Only 250 miles north of Times Square, New York's highest peak rises in the still Adirondack wilderness. The summit of Mt. Marcy is 5,344 feet above sea level, and the rains that fall on it feed the clean headwaters of the Hudson River that, days later, murky with pollutants, flow by Manhattan to the sea. The river connects two different worlds, but Mountaineer Elmer S. (Mitch) Michaud fears they are slowly becoming one. On a stormy night last summer he huddled in a lean-to near the top of Mt. Marcy. Each time lightning whitened the sky he gazed out on a world of lonely peaks and valleys; between flashes he looked down at the state's highest garbage dump and, gradually, as the storm passed, there was nothing to be seen but the great heap of cans, bottles, cartons and other refuse left behind by previous hikers. For Mitch Michaud it was a vision of the future. That was why he was there. Mt. Marcy was the 30th stop on a nationwide mountain-appreciation course, Last week Michaud reached the summit of No. 50, Oregon's Mt. Hood (elev.: 11,245), and became the first man ever to attain the highest point in all 50 states in one calendar year. That out of the way, he descended and got a kiss from his mother.
"Maybe I'll bring a big bag of trash down from some mountain," he explained last March, "and if a reporter writes about it people will become aware of what's going on. Or suppose I stop at a gas station in Vermont and I tell the owner I've come all the way from Oregon to climb Mt. Mansfield. 'Well,' he might say, 'maybe there's something to this mountain stuff after all.' "
Many were puzzled by his explanations. There must be more to it than that, they said, and Michaud smiled. "It's like when you love someone," he replied rather coyly. "You can list all of the reasons, but does that really explain it?"
It turned out to be that kind of a year for Mitch Michaud. Few really understood, but that was nothing new. Michaud hears different drummers; fittingly, the name rhymes with Thoreau. Always an independent cuss, Michaud, at 40, seems about ready to follow the sage of Concord straight out of this world, a world that strikes him as being altogether too taxed, sprayed, enriched, subsidized and federally funded for his or his family's good. Last year he had the phone removed from his Portland, Ore. home. "If we want to make a call," he says, "we can go to a phone booth." The buzzing of the electric clock is starting to annoy his wife Mary Emma, or "Mem." Michaud's next project is to walk the Continental Divide from Alaska to the tip of South America. Then the Michauds may set out to look for land in the Yukon. There they would build their own house, make their own furniture and clothing, dispose of their own garbage and grow their own food. Organically, of course.
December 14, 1970
Michaud has been planning his escape for quite a while, and it is easy to see how modern society could get such a man down. Mountain climbing, though, is clearly one antidote. Michaud points out that no man is more independent, or conversely, more dependent on his own wits and skill than one who is dangling from a rope 2,000 feet up on a rock wall. Fortunately, Michaud's pleasure is also his work. He runs a mountaineering school, and his classroom is Mt. Hood, which he can sec from his bedroom window. It was on its slopes, with his students, that the idea for his 50-state expedition took form. It would be his last gift to civilization before he said goodby.
Last Jan. 12, when all the northern peaks were under snow, Michaud flew to Atlanta, where he picked up a car from Avis. Michaud may be an idealist, but he isn't impractical. He had swung a deal: free publicity in exchange for free transportation. He drove to Florida's panhandle for ascent No. 1. Florida isn't exactly the Switzerland of America, and its highest mountain isn't one. At a lofty 345 feet, it is the lowest of the 50 highest. The poor thing doesn't even have a name, but Michaud found it, a hump in the road near Fort Walton. "Don't laugh," he had said earlier. "You can get killed falling 10 feet." But in Fort Walton he got careless and just missed getting hit by a bus.
