Marhofn 171.09 - May 2007

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From Marilyns to Maryland: Apex to Zenith reviewed

Dave Hewitt

Few Marhofn readers will have come across Apex to Zenith: it's the hill-magazine equivalent of an obscure import album found only in specialist record shops. The newsletter of the American-based Highpointers Club, A-Z has been published quarterly for an impressive 75 issues to date. There are parallels with Marhofn: fortyish pages, A4 format, mainly black-and-white but with an increasing number of colour photographs. The one concession to glossiness is its cover, but Trail or TGO this ain't, not least because A-Z has a stated policy of refusing commercial adverts.

Highpointing is a vast, scaled-up version of county top bagging, the aim being to visit the highest summit in each of the 50 American states (as of May 2006 there had been 157 such completions), or the considerably easier, but still considerable, topping-out of the 48 contiguous states. Space is also given to pastimes such as county highpointing (where Bill Schuler is 'up to 1753 counties done') and ticking off tri-state points, each a kind of mega Three Shires Stone.

It's the sheer continental scale of the game that's most impressive. Highpointers put in a lot of air or Cherokee Jeep miles - don't even think about the carbon footprint - as the 50 targets on the main list are far-flung to say the least. There are some clusters of summits, but the most ever managed inside 24 hours is eight (the highpoints of WV, MD, PA, DE, NJ, CT, MA and RI; you soon pick up state-name shorthand after reading a few issues of A-Z).

The range of difficulty is remarkable. At one extreme there are serious undertakings such as Denali (Alaska), Gannett Peak (Wyoming) and Granite Peak (Montana). Then there are Britton Hill (Florida), Jerimoth Hill (Rhode Island) and Ebright Azimuth (Delaware), each of which, judging from the photographs and write-ups, would make Bishop Wilton Wold feel strenuous. The newsletter often includes photographs of groups gathered at highpoints at the easier end of the scale. Such people tend to look cheery, if worryingly patriotic; but hey, it's good to see them out enjoying the fresh air.

These Mynydd y Betws-type hilltops aren't necessarily trivial, though. This land isn't always your land, and the guys with guns over there aren't the tweedy types we know and love over here. The lengths to which the Highpointers Club has gone to negotiate hassle-free access can be seen in the situation on Jerimoth Hill: '...this highpoint is now open for daily access to members of the Highpointers Club. Non-members are restricted to visiting at weekends only. All visitation is from 8am-3pm only.' Note also that the wildlife tends to be scaled up somewhat from the deer / hare / ptarmigan level. Think snakes. Think bears.

Having said that A-Z contains no commercial advertising, there is a lot of in-house merchandising: books, shirts, 'pins, patches, plaques' and - this being America - the inevitable bumper sticker: 'Highpointers Aren't Born - They Ascend'. The 2007 annual Convention (or Konvention; A-Z likes wacky Ks, its motto is 'Keep Klimbin!'), will be held in Wisconsin, with a 'Friday Night Bratwurst Fry' and Saturday night banquet. There are business meetings - the Foundation Board of Directors sounds one to avoid - while the 'Highpointers Club Bylaws' run to seven pages, with headings such as 'Procedural Matters'. Indeed, for all the labour-of-love homespun feel of A-Z, highpointing has enough underlying bureaucracy to deter many UK hill-goers, for whom taking to the slopes is about evading rather than embracing officialdom.

Then there is the curious fate that has befallen the mortal remains of Jack (or, predictably, Jakk) Longacre, 'unexcelled leader and founder of the Highpointers Club'. The seventh known completer and first to log his fellow enthusiasts (which makes him the American version of Eric Maxwell, who started the list of Munroists), Longacre died in 2002, aged 64. Regular 'Jack Updates' now detail a rather morbid scheme to deliver portions of his ashes to country tops and other locations across the world. Each to their own, and it appears to be what he wanted, but personally I'd rather stay in the one place once I've gone to the great Konvention in the sky.

In truth, I'm hardly the person best placed to appreciate A-Z, being neither a foreign traveller (I've still to spend a night outside the UK, two day-trips into Donegal having been the limit of my wanderlust), nor temperamentally suited to events organised with any kind of formality. But others are likely to be more enthused, and there could be scope for exchange visits: Marilyn baggers yee-ha-ing west to pick off the odd state highpoint, while Highpointers come over here to sample the joys of Crock and Crowborough. In fact A-Z editor John Mitchler (who completed in 2001 with the 3360ft Backbone Mountain in Maryland) visited these shores in 2005 to scurry round Scafell Pike, Snowdon and, you've guessed it, Ben Nevis. So it's now the turn of one of us lot to go and sample their wares. Hands across the ocean and all that. www.highpointers.org

John Mitchler and wife Kathy (photo: Alan Dawson)

John Mitchler and wife Kathy (photo: Alan Dawson)

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