Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Stroke can't keep Gene Stouder from climbing to high point of 49 states

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Sometimes, the view from the top goes on forever. Other times, as retired physicist Gene Stouder knows, it only stretches to the nearest cornstalk.

Stouder, 71, part of a group of adventurers who call themselves Highpointers, has visited the highest point in 49 of our 50 states. Three of them he checked off after having a stroke.

In Delaware, he found that spot in the middle of an intersection. In Indiana, his quest led him to a cornfield.

Three of the highpoints he tackled — Mount Ranier in Washington, Mount Whitney in California and Mount Elbert in Colorado — jutted through the clouds at more than 14,000 feet. Others weren't quite so daunting. Take pancake-flat Florida, where relatively lofty Britton Hill rises just 345 feet above sea level at a roadside pullout.

The only highpoint he skipped? That towering, 20,320-foot monster known as Denali in Alaska.

"I wouldn't let him do that one," says Stouder's wife, Joyce. "Too dangerous."

At his home near Mount Bonnell, one of the highest points in Austin, Stouder thumbs through a well-worn notebook filled with details about each stop on his 20-year journey. He flips through a scrapbook of photos and sifts through a box of flags, one representing each state he conquered.

Stouder began plotting his state-hopping mission after reading a book called "Seven Summits," about two men who climbed the highest mountain on every continent. He knew there must be a cheaper way, and then heard about the Highpointers Club, which promotes climbing to the highest point in each of the 50 states.

Stouder was 50 years old, and he had a new goal.

To prepare, he hoisted a backpack filled with 25 pounds of weight and began slogging up and down the steps at Mount Bonnell. Then he enlisted a friend or family member to join him for each trip. Sometimes, his three West Highland terriers — Cookie, Chloe and Casper — came, too.

First up? Texas, of course. He scurried up craggy and windblown Guadalupe Peak in West Texas on May 27, 1990. Joyce came along; so did their daughter and her husband.

"It was very satisfying," he says of climbing the 8,749-foot peak. "I like being outside, and this involved camping and considerable training."

That first year he knocked out five high points — Texas, Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and Arizona.

Through the years, the adventure delivered him to the top of Mount Hood and to an Iowa barnyard populated by cows that watched in glassy-eyed wonder as he signed a logbook tucked in a metal box.

"In the early days, it was just climbers," says John Mitchler, editor of the Highpointer Club's newsletter, Apex to Zenith. "Then in the late '90s, more couples and families started doing it. ... It's a reason to get out and travel."

According to the group's records, which are based on the honor system, 215 people have reached all 50 highpoints. About twice that many have made it to the highpoint of the lower 48 states.

Thirteen highpoints are located on privately owned land. Five require rope and snow travel; four more are scary to the average person. You can drive right up to six or seven of them. The rest vary between short hikes and long trudges.

The youngest person to reach all 50 points was 12; the oldest was 77. The quickest finisher took 43 days, 3 hours, 51 minutes and 9 seconds; the slowest took 50 years. Married couples, a father-son duo, a family and a pair of brothers all have reached all 50 highpoints. The most a dog has tackled is 42.

Stouder purposely attempted the more difficult climbs when he was younger. "Here I am at 71, and I could not do it today," he says.

The most beautiful highpoint, in his opinion? Montana's Granite Peak.

The easiest? The highest point in New Jersey, known as High Point.

Stouder miscalculated his water needs while climbing Katahdin in Maine. Marmots ate the leather off his hiking boots at night during a trek to bag Gannett Peak in Wyoming. He summited 14,433-foot Mount Elbert in Colorado during a snowstorm on the Fourth of July.

And he rode a cog train to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

He saw buffalo in Nebraska, clouds of mosquitoes in Utah, mountain goats in Montana, wild ponies in Virginia and snakes in Michigan.

"The main thing that stands out is seeing different cultures around the U.S.," he says. "Wonderful memories of every one."

"Part of the fun of it was getting to some of these points. Like Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma — there was nothing there," says Joyce, who accompanied him on 23 of the trips.

Then, in May 2009, with just three highpoints remaining, a stroke nearly derailed Stouder's plans.

He was grading papers for a class he was teaching at the time. He stood up and fell flat. He got prompt medical treatment, but the right side of his body was affected.

Like that, he went from climbing mountains to needing a cane to walk. He had to learn to write again.

The stroke, though relatively minor, affected him in other ways, too. He'd always been very scientific and logical, but not very emotional. "Now I have no trouble telling people I love them," he says. "I get tears in my eyes more often. Something changed in my brain, and I don't regret it. I see the world in a different way."

Stouder took a year off from highpointing and then decided it was time to finish up by knocking off North Dakota, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

He tires more easily since the stroke, walks with a limp and suffers from short-term memory loss. Despite the challenges, Stouder wrapped up his quest last July, with a stroll up White Butte in North Dakota with his wife. That hike provided the perfect bookend, he says, to an adventure two decades in the making.

"It was the end, and I had this woman with me I have known since we were 6 years old," he says.

He says he didn't feel let down after checking off that last state, but his wife is less certain of that. He hopes he's inspired others — especially his grandchildren — to set long-term, meaningful goals.

"It's a drawn-out project requiring lots of planning, but you have a great feeling for this country in the end," he says. "I learned a lot about what I can do, and I know I can push myself much farther than I thought I could."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

For more information about the Highpointers Club, go to

www.highpointers.org .