ASHLAND -- I became a mountaineer kind of by accident. My cellmate and I were at a cowboy wedding at an abandoned ghost town used for Wild West movies outside of Santa Fe in 2012.
We were trying to figure out what to do between nuptial events in the alcoholic desert of northern New Mexico when something popped out on the map:
Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the state.
Wouldn’t that be fun, we thought, to go hike up to the top of the Southwest?
Although I made the summit, the published story I wrote when we returned home was titled, “Leaving My Wife to Die Alone.”
Being out of shape, not acclimated and having no general knowledge of climbing anything outside of the hills of Red River Gorge and Old Man’s Cave, getting to the top was a struggle. So much so that my cellmate got altitude sickness, possibly having had high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).
It turns out the human body isn’t built for rapid elevation changes without a pressurized cabin.
Think of it this way: if there was a magical airplane that could drop you at the summit of Mount Everest, as soon as you got out and touched ground you would pass out. Within minutes you would die.
But I didn’t know any of that then, and when my wife was feeling dizzy and wanted to take a nap in a mountain meadow, that seemed like a fine idea.
I proceeded to the top and maybe it was just the lack of oxygen at over 13,000 feet, but it was so euphoric. I've never done heroin but I imagine, from the descriptions of Burroughs and Irvine Welsh, that climbing a peak is the best junk on the planet. And so I got hooked.
(My wife ended up being fine, but I don’t want to spoil that whole trip just yet.)
For the climber, every trip has a new personal quest behind it and each mountain range is different.
Was it formed by tectonic plates smashing together, a volcano or glaciers? What’s the type of rock, the prominence of the peak? Can you see the range from the highway or does it take an expedition through inhospitable terrain with scarce signs of human settlement to get to the summit?
When my editor found out I’ve been on a mission for the last half-decade to get to the top of every state, he thought it would make for a pretty interesting series.
To this point, I’ve bagged 34 peaks. Some are simple “drive-ups,” like Delaware, that require nothing other than your car and directions.
Others, like Gannett Peak in Wyoming, take months of conditioning and logistics planning, then an actual week to complete the climb.
Then there’s Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America, that’s on a whole other level and that is the closest atmosphere to the Himalaya that you’ll find on this continent.
When I returned from New Mexico, I was at a loss on how to get to the next step of mountaineering. Flat does not even begin to describe Ohio. My climber friend Tony suggested I take classes with an established school on a mountain somewhere.
Too much time and money.
But cellmate Santa Claus changed everything, as my wife bought me an “intro to mountaineering” weekend-long course in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with Eastern Mountain Sports.
She was like, “I just increased your life insurance
policy, and here’s your Christmas present. Take a lot of risks.”
Two months after Christmas I was in the White Mountains going back to school. North Conway, specifically Mount Washington, has some of the strongest wind gusts on the planet, with the record clocked at 231 mph.
My classes covered vertical ice climbing, trekking in crampons (10-point metal spikes for your boot. Not a good idea to put them on indoors and try to walk to your car) and general rope and ice screw use.
I have never been more petrified while doing something in my life.
After my mountain graduation, I found out about highpointing, the “summit of the states,” and wanted in on this new quest that would hopefully get me in shape and make me forget about my failed novel and lust for wine.
Years later, my body had transformed back to that of the athlete and I was leading a climb team into the Grizzly-drenched backcountry of Montana (we’re still working on drinking less Cabernet).
This series documents that evolution.
Adam Fox is an Ashland High School graduate and a columnist for Ashland Source.