By Pam Harnden, Livermore Falls Advertiser
REGION — On Oct. 7 Barry Matulaitis became the first known Mainer to complete the 770, a list of North East peaks with 3,000 foot elevations.
Mountains qualifying for the 770 must be at least 3,000 feet in elevation and have a difference of at least 200 feet from that elevation and the saddle of the next peak (have at least 200 feet of prominence).
Matulaitis, editor of The Franklin Journal and Livermore Falls Advertiser, grew up on his parents’ 100 acres in a remote part of Phillips. He’s always been interested in exploring and moving through the woods.
“My parents gave me the latitude to go out on my own. I would try to get myself to a point where I’d have a difficult time getting back home. I liked exploring the trees, plants and animals,” he said.
Matulaitis fished and hunted with his dad, Ben. The first mountain he hiked with his dad was Mt. Battie in Camden, Maine.
“The weather wasn’t great, but come hell or high water I was determined to get to the top. It was fogged in when we reached the summit, but it still intrigued me,” he said.
The first mountain attempted with his mom, Pat Matulaitis, was Old Blue (north of Andover) when he was 9.
“My husband wanted to fish while on a camping trip. I asked Barry if he wanted to hike a mountain. It was so foggy we didn’t finish. We had no food, no water, nothing. That’s where it all started,” she said.
The first 3,000 foot mountain Matulaitis climbed was The Owl in Baxter State Park on July 24, 1990.
“I was on a camping trip with Camp Mechuwana, a church camp,” he said.
After that first 3,000 climb, he said he pestered his parents to take him on other hiking trips. They obliged, climbing a variety of peaks in western Maine. Most were climbed with his mom as his dad wasn’t a hiker.
While attending Mt. Abram High School, Class of 1996, Matulaitis ran cross country and track. He was involved with other activities, too, and took a hiatus from hiking.
He ran cross country his junior and senior years at Lyndon State College in Vermont.
“I discovered there were better runners. At Mt. Abram I was a big fish in a small pond. I wasn’t improving. I got frustrated and burned out. I needed an outlet for all my energy,” he said.
During his senior year he took a study break and wandered among the book stacks in the library. Seeing a book put out by the Appalachian Mountain Club about trails in New Hampshire, he took it back to his desk. In the back was a list of New England’s 100 highest peaks.
“I thought it was intriguing and set out to do the New England 100 highest. I never set out to do the 770, but one list built on another,” he said.
A central part of Matulaitis’ story is the friendship he developed with some men from Quebec, Canada.
In 2002 while working for The Irregular, a Kingfield newspaper, he had a dream that he became friends with people from another country. On July 3, 2002, he had covered an assignment in Rangeley and was trying to decide whether or not to hike East Kennebago.
The hike would require bushwhacking and there were limited hours of daylight available. He decided to go for it and drove in on an access road. He parked when the road got too rough to drive further.
“I walked in, passed a couple of cars with Quebec license plates. I came across a couple of guys on mountain bikes speaking French. Karl Sanfacon approached me and started a conversation. He said they were planning to ride their bikes as far as they could and then bushwhack. He asked if I was doing the 100 highest, then we each went on our way,” he said.
Matulaitis said he got a business card from Karl who was part of KEDS backpacking team. Karl Sanfacon, Etienne Lapierre, Danny Sanfacon (Karl’s brother) and Sylvain Gregoire made up the team named with the initials of their first names.
“A couple of weeks later Karl, Danny and I did a hike together. We’ve been friends ever since,” he said.
Karl said in an email, “I was kind of surprised but happy that Barry contacted us. Curiously I had told my brother it could be nice to have a friend from the United States because we love to hike in that nice country. We hiked White Cap and North Kennebago Divide, two summits on the New England 100 list. It was a great day.”
With his new friends’ assistance, Matulaitis continued to work on the 100 highest. Occasionally they’d do hikes together.
“I finished the 100 highest on Sept. 18, 2004. Karl, Danny, two of their friends and my mom were there,” he said.
(Barry Matulaitis photo)
Karl said, “We were proud of his accomplishment. We were very happy to be there. It was such a great memory, especially because in 2004, me, my brother Danny and a few other friends also finished the New England 100, on different dates. Barry was there for us, too.”
The following year Matulaitis had planned a through hike from Maine to Georgia of the Appalachian Trail. He had to drop out after a couple of days because of foot problems.
“I was looking for something else for a long term goal, something that would take a number of years to achieve. I heard of the crazy list known as the 770 and said I would tackle that,” he said.
