OXFORD — A game warden’s strict adherence to the rules put Jesse Wall’s quest of climbing all 67 of the 4,000-foot peaks in New England in a single winter in jeopardy.
But thankfully, the Oxford resident and owner of The Big Top gym and TruStrength Athletics was able to return the following weekend, climbing the summit of North Brother in Baxter State Park on March 19, with eight hours to spare.
Wall explained he was evicted from the state park for camping without a reservation – even though he had tried to obtain an overnight pass for the last leg of his challenge. He missed the window of requesting a pass seven days prior.
“The one ranger who happened to come across us and our story wasn’t going to buy it,” Wall recalled. “It makes for a fun part of the story. It jeopardized the whole thing a little bit. … I wasn’t going to have any of the following week to get away and it was going to come down to Saturday [March 19].”
At the time he began his challenge, only six people had climbed the 67 peaks in one winter. After completing his goal, there are 10, including Wall.
So why did he want to embark on this crazy-sounding adventure?
Wall just rounded his one-year anniversary from an ice-climbing accident on Pine Mountain in West Bethel that left him unable to work for three months. Ice broke away from the mountain and he fell, shattering his ankle. He had to commando crawl in deep snow back to his vehicle.
“I had to self rescue,” he said. “I thought, ‘If there is ever a reason to be physically fit, if you ever have to survive or rescue yourself, it pays off.’”
Wall had massive ankle surgery that left him with 11 screws and a plate. That sort of rehab is extremely slow, not something he’s used to.
“I’ve been a really driven guy all my life,” he said. “Not having a goal to work toward physically was really hard.”
So he set his eyes on climbing the 48 [4,000-foot] peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in 48 days or less. Wall got his hiking partner, Cafe Nomad owner Scott Berk, on board, who joined him for hiking, skiing and snowshoeing during a good portion of his self-imposed challenge.
New Hampshire’s mountains proved to be good rehab for Wall’s ankle. It was easier for him to hike over soft snow than the more-challenging roots and rocks during the warmer months. Even so, the physical exertion left him hobbling to his bed at night as he attempted to get rid of the pins and needles in his foot.
During most of his hiking days, Wall would rise at 3:30 a.m. and begin hiking by head lamp in the serene darkness by 5 a.m. He often faced below zero wind chills and other wintry challenges, but one thing kept him going during the toughest moments – his friends, family and fans cheering him on back home.
“The thing that I learned about the importance of goal setting is to have some sort of accountability outside of yourself. It deepens your commitment,” he said. “These people are cheering you on. When you’re out there and it’s really hard, when life drops the hammer on you, there’s that moment where you say, ‘I could quit.’ …. Having those people’s faces, voices to say, ‘Come on, You can do it,’ in my head was a lot stronger than my own voice sometimes.”
After completing the 48 tallest peaks in the Granite State, Wall decided to move onto finish the remaining 19 [4,000-foot] peaks in New England.
He didn’t announce he was going to try for the 67 tallest peaks in one winter and “the hiking was much harder.”
The craziest portion of his challenge was climbing the five peaks in Vermont in 40 hours with Berk. A storm was rolling in near the Stowe Ski area where they were met with snow, ice and darkness. The strong 80 mph winds almost blew Wall’s phone from his hand as he tried to snap a photo to document his adventures.
“We ended up in a few spots where a fall would have been catastrophic. You would have watched your partner disappear in the darkness,” he said. “Scott is one of the most experienced mountain guys I know. … I’ve never seen him get scared about being in the mountains at all. He looked around and said, ‘Wow, we do not want to make a mistake.’”
Other challenges awaited Wall in Maine’s Carrabassett Valley, which he said is underrated for its winter hiking challenges. Every step he took on his snowshoes he broke through the snow and sometimes was knee deep in it. He had to cross-country ski on closed roads and on his third mountain, there was no trail, which left him to bush whack his way through the woods.
“I almost quit many times on that day because of the circumstances. No one will know [if I quit],” Wall remembered. “Having other people know about your goals – they will push you way further than you will push yourself.”
After returning to Baxter State Park, Wall did not encounter anyone while he was climbing North Brother. He was in awe that he was able to lay eyes on something almost no one else was going to see.
“That resonates with me. It connects me deeper to creation. I am a part of this story. … I don’t pretend to understand,” he said. “It fills me with wonder – who am I who got to enjoy this? … I’ve been given a gift of humbling.”
Others will be able to enjoy the epic moments and landscapes of Wall’s journey this winter, as a display of his photographs will hang in Cafe Nomad on Main Street in Norway during the month of May.
By the Numbers
48 4,000-foot peaks New Hampshire’s White Mountains
48 peaks in 48 days or less: goal achieved
225 miles of hiking, minimum
70,000 feet of climbing
17 of 48 peaks 20-plus miles a day covered
25 of 48 climbed alone
11 had finished in 48 days or less at start of challenge
94th person to finish all 48 in one winter
67 4,000-foot peaks in New England
1 winter to complete: goal achieved
14 peaks in Maine
5 in Vermont
9 of 19 remaining peaks climbed alone
10 people have finished 67 in 1 winter