Alabama and Mississippi were next, peaks of 2,407 and 806 feet respectively, and Michaud was beginning to feel a little ridiculous. Then, in South Carolina, it began to snow—just what he had gone south to avoid. It was that kind of winter; kids were ice skating on Florida ponds. On the ice of North Carolina's 6,684-foot Mt. Mitchell, the East's highest peak, Michaud finally had a workout, met other climbers and began handing out little packets of grass seeds. "I want to add something to the environment," he told the recipients, and by doing so he would be keeping his wallet green, too. The U.S.A. 1970 Summits Expedition was sponsored in part by the Oregon Grass Seed Growers Association, and Michaud carried what seemed like a ton of half-ounce grass-seed packets with him. He sprinkled seed on every summit and pressed a handful of packets on anyone who came within 10 feet of him. Wherever he went he sought interviews with local newspapers, and the growers' association paid him $100 for each state in which a story appeared mentioning the seeds.
Sixteen weeks and 17 more climbs passed before Michaud had to dangle from any ropes, but there were other, more mundane hazards. While searching for a route up Virginia's 5,720-foot Mt. Rogers, far back in the Blue Ridge, Michaud came upon a barefoot farm girl sitting on a rickety old porch. He stopped to ask directions. She darted into the house and emerged, wearing a garish coat of lipstick. He spoke; she replied in some weird dialect; he couldn't understand a word. Her father came out, saw them looking at each other and ran back into the house. Before he could return with a shotgun, Michaud took off for the hills.
Louisiana's highest peak is 535-foot Driskill Mountain in Arcadia. On arrival, Michaud went in a grocery store and inquired as to where he could find the mayor.
"Well, Ah don't know as we have a mayor here," the grocer said.
Michaud tried the police station. "I wanna see that there mountaineering gear," a cop said. The next morning, however, the sheriff sent a forest ranger out to find Driskill Mountain, and soon a troop of Girl Scouts was following in Michaud's tracks. At the summit he climbed a tall tree and demonstrated rappelling for them. Two weeks later the Girl Scouts sent him a packet of letters and a homemade survival kit.
In Arkansas, Michaud made two ascents. No one was certain which was higher, Magazine Mountain or Blue Mountain, both listed at 2,850 feet. Atop the latter Michaud got a little worried for the first time. How will people know I'm really making these climbs, he wondered. He scratched his initials on a fire tower before strolling down and driving to Missouri for a 30-minute walk up 1,772-foot Taum Sauk Mountain. Aren't you bored by these little hills, he was asked in Iowa. "No," he said, "because no two are alike," and it was more than diplomacy. He reached the top of 1,675-foot Ocheyedan Mound at dawn. "It was a great sight," he recalls. "The sun was rising and there was a clean sweep of the state beneath me."
The most frequent question, though, was: Why do you climb? Michaud replied that climbing was like life, that he could take the same route up a mountain 20 times but that each time it would be different because he was never the same. His moods and perceptions changed from day to day, and climbing, he suggested, was a natural form of psychoanalysis. Instead of words to free-associate with there were varied panoramas, and the myriad shapes and colors of leaves and trees and rocks. "Each day is another summit in my life," he said. "Quite often I'm concentrating so hard I'm not even aware of what I'm doing, and I've made many an important decision on mountains that had nothing to do with climbing."
By mid-March Michaud had already done 19 states, but he couldn't afford to dawdle; by fall there would be real mountains and, possibly, delays on account of weather, and if he climbed only 49 the year would have been wasted. Alaska's Vin Hoeman, who was killed in an avalanche on Dhaulagiri in the Himalayas last year, had once climbed all 50, but it had taken him a lifetime.
All-night driving and bad food were beginning to get to Michaud, and he rushed through easy ascents in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Then he had to pay a buck and a half to a farmer for letting him climb Charles Mound, Illinois' highest (1,241 feet). The farmer's wife, a nervy type, asked Michaud to please send her a stone from each of the remaining summits. In Ohio a security guard accompanied him to the top of 1,550-foot Campbell Hill, which is located on an Air Force installation near Bellefontaine. Indiana's highest was a nameless 1,257-foot rise in a bean and corn field. Michaud climbed it, drove to Chicago, flew to Portland, said hello to his family and flew to Hawaii to climb Mauna Kea.
