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Hiking

Hiking Club Spreads a Little Bit of Charlie on Every Peak

By TOM MILLER - from The New York Times

TUCSON, Jan. 24 — Richard Kane stood on a large outcropping at Chimney Rock in the Santa Catalina Mountains northwest of here one day recently. He was holding an open prescription bottle and thinking about Charlie Whitmore, his hiking buddy who died in 2005.

Charlie Whitmore, at Grand Canyon in 2003. He died in 2005.

On his deathbed, Mr. Whitmore, 79, got assurances from Mr. Kane and other members of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club that they would honor his last request: spread his ashes on each of the club’s 315 authorized peaks. Mr. Kane and Mr. Whitmore hiked together almost every weekend, and Mr. Whitmore had reached all 315.

That promise to his dying friend compelled Mr. Kane, his wife, Beth, and his son, Brian, their three Rhodesian ridgebacks, another club member and their walking sticks, to bushwhack their way off the Bellota Trail through cat claw and ocotillo cactus, zigzag down a sloping hill, circumvent large rocks, and climb over and slide under wire fencing to get to Chimney Rock late last year. As Mr. Kane. a strapping 65-year-old, bent over to pour some ashes from the plastic prescription bottle, he said softly, “Here’s another one for you, Charlie.”

In Mr. Whitmore’s hiking days, his tree-trunk legs could carry him from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to its North Rim and back, a 50-mile hike, within 24 hours.

Before his retirement, Mr. Whitmore worked in computers. He was also a fervent University of Arizona football fan, a lousy cook and a man with an impish sense of humor.

“I could never keep up with him,” Mr. Kane recalled. On the Fort Apache Whitewater Indian Reservation, for example, “he’d just walk right to the top of Baldy Peak without stopping; he’d practically trot.”

The hiking club defines “peak” as a point at least 300 feet higher than a ridgeline. Peak elevations vary widely, and a mountain can have several peaks. An ambitious climber can knock off two or three peaks in a day.

Mr. Whitmore and Mr. Kane attacked the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona, the Baboquivaris just east of the Tohono O’odham Reservation and the practically trailless Winchesters, west of Benson. Once, in the Picacho Mountains northwest of Tucson, a boulder dislodged and crushed Mr. Whitmore’s ankle. “He couldn’t walk, so a search-and-rescue helicopter lifted him out on a litter,” Mr. Kane said. “Charlie’s reaction: ‘Sure wish I’d had a camera, the view was great.’ ”

When the ash spreading at Chimney Rock was complete and entered on the hiking club’s Web site, the group was solidly in the second half of its mission. They had conquered 176 peaks “for Charlie,” 139 to go.

Ever since Mr. Whitmore’s ashes were sent from El Encanto Memorial Crematory in two sturdy boxes, they have been stored in the Kanes’ house in Tucson. Mr. Kane often carries some with him in small prescription bottles to give to club members he runs into who are planning a hike. “I can dish him out to others that way,” is how he puts it.

“We love you — enjoy your life,” Mr. Whitmore’s daughters have written next to a heart on the bottles. His widow, Susan, has been invited along on the hikes, but it is too emotional for her, Mr. Kane said. She approves of the effort, he hastened to add. Years ago, she camped a few times with her husband and Mr. Kane. “She thought we were crazy,” he said.

As the Chimney Rock hiking party drove from a parking lot to the trailhead, Mr. Kane remembered that he had left the bottle for that day in the cup holder of another car. They went back and retrieved it.

By reaching all the peaks on the club’s list, Mr. Whitmore inspired others, among them Christine Michalowski, a biochemistry researcher at the University of Arizona who used to hike with him and has spread his ashes at some 30 spots.

“He was good company,” Ms. Michalowski said, adding that she understood his last wish. “This was something he had wanted to have done all his life,” she said. To be able to forever “look at the scenery.”

Ms. Michalowski said she kept a bottle of Mr. Whitmore’s ashes in her pack when she went out. “Some people are not comfortable with it, so I keep it quiet,” she said.

Mr. Kane told of “a lady in the club who doesn’t like the idea of the peak list devoted to Charlie.” When “she started in,” he said, “I saw what was coming and I let her have it. I don’t even think she knew Charlie and all the time he put in for the club.”

At Young Benchmark, a peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, the Kanes found a new register for hikers, left by two members of the Simi Valley Sierra Club in California. While Beth Kane signed the couple’s names, her husband pulled a prescription bottle from his shirt pocket and twisted it open. As he crouched slightly, squinting in the sun, he tilted the bottle and a bit of the powdery remains of Charlie Whitmore slid out.

“There you go, Charlie,” Mr. Kane said, softly. Then they entered Mr. Whitmore’s name in the registry.

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