Team NKR

Social media are tricky gumbos, simultaneously connecting and isolating, able to amplify fantastic messages, misinformation, and drivel.

As lovers of the outdoors, one unabashedly positive aspect of the internet is the ability to follow along with incredible adventurers, as they visit gorgeous or remote vistas. For those of us who will likely never scale K2 or voyage to Antarctica, vicariously experiencing these spots through photographs, videos, or text is a wonderful, if imperfect, substitute for wanderlust.

The ability for anyone to publish on the internet and the inherent speed with which one can do so also enables the rest of us to watch as momentous ascents or record-breaking attempts occur, sometimes as they happen. If you’ve followed this project for any length, you know we are massive fans of High Points. As we publish this article – mid-June 2023 – the internet allows anyone with the inclination to follow a team as they crisscross the United States, attempting to break a record for reaching all 50 U.S. High Points.

The best part about this endeavor is they’re doing it for a great cause.

The logo of Team NKR

The group started with five members, who called themselves Team NKR.

NKR stands for National Kidney Registry. Each constituent of the squad boasts just a single kidney, as they previously donated an organ to a human in need. Three climbers – Dave Ashley, Jodi Harskamp, and Jay Irwin – hope to best the current Guinness World Record of 43 days, 3 hours, and 51 minutes. Supporting them are the final two members, Matt Harmody and Emily Polet-Monterosso.

Anyone who has traveled the vast expanses of the country knows that 43 days is a short period for simply visiting the states. Toss in some serious mountaineering, many miles on foot, logistics, and the physical toll and this adventure becomes extraordinarily arduous.

Likely the only correct starting point, the team began in Alaska with the mighty Denali. Despite some true beasts in the Lower 48, by all accounts, Denali is the paramount challenge in completing the 50 High Points. Climbers can spend more than two weeks on the mountain waiting for the right summit conditions. Even with patience and provisions, historically, only about 50% of those who start end up on top of Alaska, the United States, and North America. Team NKR hoped to shave some time off their record bid with a combination of planning, two summit pushes (!), and a skiing descent. However, in a harbinger of things to come, 2023 is a rough year even by Denali’s nasty standards. The current success rate is hovering around 20%. Fortunately, NKR found a weather window and bagged peak #1. Unfortunately, they were not able to implement the time-saving route. Still, obviously, a failure on the hardest mountain in the project would spell failure.

The team started at Base Camp on 19 May, summited on 30 May, and left on 1 June. The time spent on Denali displays just how impressive a record of 43 days is!

Team NKR arrives at the base of Denali - photo from official Instagram profile
Video from the summit of Denali

Part of the success of such a venture must rest on the ability to climb Denali and not feel as if the rest of the trip is cinched. Still, finishing the final boss first goes a long way to triumph.

The team next flew to Hawaii to climb Mauna Kea. After that summit, they could count on motoring around the contiguous states for the other 48. The team flew to Chicago, where they boarded a motor home that would serve as the base for the rest of the mission. From there, they visited Charles Mound in Illinois, a spot on private property only open to the public on certain dates throughout the year. They then went to Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

All seemed to be going well, but the next point on the itinerary would be a major step up in difficulty. Considered one of the three or four hardest High Points, Montana’s Granite Peak combines 25 miles of hiking with technical climbing. Most people take two or three days to complete the task. The team suffered its first major setback during this pursuit. Jodi Harskamp sustained a leg injury that led to her abandoning the entire project. Dave Ashley managed to summit Granite, but the others did not. In addition to a time-consuming non-completion, the team went down to just two climbing members.

Montana forced the team to reassess their plans. The winter of 2022/23 brought significant amounts of snow to many parts of the West. If all the mountains in this portion of the country were as laden as Granite, the record could be in serious jeopardy. They decided to skip Idaho and headed straight for a mountain that doesn’t really care how much snow the West got: Rainier.

On top of Tahoma, AKA Rainier at 4 AM - photo from official Facebook profile
Fun with crevasses on Rainier - photo from official Facebook profile

Washington’s High Point is covered in glaciers, so a season of snow isn’t necessarily a limiting factor to victory. The team topped out in the wee hours of the morning on June 9, despite some harsh storms. With another one of the hardest climbs now in the past, perhaps the team was back on track.

However, the beats kept coming, as they were forced to skip Oregon’s Mt. Hood due to poor weather. After making the apex of Nevada, they again experienced disappointment as weather nixed a streak up California’s Mt. Whitney, the highest crag in the contiguous United States. These delays seemed to be serious blows, but the team remained publicly confident they still had enough time.

