Burnt Hills hiker hits 50 states' highest points
BURNT HILLS When James Maughan reached the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine on Saturday, he had reason to celebrate. The 51-year-old Burnt Hills resident had just completed his quest to visit the highest point in each of the 50 states. But there was no fanfare, no champagne corks popping.
“We got down as quickly as we could because it was raining, windy and cold,” the accomplished hiker said matter-of-factly.
Maughan said he never dreamed he’d have all of the skills required or the gear needed to climb to the country’s highest places, but hike by hike, he gathered it all along the way.
“It’s as much circumstance as heroic effort,” he said of his achievement.
As general manager of products service for GE Wind, Maughan travels extensively for work, and he seized the opportunity to piggyback his high-point visits with his business trips.
A cancelled flight home from South Carolina in March of 2001 led to a 3,560-foot climb up Sassafras Mountain. A few weeks later, a trip to Atlanta offered an ideal opportunity to hike 4,784-foot-high Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest peak.
“Gradually over the course of my travels for the last 10 years or so, I’ve had the chance to get almost everywhere in the U.S.,” he said.
His first high point was crested way before that, though. In February of 1978, at age 17, he skied up 6,288-foot-high Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
His next high point — 14,411-foot-high Mount Rainier in Washington — wasn’t reached until June of 1993.
Maughan hit his stride in 2002, when he reached the highest spots in six different states.
Mount McKinley in Alaska, the country’s highest peak at 20,320 feet in elevation, was the most memorable of all of his climbs. He tackled it solo in June of 2011.
“It took me 14 days to get up and three days to get down. It’s just a huge logistics challenge, hauling all the gear up the mountain and camping up on the glacier for two weeks as you climb higher and higher each day,” he said.
Even on the most challenging hikes, he never lost his way for long or suffered serious injuries.
“McKinley had some interesting weather. We had some rough weather getting down McKinley, but it worked out OK,” he said.
Reaching the high point in Florida was a walk in the park — literally.
“It’s just a county park in the western part of the state. You drive right to the high point, you step out of your car and there’s a plaque: ‘Highest Point in Florida,’ ” Maughan said. The elevation there: 345 feet.
Delaware’s high point, at 448 feet in elevation, had even less of a view.
“It’s just the corner of two streets in a suburb. I think I was driving between Philadelphia and New York on business and then I just pulled over off the interstate in Delaware and there it is, right on the corner,” he recalled.
Although some aren’t worth writing home about, all of the high points are interesting, he said.
“It’s just a lot of fun to get out there in communities normally you would never see. … I really enjoyed seeing the small towns and the people and the diners,” he explained.
Many “highpointers” are drawn by the desire to visit out-of-the-way places, said John Mitchler, a member of the Highpointers Club, which promotes climbing to the 50 highest points, educates people about them and aids in their preservation.
“When you go to Pennsylvania, you don’t go to the Liberty Bell or Pittsburgh, you go to [Mount] Davis, which is down in the south-central part of the state, so it’s off the beaten track,” he said.
Another appeal is the physical challenge of reaching the high points.
“There’s a whole varying degree of difficulty, from easy walks to long walks to overnights, and there’s a handful that are really technical climbs, either on rock or on glaciers,” he said.
Mitchler tracks the number of people who successfully visit all 50 high points — club members and non-members alike. To date, he’s got 239 “completers” on his list.
The profile of the typical highpointer has changed over the years, he noted.
“In the ’70s and ’80s it was just mountaineers, guys that wanted to go out and climb peaks and travel around,” he said. But now, he sees more families taking on the challenge together.
Friends and family members accompanied Maughan on a few of his treks, but most were made solo, since the majority were completed when he was away on business.
His wife, Sharon, doesn’t share his desire to climb to high places.
“I’d rather look at the mountains in photographs instead of climb to the very top,” she said.
But despite her lack of desire to don hiking boots, Maughan says Sharon is the main reason he’s scaled so many mountains.
“She bought me a book about doing the 50 high points after I did [the high point in] South Carolina. So after she bought me the book, I had to do it, I guess,” he joked. “She bought me a book on the 46 Adirondack high peaks a number of years ago, so I had to do those as well. I hope she doesn’t buy me any more books.”