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He Sets New Mark Reaching Old Heights

December 14, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GARNET MOUNTAIN, Calif. — Nuclear physicist and bassoonist John Backus, 76, hiked to the top of this San Diego County peak Sunday afternoon and became the first member of the Sierra Club to climb 270 mountains--six times.

Completing the circuit has taken Backus to eight Southern California counties where he climbed mountains over 5,000 feet high, including 11,499-foot Mount San Gorgonio.

"Hurray for John, the mightiest mountain climber of them all," shouted one of the 17 Sierra Club "Hundred Peakers" accompanying Backus on the his final assault, the climb to this mountain's 5,680-foot summit 15 miles south of Julian.

It was one of the shortest hikes of the 270 peaks on the "Hundred Peakers" list, only one-third mile from the road, cross-country and straight up over rocks, through snow-covered, icy slopes and dense manzanita thickets on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day Backus had hiked eight miles round trip to the summit of 5,054-foot Oakzanita Peak, leaving at 8 a.m. in 15-degree weather. That jaunt took him four hours.

Then he drove 16 miles to scale the second mountain of the day, three miles round trip to 5,880-foot Garnet Peak, an hour's hike. (Garnet Peak and Garnet Mountain are two distinct places.)

When he finally completed his sixth time around the 270-mountain loop--meaning he had climbed 1,620 peaks--he broke into a few lines of poetry from Alice in Wonderland:

Oh Oysters said the carpenter

We've had a pleasant run.

Shall we be going back again? . . .

As is custom with "Hundred Peakers," there was a champagne celebration. Austin Stirratt, 66, who climbed his 200th peak Sunday, pulled a bottle from his knapsack, and hiker Charlotte Bourne, 67, who completed the list, her 270th peak also being Garnet Mountain, provided the glass. And Backus quenched his thirst.

"I would have brought along my bassoon and played a tune if I hadn't had a recent operation on my lip," apologized the mountain climbing professor who lives in Eagle Rock.

The Hundred Peak Section of the Sierra Club was the brainchild of the late Weldon Heald, a conservation writer, who compiled a list of 180 peaks over 5,000 feet in Southern California in 1945.

A person could become a "Hundred Peaker" by climbing 100 of the 180 mountains on the list. The list has grown through the years to 270 mountains.

Now, 43 years later, some 765 men and women have hiked to the top of 100 of the peaks; 240 have done 200 peaks; 123 hikers have done the complete list of 270.

Only seven men and two women have gone around twice. Only three men have gone around more than three times: Backus, Dick Akawie, 63, a Santa Monica chemist, and Frank Goodykoontz, 61, head of data processing for the Hacienda-La Puenta School District.

Goodykoontz, who was on the hike Sunday, has 24 mountains to go to complete the loop four times. Akawie is about 50 peaks behind Backus.

During World War II Backus worked on the development of the atomic bomb at UC Berkeley. He attributes his seven cancer operations over the last 11 years to his exposure to radiation at the lab. But he doesn't let cancer interfere with his hiking.

He taught physics at USC from 1945 until 1980 and has written as many scientific papers on musical instruments as he has on physics. He has been an orchestra leader and played first bassoonist for years for the El Camino Community College and Pasadena Community orchestras. He also plays the kettle drums and piano and produces clarinet reeds as a hobby.

"Climbing mountains is my exercise. I love the fresh air, looking at the magnificent scenery and getting out of the smog. It keeps me young. But climbing mountains is also like hitting yourself with a hammer. It feels good when you stop. It's hard work," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Backus first began the 270-peak circuit with a climb in 1965 and finished in 1971. He completed the other circuits in 1975, 1980, 1983 and in 1986.

In addition to doing the 100 Peaker list six times, he has climbed the highest points in all the western states, climbed the Sierra Club's 88 desert peaks and 101 High Sierra summits.

At a potluck party on the slopes of Garnet Mountain after his record climb, Backus said he didn't think he would try to make the loop again. But he said that after his second, third, fourth and fifth conquests of the circuit.

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