Another Mountain Climber


(This 895th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 18, 2008.)


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Wilma Cipolla finishes 115 peaks atop Mt. Moosilauke


What is it about librarians?


First, we had Ellen Gibson completing the Appalachian Trail. Now we have Gibson's remarkable accomplishment equaled by another retired University at Buffalo librarian, Wilma Cipolla.


On August 22 last summer Cipolla climbed 4802-foot Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire to complete her list of all 115 peaks over 4000 feet in the Northeast. Her evaluation of that climb: "It was one of the easy ones."


We talked about her achievement in Cipolla's home in Snyder a few weeks ago. As we discussed her climbs, my thoughts turned back to my own Adirondack treks. When I finally completed my 46 peaks there, I considered continuing with those other 69. Those thoughts lasted about ten seconds: most of the New England peaks are tougher and even twenty years ago they were well beyond my stamina.


Consider some of Cipolla's other accomplishments. She has also hiked and climbed in the Canadian Rockies, the English Lake District (the 190 miles across England too), Spain, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland (including the Tour du Mont Blanc) and Norway. Closer to home she hiked the 133 mile Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks, the 35 Catskill peaks and our own Western New York Conservation Trail that runs 178 miles from Niagara Falls to Allegany State Park.


Between hikes Cipolla keeps in shape with running, biking, cross-country skiing (including town to town in the Laurentians) and regular trips to the gym. "I would swim too," she told me, "but I don't have easy access."


I found myself exhausted just listening to these accomplishments and schedule. Cipolla's activities characterize her as a big brawny woman, a kind of Babe Didrikson type, right?  Sorry, Charlie. She is a diminutive five-foot-three and weighs 115 pounds holding a cup of coffee.


One of the problems her small size creates for her is managing climbs over big rocks, like those on the trail up -- and equally difficult for her, down -- Maine's highest peak, Mount Katahdin.


Before she retired from the university in 1997, Cipolla had two careers: she was first a professional musician, an organist and pianist who also taught music history. But then, when she considered continuing studies for a doctorate, she decided instead on library science and ended up as the university's Director of Undergraduate Libraries.


Unlike Gibson, whose backbacking trips have often been solitary, Cipolla has almost always hiked with others. Her husband Frank, a UB music professor emeritus, has not only accompanied her on many of her climbs, but they also golf together. In fact, he has climbed over 70 of those 115 New England peaks. Early on, Cipolla hiked locally with her friend Barbara Whitman. When Whitman moved to New Hampshire, this provided a natural entree to the New England peaks. In fact, the first of her 115 was New Hampshire's Mount Osceola in 1970. She also got a lot of help, especially on trailless peaks from another former Buffalo resident, Lennie Steinmetz and her husband Bill, both 115-ers and accomplished climbers.


Interestingly, Cipolla started Gibson hiking and the two came back together when Gibson completed the Appalachian Trail on Katahdin. They climbed that peak, number 103 on Cipolla's list, together.


Cipolla credits her own start as a climber to a ranger hike with her husband along the Garden Wall of Glacier National Park when they were returning from a California trip. She prepares carefully, planning trips by researching maps and checking with friends who have done the same climbs. But even that is not always enough. On a fall trip up Street Mountain in the Adirondacks, her group was caught in an early snowstorm. They had to spend the night on the peak.


Why do people climb these mountains? Cipolla calls the experience simply glorious. Approaching a summit you hear white-throated sparrows singing and the air changes quality. Then you come out on an open area with a 360° view of other peaks ranging for miles around you sometimes with shimmering lakes in the valleys. You realize immediately how fortunate we are to have these wildlands.


I salute Wilma Cipolla for her remarkable 115 peak accomplishment. It is clear, however, that this will serve only as a waypoint for her.-- Gerry Rising