Late in the evening of December 26, 2016, on the summit of Mount Isolation
in the Dry River Wilderness, Sue Johnston became the first person to
complete “the grid” in one calendar year. She had summited all 48 peaks on
the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 4,000-footer list in every month of 2016.
The numbers are daunting: 576 summits; 1,001,820 feet of elevation gain;
climbing 48 mountains every month in the unpredictable chaos of White
Mountain weather. Johnston went through three pairs of MICROspikes and
quite a few sets of poles. She broke a snowshoe and made at least 20 passes on
the railroad grade of the Lincoln Woods Trail.
Only 70 people have ever finished the grid, but everyone else has taken
many years to do so. Hikers usually make an actual grid listing each mountain
and including spaces for each month of the year next to it listing climbs
of each peak in January, February, March, April, and so on over any number
of years. Although grid climbers work off of the AMC’s official list of New
Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers, theirs is an underground peakbagging movement.
AMC doesn’t officially recognize grid completers at its annual dinner
where certificates are given to new members of the Four Thousand Footer
Club, or those who have climbed all 48 peaks.
Johnston completed the grid earlier, over a period of several years. That
completion was remarkable, too, because it was only the third in history.
She has been a consistent, constant, and quiet presence in the hiking and
trail-running community for decades. She thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail,
set a still-standing fastest-known time for running California’s John Muir
Trail, and placed well a slew of ultramarathons around the country. Although
ultramarathons and trail races gauge placement by gender, the athletes race
side by side on the same trail. “I consider myself a feminist,” Johnston said,
taking some satisfaction in having been the first person, male or female, to
complete the grid inside of a year.
Aiding her feat were the remarkably mild winter of 2016 and dry and
cloudless summer. April and May were incredibly icy, and December was
wild and windy. In the same year, Johnston fit in the Maine 4,000ers, a two-week
trip to New Mexico, and a trip to Baxter State Park.
Johnston said she pursues this life because it suits her. She values long,
hard days in the mountains, which she says feel like home, and the fact that
she has the time to spend this way. She admitted that it takes a great deal
of work not to get sick or injured, and to focus intensely and consistently.
Her husband and partner, Chris, functioned as her support crew, much like that of any endurance athlete. Johnston said the course of her year on the grid was defined by what she found important: not keeping track of time,
acknowledging how the same mountain is different in each month, and
maintaining the mindset that this was a choice and a joy. And, admittedly,
it took a little bit of the collector instinct. “I like having the list and crossing
things off,” she said.
Johnston wrote a blog about her experience at runsuerun.blogspot.com.