At 71 years old, Kathy Clark is preparing for a trek that will finish up her pursuit to capture the highest peak in each of the 50 U.S. with the most formidable on the list — Denali. If she makes it to the top, Clark will be the oldest woman to do so at 72.
Like all big climbs, the summit is not a guarantee. Long-time hiking and life partner Lee Sterner said if anyone has a real shot, she does.
“She is really excellent going down, she is usually waiting at the bottom. She not only keeps up, she will set the pace,” Sterner said. “…Her demeanor is very calm, very determined. She does not have to be babied or pampered. She is probably the strongest woman on any of the hikes or any of these climbs.”
Clark started her series of Highpointers Foundation — an organization dedicated to conserving the highest natural point in each of the 50 states and surrounding wilderness — ascents in 2006. Since, she has strolled inside the steaming crater at 14,410 feet above sea level on the top of Mount Rainier in Washington, combated fierce winds at 12,637 feet above sea level on Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, and scrambled over bulky boulders at 5,267 feet above sea level on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“I love being up so high, you can see so far,” Clark said.
Points in states like Florida, where the highest location is Britton Hill at 312 feet above sea level, and Kansas, where the highest location is 4,039 feet above sea level, did not physically pose much of a challenge, but were a chance to travel “off the beaten path” and see more of the country, she said.
According to the annually updated list, 273 people have made it to all 50 points, including previous Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Fred Pomerory, and 523 have made it to each high point in the Lower 48. It has taken Clark 10 years to cross off 49 peaks in the contiguous U.S. and Hawaii, and now is time to tackle the last hurdle. She said she should have tried for Denali years ago, but finding money to finance the pricey excursions isn’t easy. Flying or driving potentially thousands of miles just to reach the base of a destination is expensive, coupled with having the right equipment and sometimes hiring a guide.
Next year, she will take a training course that will determine if she is strong and healthy enough to make a summer ascent with the Alaska Mountaineering School. She practiced on Denali six years ago, making it up to 10,000 feet, and said she believes she is mentally and physically fit enough to accomplish the climb.
“I had no problem mentally or emotionally on Denali,” Clark said.
Clark said she well understands and accepts the less glamorous aspects of climbing — like the daily hours spent melting snow for tea and water, carrying your own portable toilet up and down the mountain, forcing yourself to dine on copious carbohydrates even when your body is at such a high altitude eating feels impossible, and potentially hunkering down in a snow cave for days if wretched weather unexpectedly pours in. Not to mention slogging 40 pounds of equipment strapped in a backpack, with another 50 pounds on a trailing sled up the steep edge of the mountain, or Denali’s notoriously fast wind speeds, she said.
Even the best-prepared can find out they can’t find the stamina to finish the entire trek, or cerebral or pulmonary edema may set in, Clark said.
The scariest moment in her Highpointers career was at the bottom of Borah Peak in Idaho. Nausea and dizziness had set in following a nearly 6,000-foot ascent and 6,000-foot descent made in less than 12 hours in heat that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When the startling symptoms didn’t go away, she drove herself to the nearest hospital to find out she had developed cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain caused by excess fluid, most likely a result of the high temperatures and not taking more time to acclimate to the elevation change, Clark said. Only afterward did she realize what she should have done differently.
“That was the scariest part for me because I was alone and sick,” she said.
It is important to pay attention to any signs of distress in oneself and respect when people realize their own limits and need to go down.
“Sometimes you think you can, and then you find out you can’t,” she said.
Clark trains between 3-4 hours each day, even when she is not planning her next Highpointers venture. She said she doesn’t feel good without regular exercise, and being a retired librarian and previous administrator at Tyonek and Nanwalek schools, she has the time for it. Years ago, Clark practiced Tai Chi, which she says helped refine her balance and spatial awareness while climbing.
Clark said she has always been an avid hiker, and also being a sheep hunter, scaling steep ridges and walls is not out of her realm of expertise. Sterner said he has watched and accompanied her on local trails throughout the Chugach Mountain Range, including Skyline Trail, for years.
“She does all kinds of exercises to keep herself in shape,” Sterner said. “She is not a big woman, but a very strong lady.”
Without Clark’s passion for high points, Sterner said he would likely not have made it to some of the most beautiful spots in the U.S.
“She started a little before I did, and she kind of wants me to finish them up too,” Sterner said with a laugh. “I don’t know that I will. I mean I am really in good shape for an old dude but I don’t quite have the passion for it.”
Anyone in relatively good physical and mental dexterity can accomplish the 50 peaks, Sterner said.
Clark said she wants to encourage others to go for the nation’s high points, which offers a different approach to seeing some of the most beautiful places in the country, eat good food and meet new people.
“Don’t be afraid, it is well worth it,” Clark said. “You can do it, don’t stand at the bottom. Don’t be afraid to go on up.”
Reach Kelly Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.