Higher Education—A Father and Son Put Curiosity to Work in the Colorado Mountains

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At thirteen years old, Arthur Harris has stood on the summits of more mountains than most people will climb in a lifetime. He’s just getting warmed up.

According to Arthur’s father, Doug Harris, Arthur got an early start to climbing mountains. Beginning at the ripe age of two, Arthur accompanied Doug on mountain hikes in the White Mountains in New England. By the time Arthur was six, he and Doug were hiking and climbing almost every weekend. Along the way, they picked up the hobby of "high pointing," in which participants visit a state and attempt to go to its highest point. In some states, it’s a short walk to a knoll or hilltop. In others, however, the trek can be much more difficult.

Each state’s high points are referenced with latitude and longitude. These coordinates make it possible for visitors to use GPS to navigate to the desired location. (While it’s easy to know when you have reached the top of California’s Mt. Whitney, finding the high point of Kansas’s Mount Sunflower would be difficult were it not for the sculpture and picnic tables adorning the "summit.")

The Harrises have used their own handheld GPS personal navigation units for years. In addition to helping locate high points, Doug said that their GPS units have gotten them out of some challenging situations. He described a time when he and Arthur, then six years old, encountered whiteout conditions in a January hike in New Hampshire’s Presidential Mountains. With the trail blown in with snow, there were no tracks to follow. They relied on their GPS receiver to navigate to safety.

The Harrises encountered new climbing opportunities in 2011 when they moved to Colorado. "It was a dream come true," said Doug from their home in near Boulder. "It’s fun to have such a good supply of big mountains." He and Arthur are in the high country every weekend, hiking and climbing even in the deep snow of the Rocky Mountain winter. Doug’s wife, Lily, also loves hiking and the outdoors–Doug proposed to her while they were on an expedition in the mountains of China. Arthur’s sister Felicia loves horses and prefers riding to hiking.

Like many Colorado climbers, Doug and Arthur enjoy keeping track of the mountains that they summit, especially the state’s peaks above 14,000 ft (4,267 m). Known as 14ers, the mountains’ beauty and challenge attract thousands of people each year. By Doug’s count, the Harrises have summited "about 40" of the peaks in the three years since moving to the state. Surprisingly, the big mountains come with some controversy.

To be considered an officially-ranked 14er, a peak must be higher than 14,000 ft. and must also have at least 300 ft (91 m) of topographical prominence. That means that the mountain must be at least 300 feet higher than the nearest saddle or low point. In Colorado, there are 53 peaks that meet the two criteria and a handful of others that are sufficiently high but lack the required topographical prominence.

So, what’s the controversy? In the circles of climbers on social media, some people question if certain Colorado peaks really are higher than 14,000 ft. For example, Sunshine Peak is listed at 14,001 feet and Huron Peak at 14,003. Other people point to peaks such as North Mount Massive, which easily exceeds 14,000 feet but lacks the required prominence. Doug said that some climbers have gone so far as to question the accuracy of the heights, which are determined and published by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The questions appealed to Doug and Arthur’s curiosity and deep interest in science and mathematics. They knew that GPS could determine the heights of the mountains. But they also understood that their simple personal navigation unit could not provide the precision needed to settle the arguments. So Doug, a chemist, called Vivek Nadkarni, a friend from his undergraduate days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nadkarni works for Trimble, a manufacturer of precise GPS and surveying equipment used by the USGS as well as scientists, surveyors and mapping professionals around the world. He steered Doug to the Trimble campus in Westminster, less than five miles from the Harris home. There Doug found the tools and expertise that he and Arthur needed.

Trimble agreed to provide some commercial GPS equipment and software for Doug and Arthur. Trimble specialist Ryan Scott explained that in order to achieve the desired precision, Doug and Arthur needed to follow specific procedures in operating the GPS equipment. Upon reaching a desired location, they would take multiple readings using a special GPS antenna mounted on a backpack, storing the data in a Trimble Geo7X handheld unit. After each climb they would download the data into Trimble Pathfinder Office software. The software combined the Harrises’ data with information from other, permanently mounted GPS receivers in the area. It then performed a series of complex calculations to produce final results. Scott said that the equipment and software loaned to the pair could produce results with precision of roughly one foot. After a few hours’ training from Scott, the Harrises were ready to measure some mountains.

In October and November 2014, the pair carried the equipment to the mountains they had targeted as questionable. Too late for the prime climbing weather of late summer and autumn, the Harrises hurried to complete their work before heavy winter snows took hold. Even so, most of their ascents involved snow-covered slopes, cold temperatures and icy scree. Working around Arthur’s school schedule, they typically drove to a location and camped on Friday evenings, climbing on Saturday and Sunday and then returning home on Sunday night.

Arthur took charge of making the GPS measurements on the mountain peaks and nearby saddles. Wearing the lightweight backpack with the GPS antenna calibrated to his height, he collected the needed data and confirmed it was stored before the pair moved on. Even the descents were challenging. Although they wore microspikes and carried ice axes, safety was a concern. When heading down Grizzly Peak, Doug recalled crossing a particularly steep, icy spot that ended atop a cliff. A fall would have meant serious trouble.

With all the GPS data safely home, the Harrises processed it and sent their results to Scott for review and confirmation. Their information agreed with the published elevations. Two oft-questioned mountains, Sunshine Peak and Mount Huron, are indeed higher than 14,000 feet. North Mount Massive does not have sufficient prominence to be considered a 14er. And Grizzly Peak remains "close, but not quite" to 14,000 feet. Doug was interested in how well their measurements agreed with the published data. "I didn’t expect the USGS data to be as accurate as it turned out to be," he said. "It was surprising to see what the older technologies could do."

One person who was not surprised is Steve Reiter, a geographer with the USGS in Denver. Reiter explained that most of Colorado’s highest mountains were measured between 1953 and 1970. Experts used precise surveying equipment and procedures to measure vertical angles to the summits. Seemingly dated by today’s standards, the technologies produced excellent results. "I work with people who are retracing old maps and measurements," Reiter said. "They often come to me saying, "Wow, those guys back then were really good."" The Harrises’ measurements confirmed the earlier work and came well within the original map tolerances. The "guys"–and their equipment and methods– have stood the test of time.

Arthur enjoyed the project and learning how to use the advanced GPS equipment. He looks forward to making many more climbs. "I learned a lot about how accurate GPS can be," he said. "It’s always nice to be in the mountains, and 14ers are great places to be." Doug shares his son’s enthusiasm. He described how the high peaks are a part of Colorado’s outdoor culture. Reaching the summit of a 14er, he said, is an exciting and satisfying thing to do.

So far, Arthur has been to the highest points in 49 of the 50 United States. The one peak he hasn’t visited yet? It’s Denali in Alaska. At 20,236 ft, (6,168 m), Denali is the highest point in North America and Doug said that it is most definitely on their list. But Arthur needs to grow a bit more in order to handle the 80-pound backpack, difficult terrain and extreme conditions that make the peak one of the most challenging climbs on the continent. When Arthur and Doug do stand on Denali’s summit, they’ll be sure to record the event with GPS.

John Stenmark, PS, is a writer and consultant in the geospatial and AEC industries. He has more than 25 years of experience in applying advanced technologies to surveying and related disciplines.

A 3.918Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE