DURHAM – For many hikers, climbing New Hampshire’s forty-eight 4,000 foot mountains is a brass ring unto itself, but for Sue Johnston, it was just a start.
In 2016, Johnston became the first woman to complete The Grid – climbing each of the state’s forty-eight 4,000 footers once a month, every month of the year – in a single calendar year. She joined WINDOWS TO THE WILD host Willem Lange recently to discuss why she pursues her extreme hiking goals.
The Grid is just the latest of Johnston’s many hiking accomplishments. “For years, we heard stories about Sue from hikers that we met on trails throughout New Hampshire,” says WINDOWS TO THE WILD producer Phil Vaughn. “She seemed legendary in her accomplishments.”
While Johnston would become an elite hiker, she didn’t go for her first hike until she was 20 years old. “My family wasn’t outdoors-y,” she explains. Then, on Father’s Day in 1986, her father unexpectedly decided to hike Cannon Mountain. They made it to the summit and then, at her father’s insistence, took the tram back down the mountain. Sue says simply, “I was hooked and my father wasn’t.”
Within a few years, Sue had hiked The Long Trail in Vermont, which runs the entire length of the state. In 1994, less than 10 years after her first ever hike, she completed the Appalachian Trail, an experience she says changed her life. “I learned so much about myself and realized how little I needed, materially, to be happy.”
If her list of achievements is any indication, happiness for Johnston includes having a goal to achieve. She was the first woman to hold the overall record for completing California’s John Muir Trail and she met her husband Chris during a 50-mile ultra-marathon in Virginia. Johnston describes herself as a “list person,” admitting with a laugh, “hiking lists, shopping lists. I just like lists. I like crossing things off – and I’m unapologetic about that!”
Even for a seasoned hiker, The Grid is a massive achievement. When she first started working her way through New Hampshire’s 48 tallest mountains twelve different times, only one other person had completed The Grid. “It’s an amazing feat to even imagine,” notes Vaughn.
Johnston admits that this past time might not be for everyone. “It sounds very obsessive – which it kind of is – but doing it was just really fun!”
Johnston’s husband Chris says that part of that fun for his wife was the varied nature of the mountains throughout the four seasons. “Every hike was different. No two days were alike for her.” Johnston concurs, adding “I’m old enough that I grew up when kids still played outside. I’ve always just loved being outside. It’s where I feel most comfortable. “
Johnston completed The Grid within one calendar year on December 26, 2016. Her husband Chris joined her in a quiet celebration on the summit of Mt. Isolation, just the two of them. For Johnston, the party of two was plenty. “I couldn’t have done it without Chris.”
What’s next on her list? She won’t say. “I don’t like to broadcast my ideas before I do something.” But she does have something in the works. Johnston says that she’d like to still be hiking when she’s 90, which is good, because as she points out, “My list of possible things to do keeps getting longer, not shorter.”
Viewers can find out more about Johnston and her impressive list of accomplishments on the next episode of WINDOWS TO THE WILD, airing Wednesday, February 13 at 7:30 pm. and online at nhpbs.org/windows.
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