The Seductive, Occasionally Fatal Allure of 'Peak-Bagging'


The death of a Tufts University psychology professor while mountain hiking in Maine underlines a mysterious outdoor activity known as peak-bagging in which hills are collectibles and hikers shop uphill and downhill and back uphill again.

Jeffrey Z. Rubin, a 53-year-old authority on negotiation and an experienced hiker, was found dead in early June on Fort Mountain near Maine's behemoth mountain, Katahdin. What happened is unclear. He and another professor had hiked to the top of North Brother Mountain on a rainy, windy day. The companion was tired and began the walk back to their campsite.

Dr. Rubin had his sights set on nearby Fort Mountain because he had climbed 99 of New England's 100 highest peaks and Fort was the last on the list.

He didn't return to camp that night. A search the next day found his badly bruised body face down in a stream between North Brother and Fort. It was not immediately known if he had fallen, became disoriented, had an attack of some kind or even if he had made the goal of his 100th. No foul play was suspected.

I didn't know Dr. Rubin or his circumstances. Yet as a peak-bagger for two decades, I can sympathize with him and the urgency in his legs as they headed for the 3,861-foot Fort Mountain. His wife, Carol Rubin, was quoted as saying, "He's climbed all the mountains in New England. He liked boating and swimming and all different kinds of outdoor activities, but hiking was his primary love, really."

Peak-bagging is not an organized sport, game or athletics in the usual sense. It is practiced alone or with others, hours or days away from cars and cities. Hikers begin by hiking up one mountain and enjoying the beauty of rushing waters or the quiet of the woods or the music of the birds or the physical demands of several hours walking 1,000 to 5,000 feet higher in altitude and down again.

They try another mountain and another and another, the height and difficulty usually increasing. They become dedicated, hooked, then possibly obsessed. If they are in New York's Adirondacks, they learn that that's where bagging started in 1918-1925 with Bob and George Marshall and Herb Clark doing all 48 4,000-footers.

In New England, Colorado (54 14,000-footers), Scotland (279 Munros over 3,000 feet) or in other mountainous areas, they quickly learn there are lists of hills. At first these are excuses to visit secluded tops ordinarily missed. Soon, the hikers start collecting. Most of them probably hate the term peak-bagging, but it tells part of the story.

Most walk at a steady but leisurely pace described by the late Walter Stack, a legendary San Francisco runner, this way: "Start slowly and taper off." The main cherished rewards are the view from the top and the feeling of accomplishment unlike anything down below.

In New England, after doing all 4,000-footers or the top 100, people go for the 3,500-footers or do repeat rounds in different seasons, at night, bushwhacking from all directions. One nut boasted of urinating on all the snowy summits. They do their favorite mountains over and over again, at night, on New Year's Eve, in the rain and snow. In southern New Hampshire, one man climbed the same peak, Monadnock, every day for several years before deciding he knew the mountain well enough.

One day on Vermont's Mount Mansfield, I met a California hiker named Jim who was visiting his mother, but took time to fix the roof of a mountain hut he had built a decade before. He said he once climbed all the 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire, then all the 48 4,000-footers in the Adirondacks of New York State (a weird numerical coincidence since changed by recalculations).

"If I had known the Adirondacks were tougher," he said, "I would have done them first and quit. My dog wouldn't have been so tired. One thing for sure: They're out of my system now."

In common: great legs

Hikers I have known in my climbing more than 100 mountains are different souls but all meet the earth on great legs. They tend to be males -- although women are becoming addicted -- individualists, college-educated, Caucasian, middle class, office workers, comfortable being alone or with a friend in the woods, eager to inch toward higher risk levels, with great legs, self-deprecating in their humor.

They know they are viewed as crazy. Hikers are usually aware that families may be neglected and time taken from more practical things. I've taken family and friends often to the hills, including a Baltimore man who said he'd never seen a mountain before, much less climbed one. He liked it. Rainy days are even useful for wooded peaks that have poor views anyway.

Hikers may be happiest making mountain goals, a neat reward jobs may not provide. Many find in the hills a spiritual peace unknown in organized religion. Success, often achieved alone, produces a sense of accomplishment totally foreign to a noisy organized sport with audience of thousands and salary of millions.

