It is a well established fact that birding is often a gateway drug to other nerdy pursuits. Obvious ones include identifying butterflies (which I myself have fallen victim to), amphibians, flowers, and all other manner of living creature. One that I have really gotten into over the last two years is bicycling, which is something that was directly influenced by my birding. But I may have stumbled onto the granddaddy of them all this week, starting with an innocuous Wikipedia search.
On a whim, I looked up Mount Everest. That lead me down the rabbit hole to the Seven Summits. That in turn lead me to Highpointing, where I finally ended up on Peak Bagging. This terribly-named term has its own website that explains the pastime, which basically has all types of climbers striving to complete lists of various tall things, like the tallest mountain on each continent (the aforementioned Seven Summits), the highest point in each sovereign nation, the highest mountains in a range like the Colorado 14ers, the highest point in each state, and even the highest point in each of the 3,000+ American counties which range from random Midwestern farm fields to Denali. It brings mountain climbing solidly into the realm of nerdy.
The combination of esoteric knowledge, a healthy dose of outdoor exploration, arbitrary political boundaries, and checking things off of a list sounds a lot like birding to me, and the appeal was immediately there as soon as I found out that this activity exists. In fact, the ten signs you may be a peakbagger has an awful lot of parallels with listing:
1.) You have continued to a summit beyond a reasonable turn-back point despite terrible weather, including white-outs. Replace ‘continued to a summit’ with ‘chased a rare bird.’
2.) You keep a detailed log of all your climbs: peak name, date, weather, companions, etc. Umm… eBird much?
3.) You have taken hiking or climbing trips where the travel time to and from the base of a mountain is greater than the time spend in climbing the mountain. Again, see ‘chasing a rare bird.’
4.) You have made an effort to reach a spot in the lowlands that is completely undistinguishable except as the high point of something (for example, the highest point in Iowa). How about Pine Flycatcher as indistinguishable and not intrinsically valuable other than the fact that it’s a new ABA record?
5.) You have visited a tropical island and climbed it’s highest peak without ever going swimming or visiting a beach while there. Again, replace ‘climbed its highest peak’ with ‘went birding.’
6.) You see rock climbers on a sheer face and wonder why they bother, when there is a much easier way up on the other side. Yep, just tick a rare bird someone else has already found.
7.) You have driven over 2000 miles in a single weekend in order to climb a peak or peaks. No explanation needed here.
8.) You have some familiarity with the concept of “prominence”/”shoulder drop”/”vertical rise above a col” and how it can be used to qualify a list of summits. See: primary projection, molt, voice spectrogram, etc.
9.) After the top of a technical climb, you took time to scramble over and “tag the summit”. The goal of the whole ordeal is to add to your life list. Also, I guess there are only nine things in the top ten.
I realize this list puts both hobbies in a pretty terrible light when there are many more philosophical and personally fulfilling reasons to look at birds and to climb mountains, but nobody can deny that any of these things are untrue, either.
After studying up on Indiana’s county high points, I had to try this out. Because the high points in my area are located in the middle of fields and therefore currently covered with crops, I hit two central counties instead when I passed right by them on a pre-planned trip. The experience was satisfying in the same way that adding new birds to a county list is.
Hendricks County, west of Indianapolis, has its high point at the end of a pleasant country lane.
Marion County’s high point literally straddles the border of adjoining Hendricks, and is located in an overgrown and undeveloped lot behind a neighborhood.
Do you see those two blue blips in the middle of Indiana? I now have an official high point completion map, with Indiana 2.2% complete! To see how extreme some people get, compare the above with this guy. When the birding is slow, I now have a new way to entertain myself. The US is divided up really nicely, with the flatland high points being easy but incredibly numerous, and the mountainous ones being much fewer in number but infinitely more extreme. Fun!