Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Many Faces Of Peakbagging

Atop Reinhart Knob completing the South Beyond 6000 Challenge some 20 years after I started it. Photo by Peter Barr

What to write about in my very first blog post? Since it will be a frequent topic, I suppose it would be appropriate to talk about this hobby of mine, this thing I like to do and often obsess about - peakbagging.

Peakbagging is the act of getting to the highest point of a mountain for the purpose of being able to say one has been there. And because the peak is on a list. After you visit the peak, you get to check it off the list, a simple but pleasing act. The thing is though, is that there is an infinite number of lists. You can concentrate on as many, or as few, as you like. You can work on established lists or you can even create your own. Peakbagging is a relatively obscure activity here in the Southeast, though that is slowly changing. But it has long been extremely popular among hikers in the Northeast and certain other areas of the country such as Colorado, California, and Washington. It’s a great way to explore areas that you never would have thought of otherwise. Some of these end up being as awesome and rewarding as far better known destinations. And it gives one goals to work toward, unending challenge and variety, and a deep sense of satisfaction upon completing a given list. Of course, all of the peaks may not be great and some may be downright unpleasant and incredibly difficult to get to. Depending on the specific list, many peaks also present issues such as being trail-less or on private property to deal with, but surmounting these obstacles only adds to the feeling of achievement. But the biggest reason for peakbagging is a love of mountains and an overwhelming desire to visit as many as possible. And to enjoy the quest.

Most lists are based on certain criteria. The most common, and most popular,  is elevation - such as all the peaks in Virginia above 4,000 feet, or all the peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet. Or it can be a set number, such as the Highest 50 in Virginia or the Highest 100 in the Southeast. You don’t want to consider every tiny bump on a mountain as a separate peak so most of these lists use a prominence (more on that later, but very basically, how far a peak rises above the ridgeline connecting it to other peaks) cutoff to determine what actually counts as a peak. In most mountainous areas of the U.S. the generally accepted cutoff is 300 feet. A notable exception is New England where 200 feet is widely accepted as the prominence cutoff. Anything less doesn’t count as a ranked peak - though it may still be well worth visiting for views or other reasons. The table below from Lists of John clarifies this. Haw Orchard Mountain is ranked as third highest in Virginia based on P300’ even though three named summits are higher, the reason being that those three summits are nothing more than minor bumps with as little as 80’ of prominence.

A closely related tangent is Highpointing. This includes such lists as doing the highest point in each state or the highest point in each county of a given state. Prominence does not matter here, only that one reaches the highest point in a given geographical area. While it may well be a major peak, it does not necessarily have to be. It may not have even 50 feet of prominence if it is in a flat area like a coastal plain. It doesn’t necessarily have to have any prominence or even be on top of a hill. This happens when the highest point in a county is along a boundary line that doesn’t actually cross the summit of a mountain but only across its slopes. A prime example is Greene County in Virginia. Where the county line crosses the south slopes of Hazeltop (whose summit is entirely in Page and Madison Counties) happens to be the highest point in the entire county. This is known as a “liner” and most are about as unexciting as you would expect. But it’s still the highpoint.

Another commonly used criteria for lists is prominence. Generally speaking, the actual summit elevation is irrelevant. What matters is how much a peak rises above and dominates its surroundings. This is a simplified explanation, but all peaks (excepting Mount Everest and most continental and island highpoints) are connected by ridgelines and watershed divides to a higher peak somewhere. This may be the next peak on the ridge or it may be miles and miles away. But somewhere along these connecting ridges is a gap, the lowest of perhaps several. The height our peak rises above that saddle is its prominence, and as shown in the photograph at the upper right of . Another way of looking at it is to imagine any peak, any peak at all. Then imagine raising the sea level until the very moment that peak becomes the very highest point on its very own island. The distance above the new sea level is the prominence of that peak. There may be other peaks on the island, some with considerable prominence themselves, but they will all be lower than the peak in question. An excellent resource for learning more about prominence is the cited web page above, and all of the links located there."

 Like the elevation lists, there are variations. One can pursue a list of the most prominent peak in each state or county and it’s not always the highpoint - though it often is. Or one can set a cutoff, the most common being 1,000’ (P1K), 2,000’ (P2K), and 5,000’. The latter is termed an “Ultra” and there are only 57 in the continental U.S. Thus far, only 8 people have completed that list of 57 ultras. Virginia has 1,554 peaks with 300’ of prominence but only 106 have 1,000’ or more. Of those, only 9 have 2,000’ of prominence and none are ultras. Or one can climb a set number, for example, the 50 Most Prominent in the Southeast. The general feeling about large prominence peaks is that they are major stand-alone peaks, not merely one of several modest peaks in close proximity to one another. World-class mountains with significant topographic prominence include Mount Rainier and Kilimanjaro.

