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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Quest for ‘48’: Students Attempt to Hike New Hampshire 4,000 Footers

One writer documents student attempts to hike all 48 4,000 footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountain Range.

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Just northeast of Hanover, a mere few hours away, lies New Hampshire’s famous range of “4,000 footers.” Referring to the 48 peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountain range with elevations of 4,000 feet or higher, the 4,000 footers play a central role in one of the great American hiking challenges: known informally as “the 48.” 

In 1957, the Appalachian Mountain Club organized these mountains into a list to encourage hikers to explore the lesser-known regions of the White Mountain range. Since then, hiking all 48 of the 4,000 footers on the list has turned into a well-known challenge, where upon completion, one gets inducted into the AMC’s Four Thousand Footer Club (with the added benefit of receiving a commemorative patch). Currently, several Dartmouth students have either already finished the challenge or are now working towards completing it. 

For many, hiking the 48 begins innocently, perhaps on a family outing or while exploring a part of the Whites with friends. In fact, since Dartmouth’s First-Year Trips program features Mount Moosilauke as a popular itinerary, most Dartmouth students have probably knocked one mountain off their list already, perhaps without even knowing it. However, for those so bold —  the unintentional start can become a fully-fledged dedication to the challenge

One of the students attempting to complete the challenge is Virginia Coffey ’24. Growing up, Coffey often made trips with her family from their home south of Boston, Massachusetts to New Hampshire to hike the White Mountains. But she didn’t commit to the challenge until her sophomore summer at Dartmouth. 

“It wasn’t until I had done five [mountains] or so that I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve made some decent progress, I should keep going,’” Coffey said. Today, she has completed 18 out of the 48 mountains. 

Similarly, Sam Barton ’25 started his 48 somewhat unintentionally. He began with Mount Lafayette simply to break in a new pair of hiking boots for an upcoming National Outdoor Leadership School trip. 

“It wasn’t until the summer before Dartmouth that I started keeping track of my progress, made the goal and thought about having something to work towards,” Barton said. Today, he is nearing the end of the challenge with 41 out of the 48 mountains completed. 

However, while many Dartmouth students who attempt the 48 make most of their progress during their four years in Hanover, there is the rare breed of hiker that finishes all 48 before matriculation. Born and raised in New Hampshire into a family full of hiking enthusiasts, Madeline Wolfe ’25 had already completed the challenge before stepping foot on campus. 

“I actually heard of the challenge from my Dad, who technically began his own 48 on his First-Year Trip at Dartmouth,” she said. “I started joining him on his hikes until [pursuing the 48] became more structured and turned into my own personal goal.”

Yet, no matter the manner in which one may start the 48, what’s more important is the completion of it. While some participants like Barton opt to establish a more structured timeline for the challenge’s completion, some choose not to, thus creating a more relaxed experience. Coffey, for example, is just making her way through the 48 “for fun.”

“Because I haven’t set a timeline for myself, I feel like I’ve been able to find that balance between staying smart, staying safe, pushing myself to accomplish the goal and of course, remembering to enjoy the hike itself and have a good time,” she said.

Having fun is especially crucial with a daunting challenge such as the 48. Although it definitely does feature its literal ups and downs, Barton emphasized the accessibility in starting the challenge. 

“Just take the easiest first leap, maybe with Mount Moosilauke on an easy trail,” he said. “Other than that, all you need is a backpack and water. Just start walking, and you’ll definitely get hooked.”

For all three students, finding community played a major role in their success and resolve as they have been working through the 48. Nonetheless, for each of these students, “community” has looked a little different. 

Barton has found his most valuable source of support throughout his journey on the 48 to be his Dartmouth friends. For example, on weekends, he’s been enlisting friends to join him and spontaneously ticking off peaks together. 

“I think it would not be the same rewarding project if I were doing it alone,” he shared. “I have loved experiencing parts of it with others — whether that be Dartmouth friends, family or both.” 

Similarly, after completing the 48, Wolfe felt more involved in the community of hiking enthusiasts here at Dartmouth. 

“I’ve been able to meet new people who are interested in [the challenge] or hiking in general, and I feel like I can offer both guidance or fun stories which has been super rewarding!” 

Coffey also noted that the Dartmouth Outing Club works to make the hikes inclusive and accessible.

“I know that the DOC puts on a lot of hikes open to everyone and anyone with leaders trying to complete their [own] 48, which I think is a really nice way to build community around this challenge and find people who would do the hikes with you.”

While becoming a member of the AMC’s Four Thousand Footer Club is a pleasant recognition of the achievement, Barton, Coffey and Wolfe each felt that the challenge of the 48 offers much greater personal rewards.  

Coffrey emphasized the sense of accomplishment she has felt after each and every hike.

“It has been really rewarding to prove that I can do something I never initially thought I would want to do,” she said. “And even above just being able to check that box, it’s so rewarding to explore new places and see things I wouldn’t have if I weren’t embarking on this journey.” 

Looking back on what she acquired from her experience, Wolfe remembered gradually growing more at ease when she ventured out on her own. 

“Throughout the course of the 48, I definitely got more comfortable in the mountains and comfortable hiking alone, which I definitely was not at the beginning,” she explained. “That was definitely a lasting personal growth moment for me!”

Finally, Barton discovered that he flourishes when approaching a challenge from a goal-oriented standpoint. 

“So far, the challenge of the 48 has definitely motivated me to find other productive challenges like it to do next,” He added. “Even when I finish the 48, I’ll probably still do them over and over again because there are new things to appreciate about a hike each time you do it. It’s like rewatching your favorite movie, you’ll see new things every time.”