Known on the Long Trail and Appalachian Trail by the trail name of “Vermonster” and as “Snow Flea” in her most recent endeavor, Sue Johnston has continually used her knowledge and experiences from her many years in ultrarunning and long-distance hiking to pursue major endurance challenges. Not having competed in an organized ultra event in years, Johnston is still putting what she refers to as her “muscle memory” to work.
Her muscle memory has been formed over decades of ultrarunning and hiking. She holds countless female records in both sports. Several years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Sue at a Salomon Summit, a gathering for Salomon team athletes. I was geeking out over her accomplishments, everything from holding the record for the furthest distance completed by a female in the Barkley Marathons to winning the Hardrock 100 twice. Her race resume is extensive and impressive but so are her hiking accomplishments that range from a supported fastest known time (FKT) on the 223-mile John Muir Trail, which she completed in just 3 days and 20 hours to having been the previous FKT holder for summiting all of New Hampshire’s 48, 4,000-foot mountains in 4 days, 20 hours, and 32 minutes. (Brianna Tidd is the current women’s FKT holder.)
This 51-year-old legend seems to have been off the radar on the ultrarunning scene now as she hasn’t raced in several years, but she is continually demonstrating her longevity in sport by taking on and completing impressive feats. In her latest project, Johnston decided to tackle the ‘Grid.’ The Grid is a challenge that involves summiting each of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks 12 times, once in each month of the year. Johnston had already completed the task in 2003, making her the first female and the third person ever to accomplish the feat, but this time around she had a different plan. No male or female had ever completed the task in a single calendar year, so there was her motivation. She would begin her attempt in January of 2016 with the intent to finish in December of 2016.
Johnston’s perspective of the mountains and nature is one of respect. She does not view them as things to be “conquered” or to “crush,” but rather as real things. She says, there are “no such things as alternative facts in nature!” As for her approach to the massive task, she did not view it as a chore with negative connotations to go out and hike everyday, but rather as a job that she loves to do.
There were challenges along the way, but Johnston says she was lucky and suffered no show-stopping injuries or illnesses, and had absolutely no loss of desire, drive, or focus. In her first several months of working on the Grid, Johnston faced extremely icy conditions that continued into May. This ice meant she didn’t have to break trail through snow, but instead she had to put a lot of effort into gaining traction, which she did with the three pairs of Hillsound spikes that she went through.
Navigating her way through the first winter months and then into spring, there were still battles with the elements including steady chilling rain, strong winds, and lingering ice from the earlier months. Johnston was tested, but not deterred as the joy and focus of a year-long goal had her pressing on to check off another square on her grid. She knew that with every step and every day she got closer to reaching her goal.
After an unseasonably dry summer, Johnston found herself battling typical New England fall weather with cold and nasty mixed conditions and the noticeably shorter daylight hours did not help either. Then the second round of winter months in late 2016 brought a fresh obstacle. This time around, instead of ice there was snow, translating to more energy spent navigating and breaking trail with snowshoes.
Of this set of winter months, December proved to be her greatest obstacle with its shorter days and difficult weather conditions above treeline. The most difficult mountains to complete in this final month were the ones in the Presidential Range, including the highest mountain in the challenge, Mount Washington. Mount Washington is notorious for its erratic weather. Patience and respect was required, and Johnston had it, waiting until the end of December to check off the summits that had extensive above-treeline sections. “I just kept hoping for a weather window and tried to stay optimistic, but having gotten 570 (of the 576) peaks into it, I’d have been devastated to not be able to finish!” she recounted.
Finally on December 23rd, which was also Johnston’s birthday, there was a break in the weather that provided a good-enough window for her to summit the Franconia Ridge peaks. At this point she knew she could accomplish her goal, as her remaining peaks included the Hancocks and Isolation. These final squares of the grid were almost anticlimactic for Johnston. As for the finish of her endeavor Johnston said, “It was just Chris and me–I didn’t want a big crowd or celebration, just a small bottle champagne for the two of us.” (Chris Scott is her husband.)
January proved to be a period of adjustment without the focus and the structure of such a long, arduous, and adventurous goal at hand. Johnston says it’s been fun to get back into running, which now feels very easy with just running shoes and without a backpack. Her plans for the present include catching up on all the things she didn’t have the time or energy for in the past year!
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Did you see Sue Johnston in action on one or more of New Hampshire’s peaks in 2016? Can you comment and recount it, if so?