Other criteria might include isolation (the distance from the nearest higher peak), steepness, or simply all the peaks in a given geographical area like a county or a national park.

Then there are club lists. They may well be based on one of the criteria already mentioned, usually elevation, but can include anything a group of people deem worthy. They can be quirky at times but are also extremely popular. Many might say they are often non-objective as they sometimes make exceptions for peaks that don’t even meet their own criteria. They do this by including peaks that are otherwise interesting or to make the list contain a certain number of peaks. They sometimes allow substitutes for various reasons such as access issues and at least one even requires that four of the peaks on the list be climbed a second time, in Winter. Another eschews the above criteria entirely except for the fact that the peak must be below 4,000’. That one is in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and is called 52 With A View and is designed to get people to visit some of the lower peaks that are interesting while taking some of the attention and crowding off of the extremely popular Four-Thousand Footers in the state. Some also require minimum hike distances and elevation gains before the peak can be counted. But to each his own and there is a place for lists that are subjective or based purely on aesthetics. Perhaps the most popular list in the Southeast is the Carolina Mountain Club’s and Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club’s South Beyond 6,000 Challenge. This involves summiting the 40 peaks in the Southern Appalachians that are above 6,000’ in elevation. Several of these are quite remote and do not have official trails, only “manways” that can be difficult to find and stay on. About 200 people have completed this list so far. Just as a comparison to the popularity of peakbagging in the Northeast, over 7,300 people have completed the Adirondack 46ers list in New York. But that just means there is still a chance to get in early on some lists in the Southeast - maybe even first like my good friend +Peter Barr who was the first person to complete all 200 Southern Fivers with 200’ of prominence and is poised to be the first to complete all of North Carolina’s P1Ks.

One can concentrate entirely on one list or one criteria such as County Highpoints or peaks with at least 1,000’ of prominence, or peaks in a certain state above a certain elevation. Or you can work on as many different lists as you like. You can also mix and match different lists. One acquaintance of mine likes doing peaks with a lot of isolation, usually at least 25 miles. But he, personally, doesn’t really consider it a peak unless it has at least 1,000’ of prominence. If it meets both criteria then he wants to climb it - no matter where it is.

The best way to get started is to visit one of the sites below. There you can find various lists and sometimes even trip reports to learn how other people got there. All three also allow you to create an account so that you can enter your peaks and track your progress on various lists. All three have their strengths and weaknesses but all three are wonderful resources. Lists of John is an amazing website created by John Kirk of Colorado. His database contains every single peak in the U.S. with 300’ of prominence and this includes all unnamed peaks as well - and there are a LOT. The database also contains nearly every named peak and county highpoint in the country, even if it has less than 300’ of prominence. The sole exception is Alaska which he has only completed down to 10,000’ in elevation at this time. It allows you to enter the peaks you climb and keeps track of your progress on various lists. It also allows you to create custom lists which you can keep private or share with all the other 1,700+ users of the site. I am still discovering functionalities on this site. Peakbagger is owned by Greg Slayden of Washington and has about 2,500 active users. It doesn’t contain every P300 peak in the U.S. like Lists Of John but it is international in scope. There are many predetermined lists on the site, but you can also select your own parameters (elevation, location, prominence, etc.) to run a query, generate a peak list, and, if you like the results, save it as a list. You can also add peaks to the database if they aren’t already there, a very nice touch. They are considered provisional until Greg approves them. County Highpointers is owned maintained by Adam Helman of California. This is the place to go for all things related to County Highpointing, including trip reports and keeping track of your progress. The holy grail for most county highpointers is the state completion - reaching the highpoint of every county in a state and and a task varying enormously in difficulty ranging from Rhode Island to Alaska. As a 'boutique website' specifically for that ONE genre, the ranks of county highpointers will never be large, but the roughly 200 registered users form a very active and passionate group with a lively forum. There is an automated system like the other two sites but one of the real treasures is the ability to create custom completion maps that you can have Adam update periodically, some of which are virtual works of art.

Wordy though I have already been, one could add much, much more to this post and still only scratch the surface. The important thing is simply to pick some peaks, get out there, and start exploring.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! The guy in the picture needs a haircut though ;)