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Thursday, September 28, 2000

Why R.I.'s Jerimoth Hill Is Nation's Toughest Summit

By Helen O'Neill
The Associated Press
    FOSTER, R.I. Dave Walsh gripped his U.S. geological map as he posed for a hero shot atop America's toughest peak.
    "McKinley took some planning, but this took 20 years," he roared.

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    A member of the Highpointers Club, a group of climbers who devote weekends to bagging the highest peak in every state, Walsh stood atop the ultimate summit at last.
    His achievement is not to be underestimated.
    "I bushwhacked in two years ago and barely got back in one piece," says Chuck Bickes, sighing in relief after a recent, safe ascent.
    They aren't talking about Mount Rainier or Mount Washington.
    They're talking about Jerimoth Hill in Rhode Island, elevation 812 feet.
    It's an easy stroll along a leafy lane to the summit, a 1-foot-high slab of granite even a toddler could scale.
    The problem isn't height.
    The problem is Henry.
    "Shoot all the damn Highpointers!" bellows Henry Richardson, a 77-year-old retired music teacher, who lives in a large red colonial on Jerimoth Hill, and who is as passionate about his privacy as Highpointers are about their peaks. An enormous American flag flutters outside the house, next to signs that say "Private Property" and "Trespassing Is A Violation That We Take Seriously."
    Very seriously.
    Over the years Richardson has hurled insults, called the police, threatened to break cameras, started fistfights.
    It's not like this at the highest point in Iowa, Hawkeye Point, where Highpointers are treated to milk and cookies after muddy ascents up a cattle trough on the Sterler family farm.
    Or in Kansas, where the owner erected a giant steel sunflower so Highpointers could spot the summit (Mount Sunflower) among miles of fields.
    Or in Illinois, where lawn chairs are propped up on Charles Mound so weary hikers can rest at the cornfield summit, where they are eyed by cows and greeted by a cat called "Friendly."
    If Richardson "would just try to be nice," suggested John Mitchler, a Highpointer from Colorado, "I think he would realize that he would get more enjoyment out of making people happy, than feeling put upon."
    "This is private property. Get outta here!" Richardson yelled recently as his dogs, little white yappy creatures called Casper and Chloe, chased visitors from his driveway, which Highpointers must cross to reach the summit.
    Stories about the "madman of Jerimoth Hill" are legendary, although his son, Ed Richardson, says they are mostly untrue.
    He insists there is no giant "Rin-Tin-Tin" dog, despite Highpointers who swear they've had a close encounter. Richardson says there is no gun. Just a secret security system that lets the family know when strangers creep onto their land. And a sympathetic neighbor who spies on Highpointers from her house across the street.
    For years, Highpointers would sneak to the summit at night, stick a furtive toe on top, and scurry out again. But few enjoy peak-bagging by stealth. The whole point of highpointing, club members say, is to spend a little time savoring each summit.
    Over time (and many testy phone calls) the club worked out a deal allowing members access to Jerimoth Hill four times a year. A club sign next to the "No Trespassing" signs lists the dates.
    There's just one problem. The deal was with Henry's son, Ed Richardson.
    "What agreement? There is no agreement," yelled Henry Richardson. "This is my property, not Ed's."
    Richardson doesn't actually own the summit, just the access lane. The high point itself belongs to Brown University, which has its own reasons for keeping hikers away.
    According to David Targan, director of Brown's observatory, Jerimoth Hill is not only the highest point in the state, it's also the darkest. A perfect spot for students to study the nighttime sky. Targan would prefer the Highpointers to stay away because he wants to protect the expensive telescopic equipment the University has stashed nearby.
    For a time, Brown lawyers thought they had the answer: close the summit to everyone on the grounds that the University might be liable if someone fell off.
    "I think they were focusing too much on the word 'summit' '', Targan said, chuckling. "They didn't realize there's nothing to fall off."
    Nothing at all.
    "It's not exactly what I expected," said 10-year-old Ian Carlin of Monson, Ma., as he pondered the little granite slab surrounded by wild blueberry bushes. Inspired by a book on Everest, Ian had just taken up climbing. Jerimoth Hill was his first ascent.
    Ian tackled it manfully, joining 100 other climbers on May 28, one of the "open access" days Highpointers had worked out with Ed Richardson. Ed watched warily from the house. His father grudgingly stayed out of the way.
    Ian didn't learn much about climbing, but he did pick up peak-bagging tips. For example, while Mount McKinley is highest peak in America at 20,320 feet, it's not the most dangerous.
    That honor belongs to Delaware's 448-foot Ebright Azimuth, located in the middle of a busy intersection. Highpointers risk lives and limbs as they dodge oncoming traffic to sprint to the summit.
    Which raises the question. What's the point?
    "If you have to ask the question, you'll never understand the answer," says Jack Longacre, a 62-year-old outdoorsman from Missouri, who founded the club in 1986. It now has more than 2,000 members.
    Club officials, keen to make the agreement with Ed Richardson work, post "greeters" at the side of Route 101 on access days.
    "Be good people, be good Highpointers," exhorted greeter Pete Anderson, directing hikers toward the summit May 28. Anderson, a geography professor from Connecticut, has conquered all of America's highest peaks, earning the coveted "50 staters" plaque. He saved his ascent of Jerimoth Hill until it was "legal," although he says once, several years ago, he was tempted to sneak in.
    "Age, maturity and wisdom won out," he says.
    The access agreement has been in place about a year, but Ed Richardson has little faith it will last. He complains that "rogue Highpointers" continue to tramp in all year around. He tells of the couple from New York who insisted they had a federal right to visit every high point. And the Boy Scout troop that tried to creep through the bushes.
    "I told the scout leader that I'd like to see his head shot off," Ed Richardson said. "And he tried to sneak in anyway. That's a fine civics lesson to be teaching those kids."
    Ed Richardson says he will give the deal another year. If Highpointers continue highpointing morning, noon and night, he will try another approach.
    "We'll blow that granite rock to pieces," he said. "End of a high point. There will just be a hole in the ground."

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