I slammed on the brakes and luckily we stopped in time. Thankfully there was enough room in the ditch to drive around the tree. Otherwise we might have had to drag it out of the way with a rope.

We continued on our Matlab-calculated optimal path which took us through Yellville, Flippin, Hasty, and Subiaco. Then we found ourselves at Mount Magazine State Park. A short hike and a little bushwacking brought us to the summit of Signal Hill, the roof of Arkansas.

Arkansas is proud of its high point. There was a giant sign proclaiming this point to be the highest in the state. A large stone map of Arkansas paved the ground.

Once again it was time for the summit festivities. Ten other tourists sat down and observed curiously as we jumped and juggled. Our Dad said we did this on every high point and everyone relaxed a little. This was our 35th high point. We were now 70% done with all 50.

Mount Magazine had been another tough one. We could only imagine what was in store for is in Louisiana.

Hi-pt #3: Driskill Mountain – 535ft (Louisiana):

From Mount Magazine we drove off into the sunset. We headed south through Little Rock and soon found ourselves in the southern boondock region of Arkansas. It turned out that it was actually New Years Eve, and we could think of no better way to celebrate than by visiting the roof of Louisiana.

Driskill Mountain turned out to be a little trickier to get to than the previous high points. We had printed off the Summit Post directions that read “The primary route on Driskill Mountain begins at the parking lot of the Mt. Zion Presbyterian Church, however, those desiring more vertical gain and more distance can park further south at the intersection where Jot Em Down Road comes in.”

We didn’t want to take any chances, so we headed for the church. Luckily the topo maps I had loaded on the GPS actually marked the church, so we made it there without much difficulty. We didn’t see any Sheratons in the vicinity so we decided we’d have to camp. We drove up near the cemetery and spotted a nice grove of trees. It was 11pm on New Year’s Eve so we didn’t expect too many people to be checking up on us tonight. Eric and I slept in the tent while our Dad guarded the car.

We woke up in the morning and noticed a big NO TRESPASSING sign that was apparently referring to the area we had just camped in. “Huh, they must have put that up overnight,” I guessed. We took down the tent and you couldn’t tell we had been there.

Now for the hard part: the ascent. We prepared for what would be our longest hike yet: 0.8 miles to the summit. We were fortunate that the weather was favorable, because we had been concerned by the Summit Post entry describing when to climb the mountain: “This mountain can be hiked year-round with no ill-effects posed by weather changes. There are slight chances of being deterred by freak ice-storms or hurricanes, but these are well publicized occurrences.”

We headed up the dirt road and followed the signs. Then we reached the summit. A diligent Eagle Scout (probably with some help from his dad) had erected a stunning sign and kiosk at the top. After we finished our summit traditions a father and his young son appeared at the top. The dad asked us how early we had started on our high points quest. We told him we climbed our first one when we were ten. “Then there’s still hope for my son,” he replied. Indeed, we thought, with a strong start on Driskill Mountain that little kid is well on his way to all 50 states.

Three high points down, four to go.

Hi-pt #4: Woodall Mountain – 807ft (Mississippi):

Now it was time for some serious driving. Since we were so far south here in Louisiana it was tempting to cut across southern MS and visit the highest point in Florida. We figured this might be a shortcut. But Matlab and Google know all the shortcuts. The Matlab-optimized path took us next to Mississippi’s Woodall Mountain, 422 miles away. So we buckled up and kept driving.

We cut through most of the state of Mississippi that day and passed through Elivs’s hometown in Tupelo. Right around sunset we wound up a steep gravel road and found ourselves on the roof of Mississippi. A gigantic boulder with a plaque marked the summit. It was tricky to get the traditional jumping pictures but our dad managed to get a few good ones.

We hadn’t exercised properly for a few days now and our legs were starting to ask questions. So we went for a quick run around the summit to pacify them and hopped back in the car. We were headed to Florida.

Hi-pt #5: Britton Hill – 345ft (Florida):

You don’t really think of mountains when you think of Florida. You don’t even think of hills. It turns out that the highest point in Florida is actually one of the skyscrapers in Miami. But the highest “natural point,” Britton Hill, was where we were headed. Britton Hill is one of the farthest points in Florida from the ocean. So we would be some of the very few people who have visited Florida without seeing either the beach, Disney World, or alligators.

First we needed to cross the entire state of Alabama. Our dad took over driving so we could get some rest. As we drove south we tried to come up with a camping strategy. There weren’t any state parks along the way. There was no way we’d stoop to staying in a hotel. Perhaps we could camp on Britton Hill? So we kept driving.

We ended up driving the entire length of Alabama from North to South that night and reached the town of Florala, on the Florida/Alabama state line, around 11pm. There was a state park and a campground but we decided to push on towards the summit since we were so close. But when we got there a police car guarded the parking lot. He was probably there just taking a doughnut break, but this meant that it was off-limits to stealth-campers like us. So, defeated, we drove back to the state park and set up our tent.

The dishonor associated with camping in a state park is that you have to pay and you’re not all by yourself. But I suppose we got our $12’s worth because we each took a shower in the morning.

8:30am. It was game time. It wasn’t exactly an alpine start but we still believed we’d summit before dark. We hopped into the Mazda and drove the long mile to the summit. Soon we found ourselves on the lowest state high point in the country. It felt like a monumental achievement.

