Having grown up in New Hampshire, I’ve spent my life playing in the mountains—from bushwhacking on hot summer days to backpacking in the dead of winter. Every adventure has been uniquely memorable, but earlier this summer I completed a hike that was especially meaningful to me.
The Presidential Traverse is one of the toughest day hikes in the White Mountains. Summiting nine peaks named after political leaders past, a traverser can expect 23 miles of rugged terrain, steep slopes, and breathtaking views. This summer, my boyfriend and I decided to finally tackle this hike. When we set off from the trailhead under the 6am sun, I had no idea this last adventure in the White Mountains would also help prepare me for my next big journey through medical school.
Mount Madison (5,367’) and Mount Adams (5,774’) - Growing Pains
I was feeling energized and optimistic as we approached Madison. Then about two miles in I started to feel it. My pack suddenly seemed ten pounds heavier. My shoes felt uncomfortable. I started breathing more heavily. “How could I be this tired already?” The reality was that it had been several months since I’d hiked such a challenging mountain. Even though I’d done this dozens of times before, I was out of practice.
I have a feeling the first couple months of medical school will come with similar growing pains. Two years out from undergrad, I’m definitely out of practice. Things will feel a little awkward and overwhelming, but I will just need to remind myself that I’ve done this before. I know how to study and what strategies best promote my learning. I’ve summited many other mountains before getting to this point, from Organic Chemistry to the MCAT. I just need to be confident in my abilities. It was this attitude that helped me shed my doubts as I climbed up Madison and Adams, and it will help me push through the first few months at Vanderbilt.
Mount Jefferson (5,712’) - Unexpected Challenges
With two of the tougher mountains under our belts, I felt confident about the next stretch. Having climbed Jefferson before, I knew we would have a few flat stretches, taking some strain off of our thighs and hamstrings—“Jefferson will be a breeze.” Once again, I hit a wall. The last couple miles were much steeper than I remembered…My legs immediately started burning—a fire I kept fueling with every step I took. Our pace dropped.
Unexpected challenges like these will come up all the time in med school. “I’ve studied metabolism so many times, I can do this in my sleep…Brain anatomy? Child’s play.” It’s great to approach classes with some confidence—it’s true, I’ve already spent a lot of time studying the human body. However, med school is a whole new ballgame. The breadth and depth of my knowledge will be pushed. Topics that I thought I knew well will be made hard again, and it might throw me for a loop. However, during those times it’s important to remember the work I’ve put in—the many miles I’ve already hiked—and how that will serve as a foundation to build on. With every step, no matter how small or slow, I will continue to progress. I make it to the top of Jefferson and take a deep breath of relief. I shake out my aching muscles, sit down for some lunch, and enjoy the beautiful view of Washington towering in the distance.
Mount Washington (6,288’) - Stepping It Up
Mt. Washington, the highest point in the Northeast, marks a crucial point of the hike. Once this 3.1-mile stretch is complete, the most rugged part of the traverse is over. As we left the peak of Jefferson, I was motivated to make up the time we’d lost. Surprisingly, about thirty minutes in I could tell David wasn’t feeling great. I didn’t expect this since he’d been so strong over the first stretch. It was my time to step up and help push our team up this mountain.
I am so excited to learn alongside my brilliant, well-rounded, and passionate classmates, however, I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I’m also a bit intimidated by them. There inevitably will be moments when I feel like the dullest person in the room because a topic just isn’t clicking, but this feeling won’t be unique to me. The beauty of having such a diverse class is that each individual has different strengths and weaknesses, and we will each have opportunities to step up as leaders when others need help. We will all be teammates on this journey. I pushed the pace up Mt. Washington, frequently checking in with David and providing positive encouragement. By stepping up as a leader, I got my team to the summit.
Mount Monroe (5,384’), Mount Franklin (5001’), Mount Eisenhower (4,780’) - Finding My Groove
Having made up some time ascending Washington, we were ready to crush the last 11.2 miles. We unexpectedly ran into some friends who were also traversing, and combined squads for the next few mountains. Perhaps it was the new energy from additional teammates or the fact that the toughest section was behind us, but we found ourselves cruising over the next few mountains—“peak-bagging” as it’s called. Our spirits were high and our legs were springy.
It seems like eventually each student reaches a turning point in med school. The growing pains are over. You’ve developed meaningful relationships with your professors and peers. You feel more confident in your clinical skills. You’ve found your groove. I’m excited for this chapter, where I’m rotating through clerkships and electives, figuring out which specialties inspire me, and really starting to feel like a doctor. Of course, challenges will still arise and I will still have much to learn, but I’ll feel more confident and secure in my abilities. Back on the mountain ridge, we all floated along the horizon, enjoying the views and bagging peaks.
Mount Pierce (4,310’) - Subtle Successes
After Monroe, David and I separated from the group. Our legs still felt strong so we pushed it up Pierce, one of the smaller Presidentials that is entirely cloaked in evergreens. We were going so fast we zoomed through the summit and didn’t realize until we were well past the peak.
When I’m happily settled into my med school groove, hitting milestones might not seem quite as momentous. The excitement of dissecting my first human organ or performing my first physical exam will understandably fade. My achievements may be more subtle, such as finally nailing my patient history or not having to look up the contraindications of Metformin. I will have these subtle successes on a daily basis, and although I may not receive any recognition for them, they are still worth quietly celebrating. David and I looked at each other and started laughing. We did a little jig to celebrate peak number eight and pushed onwards.
Mount Jackson (4052’) - The Final Stretch
It was finally here, the last mountain. At this point we were running on fumes. We trudged up Jackson and at the top were rewarded for our efforts with a pleasant breeze from the east. However, we still had a final challenge: descending. Our achy knees combined with rocky terrain made the last two miles of our hike quite painful, but the quickly setting sun and our desperate desire for even ground motivated us to push on. Stepping onto the road we probably looked like fawns taking our first steps. It was one of the few times I’ve felt true euphoria. For a few minutes I forgot about my aching body and let myself bask in the glory of our success. I gave David, the best teammate I could ever ask for, a giant hug.
These last few miles seem analogous to the final big challenge of medical school: residency applications. Once again, it’s time to tout my achievements and convince others of my brilliance—which everyone knows is a much harder task than expected. However, I get through it with the support of my peers and the guidance of my professors. Months of hard work will culminate in one very special event, Match Day. It will be yet another euphoric moment. Up on that stage I will look out at all the people who were pivotal to my success. My Medical School Traverse, with all its peaks and valleys, will be complete. Then it’s on to the next adventure.