The cheering began as Jeb Bradley squeezed his way in between two frozen boulders, and onto the snow-crusted summit of Mount Madison. A crowd of eight smiling hikers awaited him, bracing against the whipping winds and frigid temperatures. One dug out a certificate from deep within his coat to mark the occasion.
Ever the cautious hiker, Bradley grinned and asked, “Should we really do this up here?”
Getting up the mountain – in this case, Mount Adams and Mount Madison – is optional, Bradley likes to say. Getting down is what’s mandatory.
Finally, after 10 hours of hiking Wednesday, when Bradley emerged from the forest into the dark parking lot, it was time to celebrate. Beaming, with a headlamp strapped to his forehead, he began accepting congratulations.
On Wednesday night, Bradley, 62, became the 49th person to complete The Grid.
It means he has climbed all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountain peaks in every single month. It comes out to 48 peaks, 12 times each, adding up to the magic number: 576, known as The Grid.
Beneath clear skies Wednesday at the top of Mount Madison – his final peak – he took photos with a white-topped Mount Washington looming in the background.
Bradley, who grew up in New Hampshire and now represents the Wolfeboro area in the state Senate, has been hiking the White Mountains all of his life. But he got the idea to start recording his grid in 2009, after winning a special election. To climb all 576 peaks, he bagged roughly 175 per year, averaging 80 to 90 hiking days. But it’s a not all about making it to the top.
“If it were just check marks, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Bradley said.
“But,” Bradley’s friend Karen McNiff chimes in, “on the tough days, the check mark can get you out there.”
Wednesday qualified as a tough day. When Bradley pulled into the parking off Route 2 in Gorham just after 7 a.m., the car thermometer hovered around minus 17 degrees. It’s only negative 10, he assured McNiff with a confident nod.
As the nine-person hiking group gathered at the trailhead beneath the rising sun, everyone began the process of suiting up: slipping water bottles into thick insulating pouches so the liquid won’t freeze, tucking crampons and microspikes into their backpacks to tackle the higher terrain, and strapping on snowshoes.
McNiff pulled back her puffy coat to reveal at least four layers beneath: she wore a hat, long underwear, wind pants, and still kept extra layers in her pack.
Aside from the chilly temperatures, the sky above was clear and blue – a sign of good views atop the mountain peaks. Still, Bradley’s hiking crew joked that the conditions were too bad to press on. January is one of the toughest hiking months, weather conditions can be very different between the trailhead and the summit, and early sunsets limit daylight. Weather had foiled Bradley’s plans many times before, including an attempt last year. Bradley was set to complete the January portion of The Grid on the last days of the month, but the only nice weather fell on a session day when Bradley was in Concord, representing District 3 in the state Senate. For the most part, though, it’s the hiking that helps with the legislating.
“I have had some of the best ideas as to how to resolve what would appear to be unresolvable issues out on the trails,” he said. One was a retirement deal, recently upheld by the state Supreme Court. Another was how to deal with an energy settlement, and he answered several reporters’ calls on the matter while he climbed Mount Liberty and Flume in December.
The purpose of The Grid is to encourage hikers to visit New Hampshire’s mountains at all different times of the year, according to a website about The Grid managed by Ed Hawkins, who has completed the climbing feat a total of four times.
Bradley completed The Grid for the challenge, but also because he loves hiking. He met most of the people who climbed Mount Adams and Mount Madison with him Wednesday through climbing. Three of them have already finished of The Grid, and the rest are working toward the 576.
Bill Cronin, who lives on the Seacoast, is just a few peaks away from completing The Grid. He hikes to meet folks. A fast climber, Cronin led the group down the mountain by glissading, sliding down steeps parts of the trail sitting down. He slathers the back of his wind pants with tape for extra speed, and uses his hiking poles as a rudder to maneuver trees and sharp corners.
“You meet new people every time,” agreed Mike Lynch, who is about halfway through his own grid. “Plus you get to eat and drink whatever you want, guilt free,” he laughed. In the saddle wedged between the peaks of Mount Adams and Mount Madison, the group stopped to eat lunch. Some of the food freezes, and it is the meal after the hike that people were fantasizing about. Pizza, someone suggested; a burger, someone else chimed in.
“With The Grid, you get to see mountains in all the different seasons,” said Diane Schor, who is just a few hikes away from completing it. Her husband, Bill Schor, has already finished his. John Gutowski, now on his second grid, completed the first with his wife, June, in 10 years. “It’s because you love hiking,” he said.
They call themselves “gridiots.” It’s addictive, and Bradley admits it. “I’m an addict,” he said. “It’s my health protection plan.”
Hawkins is thought to be the second person to accomplish The Grid. He finished his first in 2002. Now, he and three other finishers sit on a grid advisory council, managing the website and keeping record of the list of finishers. Hawkins accepts grid hikers’ applications and once he signs off on the spreadsheets, he sends each finisher a patch and scroll to mark the accomplishment.
In that way, The Grid is like a ritual. Every hike, every date must be meticulously recorded. Bradley’s list spans decades. He recorded a hike he remembered from 1975, when he and his friend climbed Middle and South Carter. Bradley was able to pin down the exact date of that trek because the Boston Red Sox were in the World Series. Eager to hear the game, Bradley carried a small transistor radio on the hike and listened as Rick Wise pitched in game six of the series, Sept. 2.
The hike Wednesday started quietly. For the first hour, the only sound was hiking polls spearing the ground and swishing of dozens of snowshoes as they kicked up dry, powdery snow. Some of the hikers joked it was so cold that the lips of Bill Schor, the chattiest of the bunch, lips had frozen shut.
Above the treeline, where the green branches give way to unobstructed views of the Presidential Range and the terrain turns from snow to rock and packed ice, many in the group strapped microspikes to their boots to grip the steep icy trail.
Bradley doesn’t like to lollygag at the mountaintops in wintertime, where the winds can reach 40 miles per hour. But at top the of Mount Adams, 5,793 feet above sea level and the first stop Wednesday, he took a few moments to take in the clear, 360-degree views. On the hike down, Bradley usually stays at the back of the pack taking photos. He plans to put his pictures, documenting New Hampshire’s White Moutains in every season, into a book someday.
Now that Bradley has finished The Grid, he’s not sure what’s next. There are plenty of options.
Stephen Moore, who went on the Wednesday hike, has already completed The Grid, but now he is working on his second time at it. He is also doing calendar days – hiking a 4,000-footer on every day of a calendar year – and red-lining, hiking every trail in the White Mountains.
Bradley and Cronin have been working on a single season – climbing all 48 of the state’s 4,000-foot peaks in wintertime, Dec. 21 through March 21. Bradley has already done it once.
Ask Bradley a dozen ways about his favorite hike, and his answer won’t change. “My favorite hike is the next one.”
On the ride home, Bradley began planning that next hike with McNiff. She suggested Owl’s Head. He turned to her and asked, “What do you need for your list?”