Alone at the top

Local hiker makes history on the White Mountains

  • 8 min to read
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FRANCONIA RIDGE, Northeast Kingdom native Sue Johnston on the summit in February. 

There are 48 summits in the White Mountains that rise above 4,000 feet in elevation. Some hikers set a lifetime goal of climbing them all. Others try to hike all 48 peaks during the winter months only. Rare enthusiasts dedicate years to scaling each of the peaks in all 12 months of the year.

Northeast Kingdom native Sue Johnston has done what her fellow hikers thought was impossible, she climbed all 48 every month for a calendar year, a total traverse of 576 peaks in 2016. She completed the year-long quest Dec. 26, reaching the top of Mt. Isolation in Pinkham Notch.

"The accomplishment was what I aimed for, but it's the journey that makes me happiest," Sue said. “I’m not really a religious person, but I find hiking to be a spiritual process. There’s deep meaning and purpose in nature. The long hours alone on a trail are inspiring and peaceful.”

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The Grid

Hiking all 48 peaks in every month of the year is a feat called “The Grid,” and it has taken hikers years to accomplish. The name comes from a spreadsheet 48 rows deep (representing the 48 mountains) and 12 columns wide (one for each month of the year). The White Mountains website www.48x12.com states that a hiker who wishes to remain anonymous first completed the task in 1989. Since then, 68 other hikers have added their names to the list, but no one had done it in one calendar year.

“This has never been done before,” according to Mike Dickerman, a hiking historian and owner of Bondcliff Books in Littleton. An avid hiker himself, Dickerman co-wrote “The 4,000 Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History.”

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Mount Isolation, located in Pinkham Notch. 

Sue is no stranger to the White Mountains. In 2003, she became the first woman to complete the Grid, which took her more than 15 years to accomplish.

Her additional accomplishments include hiking the entire length of these eastern trails: Cohos, North-South, Catamount, Long Trail (four times), Appalachian, Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, Laurel Highlands, Massanutten. Out west, she’s completed Backbone, Colorado, John Muir, Wonderland, High Sierra, Ouachita, Tuscarora, and the Alta Via 1. She has hiked no less than 50 miles in each state and stood on each state’s high point (aside from a mere 400 feet left to go on Mt. Denali in Alaska), a goal she set and accomplished before her 50th birthday this year. She also has finished 100 ultra-races, including 26 100-mile races. She skied the entire 326 miles of the length of Vermont on the Catamount trail during a 26-day adventure that she spread out over two months. Her fourth time hiking the Long Trail, she completed the entire hike in nine and a half days.

“I enjoy being outside,” she said in a recent interview in Littleton, N.H. “I feel healthy. I also like numbers. I like lists and checking things off. I’m weird that way.”

She lives by the philosophy, “Every day’s a holiday; every meal’s a feast.”

The idea of trying to complete The Grid in a single calendar year didn’t occur to her until nearly the end of 2015. “It started as an idea,” she remembered. “But then I thought, why not?”

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Sue and Chris on Mt. Isolation. 

She put one foot in front of another, turned her face to the wind and started her quest Jan. 1, 2016 with a 12.8-mile hike and a 5,500 feet gain in elevation traversing the summits of Mt. Moosilauke and Mt. Tecumseh.

“Last winter was mild, which greatly helped my success,” she said.

Sue checked weather reports constantly before any climb, and made last minute decisions on where she would hike.

“Mt. Washington is not a mountain I want to hike on a particularly windy day. High winds and cold rain will keep me from hitting the trails. I’m driven, but I prefer to be safe.” The summits above tree-line are saved for days with the best weather. “I also should take more pictures than I do. It’s incredibly beautiful on many of these summits, but I like to stay warm and my hands get cold easily. I prefer to get to the summit and back down, or to move on to the next summit quickly.”

Acknowledging that she’s blessed to be able to live an abundant amount of her life hiking these mountains she said, “I was traveling to the White Mountains from our home in Danville each time I hiked. We sold our home this past year and it was like a door opened. We decided to rent a house in Littleton to be closer to the trails; it’s cut down on travel time, which can really affect completing The Grid. But there are three other factors a person absolutely needs before attempting to complete The Grid in a year: you wouldn’t want to have kids at home; you’d have to be retired or have enough money to take time off for the year; you need to be in good health.”

Sue added a fourth “must” to her list: a strong support person or team. Her husband Chris Scott is her lifeline and, endearingly, her greatest fan.

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Hiking Mt. Moosilauke in January 2016. 

“He cooks for me, packs real food, keeps me supplied with essential gear, drops me off at trailheads and picks me up at the end of a hike. Sometimes we hike together, though.” She looked at Chris. He nodded and smiled, but admitted he only joins her for a small percentage of her hikes. Occasionally, she is joined by friends.

Sue doesn’t have children (unless you consider her two beloved rescue cats) and Chris, now retired, no longer travels a lot for work. Sue used to occasionally accompany Chris on work-trips, but other times she would use the time he was away to hike or run. During this time, she began to enjoy hiking alone.

“I like lacing up my shoes and hitting the trail,” she said. “I get lost in my own mind, or I let things go. Either way, hiking alone is peaceful.”