Mauna Kea may be the world's highest mountain, but this possibility is of interest only to oceanographers, not mountaineers, since only 13,825 feet of it are above the Pacific Ocean; the rest continues steeply downward through more than three miles of salt water. Michaud spent a night at the Mauna Kea Beach hotel, where he got a $68-a-day room, modified American plan, in exchange for the promise of a plug. The next morning he hiked up a dirt road to within 200 feet of the summit, then roughed it the rest of the way. One Girl Scout accompanied him. By now he was getting a little tired of answering questions. "I just like to climb," he told a reporter from the Honolulu Advertiser before flying back to Portland.
Mitch Michaud locked up his home, put his furniture in storage and his wife and two stepdaughters in a 20-foot Aloha trailer, which he pulled with a four-wheel-drive camper. It was April 14. Wendy, 16, and Halle, 17, are students at Portland's Metropolitan Learning Center, where unstructured study is the going thing. The girls' only assignment was to "keep a diary, visit specified schools and exchange ideas and philosophies." Mem Michaud packed boxes of biodegradable detergents for washing clothes in unpolluted streams and leaving them the same way.
Michaud's stepson Peter, 19, also joined the party. He had graduated from Portland's Ulysses S. Grant High School, where he was chairman of the National Honor Society and a straight-A student, but though three universities had accepted him he was a little scared. He needed a year off, he decided, to think and roam, and like many of his generation he had spoken of hitchiking across the country. His stepfather didn't think that was such a hot idea, although he didn't say so, and he was glad to have Pete along.
The two had climbed together since Michaud married Pete's mother in 1966. Mountaineering builds Mitch Michaud's kind of men; he regards it as Rockne did football. However, different sports, different virtues. Independence is paramount with Michaud. "Pete has never let me down," he says, "but you learn fast on a mountain. You can't afford to be a drag on anyone else."
They were all set—Mitch, Mem, Peter, Wendy, Halle and 7-month-old Tym Yvette. It was an opportunity that comes to few families and few trailer dealers. Michaud had persuaded Aloha to lend him the vehicle; it was, Michaud assured the dealer, great publicity. The Michauds motored down to Flagstaff, Ariz. and 12,655-foot Humphreys Peak—No. 20. On May 5 Mitch and Wendy hiked up a snowy slope beneath a ski lift to the summit. Coming down, they filled a large plastic bag with tin cans and other litter and brought it to the editor of the Flagstaff Star, and the next day there was a story. The Michauds were guests on a local talk show, too, and Wendy was furious when the host blithely said: "I see no reason why we shouldn't throw these cans down. In a few years we'll be mining them."
On to Idaho, and Mitch Michaud's first difficult climb. He took 5½ hours to scale 12,655-foot Borah Peak, then set an unofficial record for the descent, 51 minutes, on a pair of 20-inch Sitzskis. Next came California's Mt. Whitney, at 14,495 feet the highest peak in the continental United States. In Arcata, Calif., on the way to Whitney, 8-year-old Betsy Michaud, a smooth-haired dachshund, jumped out of the camper at a gas station, and the Michauds drove 100 miles before missing her and turning back. Betsy had disappeared. They put an ad in the local paper, with their Portland address, but it seemed a futile gesture.
On Whitney, Michaud and Pete were often roped together on vertical walls, where hourly progress was a matter of 100 feet at best. Two nights they camped on the mountain, and at 8,000 feet they saw a family of three cougars, a rare sight even in the wilderness. On the way through Oregon to Washington's Mt. Rainier the Michauds stopped to check their mailbox. There was a letter from an Arcata truck driver who had found Betsy. Michaud called him up and he promised to keep the dachsie until Michaud finished his trip.
