Students Master Mountains and Med School

Not long after Jess Calderone, ’21, and Noah Walters, ’21, started dating during their first year of medical school they discovered they had something in common. “We had each been making solo trips north to the Adirondacks and hiking to decompress from studying,” Walters said.

The two soon made a pact: they would summit all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks by the time they graduated.

To become an “Adirondack 46er,” hikers must summit all 46 of the highest mountains in New York state, located inside the Adirondack Park. These climbs, most of which exceed 4,000 feet of elevation, can be physically grueling and, because some of the mountains lack trails or markers, hikers must rely on a map and a solid understanding of back-country navigation. The nearest High Peaks trailhead from the College campus is approximately 90 minutes, but the lore of conquering all 46 points lies even closer to Albany. The formal group now known as the “Adirondack 46ers” was formed in Troy in 1936.

To enter their ranks, Calderone and Walters had to plan carefully.

“We had to consider when we would have the most free time,” Calderone said. “We did most of our hikes on the weekends, waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. to get on the road. We had to work around our exams—and, of course, the weather.”

Calderone had spent time in the Adirondacks as a volunteer at Double H Ranch, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses located outside Lake George. But after embarking on the “46er” challenge, she quickly learned that conditions in the High Peaks are not dictated by the season—or even a seemingly reliable weather forecast—on the morning of an excursion.

The pair confronted 20-below wind chills in winter, flooded valleys and treacherous trail conditions in the spring, and felled trees—one that blocked their path so absolutely they had to turn around and head home.

Still, for all the challenges the High Peaks presented, the couple found their time in the wilderness full of wonder. Walters was struck by the majestic landscapes and the colorful seasons. “The mountains put everything in perspective,” he said. “Being out in nature helped us relax. And it motivated us, too. We’d say, ‘OK, when we finish our next exam, we’ll take on Mount Marcy.’” Marcy is the highest peak in New York state.

Calderone said she found herself thinking about her role as a future physician on some of the treks. “You think about the advice you envision giving to patients—the importance of exercising and the benefits of being outside. There was a practice-what-you-preach element to it,” she said.

During med school, Calderone and Walters were elected into the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society for demonstrating the characteristics of excellent physicians, including leadership, service and scholarship. “I think we benefitted, academically, from the time outside,” Walters said. “I know I was more alert, more present, when I was here at Albany Med.”

In 2020, after covering 300 miles and 70,000 feet of vertical elevation, they became the first recorded Albany Medical College students to join the ranks of the Adirondack 46ers, joining a list of 12,255 individuals of all ages and backgrounds who, since 1918, have sought adventure and rejuvenation in the High Peaks wilderness.

The first peak they climbed together was Whiteface Mountain. On their final summit, Mount Colden, they peered out onto the sun rising over the summits of other mountains they had climbed and thought, “Wow. We’ve done it.”

Their next endeavor? Charting their course as resident physicians, following graduation.

Calderone has chosen to specialize in emergency medicine. “I want to serve at the interface of the health care system and community—treating anyone, anytime, anywhere.” The discipline is fitting for a hiker, as wilderness injuries may be severe and require a rapid response.

Walters is pursuing anesthesiology. “I was drawn to the meaningful interactions with patients who are undergoing surgery,” he said. “You are there to help them smoothly and safely navigate what is often a very impactful moment in their lives.”

The soon-to-be graduates are looking forward to pursuing these specialties in a place that will give them the best medical training. And they hope that where they land will allow for continued adventures in the great outdoors.

“Like our journey to climb the 46,” Calderone said, “we’re in it for the long haul.”