hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

February 21, 2013

Spurling -- a life of ups and downs

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — As a corporate lawyer, Dennis Spurling is building quite a case for himself, not necessarily in his chosen field.

The 67-year-old city attorney is in the process of climbing — are you ready for this — 700 of the tallest peaks in New England. He’s already scaled about half of them and talks about his conquests the way a Sir Edmund Hillary might describe his climb to the top Mount Everest. With bravado!

In some ways, Spurling is the Edmund Hillary of this region, and few would argue that.

All this while beating cancer and overcoming a heart attack that could have killed him. It was that close twice. Death came calling and he answered the Grim Reaper wisely, “See you on the mountains, if you dare.”

A visit to his office at 67 Wingate St. reveals the obvious. The art work you find on his walls is Rembrandt in his eyes. Pictures of mountains he’s conquered. They serve as a continued reminder to keep climbing.

His classic line speaks for itself: “Faith may move mountains. But it takes work to tunnel them.”

Spurling is a Haverhill native. You’ll have to excuse him for moving to Atkinson with Susan, his wife of 43 years. But their two adult children, Eric and Dan, still call Haverhill their home, along with grandson Sawyer. So he’s off the hook.

Spurling’s outside education included Northern Essex Community College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Suffolk University School of Law.

As of February, he’s been practicing law here for 40 years. He’ll tell you about the time he gave legal advice to a young man starting a food product business in Haverhill and now sells his products nationwide.

All it took was a trip to the YMCA in his late 20s. Spurling enrolled in Lucinda Wentworth’s noontime class and got addicted to exercise. He started running at Winnekenni Park and soon began hiking with the Appalachian Mountain Club.

“All these activities saved my life,” he admits. “Due to my genetic history, I have severe coronary artery disease, resulting in two major blockages.”

Four years ago, he suffered a major heart attack, ending up in the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“My cardiologist told me I survived because all my exercising had created natural bypasses around the blockages,” he said.

Having dodged that bullet, Spurling was then diagnosed with cancer, which he overcame with radiation treatments. To stay in shape, he runs three days a week and works with a personal trainer another three days. Twice a month, he’s scaling mountains, regardless of the month.

Much of it has been around Northern New England. He’s already climbed 200 of the highest peaks in New Hampshire and done more than 120 in Vermont. In Maine, he’s attempting the 200 tallest. He has 40 of them left.

Virtually all these mountains are without trails, which requires bushwhacking. He uses maps, compasses and GPS devices to find his way. The full-body workouts have gradually turned into an art form.

“The trees are very thick and there are numerous blow downs to get through,” he explains. “It’s challenging, fun and definitely an acquired taste.”

Having scaled well over 500 mountains, it’s hard for him to choose a favorite. If he did, it would be Barren Mountain in Baxter State Park, Maine. The fact it’s an all-day bushwhack to reach the summit, only heightening the desire, giving him views of Katahdin, the Klondike and the remainder of Baxter State Park.

His favorite non-New England peak is Mount Shuksan in the Cascades of Washington State, surrounded by glaciers, steep snow fields and crevasses.

“The last 600 feet is a vertical stone pillar known as ‘the Pyramid,’ which requires the climber to wear bullet-proof protection with your climbing ropes,” he says. “It’s the most challenging peak I ever climbed, including the Swiss Alps.”

He shared the adrenaline rush with his son on that climb, though his initial hike with a 12-month-old grandson was a bit tamer on the northern peak of Mount Pawtuckaway, safely ensconced in a child-carrying backpack.

“Hopefully, it was the first of many hikes with him,” says Spurling.

The day he nailed Mount Katahdin (the northern apex to the Appalachian Trail), it was in the dead of winter with a trail marked by ice and the nearest plowed road being 12 miles away.

“Attempting it in winter is serious business,” he confirms. “You must be ready to ski or snowshoe 24 miles round trip, but the effort is richly rewarded when you reach the top. No crowds. You have the whole summit to yourself. I hope to make my third trip up this March.”

There’s a method to all this madness — or fun, as Spurling calls it.

“It puts me close to a spiritual experience,” he admits. “I get away from the noise, chaos and clutter of modern day life. The quiet and solitude are priceless.”

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.