Matulaitis told his friends about it in 2005. They were enthusiastic and told him to go for it.
Karl said, “It was a big project but we knew he was the type of person to do that.”
Karl said it was difficult to know how many hikes they made together as they were working on different peak lists. He estimates that they were together for 50 hikes in summer and winter.
Matulaitis said a lot of the peaks required extremely long driving trips. The New York trips were the longest. To get to the Adirondacks took 6 or 7 hours one way while the Catskills needed 7 or more hours, depending on traffic. He slept in his car to save money.
“That was the part I liked the least. Doing all that driving, dealing with the traffic, the additional car maintenance needed wore on me,” he said.
Between the 770, work and other things, Matulaitis has put more than 30,000 miles on his car annually.
He gradually made progress on the list over the years even while his work responsibilities increased. He became editor of the Livermore Falls Advertiser, then took over as editor of The Franklin Journal before being named editor for both newspapers.
“I didn’t get to hike as much per year, but I kept chipping away at the list,” he said. “It all came down to the wire for me. I wanted to complete the 770 before my 40th birthday.”
Matulaitis planned to finish New York’s 3,000 foot peaks on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Originally, he planned to hike Lost Pond Peak, Wallface Mountain and Wallface Pond Peak Saturday and Vanderwhacker Mountain Sunday.
It rained Saturday morning, so he waited it out a bit. He took a wrong turn on Wallface and had to backtrack. He planned to do a traverse at the base of the enormous cliff, but it was very wet and slippery and steeper than anticipated.
“I wasn’t making good progress so I decided to turn back and do Vanderwhacker instead and do the others on Sunday. I did that a lot since I often hiked alone,” he said.
He called his mom from the summit of Vanderwhacker to share his change of plans.
“I could tell she was concerned about my plans for the next day. I resolved to hike as safely and as intelligently as I could,” he said.
Matulaitis started out at 5 a.m. from Heart Lake in Lake Placid. The parking lot was full. He had to park three-quarters of a mile away, not a very auspicious way to begin.
After hiking along a section of trail, he bushwhacked towards Lost Pond. A number of blow downs and dense evergreens made for slow going. He reached the peak and made his way slowly back to the trail. Wallface Pond Peak was nearby, a much shorter and easier bushwhack.
“Still, it was getting later. I was concerned about timing,” he said. “I determined to go up Wallface Mountain as quickly as I could.”
The hike wasn’t as easy as he had hoped. He had to go around small cliffs and there was rough terrain and objects to step over. He got partway up at 3:15 p.m. and had to decide whether to go on or turn back.
“I knew I’d be taking a chance. I absolutely wanted to finish and pushed on as hard as I could. I reached the summit by 4 p.m.,” he said.
Trees had been cleared at the summit, which he wasn’t expecting. He was so focused on his climb that he forgot that he had read about a search and rescue that had taken place a few weeks ago.
“They found a hiker’s body a half mile from his campsite. They weren’t sure of the cause of death.
“I was very relieved and happy to reach the summit. I took a way down where the rescuers had marked trees with orange tape. I got back to my car after dark, called my mom then made my way home. It was 2:30 a.m. when I arrived, slept for two hours and then put in a full day at work. I don’t care to repeat that,” he said.
In contrast, this past weekend was very relaxing.
On Saturday, Oct. 7, he reached the peak of Kearsarge North Mountain near North Conway, New Hampshire. His mom and Canadian friends Edith Brotherton, Martin Bouchard, Karl and his girlfriend Caroline Parent and Danny and his girlfriend Suzie Bélanger were there to celebrate with him.
“It was an emotional day for me. My mom has been by my side supporting me through all of this. I was in tears when I reached the summit. I couldn’t believe it was over, that I had achieved the dream I had worked for for so many years,” he said.
Pat said, “I was greatly pleased when he completed the 770. He asked me at least 10 years ago if I would go with him on the last hike. I was with him when he hiked Mount Marcy 10 years ago, the last peak in the Adirondacks, and when he finished the New England 100 highest.”
Karl said, “We were extremely proud of him and proud to be best friends with him. It was very emotional for us all, all those years to work on that project!”
After lunch at the fire tower at the summit, everyone went outside. Barry had a bottle of champagne and the cork flew 50 feet away, Pat said.
“We had a big campfire with a little ceremony where Barry burned his hat that he wore on practically every bushwhack. I did a little speech too about his accomplishment,” Karl said.
“Even though we live about 250 miles away, and aren’t bilingual, we share the same passion for the mountains and that creates a very good friendship and memories. It’s also always very interesting when Barry comes to Quebec to hike smaller mountains with us or just have a good time with the rest of the KEDS Team. We are friends forever for sure,” Karl said.
