LATHAM, N.Y. — Donald Berens has seen all the high points of America, from the snowy summit of Mt. McKinley to the cattle trough behind Merrill Sterler's barn.
Berens is a "peak bagger," one of those restless souls in Vibram soles who are always looking for a new crag to scale so they can jot it down in their log books. It's sort of a hobby, like stamp collecting.
Last spring, Berens, a 38-year-old lawyer who lives with his wife and two kids in suburban Albany, became a member of the elite group of mountaineers who have bagged the highest peak in each of the 50 United States.
As far as those who keep track of such things can determine, he is the seventh person to do it.
Jack Longacre, a 50-year-old trailer park proprietor in Mountain Home, Ark., claims to be the sixth person to have climbed all the high points. He says he knows of about two dozen others who are working on it.
It's an arduous project, with many obstacles to overcome. In Alaska, there are blizzards, crevasses, pulmonary edema. In Delaware there are speeding cars. In Indiana the high point is obscured by cornstalks.
A 21-Year Project
It took Berens 21 years, but he bagged them all. He logged the 50th peak on May 27, when he trudged through thigh-deep snow to the supposedly arid summit of 13,143-foot Boundary Peak in Nevada.
"When we got to the top, we celebrated with champagne and fruitcake and just contemplated our situation," he recalled.
Berens, who works for the state attorney general's office, traces his zeal for hiking back to his days as a Boy Scout in suburban Rochester.
"I got my first state high point when I was a senior at Pittsford High School," he says. That was 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy in New York.
Berens' second conquest was Mt. Greylock in Massachusetts, where he was a student at nearby Williams College. He climbed Vermont's high point, Mt. Mansfield, while visiting an uncle in Burlington.
"At that point," he said, "I realized I only had 47 to go." Somehow it just snowballed from there.
The major obstacle to climbing all the high points, besides the time and money it takes to travel all over the country, is that some peaks require technical rock and ice-climbing skills. Berens enrolled in a course at Rainier Mountaineering Inc. in Seattle.
In 1975, he climbed Washington's 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier with two premier mountaineers. His guides were Phil Ershler, who in 1984 became the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest via the north face, and Marty Hoey, a young woman who died on Everest's north face in 1982.
The most challenging of the high points was 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, the highest summit in Alaska and all of North America. It took a 17-day expedition, Berens recalled.
"We had to wait out a two-day snowstorm at 14,000 feet." Because of the elevation, one woman in the group developed pulmonary edema, or fluid in the lungs.
Berens recalls the experience fondly, however. He said McKinley was one of his favorite climbs because of the fellowship among the climbers, the sense of accomplishment and the starkly beautiful scenery.
"Each region is beautiful in its own way," he said. "Kings Peak in Utah has beautiful meadows and forests, which McKinley doesn't have. Granite Peak in Montana has sharply defined silhouettes, cleanly fractured granite with lots of angularity."
The ugliest high point? Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. "There's an asphalt sidewalk all the way to the top," he said. "It's so crowded, you don't get any sense of isolation or accomplishment."
Middle of the Road
The most dangerous high spot of all, he said, was Delaware's, near Wilmington. "That's because the high point of Delaware happens to be the double yellow line of a road that goes over a hill."
The lowest high point, an unnamed hump in the Florida Panhandle, is just 345 feet above sea level. "It's a scrubby little hill covered with short pine thickets," Berens said. "It's kind of hard to tell which point is the highest, so I just wandered around until I was convinced that I'd stood on every little nubble."
He said that some of the high points would be nearly impossible to locate without the help of a little guidebook written in 1970 by Frank Ashley and published by La Siesta Press in California. And the book is hard to find.
"It's been out of print for 10 years," Ashley said in a telephone interview. "There's not much interest in doing the high points. It takes a lot of time and money."
Longacre said he thinks interest is growing, however. During the four years it took him to do the high points, his curiosity was piqued by notations in the registries at some of the summits.
Claims on Registers
"I read it again and again: This is my sixth, my 20th. I was curious to find just how many people were doing this." So he placed an ad in the back of a mountaineering magazine asking people who were doing the 50 peaks to write to him.