From there, they climbed Arizona’s and Utah’s High Points, neither of which is a stroll (Utah took 20 hours). Just after midnight on June 14, the group ascended Colorado’s Mt. Elbert, the second-highest contiguous mountain. Panorama Point in Nebraska preceded Wheeler Peak in New Mexico later that day. That’s a busy 24 hours!

To date, the team has completed 14 High Points. At the time of publication, they had just summited Wheeler, so they have not yet filled in New Mexico on their progress graphics. Save that omission, their map looks like this:

The best part of this expedition is one’s ability to watch in real-time. Updates trickle in via their social media accounts, but you can track the location of the team as they go thanks to the magic of the Global Positioning System. Check the Further Reading and Exploration section below for all the relevant places to keep tabs on Team NKR.

Will they break the record? In addition to postponing Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and California, the team also deferred in Wyoming, where conditions likely mirror those on Granite Peak. These missed mountains are some of the toughest on the list. Perhaps delaying ascents on them will pay off, as snow melts with the coming of summer. Or perhaps they have already missed too many windows. Roughly 26 days into the attempt, fewer than three weeks remain. Either way, following the team will be a thrill.

As I type, they are likely headed to Guadalupe Peak in Texas, a lovely mountain. After that, they have a string of Southern High Points, which should allow their bodies to recuperate before gearing up for the tougher mountains in New England and the anticipated return to the West.

We’ll check in with Team NKR again in the future. If you want to watch them visit your state, check out their rough itinerary below. Godspeed, Team NKR!

UPDATE 1 – 15 June 2023: Shortly after publication, the team relayed that Jay Irwin decided to drop out of the record attempt. After summiting Elbert in Colorado, he decided it was in his best interest to transition to a support member. Certainly an understandable decision. A bit unfortunate because, if he had been able to power through New Mexico and Texas, a spate of easier High Points might have allowed a bit of relaxation. Still, all he’s accomplished to this point is incredibly impressive.

Dave Ashley is now the only climber still pursuing the goal.

On the upside, Montana can now be fully counted, as Ashley completed it during the squad’s aborted attempt. He’s added multiple states to the tally, making the map look a bit redder:

Update 2 – 23 June 2023: Team NKR spent the last week powering through the South, Midwest, Appalachians, and New England. 

In one impressive 24-hour period, Ashley summited the High Points of Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. That’s 21 miles of hiking and 10,500 feet of elevation gain! In addition to traveling.

After the tough day in the southern Appalachians, the team headed through a string of less taxing apexes in the Mid-Atlantic region, hoping for a stress-free period. However, upon reviewing the GPS data from the team’s instruments, they determined that Dave Ashley’s gadget showed him missing the summit by about 200 feet. Could be a glitch, could be the snowstorm kept him from understanding exactly where he was. Either way, they had to take Montana off the map. Not only is that a subtraction, but a major one at that. Even for an advanced climber, Montana will tack on a full day. Coming at the end of a grueling month is not ideal, to say the least.

With this new reality in mind, the team decided to drive to the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, a challenging mountain they had planned to climb. Unfortunately, no such possibility existed on Maine’s Katahdin, which required a full calendar day to complete (with a trip to the airport).

With the eastern half of the country completed, the team flew to Los Angeles to start an assault on the remaining five High Points: California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. These five are among the hardest in the entire project.

They have just over one week to complete the task. Can they still break the record?

Update 3 – 27 June 2023 – Just two peaks remain!

Ashley got to the top of California and Oregon with weather cooperating on the second pass of those grand mountains.

Things got hairy in Idaho, however, as he was caught in a thunderstorm on the summit ridge of Borah Peak. With snow still covering the higher altitudes and no cover, Ashley felt compelled to ditch into an “avalanche chute” to avoid the brunt of the storm. Fortunately, he avoided being stuck in a section he couldn’t downclimb and escaped unharmed. Crazy.

The team sits in a Montana hotel, taking one last restorative break before the final two tests of Montana and Wyoming. Granite and Gannet seem to be rhyming twins, as they are both considered two of the hardest in the country. I’ve heard both considered the toughest of the Lower 48. The team has just over four days left to beat the record. Bad weather, injury, or any tactical mistake could spell doom on these arduous ascents.

Will they make it? We’ll soon know!

Further Reading and Exploration

Team NKR – Official Website

Trip summaries and updates – Official Facebook Page

Team NKR’s Live Location – EnabledTracking

Approximate Itinerary

Team NKR Instagram Profile

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