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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The DOC Fifty: Embracing Your Breaking Point

Ulla Libre ’25 explores this summer’s iteration of the Fifty and reflects on why Dartmouth students embrace it, with all its challenges and triumphs.

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When I first heard about the DOC Fifty my freshman fall, I couldn’t believe anyone would willingly participate. The concept felt completely absurd to me: hike over 50 miles and traverse six different peaks from Mt. Moosilauke back to campus? I couldn’t understand why anyone would even want to support the hike — dressing up in flair and assisting the hikers in the dark at 4:00 a.m. — much less participate in it. Yet, I’ve come to realize the Fifty is a pinnacle of Dartmouth’s culture. The rugged and torturous 54-mile trek encompasses our ability to come together as one Dartmouth community. This summer’s version of the tradition felt especially special. Sophomore summer, despite the dreary weather, has been undeniably ours, a time for just our class to grow closer and forge deeper bonds with each other. Cheering for group after group of my friends as they hobbled across the Green, I realized that nothing has embodied these connections quite like the Fifty. 

I spoke with hikers Tea Wallmark ’25, Wyatt Ellison ’25 and Nathan Smith ’25, as well as “safety dork” Kaitlyn Peng ’25 and logistics director Madeline Wolfe ’25 to hear their perspectives on the challenges and joys of this summer’s Fifty iteration. Many students were quick to note how the rainy weather this summer made this year’s Fifty even more challenging than usual. The sections of the Appalachian Trail that encompass the Fifty, though maintained by the DOC, faced record-breaking flooding in the weeks prior to the event that made trail conditions far worse. 

“All the trails were super muddy, which I think definitely negatively impacted people’s footwear and feet because no matter how [much you] avoid puddles, and how waterproof your boots are, your feet are going to be wet with some blisters,” Wolfe said. Blisters are painful, and can make it more difficult to finish the hike. “I was not expecting just how quickly my feet would get torn apart once they had been soaking for over 24 hours,” Ellison said.

Besides blisters, other challenges that hikers faced varied by each individual hiker. Ellison claimed that summiting Mt. Moose was the hardest, whereas Smith insisted the Smarts Mountain descent was the most difficult due to the impact the decline had on his feet. Even hikers who avoided foot pain did not emerge from the Fifty unscathed. While Wallmark valiantly stepped around each puddle to keep her feet dry, she struggled with muscle deterioration, and her teammates forced her to chug salt water. “Beef jerky was a savior,” Wallmark said.

The hike poses not only physical but mental challenges. Over the course of the 54 miles, some hikers experience hallucinations caused by exhaustion and lack of sleep. “I saw a bunch of multicolored Adirondack chairs,” Smith said. “Any tree stump, any bush [became] an [Adirondack chair] because I wanted to sit down.”

These challenges require hikers to embrace, and move beyond, their breaking point. 

“I was broken, and I broke, and then I reached into myself for something, and put in another gear that I didn’t know I had,” Wallmark said. “That was part of why I wanted to hike it …  to reach those extreme moments when you think you can’t continue, but then you put your mind to it and somehow you do it. I don't think I’ve ever done anything as rewarding.” 

For hikers to face these challenges, they need a strong support system along the way — every nine miles, supporters in flair waited with open arms to assist them. In classic Dartmouth style, each station has a different theme. The hikers I spoke with unanimously agreed that these support stations were the best part of the hike. At each station, the hikers received food, encouragement, and any needed medical care, in an attempt to revitalize the hikers and motivate them to continue hiking. 

Wolfe — this year’s logistic coordinator — primarily organized these stations, reserving cabins and notifying Dartmouth Safety and Security, police and local landowners about the event. Wolfe said she drew on her experiences hiking the Fifty last fall to influence how support stations were run. 

“I did not enjoy eating eggs at the Skiway last year,” Wolfe said. “This year, I decided to also add some cream cheese and peanut butter.” She also spoke with hikers about their individual food or shoe choices, empathically connecting with them to help them cross the finish line.

Despite my earlier reservations about the event, I decided to support this year at Great Bear, the first station on the trail. We were themed Great Bear-rier Reef, meaning that we blew bubbles at the hikers and danced to “Ocean Man” by Ween, in addition to providing medical care and making sandwiches for each hiker. Unfortunately, despite the Great Bear supporters’ greatest efforts, the Three Mile support station seemed to be favorite among the hikers. It is the last station before Hanover, the final push. “The Mac and Cheese never tasted better,” Wallmark said. 

As I wrote this article, I struggled to understand why the Fifty generates so much enthusiasm among Dartmouth students. Hiking 54 miles without sleeping is painful. Dressing up in flair and making mac and cheese in the middle of the night is silly. But at the same time, the Fifty is “a beautiful representation of Dartmouth culture,” Peng said. Dartmouth’s outdoorsy nature means that the existence of the hike comes at no surprise. In turn, the supporters represent the tight-knit nature of the Dartmouth community. “At every station we’ve got flair and themes, and everybody is just so enthusiastic to help and to be able to greet all the hikers coming in.” Wolfe noted. In particular, the student-run nature of the event means that students from every social circle at Dartmouth unite to achieve the common goal of helping hikers reach the finish line. 

Ultimately, I’ve come to realize that we love the Fifty because we love Dartmouth. In a way, the Fifty is a microcosm of the typical Dartmouth term. Just as hikers split the Fifty into nine-mile increments separated by six support stations, Dartmouth students split our four years here into 12, 10-week terms. Ellison reflected on how the Fifty is perhaps just an extreme example of how Dartmouth students push themselves each term. 

“People here especially like to challenge themselves and bite off more than they can chew,” Ellison said. “It's maybe a little more [of a] physical challenge than a lot of [the] academic or athletic things people take [on], but it's definitely in the same vein of what people do every day.”