Adrian Harris bagged his first peak with New York’s Mount Marcy in September 1996. The following year, he climbed three more high points in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Soon after, the South Buffalo resident declared his intent to climb the highest points in 48 contiguous states.
This summer, Harris achieved his goal when he scaled Kings Peak in Utah at 13,528 feet. The accomplishment, certified by the Highpointers Club (an international climbing organization), also designated Harris as the first African-American to achieve 48-peak status.
At age 49, Harris is divorced and the father of three sons ages 17, 7 and 5. He holds a master’s degree in special education and works as a teacher’s aide for the Lancaster Central School District.
Climbing mountains is not the only challenge Harris has undertaken recently. In July he ran unsuccessfully for the Buffalo Board of Education against developer Carl Paladino.
People Talk: Have you peaked at 48?
Adrian Harris: No. I have two more to reach 50. I never thought it would get to this point, but once I got to my 40s and I knew altitude was not an issue – like I can get off a plane at midnight and be on the trail at 6 and climb without problems – I knew there was a possibility I’d hit 50. Nothing will turn me back, but it will be expensive.
PT: What is your total input so far?
AH: About $50,000.
PT: Are all the climbs challenging? Britton Hill in Florida is listed as the lowest high point in the country at 345 feet.
AH: A lot of the climbs are only a mile hike, especially for the ones in Michigan and Minnesota. A lot of them are day hikes, a few you drive. But when you start getting out west they are a lot more intricate with five- and six-day hikes.
PT: Are you better at ice or rock?
AH: Both. I like putting the crampons on and going over glaciers. Rock climbing out west is a lot more challenging because of the altitude, the freezing. They’re rated from one to four. Mount Marcy is rated one. Mount Katahdin in Maine, which is a little over 5,400 feet, is Class 2 strenuous. That’s the first rock climbing I ever did.
PT: Do you look down?
AH: When I’m climbing I never look down. You could lose your balance very easily. Like if I was on Mount Ranier, when you’re on ice and glaciers, you’d be slipping and falling down 1,000 feet. People die on these things.
PT: Who is your role model?
AH: Jackie Robinson.
PT: Have you been lost on a mountain?
AH: My last hike on Kings Peak in Utah I took a shortcut on my way down. They didn’t have the trail marked correctly so I went around the mountain instead of through a pass. I was lost for 12 hours. It got dark and there were mountain lions, moose, bears. Moose are very territorial. You have to wait for them to leave the trail. They’ll kill you. Eventually I called park services to pick me up at 2 a.m. I had no water, no food. I’m totally against using a GPS, but maybe I will now.
PT: Does each peak have a personality?
AH: Each has different challenges. I’ve done a lot of these by myself so I’ve met people from everywhere in this country. That’s one of the wonderful things about it. On Mount Elbert in Colorado I met Rusty and Jake, two guys from Tyler, Texas. It’s funny because you really don’t see them after that.
PT: How do you celebrate after a summit?
AH: I say a prayer. Usually when I climb – especially the last two – I dedicate it to certain people. The last three were for my three sons. The last few I cried a lot.
PT: Does anything compare to that feeling of exhilaration?
AH: The births of my children. I’m a big baseball fan, too. When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series I was on top of the world. I was in my college days and that’s when I figured out I didn’t need to get inebriated to have a lot of fun.
PT: You must be cool under pressure.
AH: I think so. I only get bent out of shape – and my kids will attest to this – when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing in school. They have to take it seriously.
PT: So that’s why you ran for the School Board?
AH: I think average people like me need to get involved in the process. I’m a product of public schools. My son is in South Park High School. I have a master’s degree in special education, and I’m a homeowner, too. I should have my voice heard.
PT: What did you learn from the process?
AH: I learned that I should have been more myself, and I wasn’t. I was truly ashamed of that. I’m thinking of running again, and I’ll say what I really want to say.
PT: Is there a correlation between climbing a mountain and running for School Board?
AH: No. Running for School Board is a popularity contest. When it’s you against the mountain, you have to be in the best shape of your life. You have to be focused and technically sound. There are people I’ve climbed with who have not made it. They turn back.
PT: Are you self-trained?
AH: Yes. I run five miles five days a week. I do ab work in my living room. I have a bench and some dumbbells. I bike and I have a circular pool.
PT: What is your most coveted peak?
AH: Gannett Peak in Wyoming. It’s the hardest and longest. It’s 50 miles round trip and the terrain is undulating, so we actually climbed 20 miles in and we only gained 2,000 feet of elevation.
PT: How important is research?
AH: Very. I know what to expect, whether you need rain gear at the top of your pack. I research on Google Maps. I’ve read a lot of summit posts, YouTube videos, books. Thunderstorms always crop up on these mountains midday. I prepare myself in other ways like I don’t wear a jacket in the winter. I hike in snow in Chestnut Ridge.
PT: Does mountain climbing creep into all facets of your life?
AH: Probably for the worst. I’m divorced now. You go through the courtship and it was great that I was doing this, but some people cannot be happy with other people’s success. Obviously it wasn’t the only reason but it was a big part. I have a girlfriend now who is extremely supportive.