There are 54 major mountains in Colorado and Gary Stearns has climbed every one. He's climbed all 48 in New Hampshire too.
In fact, the 50-year-old Stearns has scaled some 200 peaks in 12 states, enough to probably earn him the unofficial title of Hunter's Green Mountain Man.
Stearns needed 24 years to complete the list of Colorado mountains taller than 14,000 feet. His most difficult challenge was a 14,130 foot rock called Capitol Peak, which Stearns did not conquer until his fourth try in 1993.
By that time, Capitol Peak was last on Stearns' list and he celebrated by popping a bottle of champagne at the summit.
But it was a 1968 family vacation to New Hampshire where the 17-year-old Stearns got hooked on the sport after climbing Mount Lafayette with his brother.
"We were above tree line and you could see forever," said Stearns, who moved to Tampa in March. "That's what turned us on to it."
Born in Riverside, Md., just outside Washington D.C., Stearns graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in geology.
Because he had recently married, Stearns was reluctant to apply for paleontology openings with oil companies that would have sent him to Alaska and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Geological Survey was also in the midst of a hiring freeze. So Stearns took a job in the mailroom of Bell Atlantic, known today as telecommunications giant Verizon, and began computer training.
He is still with Verizon, 28 years later, as a systems analyst.
Usually Stearns devotes two weeks a year to climbing _ one week in Colorado and one in New Hampshire. His wife, Janet, comes along occasionally but does not climb. Instead, he joins up with other mountain enthusiasts, some of whom he has met online.
Outside the United States, Stearns has scampered over Mexican volcanoes and Andean mountain passes in South America. And he has done it all despite a fear of heights.
During a trip to Aconcagua National Park in Argentina, Stearns spent three days in 80 mph winds at 20,000 feet, waiting for the group's guide to permit an attempt at the Aconcagua summit.
On the fourth day, Stearns awoke at 4 a.m. to make an unauthorized trip _ alone. Nearly 500 feet above the campsite he turned back, unable to feel his fingers and toes.
"I was stuck in the tent 24-hours-a-day," said Stearns, explaining why he made such a dangerous decision. "I just needed something to do. After three days you start hearing the same jokes and stories."
The key to successful climbing, Stearns says, is patience, persistence, stamina and remembering to keep a close eye on the Weather Channel. On his day trips he packs boots, rain gear, food, a flashlight, a first aid kit (mostly adhesive bandages), water and a jackknife.
Climbing all the major mountains in New Hampshire and Colorado is a feat that about 1,000 other people have accomplished.
Stearns isn't trying to complete a list of mountains for any other state. But he hopes to pursue his hobby for another 40 or 50 years. If nothing else, he says, he'll learn about the traditions and terrain in the states he visits.
"I know more about (Colorado) than the natives do," he said.
_ John Balz can be reached at (813) 269-5313 or at balzsptimes.com