This July, Rob and I finished hiking all 48 of the 4,000-foot-plus peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was a journey that began in March 2020, about a week before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, when we hiked Mount Passaconaway with two friends, both of them experienced hikers who were familiar with the mountain.
I barely slept the night before the hike, worried that I would end up being a disappointment to our friends and myself. Although Rob and I had frequently hiked small mountains and local trails for nearly a year, I wasn’t confident I could make it to Passaconaway’s summit. The hike is nearly 12 miles, with an elevation gain of more than 3,600 feet. I’d never done anything even close to that scale.
As a kid, I was terrible at every sport or physical activity I tried. I was always one of the last people chosen for the kickball team at recess. My middle school softball coach told me I’d be better off quitting the team and saving my parents some money. Part of me really wanted to participate in sports, but eventually I gave up. I accepted that I was never going to be athletic. An active lifestyle was great for some people, but I would never be one of them.
With unseasonably warm temperatures, a snowshoe binding that refused to stay put, and a heavy winter backpack, the Passaconaway hike was rough going the entire way. I had to stop often to catch my breath, and probably would have turned around and retreated to the car if our friends hadn’t been there. But they waited for me every time I needed to rest, assuring me that I could do it. Knowing they believed I would make it to the top of the mountain made me want to keep going.
The last half mile of trail leading to Passaconaway’s summit is extremely steep, with the final 50-foot pitch at an almost 40-degree angle. A lot of swearing was involved, but I made it. When I finally stepped onto the ledge and saw the rows upon rows of silhouetted mountains stretching out toward the horizon, I started to cry. It was partly from relief and the beauty of the view, but mostly it was because I’d proved to myself that I wasn’t the person I thought I’d been for the past 49 years.
None of the 48 4,000-footers we’ve hiked were easy, but each one helped increase my confidence and gave me a sense of satisfaction that nothing else ever has. And after hiking Passaconaway, I never doubted my ability to get to the summit of any of them.
On my 50th birthday this past January, Rob, our friends and I hiked a 9-mile traverse of the Wildcat Range in 8-degree weather. We climbed Mount Monroe and Mount Washington last April on a freakishly warm, windless day, but with rapidly disintegrating trail conditions that stretched the 10-mile trek into an 11-hour journey, forcing us to use headlamps to complete the hike in the dark. Our final 4,000-footer hike in July consisted of a 20-mile traverse of the Pemigewasset Wilderness that crossed over the summits of four 4,000-foot peaks and took a little more than 13 hours.
Besides being much stronger and healthier than I was before we started, the experience of hiking the 48 has helped me stop putting limits on myself. I used to give up on some things before I’d even tried them, telling myself I wasn’t smart or talented or tough enough to succeed. The tenacity required to hike big mountains has spread to other areas of my life, making it possible for me to secure another book deal this June. These days, I often turn down work I don’t want to do in order to pursue better opportunities. I’ve also become more willing to try new things, like biking and sewing some of my own clothes, because I’ve finally come to understand that succeeding or failing at something isn’t the point. What really matters is that I’ve given it my best shot.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned over the last 18 months is that I have the ability to evolve and change as a person, regardless of my past, my age or other people’s opinions. I was capable of doing it all along. I just needed people who believed in me to show me the way.
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