Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
A gentle, cool wind brushes Rita Wagner’s blond bangs over the age lines on her tanned forehead as she hikes Big Falls at Mount Charleston.
It’s a 3.5-mile trail with an 800-foot elevation gain and leads hikers to a shimmering waterfall.
For Wagner, 73, it’s an easy hike; she pays no attention to those who say she’s too old for such activity.
Wagner has climbed more than a combined 110,000 feet through the 52 Peak Club, an organization that challenges its members to reach 52 Southern Nevada mountain peaks in order to collect a special deck of playing cards.
“It was a challenge. I said I can’t do those,” Wagner said in her heavy German accent. “But I wanted those cards.”
The Austrian and beach-lover, who is more accustomed to surfing the cold waves of the California coast than scrambling the sun-drenched sandstone of Red Rock, reached her goal earlier this month. In doing so, she became the third member — and the first woman — of the 52 Peak Club to complete her deck.
Those in the hiking group consider Wagner to be an inspiration.
“She’s amazing,” said Dinorah Arámbula, a grandmother who recently was granted a new shot at life when she received a kidney after undergoing dialysis for two years.
“When my kidneys failed, just to clean one floor of my apartment was so hard,” she said.
Arámbula’s motto is to live life one step at a time. She does so literally and figuratively as she hikes with some of the members of a club that’s nearly 300 members strong.
Whitney spread the word through his Hiking Las Vegas group and meetup.com of the advanced hiking opportunities offered in the 52 Peak Club.
“If you have the right attitude and you want to get better, I can guarantee you if you go on these hikes you will get better,” he said.
For more than 15 years, Whitney has been finding new hiking spots in Southern Nevada. In that time, he’s led more than 5,000 people on hikes.
“I have lots of confidence in Branch,” Wagner said.
Whitney wasn’t always discovering trails and leading groups on hikes; he was once a professional gambler, but he left the indoor table games for outdoor adventures.
“I was a very, very skilled blackjack player,” Whitney said. “It’s not a healthy lifestyle at all.”
It’s been years since he’s placed a bet, and the only playing cards he’s picking up are custom-made decks that display photographs he’s taken of the various peaks. The cards are labeled by difficulty, aces being some of the highest and most difficult peaks to reach.
Whitney has also named about 50 different peaks in Red Rock, Mount Charleston and the Lake Mead areas — many of which are on the 52 Peak Club list.
Among the peaks he’s named is White Pinnacle Peak, a favorite among club members.
There are no crowds waiting at the top of these peaks, but there is a sign-in book. Some of the books are 15 years old, and they’re still not full.
Whitney’s goal is to have 10,000 people complete a 52 Peak Club deck.
“These hikes are going to be fun but challenging,” he said.
The challenge is one, but not the only, reason people spend $20 to join the group.
“I’ve tried gym memberships and they’ve failed in the past,” said Melinda Hernandez, who at age 28 weighed 286 pounds and decided to become more active.
“Ever since I started hiking and just working out outside, it’s what’s helped,” said Hernandez, who is now 102 pounds lighter.
Another group member who knows the health benefits is Steve Stein, a 56-year-old emergency physician who has earned five cards so far.
“It’s hard to believe moving to Las Vegas because it’s a great outdoor paradise,” he said. “There’s so much to do here; it’s so fantastic.”
Others join to fill their free time, like retired letter carrier Jack Dempsey, who has 53 cards — the standard 52 and one joker card for an alternative peak that was added to the list.
“It gives you a little goal to work toward, and it’s fun to go with the group,” the 59-year-old said.
The social aspect was especially important to many of the hikers looking to build friendships or even spark a romance.
Those not interested in the bars and nightclubs might be more likely to meet someone on a trail, Whitney said.
“I went through the worst heartbreak” after enduring two failed relationships, said Brenda Fitz, 38.
Fitz joined hiking groups to clear her mind and eventually caught the gaze of a fellow hiker.
“I got injected in a ball of positive energy,” she said. “Something in all of this got me back on my feet.”
Whitney said climbing physical peaks could be a metaphor for any hurdles facing a person.
Fighting loneliness was Wagner’s goal after her husband of 41 years died of lung cancer.
Wagner often repeats hikes to be around her support system. Along the path the eclectic group of hikers share stories, smiles and stop to take photos to share on Facebook.
“If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today,” Wagner said. “These are my friends.”