"Highpointers" follows adventures of Mackenzie Scurka '19 and her father

by Rebecca Flowers | 9/17/17 2:17am

The documentary “Highpointers,” which features Mackenzie Scurka ’19, aired on 150 PBS stations during this past August and early September.

The film follows Gary Scurka — who is the documentary’s director ­— and his daughter Mackenzie Scurka. Also featured are Fallon Rowe and her mother Terri Rowe — two people whom the Scurkas met through highpointing — and their ascent of Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming, with an elevation of over 13,500 feet.

Gary Scurka defined highpointing as “hiking, climbing or driving, to the highest point in every state” and said his love for it drove him to document the experience on film.

“No one had done it before, so I decided I’d be the one to do it,” he said.

Gary Scurka runs a documentary film and production company called EveryStep Productions that he and his wife established after their retirement from careers as broadcast journalists.

Scurka has been climbing since he was a teenager.

“I first got interested in it when I went on a hike with my girlfriend back in the mid-60s, and I went up to New Hampshire and fell in love with the landscape up there,” he said. “I’ve been climbing mountains ever since.”

Since then, he and his family have not only continued climbing but have also become avid highpointers. Mackenzie Scurka has been hiking since she was three, and she began highpointing at nine.

Highpointing with her dad is “a great bonding experience,” she wrote in an email statement to The Dartmouth while studying abroad in South Africa.

“Traveling the country together on road trips and challenging ourselves with these climbs and this adventure overall has allowed us to spend a ton of time together,” she wrote.

Gary Scurka agrees that some of his favorite memories from the filming experience were bonding with his daughter. For example, before he retired and the film had not yet come to fruition, he and his daughter climbed the highest peak in New York together, a 5,000-foot mountain called Mount Marcy.

“[These are] very, very challenging hikes for a young person who is only 10 or 11 years old,” he said. “I’ll always remember [Mackenzie Scurka] being a willing participant and really being strong and not being afraid and being able to hike 15 miles without stopping.”

Terri and Fallon Rowe, the Scurkas’ companions in the film, were the first mother-daughter team to reach the highest points of the lower 48 states. Fallon Rowe, now a junior at Utah State University, has been hiking since 2003 and began highpointing in high school.

She expressed a similar sentiment to Mackenzie Scurka about the bonding opportunity highpointing provides with a parent.

“I got to know my mom a lot better through highpointing,” Fallon Rowe said. “I think it helped us unite over a common goal.”

The Scurkas and Rowes connected through the Highpointers Club, which has about 2,500 members, Gary Scurka said. Fallon and Terri Rowe were about to climb Gannett Peak as their 48th peak, and they agreed to take part in the documentary after interviews with Gary Scurka.

The documentary crew filmed interviews with the participants both before and after the climb, which took a week in total. The initial hike to the mountain took a couple days, and they waited out a storm for a day before summiting, Fallon Rowe said. They summited on July 22, 2014, and the final hike away from Gannett Peak took a few more days, Fallon Rowe said.

Mackenzie Scurka said filming the climb made it more physically challenging,

“There would be times when I would be on the trail exhausted, and my dad would ask me to walk back and forth on the same stretch just for a good shot,” Mackenzie Scurka said. However, looking back on it, she believes it was necessary and is “so happy that I cooperated,” she wrote.

Originally, though, she did not want to make the film.

“It made it seem like highpointing was a job,” she wrote.

However, she eventually agreed that the sport was “too good not to share,” Gary Scurka said of his daughter.

“It was my first technical snow climb, and I was so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to make it, but summiting was one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of my life,” Mackenzie Scurka wrote.

Fallon Rowe agreed that the filming was worth the extra effort for great footage of the wilderness in Wyoming. She also appreciated the female-dominated nature of their climbing group, she said.

“It was cool to have so much strong, female energy,” Fallon Rowe said.

All of the participants continue to climb and highpoint. Mackenzie Scurka is a member of the Dartmouth Outing Club and recently hiked the Fifty. Gary Scurka hopes to do another film about highpointing.

“Highpointing truly is more about the journey than the destination,” Mackenzie Scurka wrote. “Reaching the top of 50 states is a great goal, but the more important goal for me has been to see parts of the United States I would have never been able to experience otherwise.”

Gary Scurka likes highpointing for the accessibility and inclusivity. Many of the highpoints can be accessed by car and don’t require a lot of athleticism, he said.

“The point is for everyone to get out, experience the outdoors, experience something with their family,” Gary Scurka said.