Like Louisiana, Florida is also very proud of its high point–a very nice little park surrounds the summit. In fact, I think there were more picnic tables, benches, and parking spaces on the summit of Britton Hill than the summit of Denali. We took the requisite jumping and juggling pictures, but had difficulty completing the traditional summit trifecta, which included the collection of a summit rock. I couldn’t find any actual rocks so I had to settle for a bag of sand. It is possible that there’s not a rock in the whole state.

After paying our final respects to the summit of the Sunshine State it was time to aim for the azimuth of Alabama.

Hi-pt #6: Cheaha Mountain – 2413ft (Alabama):

We drove north through Montgomery and headed towards Cheaha Mountain. With rolling, forested hills mixed with golden farmland it looked like a different Alabama than I had expected. Cheaha Mountain rose prominently in the distance. On the way up we actually had to switch into a lower gear because the roads were so steep. But we encountered the biggest hurdle of the journey when we entered Cheaha Mountain State Park and turned on the road to the summit: the entrance fee. $3 per car. Ouch.

Eric and Dad had been there a few years before but didn’t remember the fee. Well, if it’s $3 per car, we thought, then we’ll just have to leave the car at the bottom. So we finished the climb by foot. A very nice little observation tower was perched at the summit. It was a little tricky to get a jumping summit photo indoors but we managed by jumping off a chair. From the top you could see a significant portion of Alabama and well into Georgia. It was the best view we had experienced so far.

We spent some time capturing the perfect jumping photo. A good jumping photo requires teamwork between the photographer and the jumper. Here’s the recipe for a perfect shot:

0) Photographer first kneels on the ground and aims the camera up at the jumper. Kneeling is essential for any quality picture.
1) Photographer presses the camera’s trigger down half-way so the camera focuses, then says “ready.”
2) Jumper counts “1… 2… 3” and jumps on 3.
3) The photographer looks through the viewfinder/LCD and when the jumper is at his/her apogee the photographer presses the trigger.
4) Meanwhile, when the jumper is at apogee, he/she pulls legs in so it looks like he/she is farther off the ground.
5) In resulting picture jumper looks to be ten feet off the ground.
6) Repeat sequence as necessary.

Step 3 is the hardest to perfect and requires decades of experience. It becomes even more difficult when there are two jumpers. Together with our dad we followed the sequence perfectly and he captured a few textbook jumping shots.

Next we headed for the roof of Georgia to practice our jumping-photo skillz one last time.

Hi-pt #7: Brasstown Bald – 4784ft (Georgia):

It was nearing the end of our fourth full day. We had budgeted six days for the whole trip but we had been so eager to keep going that we were a day ahead of schedule. We could have pushed through the night and climbed Brasstown Bald in the dark, but instead we chose to save it for the morning when we could actually get a good view. We camped that night near the Appalachian Trail at Neal’s Gap, a pivotal road crossing for many A.T. thru hikers. Only half the thru hikers who start out make it past Neal’s Gap.

We cooked a traditional thru-hiker’s meal of pasta + tomato sauce and prepared for bed. I filled a bottle with some boiling water and threw it in my sleeping bag to heat it up. It was predicted to drop into the low 20’s that night so we were going to need all the heat we could get because we had thin summer sleeping bags. After talking to Amanda on the phone for a while I retired to the tent and looked forward to my nice pre-heated sleeping bag. I smiled with anticipation. But to my horror the water bottle had leaked and the sleeping bag was soaked the whole way through. This was not going to be a good night, I guessed.

I soon realized the cause for the leak: the cheap-O water bottle I had used was definitely not intended for the heat. It seemed that the lid was made from a plastic that had a higher thermal expansion coefficient than the rest of the bottle. So when the lid heated up it expanded more than the bottle opening and compromised the seal.

I knew it wasn’t going to be a pleasant night. I put all my layers on and placed a trash bag above and below me to keep the water from wicking into my clothes. Thankfully it didn’t get as cold as expected that night so we both managed to get some sleep.

The sun rose on the morning of our 41st high point. It was show time. After a short drive we were at the base of the hike to Brasstown Bald. We discovered that winter time is the prime time to climb. There was only one other car in the entire 100-spot parking lot. A quick 0.6 mile paved walkway took us to the summit.

From the observation deck the view was exquisite. To the southwest we could see the tall buildings of Atlanta, 90 miles away. To the north were the Smokies and to the east we could see well into South Carolina. It couldn’t have been any clearer. For this, our last high point of the trip, we needed some extra-special jumping pictures. We scoured the deserted complex for the perfect angle. Finally we settled upon a location with good lighting and the observation tower in the background and captured the shots we were looking for.

Brasstown Bald was ours. High Point #41. We breathed in the crisp Georgia air and took a final look at the panorama before us. Then we slowly walked down to the car. Our adventure was nearing its end.

We hopped in the car and began the long drive back to Kentucky. Along the way we stopped by the Smokies, hoping to re-visit our very first high point, Climgman’s Dome. But the road was closed because of deep snow.

We headed north towards home base: Berea. The mountains grew smaller and more distant in the rear view mirror. Meanwhile, my thoughts of mountains were slowly being displaced by the anxiety of one colossal hurdle that loomed at the end of the month: the Qualifying Examinations. Ugh…

…one month later…

We ended up passing Quals. Now it’s time to finish up the nine remaining high points.

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