This article is reprinted with the permission of AMC Outdoors, and appeared in their October 2002 issue.
In August, just before press time, a hiker who goes by the name of "Cave Dog" completed a stunning feat: thanks to a small support team and the ability to function on very little sleep, he climbed all 48 of New Hampshire's 4,000-footers in three days, 17 hours and 21 minutes.
Ted Keizer's scramble sparked discussion among AMC members about his endurance, his motivation, the "sport" of peakbagging, and the pleasures of the mountains. It also sparked, for some, the memory of a duo whose own 4,000 footer speed record had stood until that moment. In August 1973, teenage bothers George and Tom Fitch of Concord, Mass., hiked the list—then 46 peaks—in six days, 15 hours and 30 minutes. It was an unofficial record that would stand for almost 30 years.
As long as there's been a list of 4,000 footers, people have attempted to climb them in unusual ways: in every season, or from every angle, or full speed ahead. The Fitch brothers had completed the list the "regular" way as summer campers at a YMCA in Boxford, Mass. But they wanted to turn things up a notch.
At 17, George "did most of the planning," remembers Tom, who was 15. The plan was to borrow their parents' red Plymouth station wagon, which would serve as both shuttle and shelter, and stick to a carefully mapped record-setting route. "We didn't know if there was a former record," George recalls. "For all we knew, maybe it had been done in five days."
The ambitious hikers' foodstuffs included water, oatmeal, crackers and Cheez Whiz, Dinty Moore beef stew, pudding, and pink lemonade. "To this day, I have no idea what electrolyte power drinks are," admits George.
Each day, they would drive to their exit point, stash a bicycle in the bushes, and drive back to the start. Then they'd hit the trail with Army packs carrying food, water, headlamps, sweatshirts and raincoats. They wore shorts, cotton T-shirts and hiking boots. And over the next week they hiked 190 miles—an average of 27 a day.
"The first day,"—a 19.5 miler—"we finished at 4:30 in the afternoon, so we went swimming and played pinball in town," George reports. "I always thought we could've done it in a shorter time if we'd pushed, but we stuck with our plan."
As the oldest, it was George's task to retrieve the car when they emerged from the woods.He'd hop on the bicycle, convince his aching legs to pedal a few miles back to the wagon, then return, rarely finding his brother awake. "As soon as we got off the mountain, I'd fall asleep," Tom laughs. "On a rock, in a flowerbed, anywhere." But on one occasion, he got a dose of energy: George returned to find a gleeful Tom reporting that that another group of hikers had unloaded their stash of chocolate on him. "Great!" George exclaimed. "Where's my half?" Oops.
Forgetting to share was not the only challenge: Tom twisted his ankle on the first day, but continued to hike; toward the end of the week, they got lost "for an hour or two" while attempting a stream crossing on a descent of Mount Willey at 11:30 p.m. But overall, the boys were remarkably lucky, with no bad weather and no major injuries.
They finished in triumph on Mount Madison, at 9:30 p.m. "The stars were out, with the peaks around us like islands in a sea of moonlit clouds," recalls Tom. "It was surreal."
After spending the night at Madison Spring Hut and returning to school two days later, the Fitch brothers wrote to inform AMC of their accomplishment. "It seems definite that you and your brother are the new record-holders, having broken the previous record by at least three days," replied Richard Stevens, then the chair of the 4,000 Footer Committee. However, the committee did not—and still does not—formally recognize such records. "I'm impressed with what they did, but we don't note how fast you [complete the list]," says Gene Daniell, the current chair of the committee. "Someone who takes 50 years has just as valid an experience." The Fitches' names went down in peakbagging lore, however; when Cave Dog was preparing his own marathon, he tracked down George Fitch for advice.
Today, the elder Fitch is a computer programmer at an MIT defense research lab; the younger is a database programmer in California. Both still hike—they tackled California's Mount Whitney together in the mid-1990s— but they've left their record-setting days behind.
Added by Webmaster: I recently received an email from George Fitch. He defends their decision to stop the clock when they reached the last summit (rather than descend immediately and stop the clock at the bottom of the mountain). I am much more interested in the second paragraph which, to my mind, confirms the Tom Sawyer (or Huck Finn, the reader can choose) aspects of this adventure.
If it is of any historical value, all I can say is that when Tom and I stopped our clock at Madison it was for several reasons. We were really shooting for 7 days, not worrying about hours and minutes. We definitely didn't do everything in the most efficient way possible. It was Cave Dog who pointed out to me that we actually did it in less than 7 days, we just hadn't thought of it that way. We always thought the top was the place to stop and celebrate. It was an absolutely beautiful evening to stay on the summit and not rush down. We had never stayed in a hut before, while doing lots of camping with a YMCA camp we had always stayed in the three sided shelters, and when they were full we had "tent-halves". Most people would laugh at these. They were army surplus pup tents that had no floor, zippers, or mosquito netting. Each camper carried one half and you and a partner buttoned or snapped the two halves together right along the ridgeline. Really!
So we thought it would be a treat to stay in a hut. We didn't have a dime between us but the hut croo let us stay and they sent our parents the bill. We could have walked down the Valley Way trail to the road before midnight, but then we would have been at the road near midnight with minimal clothing, and our car was still a long dark road back in Crawford Notch. So we just stayed at the hut and walked down the next morning.
—Katharine Wroth is senior editor of AMC Outdoors.