• Rob Huckins

Baker's Dozen: A Different Grid

In 2016, Philip Carcia knew he needed to come up with something different.

After months of carefully crafting his plan to complete the ambitious hiking endeavor called “The Grid” in a single year, the news hit. Renowned ultrarunner and outdoor athlete Sue Johnston was already well into her goal to do just what Carcia had planned: summit every four thousand foot mountain in New Hampshire every month in one calendar year. With 48 such peaks, this meant Johnston would scale a total of 576 mountaintops in all sorts of weather and seasonal conditions. Although she was not finished, Carcia had little doubt she would complete the trek.

“I watched the times she posted along the way,” Carcia. “I knew. She’s a badass. Barring some serious injury or some other event, she was going to finish.”

Despite his immense respect for Johnston and happiness for her as she closed in on her goal, Carcia was disappointed. She was completing exactly what he had quietly been preparing for years and the reality of a truly unique hiking accomplishment seemingly disappeared with each passing month Johnston knocked out another round of the 48 four thousand footers. She eventually finished in December of 2016, becoming the first person on record to complete the Grid in a single calendar year. Now, even if he did it, he wouldn’t be the first. That distinction was Johnston’s alone. With years of training and preparation behind him, Carcia thought about how he could do something unique in the mountains on his own.

Carcia grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and didn’t have much outdoor experience until climbing Mount Wachusett when he was 16 years old. The feeling on the top, the view of the surrounding area flipped a switch in Carcia that never turned off, propelling him to not only climb Wachusett hundreds of more times but also to complete the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and a handful of other long through hikes during his twenties.

In 2014, Carcia lost his father to lung cancer just three months after he was diagnosed, and the experience deeply affected him in many ways, including his own view of how he wanted to spend his time for the rest of his own life. He committed himself to the mountains and focused on doing something significant, specifically in the White Mountains. Previous to his father’s death, Carcia hiked in New Hampshire but mainly on Franconia-based trails and the Presidentials. That year, however, he decided to take on all the mountains in the area, first knocking out all 48 four thousand footers in 26 days living out of his truck. His training for something bigger and different had begun.

The Grid is a highly unique and formidable undertaking which requires hikers to summit all New Hampshire four thousand footers in each month of the year. Other than Johnston, hikers do this over a lifetime or some other span of years, recording their peaks and the months they are climbed. Including Johnston, 84 people have been recognized for completing this feat. Carcia would be No. 85, but his would be the fastest and most unique way yet.

In August of 2018, Carcia hiked all 48 four thousand peaks during the last nine days of the month, completing his first Direttissima (the word is Italian and means something to the effect of “shortest link”), a continuous, roughly 240 mile route that hits all four thousand foot peaks in one through hike. “It’s a straight shot but not the most efficient way to ascend all the peaks,” Carcia says, noting the continuous trail approach adds dozens of miles to the task overall. From there, Carcia did a round of the 48 mountains every month until completing his second Direttissima in July to complete the Grid. Not only did he do it in one year’s time, he did faster than anyone else ever, doing it in 319 days--five weeks faster than the earlier record. Even more impressive, during that span, 185 days were spent hiking, meaning Carcia packed his summits into even less time than the total day record range reflects. He hiked 2,748 miles and over a million feet in elevation during the 319 days, averaging 229 miles and just over 83,000 feet in elevation per month.

During this year of relentless climbing, Carcia overcame enormous physical and mental fatigue, horrid and unpredictable weather conditions during all four seasons while enduring simple logistical impediments along the way. “I needed to focus all my energy on hiking these mountains,” Carcia says. “It wasn’t easy. I still worked (at the Notch Hostel in Woodstock, NH) and had to fit in hiking at off hours, hoping for windows of good weather each month.” Rather than picking away at the 48 summits each day and in seemingly random order, Carcia often poured his peak bagging into concentrated stretches of days, packing as many summits as he could in one shot.

