A MAJOR OBJECTIVE: REBECCA SPERRY AND THE WHITE MOUNTAINS: TAKE THREE
Words and Photos from Rebecca Sperry
In 2019, when I started on this journey, I never imagined that I would still be working on it. I also never imagined that I would be diagnosed with cancer, but here we are, it’s 2022, and I am once again going to attempt to hike all of the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in a set amount of time.
THE ORIGINAL REASON I SET THIS GOAL FOR MYSELF
In 2019, I was a special educator in my 7th year of teaching. I had enough experience under my belt to feel more than comfortable in my role within the district. Then, everything changed. The administration decided to completely change the way we did our programming a week before school started, and my world was turned upside down.
I, as well as the other special educators, were beyond stressed out. I found myself running to the place that I always go when I’m feeling overwhelmed: the mountains. I had just recently started working on a new hiking goal to hike all the trails in the White Mountains (known formerly as “red lining,” now known as the “trails objective”). At the time, I had already hiked roughly 25% of the trails in The Whites over the five years since I started. But, I wondered, had anyone ever tried to hike all of the trails in a set amount of time?
I thumbed through the guidebook (which contains the 653 trails) and looked at the maps containing most of the trails in The Whites. Then, I asked the Facebook group associated with this hiking objective if anyone had ever hiked the guidebook in a set amount of time, for example, a year. I was directed to the Fastest Known Time website, which listed one name, Matt Hickey, who completed this objective in 193 days in 2013.
One individual had actually accomplished this major goal, at least officially. A spark was lit, and I asked myself, could I hike all of the trails in The Whites? I had to find out, and for the next three months, I planned out 180-day hikes using paper maps and the 12 spreadsheets containing all the trail names from the guidebook.
Fast forward to January 2020. I began my first attempt to hike all of the trails in The Whites on January 1, 2020. Looking back, I can say that I was not prepared for the amount of physical effort that this would require, especially in the dead of winter. Unfortunately, with only 160 miles out of the 1,480 completed, I was forced off-trail on March 26, 2020, because of the COVID pandemic. I had hiked 7.4% of the guidebook and 20 individual hikes while working full time, and I had to quit. I was devastated but used this unexpected detour as an opportunity to really check and double-check my plans.
On June 19, 2020, I set out for my second attempt to hike all the trails in The Whites. Once again, I zeroed out the spreadsheet that I was using to track my progress and started hiking. Summer progressed, and I was making huge gains. But on August 13, 2020, my husband discovered a lump in my left breast, and within a week, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. It was the second time in so many years everything went sideways. I had spent the last two months hiking 18% of the trails in the guidebook, 35 individual hikes, 430 miles, and I had to call it quits again.
Hiking continued to be a reprieve from the onslaught of cancer treatment as I went through 19 months of it before making the decision to end my treatment years early. I hiked every week of chemotherapy, 52 weeks straight, over 780 miles, and on October 14, 2021, I received my last dose.
The next five months were almost as hard as, if not harder, than chemo. I struggled significantly with hormone therapy, which I would need to take for five more years. I tried one drug, and it made me extremely sick. I spent the first 2 1/2 months after finishing what was supposed to be the hardest part of my treatment, sick, weak, and depressed. My Oncologist pulled the plug on that drug in January 2022, and I had one more option. In February 2022, I agreed to a one-month trial, but again, I was struggling. Finally, on March 24, 2022, my Oncologist said, “we’ve come to the end of the road,” and I was done with cancer treatment.
In the months following, I have wavered back and forth about reattempting to hike all of the trails in The Whites again, but ultimately I came to the conclusion that I want to do this because I need to know if I can. I spent 14 months getting treatment (not including the five months of failed hormone therapy), and I am taking 14 months to attempt to hike all of the trails in The Whites as a gift to myself for going through cancer treatment. But, because I am adding a few months onto the attempt, I have also decided to hike the New England 100 Highest peaks as well.
I have hiked 80 out of 100 of the peaks already, and I have hiked 56.5% of the guidebook. So, why am I starting over? Because I want to. I want a specific beginning and end on these two lists. I want an excuse to hike as much as possible, and this is that for me. I’m doing this because cancer tried to take it from me, and I refuse to let cancer take anything else.
THE GENERAL DETAILS
There is no official number of miles to cover in the White Mountain guidebook because everyone does it differently. However, according to the spreadsheet, which contains all of the trails, they total 1,480 miles. This number is fluid. I will be re-hiking the same trail several times in order to reach other ones throughout this venture.
I will be using the 30th edition of the guidebook, which contains 653 individual routes. According to the rules of this objective, you need to hike all of the trails in The Whites. This includes the spur trails to campsites, springs, and viewpoints. Unlike many of the hiking projects in The Whites, this one, too, is very fluid. Yes, there are specific trails to hike. However, trails are constantly being rerouted, added, or removed, so what one person may have hiked five years ago is not necessarily the same as what I will do this year.
The New England 100 Highest is another hiking objective that I will be working on. This includes the 48 4000’ers in New Hampshire, five 4000’ers in Vermont, 14 4000’ers in Maine, and an additional 33 peaks in Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. 16 of the 100 highest peaks are herd paths/bushwhacks (not including Owl’s Head). These peaks require backcountry navigation skills and are not maintained trails. The peaks are scattered all across New England, from the border of Maine, to near the border of Vermont and everywhere in between.
If I complete the White Mountain Trails Objective in 14 months, then I will set the baseline for any other female that chooses to accomplish this feat. I have created 182 individual hikes out of the 1,480 miles of trails in The Whites, with 17 car spots and three overnights. On top of the Trails Objective hikes, I have 28 days where I will be working on the New England 100 Highest. I will be using my Garmin watch to track my routes and post about my hikes on my website, social media pages, and The Trailhead.
Things will change. I know that because I’ve already tried to do this two other times. However, if cancer has taught me anything, it’s that we are able to navigate change a lot better than we think. Change is the only constant, and I fully intend on leaning into and embracing the uncertainties that will arise over the next 14 months. This is my gift to me for going through cancer treatment, and I’m ready to embrace it!
Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker who spends the majority of her free time either hiking in New England or writing. In 2020, she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and continued to hike throughout an entire year of aggressive treatment. She is a strong proponent of the importance of staying active, especially as a way to alleviate some of the side effects of cancer treatment. You can follow her journey on her instagram: @sockedinhikes or her website: rebeccasperry.com