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Eric Koppel of Rutherford was a peakbagger before he even knew what that word meant.
Eric Koppel of Rutherford and Jeff Bennett of South Orange are co-founders of the NJ1K Club. The two founded the club in order to identify and climb every peak in New Jersey over 1,000 feet above sea level. A peakbagger is someone who sets out to climb all of the peaks of a certain height or higher within a specific area. In other northeastern states such as New York and New Hampshire, that can mean setting out to climb every peak above 3,500 feet or 4,000 feet in the Catskills, the Adirondacks or the Appalachians.
"I was envious of other states," said Koppel. A computer science student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a hiking and mountain-climbing enthusiast, Koppel had been climbing mountains in other states for years before he decided to set his sights on his own backyard.
He wanted to have a similar club in New Jersey, but the Garden State lacks some of the region’s outstanding summits: the highest elevation in the state is 1,803 feet above sea level at High Point in Sussex County, part of the Kittatinny Mountains.
So Koppel, along with another hiking and environmental enthusiast, Jeffrey Bennett, founded the NJ1K Club—an association for people who want to climb every peak in the state over 1,000 feet. But first that meant identifying exactly how many peaks in the state qualified. Bennett, a South Orange historian and librarian who describes himself as "Engels to Eric’s Marx" when it came to founding the club, set out to define what peaks in the state would qualify and then identify them. Using hiking guides, topographical maps and Google Earth, they came up with a list of 52 spots.
"There are a lot of prominent points in New Jersey that don’t have names," said Bennett. Without a name, many peaks don’t draw any attention from hikers. In many instances Koppel and Bennett were finding paths up mountains that didn’t have any trails or any guides about which way to go. "When we climbed these mountains some of them were total question marks. Many of them are totally under-appreciated."
Sometimes they would find that developments had recently been built on them or that they lay on private property. One such peak was on a hunting preserve in Summit County. In that instance, Koppel got in touch with the owners and got special permission to climb it.
"Before NJ1K, I was really in a hiking rut," said Bennett; he would always hike the same trails in the same few areas: Pequannock, the northern highlands, the Ramapo Mountains. "What NJ1K got me to do was to climb mountains I never would have otherwise and to see parts of New Jersey I never would have seen."
As for their favorite peaks, Bennett and Koppel have them divided up into categories. Both of them say the Bearfoot ridge in Kinnelon has the most attractive forest. "The entire Bearfoot ridge is characterized by peculiar purple puddingstone outcroppings and pitch pines," said Koppel, as well as glacial ponds high up on its northern side. They also both singled out Hasenclever Hill on the border between Ringwood and New York as having one of the best views in the state.
"It’s 180 degrees of pure wilderness," said Bennett.
Koppel said seeking out lesser known peaks all across New Jersey gave him a chance to take in the unique features of the state’s several regions. "Different groups have different characteristics," he said. "The northern highlands have an almost Adirondacky feel, they’re rugged, they have steep ascents; while the southern highlands are covered sometimes impenetrable thickets and thorn bushes."
It took Koppel and Bennett about two years to find and reach the summit of all 52 peaks and the NJ1K Club now sports over 20 active members who have already reached or are on their way to reaching the same goal.
"Some people collect porcelain dolls, some people collect cars, some people collect countries they’ve visited," said Koppel on the organization’s Web page. "Peakbagging is mountain collecting. It gets you off the highest, most notable summits in a range and forces you to go off the beaten-path; in New Jersey, chances are these are mountains practically nobody has ever heard of before."
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