Retired teacher embraces life of outdoor adventures

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POLAND — With last Friday’s hike to the summit of Isolation Mountain in New Hampshire behind her, Madelyn Given has completed all of New England’s 4,000-foot mountains.

Accompanied only by her friend and fellow hiker, Kevin Plummer, the 74-year-old Given spared no time in reaching her goal. In the past year alone, Given has hiked 18 of the 67 peaks.

Often contending with extreme heat and cold, Given finished multiple hikes in the space of two days, or during the same trip, a practice known as “peak-bagging.”

As a stand-alone feat, becoming a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Four Thousand Footer Club is something that many people will never accomplish, but Given, a retired elementary school teacher, mother and grandmother, is no rookie hiker. From running a marathon in Antarctica, to conquering the Appalachian Trail, Given has a diverse resume of outdoor adventures on every continent in the world and has the photos, stories and blog entries to prove it.

Among her considerable adventures, Given fondly remembered her journey across the Silk Road through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, her visit to the volcanoes of El Salvador, and her boat journey through jungles of Panama to see the reclusive Embera Tribe. In a small room in her Poland home, Given keeps an archive of her accomplishments hanging on the walls and tucked into bookcases alongside her workout and training equipment.

Though her outdoor undertakings are remarkable, the title of her 2013 memoir “Outstanding Feats by an Ordinary Woman” encapsulates Given’s attitude toward her successes. Asked about her “outstanding feats,” she insisted she is an average woman who made the decision to make her life exceptional.

Often met with the a mild disbelief at her unusual experiences, Given is quick to say that she had a late start in finding her passion for the outdoors. Her experiences with hiking began as a child at summer camp but didn’t resume until she neared the end of her teaching career and her children had left home for college.

The majority of her adulthood was spent working, raising her children and getting her master’s degree in teaching. All of which, Given said, was deeply rewarding.

“I loved every day of it,” she said.

An active community volunteer and an award-winning educator, Given cited a trip with her mother as the catalyst for her interest in outdoor adventures.

Shortly after her children left for college, Given took her recently widowed mother on a vacation to the North Pole. It was an unusually daring adventure for the two, who had visited Europe and the United States extensively.

Visiting the tundras of Siberia and the permanent ice cap of the North Pole struck Given differently. While the icy temperatures and stark landscapes may not sound appealing to everyone, Given described the experience as life-changing and eye-opening, truly the moment that she recognized the experiences that waited far away from Poland, Maine. “Out there, there really were some exciting adventures, and I could go out there and take them in.”

After the trip to the North Pole, Given returned home to Maine permanently altered by a sudden interest in outdoorsmanship. Never one to take baby steps and enlivened by her sudden interest, Given began planning a trip to hike Mount Kilimanjaro.

“When I do things, I do like to go all the way. I am not the kind of person to start small,” she said.

With the help of friends and connections, Given orchestrated her trip to Tanzania, the story of which is outlined in her book. It would mark the first time that Given had traveled without friends or family present, accompanied only by local guides. The trip was exhilarating, and it prompted one goal after another.

After the hike up Kilimanjaro, Given decided to do a marathon. And what better place for a marathon than Antarctica?

With the assistance of professional trainers, Given crossed the finish line of the Antarctic Ice Marathon. It would be the first marathon of many which would take place on every continent. But she insists that the process of her increasing interest in extreme sports was slow and unplanned. “One step at a time, I’m not boasting, that’s just how it happened.”

More than 13,000 people have completed the 4,000-foot mountains of New England. The Four Thousand Footer Club, which includes human and canine hikers, was founded in March of 1957 by outdoorsman Walter “Gus” Merrill.

The club was modeled after a similar group for accomplished hikers called the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Club, which provided a community for adventurers who had reached the peak of all of the 4000-foot mountains in the Adirondacks.

Given’s endeavor to hike the peaks, which began in July 2009, was not only challenged by many instances of less than favorable weather, but also by her own condition: vertigo.

Given cited her discomfort with heights as proof.

“There were times when I would be scooching down a steep, narrow set of stairs on my behind because of it [vertigo], but it was just something I had to work through,” Given said with resolve.

She keeps carefully cataloged trail notes, giving each outing perspective on the day. Written beside the dates and locations of her climbs are detailed notes on the trail quality and weather, with captions such as “difficult, wet rock hopping” or “hot day, no blazes.”

One of the more strenuous hikes Given mentions was her trek up Owls Head Mountain in July this year. It was a peak-bagging expedition where Given climbed Mount Flume in New Hampshire solo, followed by a journey to the summit of Owls Head accompanied by her daughter and granddaughters.

Given mentioned a night spent camping on Mount Flume in a tent site on a precipice steep enough to make most stomachs turn. “I just had to make sure that I didn’t get up and leave the tent in the middle of the night because it would be dark, of course,” Given said.

As she worked her way through all 67 climbs on her list, she said she grew increasingly concerned that she wouldn’t reach her goal. Indeed, with only three more peaks to finish, Given’s friend and hiking partner, Plummer, fell sick, a fear that Given had had as they narrowed in on her goal.

“I was so worried that I wouldn’t get there, that I wouldn’t be able to finish those last peaks.” But the hiking resumed after Plummer’s rebound and they powered through the final hikes.

Asked what drives her, Given said simply, “I like hiking.”

“It’s good for the soul, good for the mind. It’s strenuous when you’re doing it, but the next day, you think wow, that was really special. There was a lot of investment in it too, time traveling and other things like that, so it has to mean quite a bit.”

Given’s unconventional retirement has required intense effort to maintain a balance with both her family life and her hiking goals, but she said she feels present in both realms of her life.

“I’m very fortunate,” Given said, seated in the small office room of her own home, “to be able to do this, to live like this.”

Referencing her time spent as a teacher, Given said she intends only to spread inspiration with her unusual story and accomplishments.

“I hope that someone, maybe a former student or someone like that, will hear about me and think, well! This is a normal woman, if she can do this, so can I.”

Madelyn Given, 74, of Poland recently completed all 67 of New England’s 4,000-foot peaks, making her a new member of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Four Thousand Footer Club. She stands at the base of the Carrigan Notch Trail in the White Mountain National Forest as she prepares to hike Mt. Carrigan, a 4,700-foot mountain in Livermore, New Hampshire. (Submitted photo)

Madelyn Given, 74, of Poland is officially a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Four Thousand Footer Club after completing climbs on all 67 of the 4,000-foot mountains in New England. Here, she stands on Bondcliff in Lincoln, New Hampshire, which is part of the Mount Bond and West Bond peaks, all of which are part of New Hamphire’s cluster of 4,000-footers. (Submitted photo)

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