(Pat Matulaitis photo)
Pat said she had to have trust when her son was hiking alone. He seemed able to handle the circumstances and faithfully phoned when he got back.
“I knew it was pointless to worry. I’m religious, had faith and trust that he would be all right. You need to give your children encouragement, let them go out on their own,” she said.
Pat did admit that she would get antsy if Barry hadn’t called by 8:30, especially after reading about Aron Ralston. Another lone hiker, he got trapped while hiking in Utah and basically had to amputate his hand himself to get free.
“I would encourage people to stay fit, get their children outdoors. I’ve met people on the trails and kids are really excited to be hiking. It can be a challenge,” she said.
Matulaitis said, “I lived up to my promise to finish the 770 before my 40th birthday which is Dec. 22. Also, the number 7 holds real significance for me. I completed my 770 on October 7, 2017. I was born in 1977 and my mom is 77 years old. What a coincidence!”
Matulaitis has already set new goals. He anticipates completing New Hampshire’s 200 highest peaks by the end of this year. He wants to hike the New England 100 highest in the winter time for which there is a special recognition.
“It will take me at least two winters to do,” he said.
Next February he has a hike planned on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Matulaitis also wants to climb each state’s highest peak. He has done 35 so far and expects it to take some years to complete. Some are out west and are difficult climbs, he said.
“As far as I can confirm, I’m the 10th person to complete the 770 list. I believe I’m the first person ever from Maine,” he said.
Looking back, he said he is proudest of the mountains he climbed alone using only a map and a compass. He believes using GPS puts a barrier between himself and nature.
“If it worked in the past, it can work for me,” he said.
Matulaitis is grateful to his late father, Ben, for teaching him compass skills that he then honed over time.
(Pat Matulaitis photo)
He takes great pride in having met his goal while maintaining a full time job. Some who completed the 770 were retired or quit their jobs for a while, he said.
Matulaitis said he had to be aware of his surroundings at all times, being especially cautious in the fall during moose rutting season. The only time he felt threatened was when he came across a pine marten rather suddenly. It growled and he backed away slowly so as not to infringe on its territory.
He saw two bears while hiking, but both ran away quickly. Seeing an enormous barred owl illuminated by his head lamp, while hiking in the Adirondacks, was extra special.
Matulaitis never had a serious injury while hiking, although twice he had to hike through lesser injuries. While climbing Mullen Mountain in Baxter State Park, he stepped incorrectly and badly pulled a muscle in the back of his leg. He said he limped for the rest of the hike which caused him to lose about two hours.
“There were times when I was afraid. Being alone out there, the mind can wander. I was always concerned about getting out of the woods before dark. Once I had to bushwhack at night,” he said.
Matulaitis practiced the theory of redundancy. He always took along extra supplies, prepared well beforehand, made lists of what he would need and studied the trail. If needed, he would ask questions of fellow hikers.
Matulaitis thanks his mom and late father for nourishing the love for the environment he has to this day. He followed their practice of low impact hiking.
(Barry Matulaitis photo)
“They were always supportive. Although my mom worried, she was gratified that I was partaking in a healthy activity that was getting me out to see places, more of the country,” he said. “Her boyfriend, Bill Linney, is very supportive and enthusiastic about my hiking.”
He thanks his friends from Quebec for their help, advice and guidance.
“I learned a lot about the equipment needed, especially for winter hiking. Our friendship is as strong today as it was when I met them on that fateful day on East Kennebago,” he said.
Matulaitis also thanks the people who maintain the trails. In 2001 he did a summer of trail maintenance through the Maine Conservation Corps. Without the folks who maintain the trails and the landowners who allow access, fewer hikes would be possible.
He thanks the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 4,000-Footer Committee which maintains the lists of peaks and has inspired generations of peakbaggers to give back to the trails.
Finally, Matulaitis thanks the people before him who completed the 770.
“Those folks inspired me to continue putting one foot in front of the other,” he said. “The first two finishers in 1997 didn’t have the maps and internet sites available today. They had to order maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, which was expensive, or go to the library.”
Matulaitis said he drove six different vehicles while completing the 770. He estimated that, including his vehicle purchases, it cost him about $75,000.
In sharing information about his accomplishment he said, “I’m breaking with a tradition of not talking about hiking feats to show a different side of me. It’s a way to express the joy hiking has given me. It’s been a way to cope with deaths in my family and pressures at work. I want to make a difference in my community.”