Epic Hikers, Epic Hikes

If Sue Johnston and Spencer Crispe have an obsession with hiking the Northeast, it’s a magnificent one.

When we last caught up with Northeast Kingdom native Susana “Sue” Johnston, (see Vermont Sports, March 2017 “A Year at the Top”) she had just completed The Grid, hiking all 48 of New Hampshire’s peaks above 4,000 feet, each month, for 12 straight months. Yes, 576 ascents to a 4,000-plus foot summit in a year.

For Johnston, 52 at the time, the Grid just seemed like a logical progression from some of her other endeavors: she has won the Hardrock 100-Mile Endurance Run twice, set a record for the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California, stood on the highest peak of each state (caveat: she came within 400 feet of summiting Denali, but we’ll count that), skied the length of Vermont on the Catamount Trail and she’s hiked Vermont’s Long Trail four times. Most recently, she finished hiking all 165 miles of the Long Trail access trails (the trails leading east and west up to the trail).

Sue Johnston finished hiking all 165 miles of sidetrails leading to the Long Trail. Courtesy photo

The Trails Less Traveled

When we called Johnston to see what her favorite trails were in Vermont, she was hesitant. “Man, since Covid-19 the trails have been so packed I’m not sure I want to tell you,” she said by phone from her home near Kingdom Trails in East Burke.

“I was just over in New Hampshire and it’s worse than a holiday weekend: cars are parked up and down the roads near the trailheads. It seems ever since the pandemic set in, everyone’s gone out hiking. Part of me feels bad that I may in a small way have contributed to that being the Gridder,” she says remorsefully. She adds, “It’s not just here, it’s all over the country. But you can still find solitude if you know where to look.”

Her first bit of advice is to eschew hiking the Long Trail and instead hike some of the side trails that lead up to or parallel it. “Everyone hikes Sunset Ridge – the Nose to the Chin on Mt. Mansfield,” she says. “But just off the sides of Mt. Mansfield are amazing trails. The Cliff Trail, which traverses the east flank, has all these ladders and natural tunnels,” she notes. Coming up from the west side, the Maple Ridge Trail ends up at the Forehead of Mt. Mansfield with equally amazing views to the West as does The Chin.

Johnston also recommends a number of trails near her home in the Northeast Kingdom. “All the trails around Lake Willoughby are amazing – Mt. Hor, Mt. Pisgah, Bald and Wheeler Mountain and often these are not that crowded.”

As for a best-kept secret? “If you really want to get away, try one of the newest trails in the state,” she suggests.  “The Kingdom Heritage Trail was just completed last year. It’s almost 20 miles and there are a couple of side trails you can do. You’re deep in the woods and there’s a good chance you might see a moose. The trail being new, it’s narrower and cushier and not super muddy or eroded like so much of The Long Trail is now.”

Beating Around the Bush

One of Vermont’s other high-mileage hikers, Spencer Crispe, lives at the other end of the state. Crispe, a ninth-generation Vermonter practices law in Brattleboro, near where he grew up. He went to college and law school in Vermont and his grandfather helped found Stratton Mountain. 

Crispe has hiked the Long Trail, skied the Catamount Trail, and both skied and hiked every mountain in Vermont over 3,000 feet –that’s 110 mountains he has summited in both summer and winter.

This past summer he added something else to his resume: He did what only 12 other people have documented doing: he summited all 770 mountains over 3,000 feet in the Northeast.

“I started around 2012 and 2020 felt like a good year to finish—hiking was one of the things you could still do, being outside and in the mountains,” said Crispe.

Spencer Crispe, bushwhacking his way to 770 summits. Courtesy photo.

“With the 770, one thing lead to another. I had done the ADK 46ers. There’s the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers. Before long I had done all 115 4,000-footers in the Northeast. Then  I heard about a few really extreme hikers who had done all the mountains above 3,000 feet. Dennis Crispo, of Tewksbury, Ma., started in 1981 and finished in 1997. He was the first one to do it. “ Only 12 people have done that since.

