The end is near. My headlamp throws its dying light on a reel of rock and dirt and root that had seemed endless, except now I’m approaching the final summit on my 48-peak thru-hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
A year ago, almost to the day, I heard about a woman who climbed all the 48ers in 10 days, like a thru-hiker. The route was a masterpiece. In one of the most heavily hiked ranges in the country, it offered a new way to see a familiar place. Instead of following all the overtrafficked paths from overcrowded trailhead parking lots, she linked the peaks by trail.
That planted the seed. It grew when I received a phone call from a friend of a friend telling me that Scott Jurek was about to pass through the White Mountains on his Appalachian Trail record attempt and, since I knew the terrain, could I crew for him. I met Jurek at Mt. Moosilauke the next morning and went stride-for-stride with him for three days. We hiked and ran to exhaustion, slept briefly, then did it again. I’d never moved through the mountains like that before.
In short, I was inspired, which is how I came to stand at Mt. Moosilauke’s Beaver Brook trailhead on July 24, 2016—with 240 miles, 70,000 feet of elevation change, and 48 summits ahead of me.
I was giddy the entire first day, all six peaks and 37 miles that brought me to a dispersed campsite near Franconia Ridge. But sometime around midnight, I woke up shivering. In an effort to save weight, I’d packed a bivy and a paper-thin sleeping mat, but no bag. For the next four hours, I toggled in and out of sleep. But a trip like this demands a certain amount of self-delusion, so at 4 a.m., I packed up and did it again.
I soon found my rhythm. Hike all morning, succumb to a 20-minute nap on the side of the trail, hike all afternoon, and bed down in my bivy sack around dusk. A few hours later, once the shivering starts, keep going. The sleep deprivation weighed on me, but the alpine scenery soothed my mind. I was awake and moving along the trail during the golden hours at dawn and dusk as I strung together peak after peak after peak.
I didn’t dwell much on pain or hunger or fatigue. The enormity of the thing I’d chosen to do carried me past those. It was like climbing through a cloud bank on an airplane and emerging into bright, steady sunshine. If there was one emotion lingering in my heart as I cruised along it was simple joy.
At 2:30 a.m., nearly six days after the start, I neared the final summit: Mt. Cabot. I’d arranged to have my girlfriend and her father meet me near the top to join me for the end. When a light blinked on in the forest ahead, I figured it was them. But then an unfamiliar voice said, “Hey, you mind if I hike with you? I’ve been following your hike online and wanted to come see you finish.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here was a guy who’d driven and hiked into the night to see me complete my superhike. With renewed vigor, I hiked with my new companion until we reached my girlfriend and her father. Then, near the summit, they let me climb the last peak alone. I touched the top, then scurried back to the final trailhead to close it out in just under six days.
And so I’d done it. I’d risen to the challenge of the route and the terrain. But more than that, I’d learned an important lesson from Jurek: The only thing better than watching something big happen is doing it, whatever it is, yourself.