Sue Johnston quietly ticks off an epic FKT in the Northeast

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2016 was a year of dramatic accomplishments on the trails: Jim Walmsey’s new Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, Karl Meltzer besting Scott Jurek’s Appalachian Trail record and Megan Hick’s remarkable FKT on Colorado’s Nolan’s 14, to name a few.

But chances are you haven’t heard of one of the most impressive accomplishments that went down in the closing days of 2016. And that’s just fine with the record holder, Vermont ultrarunner and long-distance hiker Sue Johnston, 51, of Danville, Vermont.

Late in the afternoon of December 26, 2016, Johnston and her husband Chris Scott summited 4,000-foot-high Mount Isolation in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was her 12th time summiting the peak that year.

The longstanding challenge, called “The Grid,” involves summiting each of the Whites Mountains’ 48 4,000-foot peaks 12 times— once in every month. Only 70 people have completed The Grid. Most of those individuals worked a couple of decades to get there.

Johnston completed her first Grid—the third recorded Grid completion— in 2003, after 15 years of trail running and hiking in the White Mountains. This December she revisited the challenge, becoming the first person to tick off all 576 summits in a single calendar year. On the remote Mount Isolation in New Hampshire’s Dry River Wilderness, she and Scott quietly celebrated with a demi-bottle of champagne.

An “underappreciated legend”

It makes a certain amount of sense that Johnston would be the first person to complete this latest challenge. She’s been hiking and running long distances for 25 years. She won the competitive JFK 50-miler in 1999, and first female at the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance run in 2000 and 2005. In 2001 she completed 66 of the 100 miles at Tennessee’s brutal Barkley Marathons, a women’s record that still stands today.

Johnston and Scott smile atop Mt Washington. Photo courtesy Sue Johnston

Perhaps her best-known accomplishment: in 2007 she hiked and ran the John Muir Trail (JMT) in 3 days 20 hours, setting a new supported record. Her time remains the fastest women’s result, having stood up to repeated challenges from some of the country’s strongest female trail runners, including Darcy Africa, Krissy Moehl and Jenn Shelton, who has attempted it four times.

“Sue is an under-appreciated legend,” says Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Times website. “The JMT is one of the most sought-after FKTs, so the fact that her time has stood for 10 years against some excellent contenders is a testament to her accomplishment.”

The Grid in a year

After six years living in Oxnard, California and exploring the mountains of the western United States, Johnston has decided she prefers the White Mountains. She returned to the region in 2012. “I’ve been to bigger peaks, but this is my home territory,” she says. “The trails are really hard. A lot of western trail runners have no idea what’s hiding here.”

The idea of trying the grid in one calendar was something she wrote about in passing, years ago, on an online hiking forum. “I said, ‘the next thing you know, someone is going to do it in a year,” remembers Johnston. “I must have stored that idea somewhere in my brain!”

By 2016, the timing was right. Her husband, Chris Scott, was mostly retired. They were on the verge of selling their house in Vermont, which would free them up to move temporarily over the state border to the White Mountains— a relocation that made the last nine months of The Grid significantly easier.

Johnston became totally focused on the effort. “I had so many mornings getting up at 3 a.m., when it was really cold and pitch dark,” she says. But “I’m totally OCD. I like lists and goals. It was fun filling out The Grid.”

A snowy mid-November hike up Mt. Isolation. Photo courtesy Sue Johnston

The weeks ticked by. Johnston would start each new month by bagging the higher, more challenging peaks—Mt Washington, Mt Adams, Mt Madison and the four other alpine peaks that comprise the Presidential Range— as soon as weather permitted. With the exposed peaks out of the way, she could knock out tree-covered, sheltered summits like Passaconaway, Whiteface, and Cabot, which were doable regardless of conditions.

Despite Johnston’s self-diagnosis as OCD, her days weren’t heavily regimented. “I tried to stay flexible when it came to planning each day,” says Johnston. “Often, I didn’t know what I’d be doing until the night before. It would depend upon weather and how I felt.”

Johnston averaged 265 rugged miles a month and, of course, 48 peaks. She and Scott fell into routines. “It got to where I could unpack my gear in two minutes,” she says. “Chris would cook, and I would clean up. It was a basic, simple life.” In the morning, Scott would often drive to the day’s finish, and hike in to meet her. Along the way, he ended up bagging nearly half the peaks. “It would have been impossible without him,” she notes.

On off days, she’d grocery shop or head to a yoga class. But, as the months passed, she felt increasingly like an outsider. “I had spent so much time outside that I felt too rough for yoga,” she says. “Part of me was paranoid that what I was doing was too extreme to explain to a class that was all about being gentle on your body.”

Under the wire

Remarkably, Johnston avoided mishaps and remained relatively injury-free. In April, she sprained her back while front-pointing with crampons up a steep, icy section of trail. In the last month of her grid-in-a-year, she tripped and tweaked her elbow.

Still, there was plenty of adventure. Up on the gnarly rock-and-root-strewn terrain of Carter Ridge, just east of the Presidential Range near the border with Maine, Johnston was besieged by a male spruce grouse. “I was by myself,” she says. “He started circling me, and then followed me a third of a mile, bluff-charging all the way. I ran, swinging my poles!”

The White Mountains are known for their harsh, arctic conditions, and in December the region experienced a long spell of brutal weather that almost unraveled Johnston’s Grid-in-a-year. The Mount Washington Observatory weather station recorded an average low of minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds gusted as high as 126 mph. By the end of the month, nearly 100 inches of snow had fallen.

By the end “I had 10 peaks left, and the weather was not looking good,” says Johnston. Near the end of the month, though, skies cleared and the temperature and winds abated. Says Johnston, “I had just enough good days to wrap it up.”

BY THE NUMBERS: Sue Johnston’s 2016 Grid (and a few non-Grid peaks)

Miles hiked:  3,181
Vertical feet climbed: 1,001,820
Total peaks summited over 4,000 feet: 599
Days over 20 miles: 44
Highest mileage month: 294.6 miles (September)
Lowest mileage month: 210 miles (October)
Wildlife sightings:  Moose, bear, deer, fox, one attack spruce grouse

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