When asked to choose a favorite season for hiking, Sue smoothed her brown hair, leaned her elbows on the table and paused to think. “Hmmm. Well, summer is great for hiking with long hours of daylight. I’m a morning person and like to be on the trails before the sun comes up. But in the winter, I have the disadvantage of a late sunrise and an early sunset. I prefer to start my hikes and end them on the same day. I like a hot shower, meals, a good beer, the comfort of my two kitties and my own bed. It’s harder to log the same amount of miles in the winter as one does in the summer. I’d say I prefer summer hiking for that reason.”

Still, her miles in any given day, even in winter, are impressive.

She can only think of one minor injury that has happened, an injury that wasn’t significant enough to cause her to lose any trail time. Impressive, considering the miles and elevation she’s covered.

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 Signal Ridge below Mt. Carrigan.

“I believe I owe my health to the fresh air,” she said. “Being outside in clean air is good for my body. There is definitely a difference in how I feel when I spend time inside versus outside.”

As for nutrition, surprisingly, Sue doesn’t follow a nutritional plan. “I eat when I want to eat. When I’m hungry.” She points to her pizza and craft beer and laughs. “I love food. Chris feeds me real food.” She admits that she had been strict about her nutrition plan years ago, but no longer finds the need to pay much attention to her diet since she mostly eats healthy foods.

She also is hard-pressed to choose a favorite mountain. “I like that I’m hiking them in all months of the year. I’ve noticed that a mountain I might not have admired before often becomes more interesting the next time I hike it. I never really dislike any of my hikes. Well, there is Owls Head,” she smirks and gently nudges Chris. “I mean, who really likes Owls Head besides you?” They share a tease, but Sue quickly admits that she’s grown to appreciate Owls Head.

A quote by Lito Tejada-Flores, which she posts on her blog, runsuerun.blogspot.com, sums up her sentiment about the mountains more concisely, “You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory. Memory rebuilds the mountains, changes the weather, retells the jokes, remakes all the moves.”

As for the hikes, Sue doesn’t seem to favor the easiest routes. On the contrary, she avoids getting herself into a rut by also completing as many personal challenges as possible. For the month of July, she decided to complete the 48 peaks Direttissima-style. Direttissima is Italian for “most direct route.”

According to Sue’s blog, this means climbing the 4,000 footers in the most direct manner using only trails and roads, starting at one end and walking all the way to the other. The Direttissima took 10 days of hiking to complete, with four days off for poor weather conditions. Her main goal was to have fun and speed wasn’t a priority, but she did note her time. It took her 119 hours to cover 234 miles with 74,000 feet of elevation gain. She hiked 37 of the 48 peaks alone, and the remaining 11 with Chris.

Her blog proclaims Day 5 of the Direttissima, “Wild Kingdom Day.” On this day, Sue watched a fox run with a gallon-sized bag of dog food in its mouth. Later, a deer ran across the road. Encountering wildlife is one of the perks of hiking. “Once,” she said, “I was attacked by a grouse. It came at me and just started attacking my legs. I’d hate to think the damage it could have done if I’d had shorts on.”

But then Sue talks about other sights on the trail. “Once we met a man who was hiking with nothing more than a thong on. I don’t know what he was thinking, but Chris and I couldn’t stop laughing.” Then there’s the hiker who figured out that Sue is attempting to complete the grid in a year. When he went into detail about how she should finish the grid, she just looked at him and said, “I’ve got this,’ and took off to do just that.

A follower of her blog figured out her plan when she posted, “Halfway!!!” in June. That follower anonymously posted, “…this [grid] is something a friend of mine and I discussed last year and deemed nearly impossible. We figured it would take someone getting paid by a sponsor. We apparently figured wrong. Good luck in December.”

What drives her to attempt and accomplish such goals? Sue admitted it’s fun.

“It has to stay fun,” she explained. “If I’m not enjoying myself, there’s no sense in doing it. When it stops being fun, I quit. It’s as simple as that.”

What will come next? Sue simply shrugs. “Everyone asks me that. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll move closer to Kingdom Trails. That’s a beautiful area with plenty of outdoor recreation. I don’t see myself getting serious about mountain biking, although I do enjoy it. I’ll also enjoy spending more time with my kitties and Chris. There will be more time for yoga. Probably at first I won’t know what to do with myself, but I’m sure there will be something. There’s always something. It’s one day at a time.”

Sue logs her accomplishments on her blog. Just as the trail conditions and seasons change, so does the flora and the animal patterns. She posted a picture of crimson leaves in September. By October, the songbirds disappeared with the leaves and the conifers provide additional shelter for the numerous chickadees and shrub jays that flit from branch to branch. With only two months left to go, Sue logged October’s 48 peaks onto her blog and marched into November.

Ah, November. Perhaps to give herself additional motivation in this second-to-last month of her feat, she posted, “Courage is staring into the unknown and taking that first step. Faith is the belief that you’ll see it through.” She concludes with, “November was eventful…its ending marked the beginning of my last month in the Calendar Year GRID quest. Nearing the end of this--and any--big project I have pursued; my feelings are all over the place, happily satisfied to be almost ‘done’ but also quite sad that December will be the last time I ‘must’ climb these mountains.”