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Plenty of Peaks: Dartmouth Junior Chronicles Hiking Journey in Documentary

  • Dartmouth College student Mackenzie Scurka is interviewed for the documentary film Highpointers at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park in 2015.

  • Scurka and her father, Gary Scurka, share a high-five atop 8,750-foot Guadalupe Peak in Texas. Gary Scurka directed the documentary Highpointers chronicling the pair’s quest to summit the tallest peak in all of the continental U.S. states.

  • Mackenzie Scurka, a Dartmouth College junior, rests atop Wyoming’s Gannett Peak in 2014. Her quest to reach the highest summit in every continental U.S. state is the subject of a new documentary.

  • Mackenzie Scurka and her father, Gary, share a moment atop Texas’ Guadalupe Peak in 2015 during the making of the documentary Highpointers.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 06, 2017

When Mackenzie Scurka and her father, Gary, first had the inkling to make a film chronicling their mission to ascend the highest points in every U.S. state, she was wary of the idea.

Then, she figured, the adventures were simply too awesome to keep to herself.

“It’s my favorite activity, and I didn’t want it to be commercialized or think that everything we were doing was for the film,” Scurka, now a Dartmouth College junior, said during a 2015 interview in Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park in a segment became part of the opening scene in the newly released documentary Highpointers. “At some point, I realized some things are too good not to share.”

Directed by Gary Scurka, an experienced TV journalist and producer who has worked stints for CBS News and the series National Geographic Explorer, Highpointers has been airing this summer on PBS and is available on DVD through www.highpointersthemovie.com. While some of Mackenzie’s ascents are lengthy — her guided quest to summit Wyoming’s Gannett Peak took seven days — the film is a breezy 58 minutes long.

A regular hiking tandem since Mackenzie was about 3 years old, the Scurkas began endeavoring to reach the high summit in every U.S. state, or highpointing, when she was 8. Their documentation began with simple photographs and a scrap book. Somewhere around the time their 15th or 20th peak was completed, the temptation for a documentary got stronger.

“All along in the back of my head, I kind of new this would be a cool thing to do, but I didn’t say anything about it until several years later,” said Gary Scurka, a Rhode Island native and Arlington, Va., resident whose investigative journalism pieces have aired on CBS’ 60 Minutes and other prominent outlets. “When Mackenzie was a little older, I had a feeling she would be open to the idea.”

Featuring sweeping landscape cinematography, the narrative is carried by Mackenzie’s affinity for wild spaces. Since her days as a youth discovering northern Virginia’s Great Falls Park, the biology-environmental studies double major has always been drawn to nature.

“It’s great to see cities and learn about the culture of different people and places. That’s all extremely important,” she said during an early segment in the film. “However, I think it’s equally important to see places within those regions that have no people at all and to see the landscape and environment for what it truly is.”

Early scenes help explain the phenomenon behind highpointing, a sporting pastime touted as a blueprint for experiencing the U.S. The Highpointers Club, an organization that promotes the activity and provides a platform for recordkeeping, has more than 2,400 members. A handful of them are briefly interviewed early on in Highpointers, some nearing the completion of all summits and others just starting out.

That’s not all that varies among those who seek the activity, as pointed out by Highpointers Club president Tim Webb.

“We have the casual hiker, and we have the experienced mountaineers,” Webb said in the film. “We have some that come from low income and some who have more money than they know what to do with.”

Mackenzie Scurka enjoys wild spaces not only to escape day-to-day reality, but as a means to simplify it.

“To me, the outdoors is just a place where I can totally clear my mind and free myself from everyday worries,” she said in the film. “There’s no homework in the wilderness. There’s no weird drama. It’s a place where your worries and your problems are so much more basic and they’re a lot less superficial.”

The second half of the film homes in on Scurka’s ascent of Wyoming’s high point, 13,809-foot Gannett Peak, a guided multi-day expedition that requires miles of hiking just to reach its base. Gary Scurka suffers an injury prior to the adventure, forcing Mackenzie to engage in her first major hike without her dad’s companionship and guidance.

She instead links up with fellow teenager Fallon Rowe, a Boise, Idaho, native and experienced rock climber. Rowe and her mother, Terri, are attempting to be the first documented mother-daughter tandem to complete the lower 48 high summits.

Mackenzie admits to being intimidated by the athleticism of Rowe, who is facing her own adversity while battling hip dysplasia.

Yet the voyage goes smoothly, with insightful commentary offered by lead guide David Bowers and brilliant footage by videographer Andy Bardon, particularly during one nearly three-minutes-long sequence featuring the orchestral number Uplift by composer Paul Mottram. The scene showcases the changing landscape as the group progresses from pastures to glacial terrain, crossing lush fields and cascading streams with carrier llamas.

As for devoting so much time in a relatively short documentary to a section devoid of dialogue, Gary Scurka feels the music and footage offer plenty of narrative.

“Music really creates the mood in any film, so we put a lot of thought into the music choices and how to use them,” the director said. “That sequence we felt was really important to convey the spirit of the film.”

Mackenzie Scurka, 20, recently led a group of incoming Dartmouth freshmen on a first-year trip called The Fifty, an approximately 50-mile hike between campus and the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge.

After Wednesday’s climb of New Mexico’s 13,167-foot Wheeler Peak, her 39th completed high summit, Scurka now heads to South Africa for an academic term in Dartmouth’s foreign studies program.

Among the 11 total high points Scurka has remaining — nine in the lower 48 — are arduous ascents such as Washington’s Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) and North America’s highest peak, Alaska’s Denali (20,310). Less technically demanding are summits such as Mount Magazine (2,753) in Arkansas and Idaho’s Borah Peak (12,667).

She has no timetable for completing the list but hopes to accomplish several every summer. In the meantime, Mackenzie Scurka — and the viewing public — can enjoy Highpointers as a reminder for what motivates the endeavor for her and countless others.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.