Garry Harrington has climbed all but one of the continental United States’ highest peaks. But ask the Vermonter what motivates him to aim for the last — Denali in Alaska — and he’ll talk about life’s lows.
When the 1978 Bellows Falls Union High School graduate went to Saint Michael’s College in Colchester nearly 40 years ago, he could see Mount Mansfield, the state’s tallest summit, from his dorm window. But after hiking it often, Harrington set out with his diploma on a different path.
“My life changed in record time,” he recalls of the whirlwind year he married, fathered the first of three children and began work as a sportswriter for the Brattleboro Reformer.
The next two decades — leading to such unseen valleys as divorce, job loss and depression — would be more of a slog. By Jan. 1, 2000, Harrington no longer recognized himself.
“Who’s that fat guy?” he remarked of one family photo of an overweight man.
Then he remembered.
“My God, I look like the Michelin Man,” he recalls thinking. “What had happened to me? By sheer coincidence, the first day of the new millennium was the day my life changed forever.”
Harrington shares the rest of the story in a new memoir, “Chasing Summits: In Pursuit of High Places and an Unconventional Life.” The 320-page Appalachian Mountain Club paperback chronicles how he shed not only 40 pounds but also his house, job and most of his possessions in search of something more.
“I said, ‘Why am I slaving away when my life is flashing by?’” the author recalls. “A lot of my friends tell me I’m living the dream, and I tell them, ‘You can, too.’”
Harrington started in 2000 by climbing New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock (“recognized by many as the most-climbed mountain in the United States”) after a local man called to claim he had hiked it 2,850 consecutive days. Wanting to confirm that, the sportswriter, about to turn 40, scurried up 1,800 feet of rocky granite slabs to what Henry David Thoreau once called a “temple.”
“Out of breath on the mountain’s open, barren summit,” Harrington writes in his book, “I could see snowcapped Mount Washington — the highest peak in the Northeast — far to the north, as well as the entire Boston skyline silhouetted against the eastern horizon.”
Summiting Monadnock some 60 times in 2000, Harrington moved on to loftier heights. Having climbed New England’s 100 tallest peaks, he is one of about 500 people who have stood atop the highest points in each of the “lower 48” United States, one of 15 who have conquered all of its nearly 100 14,000-foot mountains and one of three who can claim both national achievements.
Leaving his journalism job in 2004, Harrington now hikes and runs 100-mile ultramarathons when he’s not making food or gas money promoting adventure films (take his recent 104-stop tour for the award-winning documentary “Run Free”) or delivering holiday packages for the United Parcel Service.
“I’m living in my van full-time, and every night it’s parked somewhere different,” he says. “People say, ‘Sorry to hear things are so bad.’”
Free to travel most anywhere most anytime, Harrington replies that life is good. Although he has yet to climb every mountain, he has summited Guatemala’s 11,598-foot Volcán Atitlán volcano and Switzerland’s 14,692-foot snow-capped Matterhorn.
“Everyone says, ‘Have you climbed Everest yet?’”
The world’s highest mountain — whose 29,029 feet are dwarfed by hiking costs of $30,000 or more — is one of the few that doesn’t interest him. He’d rather talk up his memoir (and is set to do so Friday at 6 p.m. at Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro) before thinking how he’ll conquer Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s highest peak.
Concludes Harrington: “There’s always a new mountain to climb.”