The scramblers are not technical mountain climbers, the Himalayan acrobats who often travel vertically with ropes, hard hats, spiked crampons on their boots for ice and snow. Yet hikers can scramble high up where altitude takes effect. I've had a light head, headaches, queasy stomach and eyes that didn't focus together while climbing Mount Whitney (highest in the lower 48 states), Longs Peak, Pikes Peak and other 14,000-footers. They were worth the trouble.

No mountain is worth dying for, so veteran hikers measure the risks the way eaters watch fat percentages on labels. It's rare for the hills to claim experienced hikers like Dr. Rubin.

Bad judgment by unprepared novices kills most hikers in New England. More than 100 have died on Mount Washington, many unprepared for the frigid Canadian air attack or extremely vigorous activity. The main dangers are hypothermia, injuries from falls, exhaustion. Out West, add lightning and avalanches as major threats. Most accidents occur on descents when climbers are tired.

The hills challenge hikers in different ways than technical climbers. A technical climbing acquaintance of mine, Dr. Thomas Hornbein, whose name adorns mountain routes he pioneered from Longs Peak, Colo., to Mount Everest, says a mountain isn't worth climbing if you're guaranteed complete success before you start.

He meant technical climbers, but peak-baggers often feel the rule applies to them at a lower danger level. Bad weather, a tired body, a steep, rough trail straight up (more common in New England than in the switchback Rockies), no trail at all, high altitude up to 18,000 and even 20,000 feet, a heavy pack, more than one mountain a day -- all these are acceptable parts of hill walking.

I was 5 when I first tested the Berkshires of Massachusetts, virtually pushed uphill by my mother. I climbed randomly for years. I visited the big peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire every summer for five years before serious peak-bagging took hold. I was helpless to stop. A mountaintop is the best place to be some days. Like collecting beer cans or paintings, though, you get cool ones and duds. Katahdin is a jewel. Mount Frissell in Connecticut is a phony spot on a hill whose top is in Massachusetts.

Peak-bagging can string the rewards together in a frenetic chain of events or in a beautiful series of adventures. Two young men tried all 48 4,000-footers in the Adirondacks in one continuous climb in the 1970s. Just before the end, one heart gave out. My main rule of the hills is to know when to turn back. I've turned back a number of times.

I reached my first big goal, the 48th and last New Hampshire 4,000-footer, Mount Isolation, on a gorgeous day in 1984 with my three children and a friend. We drank wine and saluted the hills with John Muir's famous phrase, "Climb the mountains and get their glad tidings." Later the five Vermont hills and 12 in Maine yielded the top 65 in New England. Old Rag Mountain in Virginia is a friend 25 times over.

Hikers compose their own goals. One year, a friend, Candy Thomson, and I, her husband, Bob, the designated driver and occasional climber, fashioned our own New England Six Pack by doing the highest mountains in the six New England states on successive days.

We posed with each day's paper to prove the questionable prowess and camped out that night at the base of tomorrow's mountain. Jerimoth Hill (Rhode Island) and Mount Frissell (Connecticut) were a pair of nothings. It got better: my home mountain, Mount Greylock (Massachusetts); Mount Mansfield (Vermont), with features of a person's profile; Mount Washington (New Hampshire) and Katahdin (Maine), the two legendary giants.

We completed the cycle a bit short with each other, exhausted, delighted. Before we went, Candy's boss was unbelieving: "Haven't you ever heard of resorts?" It's not something you talk about much with others. Of course, we did it because the mountains were there.

I understand the mountain passion of Dr. Rubin, described by a colleague as "a sweet guy, very energetic, a good colleague," a family man, a world-famed authority on conflict resolution.

Five years ago, I stood alone where he stood on North Brother and looked over at Fort on a bitter cold October day. I was hiking 4,000-footers then. I had climbed the 48 in New Hampshire and was inching up all 65 in New England. A few remained after North Brother. Fort held little interest that day because it was only a 3,000-footer, the day was drawing late and the trail to Fort was rough and unmarked. Some other day, I thought.

On departing North Brother, my feet slipped on ice and I landed on rocks, painfully bruising my right kneecap pad. A "damn" was the only salve. It took an extra hour to the car and two months to heal. I still consider it a great day but it was also a lucky day, a useful combination in the hills.

Ernest F. Imhoff is an assistant managing editor with The Baltimore Sun.

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