Pete and the women waited at the base of Rainier, an inactive volcano, while Mitch bivouacked at the summit. At 3 a.m. he was almost poached to death by steam which suddenly issued from an underground vent. Michaud rolled away in the nick of time, but there were moments in the next month and a half when he could have used a little steam.
North America's highest mountain was next—Alaska's 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. It was appropriate that McKinley should come at the halfway point, as if Mitch Michaud's year was itself one big mountain. It had started in the foothills, with Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. More than a mile above sea level, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, Michaud had begun at last to feel like a mountaineer, and in the thin air of Borah and Rainier, alone in the wilderness more than two miles up, he had almost forgotten the tin-can world below. Now, halfway through his year, Michaud was approaching its summit. He drove to Talkeetna, 80 miles north of Anchorage. It was the end of all roads, but McKinley was still 60 miles away, a 45-minute flight by ski-plane over the tundra. Michaud wouldn't see his family again for 43 days.
Michaud climbed McKinley with a 10-man Japanese team. They made base camp at 7,000 feet and relayed their equipment to each of five succeeding camps, so that Michaud actually wound up climbing most of the mountain five times. It took the climbing party 36 days to get up the 13,320 remaining feet to the summit, which meant 35 nights sleeping in ice caves. It wasn't easy going. Once they cached a five-day supply of food at 8,000 feet and lost it all to ravens. And the Japanese spoke no English. Usually Michaud communicated amicably enough with them by sign language, but, as he says, "There's lots of time to think in an ice cave. Little things become paramount. Someone has the sniffles and doesn't blow his nose and it drives you nuts. Sometimes you become a little paranoid. Our biggest problem was relating to each other without relating with an ice ax."
On June 30 they reached the area just below the summit. The next day the Japanese deferred to Michaud and let him climb up first. Then they joined him, threw their arms about each other and began to cry. On the way down Michaud and the Japanese met the first all-woman expedition ever to climb McKinley, on the way up. The expedition leader was Vin Hoeman's widow, Grace. At that moment there were 47 people on McKinley—and Michaud knew that as of 1960 fewer than 100 people had climbed it in all of history. Seventeen thousand feet up on Mt. McKinley and even there the world was closing in! Michaud came off the mountain wearing a full beard and a grim look; he resembled a biblical prophet come to warn that the end was near.
Michaud was tired and gaunt, but there was no time to waste. He rejoined his family, which had been touring Alaska, and they set off across Canada. Next stop, New England.
Mitch Michaud was going home. He was born in Eagle Lake, Me., near the New Brunswick border. His father was a fishing and hunting guide. One winter day when Mitch was 5 he and his brother Albert were playing at the stove, putting their mouths to the spout of a teakettle, and Mitch accidentally inhaled steam. His esophagus was badly burned, and he developed pneumonia. He spent a year in the hospital, undergoing a series of operations. Doctors told his parents he wouldn't live beyond his 12th year. At 16 he began to climb, but didn't become sold on mountaineering until 1957, when he was in the Army and stationed in Europe. He climbed the Matterhorn and the Jungfrau, but the finest climbing of his life, he says, came in Corsica, where he spent 30 days researching a story for the Nacom Chronicle, a military newspaper of which he was feature editor. Michaud stayed in the Army for four years, until 1961. In that time he was also editor of the Orléans Item, another military publication, and stage manager of the Frankfurt Playhouse, which he says was the only American community theater in Europe.
Michaud was warmly welcomed in Maine. He was guest of honor at a clambake, and his presence inspired another honored guest, Senator Edmund Muskie, to say, "Mitch Michaud hopes to climb the highest summit of each state, and in that way we are alike."
