AMIDON, N.D. — Compared to some states’ highest peaks, it’s little more than a molehill. Yet climbers come from all over the world to White Butte.
At 3,506 feet above sea level, White Butte is North Dakota’s topographical giant. It draws climbers who call themselves “highpointers,” people with a goal of reaching the tallest points in all 50 states.
Climbing to the peak, a mere 400 feet from its base, takes just about an hour. It’s not without danger, though — the route is riddled with rattlesnakes.
But a snake bite could be the least of climbers’ worries if they trespass, says Angeline Van Daele, who has owned the land for 45 years and charges $20 a carload. “They’ll get a worse chewing out if they don’t pay me,” says Mrs. Van Daele, 67.
July and August are the busiest times at the butte, where more than 30 carloads of climbers come in a month. Mrs. Van Daele says she gets at least a few visitors a week, even in the winter.
She admits she takes a troll-under-the bridge attitude toward climbers — and for good reason. She says visitors have left gates open, allowing cattle on her land to escape.
“It amazes me how people know how to open gates, but they don’t know how to shut them,” she says.
Mrs. Van Daele and her husband, Joe, 77, monitor the butte through their huge picture window. She passes time by watching television, drinking and chain-smoking, surrounded by ashtrays piled high with cigarette butts.
“I just sit around here, waiting for these dumb people to show up,” she says. “There’s not much else to do around here.”
Amidon, a town of about 16 people in southwestern North Dakota, also has the distinction of being in one of the least populated counties in the country. Slope County has about 760 residents.
Mrs. Van Daele admits she gets a rise out of hassling highpointers — but she also grudgingly admits she likes the company and relishes showing visitors logbooks of people who have climbed the butte.
She says she has met people from all 50 states and several foreign countries.
“I have a lot of fun with them,” she says.
The butte has been in the Van Daele family for years. The father of Mrs. Van Daele’s first husband, Lawrence Buzalsky, bought the land more than 60 years ago, she says. Mr. Buzalsky was killed in a tractor accident.
Mrs. Van Daele says she has climbed the butte many times, though not in recent years. “It’s hard for me to get up there anymore,” she says.
Mr. Van Daele says he has never climbed the butte and has no plans to do so. “It’s just a hill to me,” he says. “We get some money off of it. It’s better than nothing.”
Don Holmes, president of the Highpointers Club, says Mrs. Van Daele is well-known within the organization, which has about 2,600 climbers.
“She’s a character,” says Mr. Holmes, who lives in Castle Rock, Colo. “She’s the tough one, not the rattlesnakes.”
He is one of about 110 people who has climbed the highest peak in each state.
Mr. Holmes says just seven of the high peaks are privately owned, like Mrs. Van Daele’s.
Twenty-nine states have higher peaks than North Dakota, he says. Alaska’s Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the highest, but some are mere bumps on the land.
“Delaware’s is at an intersection, and Florida’s is just a 25-foot walk from a parking lot,” Mr. Holmes says. “And Iowa’s is at the end of a cattle trough.”
Mr. Holmes says some highpointers get heartburn shelling out money to climb White Butte.
“It’s one of the more expensive ones,” he says. “But people don’t get too upset about paying for it because the alternative is that [Mrs. Van Daele] could cut off access to it.”
White Butte wasn’t always known as the state’s highest summit, says Ed Murphy, assistant director of the North Dakota Geological Survey.
Black Butte, five miles to the west, was widely considered North Dakota’s highest peak until the region was surveyed. “In 1962, a government study was done to settle the dispute between White Butte and Black Butte,” Mr. Murphy says.
Black Butte measured 3,465 feet — 41 feet shorter than White Butte.
Mr. Murphy has climbed White Butte dozens of times. He says the butte was formed by erosion over tens of millions of years. The dense “cap” rock at its summit is rare, he says.
“It’s very important [geologically],” Mr. Murphy says. “It’s one of only three places in North Dakota where those 25-million-year-old rocks are present.”
Millions of years ago, the entire region was near the same elevation as White Butte, Mr. Murphy says. “The surface was that high all the way through the area. The cap rock cemented and protected that area, so what you’re left with is the butte.”
Berlin Nelson, a highpointer from Fargo, N.D., says he has about a dozen high summits to his credit but has yet to scale White Butte.
“I think about climbing it a lot,” Mr. Nelson says. “I’ve driven by it many times, and I get a little anxious to climb it, but I’m going to leave it until one of the last ones.”
White Butte is located on private property about seven miles south of Amidon, off U.S. Route 85. Call 701/879-6236 for permission from the Van Daeles to climb the butte. Be alert for rattlesnakes in the area.
For information about the Highpointers Club: www.highpointers.org or write to Highpointers Club, PO Box 6364, Sevierville, TN 37864.