The thrill of the climb

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Don Smalley stands atop Oregon’s Mt. Hood in June 2016. It was one stop on his quest to reach the highest point in each state.

Smalley did ice climbing to reach the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. “I wanted to experience the high wind and cold temperatures,” he said.

Granite Peak, in Montana, is one of 25 high points Smalley has reached since starting his journey last year.

Smalley nears the summit of Granite Peak, in Montana, which he said was one of his most challenging climbs so far.

Smalley climbing highest points in all 50 states

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

For many years, Don Smalley was an avid runner and biker, participating in competitions that revolved around those activities. In 2008, he did an Ironman Triathlon, marking the end of his competition career.

“It was the culmination of three years of triathlons,” he said. “I enjoyed every minute of it, but I promised myself, once it was over, I would be done with competitions.”

In order to stay fit, Smalley turned to less intensive outdoor activities: fishing, kayaking, camping and hiking. Books took his mind on even more adventures, with “Into Thin Air,” the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer that details the author’s personal experience with a disaster on Mt. Everest, becoming a fast favorite.

“I really got hooked on that kind of story, those non-fiction stories about high mountain adventure, tragedies and survival,” Smalley noted.

Eventually, reading about it wasn’t enough; he wanted to experience it. So, he decided to climb California’s 14,000-foot-high Mt. Shasta.

“It was something I was going to do once,” Smalley remarked. “I wanted to enhance what I was getting out of the books, to be on the mountain, in the wind and cold at a high elevation. I thought it would make the stories more interesting.”

The climb took three days. Near the end of the summit day, Smalley recalled feeling glad he only planned to climb a mountain once. However, reaching the top changed his mind. The view of the world below was just too awe-inspiring.

“Once I was at the bottom, I was looking for the next mountain to climb,” he quipped.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a checklist of the highest points in all 50 states before him. A self-described “sucker for a list,” Smalley said he couldn’t resist the challenge.

For years, Smalley said, he and his wife, Pam, who live in Marquette, had planned to travel more and visit all 50 states. Jobs, family life and other commitments made it difficult, though.

“Now, we have a reason to get to these places,” he said.

Smalley officially began his climbing journey last year, starting 2016 with six state high points in the books. 

Mt. Shasta was not among the points. At 14,505 feet, Mt. Whitney, which he’ll traverse later this year, is California’s highest point, as well as the highest point in the contiguous United States.

To date, Smalley has hit 25 high points. By the end of the year, he expects to have the lower 48 checked off.

Planning the schedule can be a challenge, Smalley said. You have to hit destinations at the right time of year. He likes to coordinate travel so he can check multiple points off the list in one trip.

That was the case when he and Pam traveled in the south last year, Smalley said. The high points were less challenging, often accessible by car or an easy walk.

“The fun part of those is that, when you travel, you can focus on the trip and concentrate on sight-seeing,” he said. “It’s not about me.”

Smalley said Pam goes with on many of his trips, but often tours around to other sites while he completes the climb. At times, he’s also been joined by his son, a former student, and, when necessary, guides.

The bigger high points hold the most appeal for Smalley.

“They take the most planning and preparation,” he stated. “There are typically elements of danger and there’s more adventure. That’s why I do it.”

Some of his 2016 feats included Montana’s Granite Peak (12,808 feet), Utah’s Kings Peak (13,527 feet) and Colorado’s Mt. Elbert (14,439 feet). 

Last June, Smalley climbed Oregon’s Mt. Hood (11,250 feet), which marked the first time he’s ever set an alarm for 11:30 p.m.

“We had to start climbing at 1 a.m.,” he said, as that’s when climbing conditions were the best, especially in the snow. “In the summer, the sun makes it more difficult and dangerous, and there’s also a chance of thunderstorms and lightning. It’s safer to get to the top as early as possible and be below the top elevation before afternoon.”

Although smaller than some other points, New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington (6,289 feet) was a unique experience, Smalley noted. He completed the climb last January, when the road and railroad to the top of the peak were closed. That was the plan, though.

“I did ice climbing,” he said. “Until a few years ago, [Mount Washington] held the highest wind speed over land—230 mph—and it’s commonly over 100 mph. I wanted to experience the high wind and cold temperatures.”

The adventure wasn’t quite as planned, however. According to Smalley, it was a picture-perfect day: 20 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and 30 mph wind speeds.

2017’s highlights will include Mount Rainier (14,411 feet), located in Washington. He’ll summit Borah Peak (12,667 feet), in Idaho, on Aug. 21, putting him in perfect position to witness the solar eclipse.

“There will be 7.5 minutes of total darkness,” he shared.

At 64, Smalley said the push is on to complete the list.

“It’s late in life to take on this challenge,” he said. “My knees and hips are on borrowed time, so I’m trying to get it done fast. If I’d started 20 years ago, it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Although he promised himself, following the Ironman, that he would slow down and enjoy the outdoors, Smalley said mountaineering requires the same amount of training as his previous competitions. Instead, he’s managed to shift much of the training to lower-impact time and activities that will hopefully prolong the use of his hips and knees.

“I am still training about 16 hours per week during this time of the year to prepare for the big climbs that won’t start until early June,” he explained.

Through mountaineering, as well as the previous competitions, Smalley said he’s learned it’s never too late to try something different and challenging.

“People would be surprised at the things they never thought they’d be able to do, but they can,” he remarked. “I don’t remember, in my younger days, thinking about climbing a mountain. It’s easy to agree with yourself. It’s a more difficult, but rewarding, route to take on challenges and prove to yourself that you can do it.”

Smalley said he’ll be elated just to get the lower 48 states done. This year, he’ll complete an eight-day Denali (formerly Alaska’s Mt. McKinley) prep course on Mt. Rainier, readying himself for a potential trip to the country’s and continent’s highest point (20,310 feet). 

“I will learn about expedition-style camping,” he said. “If I make it to the point of doing Denali, I’ll have to have that extra training.”

The list, Smalley said, will also give him an opportunity to visit Hawaii, a destination that, before, had never held much appeal to him.

“It’s not just a beach thing anymore,” he commented.

In the future, Smalley said he’d like to continue climbing some of the nation’s other taller mountains.

“I really love being in the wilderness, and especially in and on the mountains,” he shared. “I enjoy the whole process that it takes to plan, prepare, train, travel to and finally begin the attempt at summiting a mountain, but the actual hiking/climbing and time in the mountains, and especially at the summit, is very special. That is my main drive to continue doing it as long as I can.”

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