D.C.'s Puny Peak Enough to Pump Up 'Highpointers'

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

They've huffed up the wind-whipped peaks of Alaska's Mount McKinley and scaled the rocky face of Washington state's Mount Rainier. They've conquered Granite Peak, Boundary Peak and Borah Peak.

And tomorrow, the slightly fanatical mountain climbing sub-genre known as the Highpointers Club -- adventurers who aim to reach the highest natural elevation in each of the 50 states -- are converging on the nation's capital to surmount another towering pinnacle.

It's right off Nebraska Avenue, in Tenleytown. You know, kind of behind the Whole Foods and the CVS.

After five years of paperwork, red tape and technicalities, the highest natural point in the District of Columbia has at long last been established, and it will be officially dedicated in a ceremony tomorrow. It's in Fort Reno Park, atop a grassy hill, at 409 feet.

Though some might say that Washington has the lowest high point in the country, Florida claims that title with its 345-foot knoll, Britton Hill. Certainly, it is a modest crest compared to Maryland's top peak, Backbone Mountain, at 3,360 feet, or Virginia's Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet.

"Is this the high point?" asked a jubilant Gary Fisher, 45, as he approached the new brass marker with his camera, GPS points and maps in hand one afternoon this week.

"I've been to 49 high points," said the Ashburn geographer, who has been to every acme except Mount McKinley, before going through the Highpointer routine that he has done several times at more perilous altitudes: Touch the marker. Take a picture. Scan the horizon.

Fisher saw cars, front porches, Wilson High School, the city reservoir. A few feet away, a woman cleaned up after her dog with a plastic grocery bag.

For years, Highpointers and less official enthusiasts thought the peak of the nearby Fort Reno reservoir was the city's highest point. "People would walk along the fence, around the reservoir and they thought they'd found it," said Robert Hyman, whose business card simply states: "Photographer. Mountaineer. Explorer."

Hyman, 49, grew up in Chevy Chase and left for his first big adventure in 1990, when he loaded up his convertible and headed across the country to begin scaling peaks. He found the markers all over and racked up the high points.

When he finally returned to his hometown, he realized he wasn't quite sure where he'd do the Highpointer routine in the nation's capital.

There was some talk that it could actually be beneath the National Cathedral, or elsewhere. But Hyman said he knew Fort Reno had to be right.

When it was established in 1861 by Brig. Gen. John G. Barnard, it was the highest spot from which the Union Army, smarting from its defeat at Bull Run, could guard Rockville Pike. Indeed, in 1864, on a July day at noon, a guard at Fort Reno was the first to discern the clouds of dust rising from Confederate wagons headed their way.

"They knew what they were doing," said Ken Faulstich, a member of the Tenleytown Neighbors Association and the Tenleytown Historical Society. "And the reservoir is another indicator. The engineers needed gravity to help the water flow."

A Civil War-era map that Faulstich has shows the outlines of Fort Reno and an early surveyor's estimation that the hill reached 420 feet.

Hyman began researching vintage maps and other data. Always looking for new territory to conquer -- something a bit elusive for contemporary "explorers" -- Hyman quickly realized that a final frontier for his club was, almost literally, right in his own backyard.

"Dedicating a high point. Officially. This was really something new," said the man who has reached 47 high points.

A unique twist in the Highpointing lifestyle lies in the machinations Highpointers must sometimes endure en route. Not always are the most dangerous elements the thin air at 20,000 feet on Mount McKinley or the wild weather patterns at 5,267 feet atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.

For a while, Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island, at 812 feet, was considered by some to be the most menacing ascent because of a cantankerous property owner who threatened Highpointers treading on his land, they said.

Less acrimonious was the permit process to get to the District's peak, which is owned by the National Park Service. Hyman began the process about five years ago, persuading surveyors from the District of Columbia Association of Land Surveyors to do a pro bono study of the landmark.

Over the years, they spent hours surveying the land and interpreting old maps, with directions such as "19 paces from the silver maple," Hyman said.

It wasn't the spot that looks highest -- the reservoir area -- because that land was artificially built up to house the reservoir, he said. That kicked it out of the running.

To determine natural elevation, surveyors had to look at the age of nearby trees, soil samples and overall topography to ensure that modern man didn't make a mountain out of a molehill.

Once the exact spot was identified, Hyman had to get permission from the National Park Service to install the flat, coaster-sized marker and embed it into the grass with a bit of cement.

The elevation has already made it on the Highpointers Club official guide, which also appears on the back of a card in Hyman's wallet. The biggest question now is a complicated technicality: Should the Highpointers' new goal be 51, rather than 50?

As political overtones and statehood debates threatened to percolate with the advent of that question, Hyman put up his hands in surrender and declared neutrality.

The photographer, mountaineer and explorer at last found a place he didn't want to go.

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