“I was attracted to it because it just seemed ludicrous,” Crispe says with a laugh. “I’ve always gravitated toward those types of challenges—ones where you say: Oh, this is ridiculous man!  But I don’t take on challenges like people who climb crazy dangerous climbs without a rope. The other reason is doing these I could still be at my desk on Monday morning. This was something I could do on weekends, and my wife did about half of them.  She’s really strong climber in her own right, though she said, ‘I’m not doing the crazy hard bushwhacks with you.’” Over 415 of the mountains have no trail to the summit so you have to bushwhack into them.”

Using GPS and maps, Crispe would navigate his way to the top. “McDonnel Mountain in the Adirondacks was the worst. The spruce and fir were so thick and there were so many blowdowns it was like being an insect trapped a million spider webs.”

For Crispe, negotiating his route was part of the fun. “Most people would say it was just nature beating up on you. I love bushwhacking because it’s like a coloring book with no lines. I’d get to  lot of places no human being had been to. I could stand on a summit and think that no one else had probably ever stood there before or seen that view. That was a big part of the allure for me.”

One of Crispe’s hardest hikes was Barren Mountain in Baxter State Park in Maine. “That took 11 hours of excruciating difficulty. It’s thick, chaotic and steep. But you get to the top and you are above the trees and you can see everywhere. You can see this enormous expanse of wilderness in Maine. You earn your views.”

Crispe doesn’t like to take risks. “I bring a ridiculous amount of gear: two bivouac bags from Survive Outdoors, an InReach satellite phone so I can always SOS for help, water treatment tablets, two lighters, newspaper and firestarter sticks. And I always have extra clothes, Powerbars, some rope, a pocket saw and a Swiss Army knife. I tell people where I am going and give them a copy of the map. And I check in after dark.”

Still, Crispe’s favorites hikes are in Vermont and not always so extreme. “From Glastonbury Mountain in southern Vermont,  you can see more uninterrupted wilderness than any other view in Vermont. You look out at beautiful forest, Stratton, Haystack and the Berkshires.  And there’s a firetower you can climb. If you take the Long Trail, it’s 10 miles either way – it’s a long way in. If you are a local, you can find other trails in that no one knows about. There is a herd trail from the Harbor Rd. in Woodford but that’s still 6 miles.  That route was where the Long Trail went in the late 40s.”

There are also some “easy” bushwhacks.  “Knox Mountain in Orange is absolutely awesome. It’s an easy bushwhack and near the summit is an open fern glade that gives you views east all the way to the White Mountains. The approach is from the Topsham/Groton side on a snowmobile trail. The western side is all private property so don’t go up from there.”

For foliage viewing, he also recommends Cold Hollow Mountain, not far from Jay Peak. “You get huge views to the east thanks to a microburst and it’s not a particularly hard bushwhack as you approach it from the south.”

Up north, he says Monadnock Mountain near Canaan has one of the best views in the state. “The mountain towers above the Northeast Kingdom and it has a fire tower and a trail.”

And in the central part of the state, Braintree Mountain is another of his favorites. “Thanks to RASTA, there’s  a trail that has been cut and it’s not hard to reach the summit from the eastern side. It’s in the center of the Northfield range with incredible views for foliage. And since it’s east of the primary Green Mountains, you are seeing the spine of the Greens but also the Whites and the rest of Vermont.”

Crispe, now 42, wasn’t always a consummate hiker. “I played in a band for 15 years which kept me out of the woods. When I stopped doing music, I got more into outdoor exploring. As I saw society get deeper into the digital word—the box, the cell, the screen—that prompted me to get out all the more. People forget what a tree looks like. I feel like it’s not good for the soul to get disconnected from the natural world.”

And in the years since he has been exploring, he’s seen the natural world around him evolve and he’s made a point to volunteer for various trail organizations. “Because of the climate we have here in Vermont, the forest is always alive and active. Where you  have blow downs, you have saplings that grow back so, so fast. The regrowth is unbelievable if the trails are not maintained and utilized.”

His parting words: “If you care about recreation in Vermont do some volunteer time. It’s not like the Rocky Mountains: trails in the Greens require constant attention, they are not going to maintain themselves.”

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