MARQUETTE, Iowa — Don Smalley scaled walls of rock to summit the highest point in Montana in 2016.
He and his guide started their way up Granite Peak before the sun rose. When he finally reached the top — about 12,800 feet above sea level — he found himself wishing the peak was even higher.
“That’s what’s really cool, is when you get to a point and you can look out, and everything you see is below you,” Smalley said.
That experience was an early stop on the Marquette resident’s quest to summit the highest point in all 50 U.S. states.
The 66-year-old wrapped up his effort by driving to the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii earlier this year, notching his 49th completed summit, plus an unsuccessful attempt to make it to the top of Denali in Alaska.
“I think it was just representative of the kind of things that I’ve gotten into all through my life,” Smalley said. He added, “I’ll do something for a while, and then it’s time to do something new and take on a new challenge.”
Finding a challenge
About 10 years ago, Smalley decided he wanted a change of pace.
He had been an avid runner and cyclist but found that he spent all of his time training and not enough time indulging in his love of the outdoors.
He took up backpacking and reading books recounting wilderness excursions.
He eventually decided he would climb Mount Shasta in California.
After that, he was hooked.
Smalley started looking for opportunities to reach more summits and to travel with his wife, Pam, and became interested in high-pointing, in which enthusiasts set a goal to reach the highest point in a geographical area. Smalley chose all 50 states.
“I wasn’t getting any younger, and some of these state high points were big mountains or big projects that required skills and things that I was going to have to learn along the way, so I knew if I was going to get very far into that list of 50 states, I was going to have to dig in,” he said.
Smalley started his effort in earnest in 2016, though he had already reached a few high points in the course of his earlier travels.
Over the course of 2016 and 2017, he traveled to the highest point in 43 states, from the 345-foot elevation of Britton Hill in Florida to the peak of California’s Mount Whitney — 14,495 feet above sea level.
He and his wife turned some of the excursions into trips, and they plotted vacations along routes through the states Smalley still needed to hit.
“We went to a lot of places that we probably wouldn’t have ever found ourselves,” he said.
A common goal
Thousands of people nationwide share a similar goal to Smalley.
The Highpointers Club, which counts about 2,500 in its membership, has rallied people around the effort since 1986, 50 years after Arthur Harmon Marshall became the first person to reach the highest point in every state that was known at the time.
“We all have our lists, and people get into it for different reasons,” said Alan Ritter, current president of the Highpointers Club.
He has reached the apex of 48 states so far.
About half of the high points in each state can be reached “without ever being more than a mile off a paved surface,” Ritter said.
“If you can walk a mile or two, you can get to a bunch of them,” he said. “There’s a bunch you literally drive up to them, take a step out of the car, take a picture and drive away.”
The challenge scales up significantly for others. Mount Hood in Oregon requires climbers to navigate snow and ice, and Granite Peak requires skill with rock climbing.
“It takes you to some interesting corners of the country that you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise visit,” Ritter said.
The next challenge
After finishing his quest to reach the apex of the 48 continental states, Smalley last summer attempted to summit Denali, the highest peak in North America formerly known as Mount McKinley.
But after reaching about 14,000 feet, a series of storm systems left him and other climbers stuck in a camp for nine days. Eventually, he decided to make the climb down rather than risk being stranded in the elements longer.
Smalley said he won’t attempt to scale Denali again because of the cost, his age and the uncertainty over whether a follow-up attempt would run into the same issues.
Smalley and his family took a vacation to Hawaii in February. While there, they took a drive to the top of Mauna Kea to check his last high point off the list.
By that point, however, the chance to spend time with family took precedence over the goal he knew would go uncompleted.
“My enjoyment is the ones where you have to work, where you get the satisfaction of accomplishing something,” Smalley said. “Driving someplace is not really much of an accomplishment.”
Pam Smalley said her husband’s efforts are aligned with the kind of person he is.
“He sets a goal and works toward it,” she said.
Don Smalley already is looking for his next challenge, while looking forward to continued travel with his wife.
“We have no shortage of ideas of things that we want to do,” he said.