Betty Green Risser has made it her business to replicate benchmarks that commemorate your accomplishments.
BY RICHARD CHIN
Everyone who slogs to the finish line of a marathon can pretty much count on getting a nice completion medal. But trudge for hours through thin air to reach a mountain summit, and all you're likely to get at the top is out of breath and a nice view.
Then, Betty Green Risser came along.
The Minneapolis woman is the creator of a company that allows you to award yourself (or someone else) with a medal for getting to the top of the most notable mountains in the country.
Thanks to Risser, you can celebrate your accomplishment with a replica of the official government benchmark - the metal disk set in the ground at the top of mountains by a surveyor with the U.S. Geological Survey or the National Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Risser's company, Geographic Locations International (www.mountainclimb.com,) makes the replica discs as medal-like pewter paperweights, earrings, lapel pins, zipper pulls, charms and pendants under the trademark Geo-Situ. Prices run $8.95 for a pin or zipper pull, $19.95 for earrings and $37.95 for a full-sized paperweight.
As Risser imagines it, you could buy one of her benchmark paperweights and put it in a conspicuous location on your desk. A nosy colleague would walk over and see the metal disk, including its official government warning of "250 DOLLARS FINE FOR DISTURBING THIS MARK," and say, "Hey, where did you get that? You can't have that." And that would give you the perfect opening to modestly mention the 14,000-foot peak you knocked off last weekend.
Risser's company offers more than 100 different benchmarks or medallions for important geographic locations, ranging from the South Pole to Mount Everest to Pikes Peak. She's continually adding new sites.
A GOOD IDEA
Her first site, however, was a hole in her kitchen floor in her home in Northeast Minneapolis. That was when the linoleum was removed during a remodeling job in 1994, revealing a 3-inch hole in the wood floor.
"There was no logical reason for a hole to be there," she said.
At about the same time, a friend, photographer Stuart Klipper, had stopped by with his new GPS device and informed Risser of the exact latitude and longitude of her house.
That gave her an idea. Instead of getting a carpenter to patch the hole, she could cover it with a metal "You are here" disk inscribed with the geographic coordinates of the kitchen.
She had a cardboard prototype covering the hole when she found herself saying someone could make money manufacturing personalized geographic benchmarks.
"Once I said the words, I thought, 'That was a good idea,' " Risser said.
Within a week, she started work on setting up a company that would make custom benchmarks. Her first product was a metal disc inscribed with a motto of Klipper's, "Know Where You Are, Be Where You're At," with the latitude and longitude of the customer's house.
She sold fewer than a hundred of those. But it was a lot of work back then to make sure she had the right coordinates of a particular house. That led her to the idea to reproduce the actual benchmarks at famous locations that could be used as souvenirs.
Her first replica was based on a photograph that Risser's brother took of the benchmark on top of Pikes Peak. Since the markers are made by the government, they're part of the public domain, and there's no restriction on reproducing the image, Risser said.
"The U.S. Geological Survey, in fact, are my customers," she said. They sell her benchmark reproductions in their map stores.
Risser added other benchmark replicas to her product line as she visited the locations herself or when customers sent her photographs.
If someone sends a photograph of a benchmark she doesn't have and it makes it to Risser's product line, the contributor gets a free paperweight and credit in the product packaging.
"They're absolutely delighted to receive free products and recognition, and it gives me something of value," Risser said. "I'm happy I'm not going to have to be the one to climb these mountains and get these photographs."
"One guy sends me everything he sees," she said. "Of course, they're not all marketable."
The 3.25-inch replica benchmarks are cast in pewter in foundries in New Hampshire and Colorado. They're sold in park gift shops and visitors centers and online. Her best-sellers include popular climbing or trekking peaks like Whitney, Rainier, Longs Peak, Elbert, Grand Teton, Half Dome, Mauna Kea and Washington.
She also has some benchmarks from significant non-mountain locations, including the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers; the Four Corners site in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico; and the U.S. Census center of population near Edgar Springs, Mo.
Her line of non-U.S. locations includes the highest peaks of every continent and the benchmark placed every year on the shifting glacial ice at the South Pole. That benchmark souvenir is sold to scientists and other visitors. The 1999 version is inscribed with this motto: "God what an awful place."
Risser also does custom orders, like a series of benchmarks for Philmont Scout Ranch, a Boy Scout facility in New Mexico.
"I do get a lot of requests, like 'Are you ever going to have Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail?' The answer is yes. We're going to do a symbolic marker this year."
What started as a hobby business has grown to the point where it's now a full-time job for Risser, 63. About six years ago, she left her previous job doing women's alterations in the downtown Minneapolis Marshall Fields, where she had worked for almost 25 years.
Risser eventually wants her product line to include the highest points in each state in the country. She doesn't currently have a benchmark for Eagle Mountain, Minnesota's highest point. There's a plaque on a boulder but no official benchmark there, Risser said. But she said she could create a symbolic benchmark for the location.
She also wants to have a souvenir available for all of the 54 peaks in Colorado and the 12 in California higher than 14,000 feet.
"Some people plan their climbs by what's available on my Web site," she said. "This is definitely kind of a self-award."
Richard Chin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5560.