The goal was nearly scuttled on more than one occasion, including late November when he got his truck stuck in the snow en route to Mount Cabot (a very remote peak on the list), a setback which forced him to return on the last day of the month to summit the mountain. “That was a day where I was freaking out pretty hard,” he says. “I was so focused on getting to that trail and keeping up my pace, anything that threw it off seemed huge.”

For Carcia, it was gut check time. If he was going to do this, he needed to recommit to the goal. If he was going to stop, he needed to do it then, not months down the road when the task would be almost complete. “There was no turning back once I got over that mental and physical hump,” he says. “I could have a great run and some incredible experiences or go all in once again and finish it up.” He chose the latter option and kept grinding away, knocking out rounds of 48, month after month until wrapping it up on July 7th, 2019 on Mount Moosilaukee.

Then, he decided to do something different and unprecedented: do it all over again for a 13th straight month. After completing the fastest Grid on record, Carcia headed out again for another round, hitting all 48 peaks again this past August, marking his 13th straight month of four thousand footer summit completion and 624 summits during that time. Carcia says the final month was especially trying and took a huge toll on his body. “Standing on Owl’s Head (his last peak), I knew it was over. My feet hurt, my ankles were killing me, the whole thing. It was time.”

While most hikers seeking to summit all 48 four thousand footers concentrate on the peaks themselves, Carcia focused on mileage. “People would ask me ‘how many you got so far?’ and I would tell them,” he says. “They would always think it was good or bad or whatever, but really, it was a matter of miles for me.” For example, Carcia points out that a Pemigewasset Loop is roughly 30 miles and a Presidential Traverse is around 20. “That’s 50 miles,” he says. “So even though I got a bunch of peaks done in those two hikes, I still had the majority of miles on my loop left. That’s what many people didn’t realize.”

Hiking is often characterized by beautiful vistas and breathtaking clarity from being on lofty heights and out in nature. While Carcia experienced his fair share of beauty along the way, he also underwent tremendous challenges to his mind and body. Carcia faced weather conditions which would make even the most hearty outdoor adventurers queasy, including high winds and snow on the Presidentials and hard downpours on other trails, leaving him soaked and exhausted upon returning from most outings. Heading up the northern Presidentials in the dead of winter, tree branches poking at his limbs while breaking trails a few feet at a time proved to be a daunting and exhausting task. There were moments while hiking where he hallucinated and struggled to discern what was real and what was happening in his head because of his fatigued senses. Heading out at night, hiking mile after mile to the point of delirium and returning to do it all over again at times caused to dread what he was doing. “I will say what I have said many times to many people,” he says. “I ended up loathing and loving each and every mountain I hiked at some point during this project.”

At a point in his quest, he began posting his progress on social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram as well as Strava, a move which he says gave him tremendously positive feedback and support from all kinds of people, many of whom he never met. “It was really cool to see that kind of response,” he says. “People were great. Really interested, giving me love, cheering me on. The hiking community around here is incredible.” Sharing on social media also paid off in other, more practical ways. “There were times when I headed out without any idea how I would get a connecting ride back,” he says. “When I posted that, people always came through. It was amazing.”

With the relentless pace of the Grid only weeks behind him, Carcia is just beginning to reflect on his experience and allow himself to ponder what lay ahead, both in life and on the trails. “To go out and test yourself, push beyond limits maybe you thought you had, it’s incredible. And then to break through and actually do something you have dreamed about for so long, that’s even more.” Carcia says finishing his unique Grid is the most significant feat of his hiking and adventuring life, a long term project which connected him to a special place in an extraordinary way. “This one means the most to me, it does,” he says. “It was never done before in quite this way. I got to know those mountains in so many ways during this and it only made me love this place even more.”

On his Instagram profile, Carcia has a wide angle aerial picture of Princeton, Massachusetts posted August 19th, 2018, near the very beginning of his 13 month trek. He drove through the town to get to Mount Wachusett over 100 times this past year alone, so much that he noticed a sign outside a church which read “Let all that you do, be done in love.” This, he comments in the post, best summed up his approach to the then-unrealized goal ahead and his perspective in life. So what’s next? “I have some ideas,” he says, smiling. “I can’t help it. I’ll come up with something.”

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