The highest point in Hawaii shouldn't be so easy to reach. Mauna Kea's summit is above the clouds and 13,796 feet above sea level.
The highest point in Illinois shouldn’t be so hard to reach. Charles Mound is just a grassy bump next to a driveway in the northwest corner of the state.
But those who’ve made it their mission to visit state high points say it’s not about easy and hard. It’s about the adventure.
“It’s a good way to satisfy that yearning to see new places,” said Dave Johnston, a Talkeetna, Alaska, resident who’s made 10 trips to work on high points. “It’s a great thing to do as a family. It’s so much fun.”
The first time I talked to Johnston was in March 2005 shortly after he climbed Mount Rainier to become the first person summit each state high point in the winter.
His love for highpointing was contagious.
It rubbed off on his family, the first to finish the high points together in 2003, and he left me inspired to give it a try.
A few months later, I climbed Rainier – widely regarded as the second hardest on the list behind Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mount McKinley – so I thought I was off to a good start.
But I never really made high points a priority, which, as it turns out, is a surefire way to make sure you don’t finish the list. Not because the high points are so challenging – 14 can be reached by car – but because most are way off the beaten path.
As a result, four years later my high-point total still stood at one.
“You aren’t going to get to these places no matter how much you travel if you just visit the typical tourist attractions,” said Diane Winger, who wrote “Highpoint Adventures” (The Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2002, $15.95) with her husband, Charlie. “That’s why I got into this. I like those out-of-the-way places.”
Diane has bagged 49 high points with no intention of trying the treacherous slopes of McKinley. “I call it the Just Say No Club. The 49er Club.”
Charlie has climbed all 50, and both are part of the 3,000-member Highpointers Club and attend its annual conventions. The club awards pins for your fifth, 30th, 40th, 48th and 50th high points.
I figured if I’m ever going to earn one of those pins, I better start getting serious.
So, this summer, I decided to make a point of trying a couple new high points when my travels took me to Hawaii and Illinois.
The craziest thing about standing on top of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s big island is the thought that you’re nearly as high as the 14,411-foot summit of Rainier. Yet, I was standing there with, among others, my 8-year-old son and twin nephews, my 10-year-old niece and my hikeaphobic wife who was less than five months removed from completing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.
And I was wearing a light sweatshirt.
We wouldn’t stand a chance at this elevation on Rainier.
But on Mauna Kea, the hardest part is dealing with the rental car companies.
The standard companies won’t allow you to drive up the dirt road that takes you within a couple hundred yards of the summit. In fact, they won’t even let you drive on Saddle Road, the only access from the Kona and Hilo coasts to the upper mountain.
The only option is Harper Car and Truck Rental. For $190, I got a white 15-passenger four-wheel-drive van.
If you rent from Harper, be warned, they are sticklers about their vehicles. They went over the van so thoroughly before and after my rental that they even wheeled a large mirror under the van and noted a couple of scratches on the gas tank.
The van had plenty of room for our party of 11 to comfortably make the ascent from our sea-level condos 13,796 feet to the summit.
This is such a big climb, even by van, that visitor center staff recommends not scuba diving the day before your trip to help prevent getting sick.
To get use to the elevation, we stopped for an easy hike at Pu’u Huluhulu at 6,720 feet. We stopped again at the visitors’ center at about 9,300 feet.
We spent about two hours at the visitors’ center eating lunch, hiking and getting acclimated.
While most of us were fine. My 62-year-old mother-in-law, Gayle, and 10-year-old daughter, Kenzie, were feeling sick.
The official recommendation is to not drive to the summit with kids younger than 16, but a ranger told us we’d fine if we were feeling OK at the observatory.
Gayle and Kenzie stayed at the observatory and watched the interpretive movie (over and over again) while the rest of us made a 2-hour round-trip push to the summit.
You can hike from the observatory, but few people take this option.
Diane and Charlie Winger once made the hike during a Highpointers convention. They had no problem, considering they live at altitude in Colorado and regularly hike 14,000-foot peaks.
“However the people from Florida (which has the lowest high point at 345 feet) had trouble,” Charlie said. “There was a guy at the summit with oxygen for those people.”
We didn’t need oxygen, but the van struggled in the thin air as we climbed through the clouds and across the moonscape.
The summit is an eerie sci-fi scene with 13 massive telescopes scattered across the broad peak. Eleven countries station scientists here to study the heavens.
We parked next to the University of Hawaii telescope and made the easy hike to the peak.
As we posed for pictures, some of us started to feel ill, a sign it was time to head down.
It was hardly the typical Hawaiian experience. You don’t go to Hawaii to wear a fleece and long pants.
But, as Diane Winger would say, that’s kind of the point of high pointing.
I can’t tell you what the view is like from Charles Mound, the highest point in the sixth-flattest state in the country, because I couldn’t make it to the top.
I’ll leave the description to Diane Winger: “You missed out on a lovely grassy field with a nice sign. It’s nice.”
From the top of this Heartland hump, 1,235 feet above sea level, you can see into Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.
The land is owned by Wayne and Jean Wuebbels, and they used to leave it open to high pointers before they got tired of litter and people looking into their home from the mound.
Now, the Wuebbels only allow high pointers the first weekends of June, July, August and September.
I was there the second weekend of September.
I tried to persuade Jean to cut me a break, but it was clear she had no sympathy for my situation. She asked not to be quoted directly but said that she did not care much for the high pointing and cared even less for the media.
It seems previous articles about Charles Mound resulted in huge crowds at her doorstep.
Charlie Winger said the Highpointers Club works with the Wuebbels and others who have state high points on their land to keep access.
I could sympathize with the Wuebbels’ plight, but still, I’d traveled across the country. I’ve climbed Mount Rainier and a hundred other things tougher than Charles Mound.
Being rebuked was hard to take.
So, sitting in a hotel the next day in Chicago, I hatched a plan for a compromise.
Towering above the city, a couple blocks away, was the Willis Tower.
And as it turns out the observation deck on the tower – formerly the Sears Tower – is 1,948 feet above sea level. That’s 713 feet higher than Charles Mound.
I threw on my pack, hiked over to the tower and plunked down my $14.95 to visit the observation deck. I asked if I could take the stairs to the 103rd floor, but the woman behind the counter just laughed and said the stairs were off limits for “safety and staffing reasons.”
You can see three states from here too: Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Throw in Lake Michigan, and the view’s got to be better than Charles Mound.
I’d been here before and remembered taking in the scenery was less than exhilarating from inside an office building.
This time that was not the case. On July 2, a series of glass cubes called “The Ledge” extending from the building opened giving visitors the sensation they are walking on air.
Many visitors screeched as they stepped out on The Ledge. Others grabbed on to friends and touched the glass floor with a toe, unable to muster enough courage to test their faith in engineering.
I have to admit my knees went weak for split second when I stepped out.
But standing there with nothing but a sheet of glass and 1,353 feet of sky between me and Wacker Drive, I gazed in the direction of Charles Mound.
I was as high as I’ll likely ever get in Illinois, but could I count this as my third high point?
“Sorry,” Diane Winger said politely. “Man-made highpoints – that’s a different a list.”
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497
Visit the Adventure Guys blog for a complete list of state high points and more pictures from the Willis Tower Sky Deck and the summit of Mauna Kea.