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Climbing into the record book

(Matthew Cavanaugh for the Boston Globe)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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NORWICH, Vt. - On a warm, sunny afternoon last month, Kristen Kelliher hiked to the top of Mount Mansfield, the highest point in her home state of Vermont. Accompanied by 30 family members and friends, she was greeted at the summit by a banner celebrating her achievement, one that landed Kelliher in the record books.

That day, at age 17 years, 4 months, and 13 days, she became the youngest female to “highpoint’’ - stand atop the highest peak - in all 48 states in the continental United States.

Climbing Mount Mansfield, all 4,393 feet of it, was a piece of cake, though, compared with what Kelliher accomplished this year. Beginning in June, she conquered three peaks that rank among America’s most challenging: Oregon’s Mount Hood, Montana’s Granite Peak, and Washington’s Mount Rainier, whose imposing height (14,410 feet) and treacherous weather conditions make any ascent risky.

The previous female record holder, Danielle Birrer, was 18 years, 4 days old when she set the record in 2000. In all, only 404 climbers of any age or gender have achieved the 48-state feat, according to the Highpointers Club, a Colorado organization that compiles such statistics.

In the meantime, Kelliher has set her sights on Hawaii and Alaska - and an even more exclusive club, the 50-staters. Of its 214 members, fewer than 15 are female.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was 9,’’ Kelliher said in an interview at the high school she attends across the Vermont border in Hanover, N.H., where she is in her senior year. A three-sport athlete and honors student, Kelliher was preparing to play in a varsity field hockey game.

Inspired by an article about a record-setting 12-year-old male highpointer, Kelliher, who has been hiking and skiing all her life, decided to try for the girls’ record at an age when many girls might consider hiking more of a chore than a challenge.

“I’m kind of competitive. OK, a lot,’’ Kelliher said, breaking into smile. “It sounded like a cool goal. I thought, I could do that, too.’’

Her climb into the record books has not been uneventful, uninterrupted, inexpensive, or worry-free, however, particularly on her family’s part.

Conquering Rainier in July took three attempts, each with its own challenges. Her first expedition - accompanied by her stepfather, Bill Bender, a solar-energy company owner, and led by a professional guide team - ended in disappointment. After returning to base camp, Kelliher learned that while her group had technically “summited,’’ they had stopped short of reaching Rainier’s actual highpoint, because of bad weather. The mountain’s true highpoint, known as Columbia Crest, was a 40-minute round trip from where her party turned around, even though the group received papers certifying that they had summited.

It took two more attempts, each costing several hundred dollars in guide fees and equipment rentals, for Kelliher to cross Washington off her list: number 46, and counting.

“I was so upset,’’ she recalled of the stomach-sinking moment when she found she had fallen short. “If I am going for a record, I have to get to the top. Technically, nobody would have known. But morally it wasn’t quite right.’’

Her stepfather says it’s in her nature to persevere where others might not.

“Mentally as well as physically, Kristen’s very tough,’’ he said. Climbing Mount Hood, Kelliher incurred painfully swollen shins that stayed unhealed through her first Rainier climb. “You never heard her complain, though’’ Bender said. Instead, Kelliher grew even more determined after other climbers seemed doubtful she could make it up Rainier, period, potentially forcing them to turn back, too.

What has recently become a celebration of one teen’s extraordinary feat is also a family saga, one that has taken Kelliher, her parents, and three siblings to remote corners of America that few seek out, much less scale with backpacks and ice axes.

Their first conquest happened almost by accident, on a 2002 cross-country road trip, when the family hiked up South Dakota’s Harney Peak. Highpointing wasn’t even in their vocabulary yet.

In 2004, urged on by Kelliher, they began targeting other states more systematically. First came New England (all except Vermont, which she saved for last), then six mid-Atlantic states. An 18-state odyssey in 2005 took them through the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest. In 2006, they knocked off 11 more states. In most cases, the family - including Kelliher’s older brother, Ryan, now 19, and two half-brothers, Billy, 10, and Danny, 7 - drove from state to state, camping along the way and hiking together up all but the steepest peaks.

“This trip has taken places we just wouldn’t have gone to otherwise,’’ said her mother, Mary Bender, a pediatrician. Asked whether her daughter’s quest to set a record had been their driving force, she nodded and laughed. “Although I will say that if Kristen had set out to see every shopping mall in America, that wouldn’t have worked for us.’’

Only once, in June 2006, did the family highpoint twice (Illinois and Indiana) in a single day. States like Florida, whose 345-foot highpoint, Britton Hill, is America’s lowest, were no challenge at all. Five, including Rhode Island, never rise above 900 feet.

On the other extreme are 11 state highpoints soaring 11,000 feet and higher, many of which are difficult to access. Wyoming’s Gannett Peak, for instance, which Kelliher and Bender climbed in August 2010, is reachable only by a 46-mile round trip hike. Lugging backpacks crammed with climbing equipment and camping gear, the two spent six long days getting to the top and back.

Highpoints, said Bill Bender, “are all kind of weird in their own way. You have to be a little eccentric to do this.’’ He has never calculated the overall cost of their highpointing excursions, which until recently have been budgeted as ordinary family vacations. However, flying to the last few Western states and paying for guides and equipment have nudged their spending into “the many thousands. I’m not sure we want to know the total. Except for the last handful, though, it’s been fairly inexpensive.’’

Tim Webb, president of the 3,000-member Highpointers Club, says his organization attracts a diverse mix of hikers, wilderness backpackers, and serious mountaineers, each with different objectives.

“We get a broad spectrum, including lots of families who plan vacations around highpointing,’’ Webb notes. Accumulating even 40 states, for which his club awards a special pin, is “a pretty significant accomplishment,’’ he adds.

Early on, the Benders were unsure Kelliher would remain interested in pursuing all 48. By 2007, Kelliher having completed 10 trips and 42 highpoints, only two Eastern states, New York and Vermont, were left. Then came a two-year hiatus.

“Kristen was still growing, and she needed to grow into the bigger mountains,’’ her stepfather recalled.

She began last year taller, stronger, and more resolute than ever. “If I wanted to do this [set the record],’’ Kelliher said, “I knew I’d have to start moving.’’

Now it’s on to 50, and another possible age record. Next February, after completing high school a semester early, Kelliher will tackle Hawaii’s 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, a relatively easy climb. Last is Alaska’s 20,320-foot Mount McKinley (also known as Denali), the most challenging of all. For every 1,000 climbers who go up, three fail to make it down alive.

Kelliher has signed with a guide team for next May and will pay for the trip’s $17,000 cost herself. Already filling out college applications, she’s looking for corporate sponsorship or grant money to help.

“It’s definitely scary,’’ her mother said. “If Kristen can figure out how to fund it, in her 17-year-old way, I won’t stop her, though. And if she can’t, well, then I don’t have to worry about her being killed in an avalanche.’’

Kelliher says she will not be discouraged if her group fails to conquer Denali.

Yet if she succeeds, it just might inspire another fourth-grader to work harder - and climb higher - to achieve goals she once thought were unreachable.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.