As Michaud and Pete neared the top of Maine's Mt. Katahdin (5,268 feet), climb No. 26, they met a group of teenage boys coming down. One of them was incoherent and shaking uncontrollably. He had fallen several times and his friends feared a concussion. Michaud recognized the symptoms of hypothermia, a common but dangerous ailment resulting from exhaustion and insufficient nourishment. Michaud fed the youngster candy, food and liquids, and there was immediate improvement. Then he and Pete stopped climbing and helped him down the mountain. Two days later the Bangor Daily News published an account of the incident, and the following week, when Michaud returned to complete the Katahdin climb, there was a letter addressed to him at the forest service office from someone who had read the story. "Mitch, you're all right!" it read. "You're a man." Michaud spoke about the letter for weeks afterward. Perhaps nothing that happened all year pleased him more. "Look," he kept saying, holding out the letter, "I reached someone."
Michaud had gone from Maine to Rhode Island, where he had a date in Providence with the tourist office. As he chatted with the director, the latter was handed a note. It was a warning that a bomb had been planted in a nearby office, and everyone was evacuated from the building. Michaud got a special escort. By now his uncut hair and beard were making him look like the cartoonist's stereotype of a bomb-lobbing anarchist.
Rhode Island's 812-foot Jerimoth Hill was Michaud's first complete climb since the 43 days on McKinley. He walked up, again with some Girl Scouts, and while demonstrating rock climbing at the top he fell and scratched his wrist. "You can get killed falling live feet," he said this time.
Michaud returned to Maine to reclimb Katahdin, then drove to New Hampshire for 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. His comments about falling live and 10 feet should be posted all over the mountain; Dan Doody climbed Mt. Everest in 1963 and was killed in 1968 on Mt. Washington. In fact, more climbers may have been killed on Washington than on any other mountain in the world. Meteorologists agree that some of the worst weather anywhere is found on its summit, and the highest wind velocity ever measured was recorded there on April 12, 1934—231 mph. On the August day Mitch Michaud climbed Washington, the wind at the summit blew at 55 mph.
Michaud was dismayed by the elaborate tourist facilities at the mountain's base in Pinkham Notch. The Appalachian Mountain Club has a number of buildings there, with a restaurant, rest rooms and showers and enough bunks for 100 people. "This is indicative of what we'll have everywhere in 10 or 20 years," Michaud said. "I have nothing against people, but places like this mean more sewage and more pollution." Mt. Washington was a scenic climb and the weather seemed fine, but Michaud knew its history and respected it. He picked his way along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, famed for daredevil skiing in the spring. Then, 800 feet below the summit, the way steepened. Large boulders and strong gusts of wind made climbing difficult. Michaud concentrated on the ground ahead. Finally, he looked up to get his bearings. A yellow Volkswagen was moving along the road at the rim of the summit.
Mitch Michaud and Pete climbed the highest mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts in four consecutive days. On each of them they moved tirelessly up the steepest grades, over boulders and through brush, rarely breaking stride or stopping to rest. Other climbers, sprawled exhausted along the way, looked puzzled as the pair trudged by.
Now there were 16 climbs to go. Five of the remaining mountains were over 13,000 feet. Michaud knew Montana's 12,850-foot Granite Peak would be a problem. Frank Ashley of Los Angeles, who had climbed the 48 highest in 1969, had been injured on Granite last August. Michaud got to the summit in four days, but on the way down he became ill. He was badly dehydrated, couldn't keep any food down, and he spent two days in a hospital being fed intravenously.
But it was still October, there were only 11 climbs to go now and Michaud was confident. Besides, the worst was far behind. Not his perilous climb in Alaska. Not the tense moments on Granite or Whitney. The really bad time, at least for Michaud's peace of mind, took place back East in September at 55 feet above sea level. On the way from Connecticut to New Jersey, the kids talked him into stopping in New York City for a day. It was one of the worst combinations of all time, Manhattan and Mitch Michaud. He arrived at rush hour and by the time he found a parking space for the camper he was getting a little paranoid. By the next morning he looked terrible, but before fleeing the city he phoned The New York Times sports department to tell them of his project. "Naw," the guy who answered said, "we're only interested in recreational or competitive sports."