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updated: 3/2/2012 10:11 AM

Kildeer man headed to Hawaii to complete 50-state climbing quest

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  • George Naxera climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska in 2008. He said it was the most challenging of his climbs, but also the most fun.

      George Naxera climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska in 2008. He said it was the most challenging of his climbs, but also the most fun.
    Courtesy of George Naxera

  • George Naxera of Kildeer has climbed the highest peaks in 49 states and will attempt number 50 in Hawaii this month.

       George Naxera of Kildeer has climbed the highest peaks in 49 states and will attempt number 50 in Hawaii this month.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • George Naxera climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska in 2008. It's the highest peak in North America.

      George Naxera climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska in 2008. It's the highest peak in North America.
    Courtesy of Ben Barlin

  • Video: Climbing Denali

  • Video: Kildeer climber goes for 50

  • Highest point in Illinois

    Graphic: Highest point in Illinois

 
 

When George Naxera climbs to the top of Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano this month, the ascent will be more than just a touristy excursion for the Kildeer resident.

The climb will solidify Naxera's entry into the Highpoint Club, a relatively small group of people who have reached the highest points in all 50 states.

Naxera, 49, deliberately saved the Hawaiian peak -- which is 13,796 feet above sea level -- for last.

"What better place to celebrate the completion of a life goal than Hawaii?" Naxera said in an email has he prepared for the trip. "Eight of my close friends and family members will join me up there. A good friend will hike up Mauna Kea with me while the rest of the group will drive up and meet us on the summit."

Naxera has been climbing mountains for 25 years, starting with a backpacking-and-camping trip in the Sierra mountains in California when he lived in the San Francisco area.

"My initial interest was trout fishing in the beautiful mountain lakes and streams," he explained. "I started climbing easy peaks about 20 years ago, and that slowly evolved into more technical climbing."

Naxera's first technical climb was of Washington state's Mount Rainier in 2001. Rainier is the highest peak in that state, but Naxera didn't start thinking about hitting all 50 states' peaks -- a hobby called "highpointing" -- until three years and a few climbs later.

"I didn't hear about highpointing until I had already climbed five or six of the more difficult Western state high points," he said. "When I later discovered that some people climb the high points for all of the states, I thought, 'Why not? It sounds like fun.'"

About 230 people have completed the 50-state challenge. Some peaks are much easier than others. Florida's Britton Hill, for example, is only 345 feet above sea level.

Illinois' tallest point, a place near Galena called Charles Mound, ranks not much higher at 1,235 feet.

"Quite a few of the high points in the Midwest and (on the) East Coast are nothing more than a drive-up or a short hike," said Naxera, vice president of the Chicago Mountaineering Club. "The high points in states like Iowa and Nebraska are just off the road. There really isn't any hiking to be done at those high points."

That certainly wasn't the case for Alaska's Mount McKinley, which reaches 20,320 feet above sea level and is the highest point in North America. The climb required a 19-day expedition and a year of planning.

"During my own expedition, the temperature dropped to minus 30 degrees on two nights and the winds were blowing at 110 mph. Imagine sleeping in a tent in those conditions."

"Each person in our six-man team carried a 60-pound backpack and pulled a 60-pound sled (and) enough food, fuel and gear to survive three weeks on the mountain," Naxera said. "The physical and mental challenges of an expedition like that are tremendous."

Of course, the satisfaction of reaching the summit was equally tremendous, he said.

"All of that, coupled with the personal relationships and camaraderie of the other climbers on the mountain, yielded a very powerful and life-enriching experience," he said.

Naxera didn't organize his climbs in any particular order. For the most part, they were added on to business or personal trips.

Florida almost was saved for last, though.

"I joked that if I didn't finish the state high points until I was 90, I could roll up to Britton Hill in a wheelchair if necessary," Naxera joked. "Ultimately, I realized that Hawaii would be a much more fun place to celebrate than the panhandle region of Florida."

Naxera turns 50 in June. He insists it's just a coincidence that his 50th climb is the same year.

"I wasn't actively working on that (50-state) goal right away," he said. "Even after I decided to climb them all, it still takes a lot of time to visit all of the states, especially if you have a limited number of vacation days."

When Naxera completes his U.S. high point quest, he has another mission to accomplish: climbing the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

"I've done four of those already," he said.

Europe, Antarctica and Asia -- with Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth -- remain.

To learn more about the Highpoint Club, visit highpointers.org.

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