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The Best U.S. Summits: Top Of The World

Who needs Everest when you can have these eight summits, all hikeable, all close to home, no sherpas or yaks required.

Mount Colden

“The Trap Dike Route gives you 2,000 vertical feet of the most satisfying unroped climbing on the East Coast,” says Don Mellor, author of Climbing in the Adirondacks (see Guidebooks below). The ascent begins in a deeply eroded dike, where you’ll climb ladderlike up fractured rock past a waterfall. After several hundred feet, you’ll break out onto a 30-something-degree slab of smooth granite that will eventually leave your hamstrings begging for mercy. Fortunately, the summit views of neighboring high peaks are as sweet as they come. What’s more, you’ll have the satisfaction of having done the historic Adirondack climb.

Route: Tony Goodwin, editor of Guide to Adirondack Trails (see Guidebooks below), suggests a scenic three- to four-day, 32-mile loop beginning near Averyville. Spend the first night near Moose or Duck Ponds. The second day, hike past Wallface Cliff and camp near Scott’s Dam to avoid the crowds. The Trap Dike Route begins in the obvious chasm on the southwest flank of Avalanche Lake. Move out of the dike and onto the slabs when the walls of the chasm become low enough to allow escape (use the second opportunity to gain the slabs; the first option is more difficult). Follow the trail back to Lake Colden, then over Avalanche Pass to Adirondack Loj.

Challenge Factor: High. It is steep passing the waterfall at the bottom, and the upper slabs are easy but unnervingly smooth. Do not venture onto the slabs if they are wet or there is a chance of rain. Try this route only if you have prior experience at walking up smooth granite slabs with lots of exposure below.

Guidebooks: Climbing in the Adirondacks: A Guide to Rock & Ice Routes in the Adirondack Park, by Don Mellor (1996; Adirondack Mountain Club, Lake George, NY; 800-395-8080; $24.95); and Guide to Adirondack Trails 1: High Peaks Region, 12th edition, edited by Tony Goodwin (1998; Adirondack Mountain Club, $16.95).

Contact: No permits required. Adirondack Mountain Club: (518) 668-4447.

Mount Katahdin

“The Knife Edge is the most spectacular feature of Katahdin,” writes Stephen Clark, author of Katahdin: A Guide to Baxter State Park & Katahdin (see Guidebook below). Along the ridge “there are only three ways to go: forward, backward, or straight down.” For this reason the bladelike ar?te connecting two of Katahdin’s highest summits has become the prized “trail” for the mountain’s most adventuresome hikers. The best way to reach the summit is from Chimney Pond, a campground described by Clark as the most dramatic east of the Rockies; you’ll gaze directly upward at 2,000 vertical feet of glacially carved granite. Adjust your eagle eyes to see the hikers tiptoeing across the Knife Edge.

Route: Start at Roaring Brook trailhead and hike 3.3 miles to the lean-tos at Chimney Pond Campground. From there, Cathedral Trail gains 2,300-feet in a mere 1.6 miles to Baxter Peak, the mountain’s high point. Then it’s quite a few skips to the South Peak, followed by the heart-stopping Knife Edge traverse, and finally the knee-crushing 2,000-foot, 1.3-mile drop back to Chimney Pond.

Challenge factor: Moderate. You’ll be stepping carefully across the Knife Edge. Make sure the weather is in your favor because this is an exposed and potentially dangerous position.

Guidebook: Katahdin: A Guide to Baxter State Park & Katahdin, by Stephen Clark (1988; North Country Press, Unity, ME; 800-722-2169; $13.95).

Contact: Chimney Pond Campground (all lean-tos; no tenting allowed) has a quota, requires reservations, and costs $6 per person per night. Baxter Park headquarters: (207) 723-5140.

Mount St. Helens

“Of all the hundreds of summits that I’ve stood on, none are more glorious than that lowly walkup, Mt. St. Helens.” So says yours truly, author of The Climber’s Guide to North America, Vol. 1: West Coast Rock Climbs (1984; Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO; 800-337-5012; $22). St. Helens is the exception to my summit rule. I don’t climb this mountain for the steep, beautiful, view-filled hike; I climb it to reach the top. You can see why if you turn to the fold-out picture on the next page. All the way up, you trudge the monotonous slope of a cinder cone. But step onto the summit and you’ve entered an exploded world of unparalleled power, a spectacular display of raw geology. Scattered across the horizon, you’ll see a speckling of snow-covered volcanoes, all patiently waiting to show what they’re made of.

Route: The standard route on Monitor Ridge is a one-day round-trip from the trailhead. For an overnight excursion, camp instead at Butte Camp Dome, which is 2.2 miles from the trailhead at Redrock Pass. Ascend the snow slopes from there, roughly a 4-mile trudge to the summit. In the summer after the snow has melted, follow the Loowit Trail 2.2 miles to Monitor Ridge for a more pleasant ascent. For the ultimate in volcano experiences, hike the 31-mile, three-day loop around St. Helens, then top it off with a summit climb.

Challenge factor: Moderate. Beware not to step onto hidden cornices overhanging the interior. This is one of the few Cascade volcanoes that’s unglaciated and completely nontechnical.

Guidebook: Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes, by Jeff Smoot (1992; Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO; 800-337-5012; $14.95).

Contact: Permits, quotas, and a fee of $15 per person apply. Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument: (360) 247-3961.

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