by Randy Pierce
Red-gold lightning bolts striking Mount Garfield, 40+ mph wind gusts atop the Franconia Ridge, and a hiking trail straight up a rushing waterfall could have made a great story of this five-day traverse around a portion of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. There is a power and a sort of magic within these mountainous woods, but the true power and purpose was found in the people and a marvelous pup!
Team 2020 joined forces with the University of New Hampshire’s Outdoor Education program for a leadership experience that provided all of us with plenty of lessons, and some incredible experiences. We all knew much less of each other before this excursion began, yet would need to depend on the knowledge, skills, and efforts of the entire group to achieve success. A young student in our Pre-hike with the Preschool Presentation asked, “Why do you climb the mountains?” I explained that there are many reasons, from the beauty and serenity of nature’s sounds, smells, and touches, to the personal challenges of the trails and terrain. Ultimately, the greatest reason is the powerful bond built by a team in undertaking experiences together. This trip delivered precisely that goal, as I think the experience changed us all in various ways.
Each hike is a once-ever experience of people and nature brought together for a common purpose, and in the process, the growth of the team and the individuals combine with the experience to bring about true treasures. We had our reasons for trepidation, as the forecast suggested a week of entirely rainy days. A similar trip last year was filled with excessive challenges that altered the plan significantly. Time and travel constraints prevented me from spending any appreciable time with the group in advance, so I could begin the bonds of understanding, trust, and friendship. Yet as we began Monday’s short journey along the Gale River Trail, heavy packs, and nervous anticipation began to blossom into laughter, songs, and the conversational explorations, that unite a group. Searching for the perfect bivvy site and building our first overnight camp launched teamwork through tarp hanging, water collecting, cooking, bear bagging, and team activities to help with leadership. The rain held off and only a small burst at 4 a.m. teased us, though the tarps kept us dry. By Tuesday morning, we put two stream crossings behind us and steeply climbed to Galehead Hut, leaving all insects behind! All had the chance to observe and appreciate Quinn’s work and as we neared the hut, we switched to students guiding me, for experience and efficiency. Packs came off at the hut and we soon took our first 4K summit – Galehead. The overlook just before the summit was captivating, and it made up for the tiny summit that barely contained Quinn’s tug of war session or the first feeling of group accomplishment.
Wednesday was again glorious weather. We managed some hard miles by various students sharing the challenge and experience of guiding me. Each change brought new communication styles as we built common language and understanding, while undertaking diverse and intense terrain. Most intense of all was the final mile, which included hands to the ground scrambling up a waterfall! As such, a wet but elated group reached the Garfield tent platforms with time enough to set gear out to dry in the sun and celebrate. The AMC-hired helicopter was actively dropping supplies all over the Whites, including our platform and Galehead Hut, which made for some fun sights. Now the team was coming together and dinner was followed by an impromptu talent show, which we shared with some fellow hikers met at the site. Our conversations deepened as we talked late into the night. It was a clear night with a cold and biting wind, which even drove Quinn into his sleeping bag beneath the open bivvy tarps. Our longest day lay ahead, and our most efficient morning allowed a necessary early start to get us up the hard scrambles to Garfield’s summit amidst the steady 40+ mph winds. Still more planned student guiding ensured that most had the experience with me and I with them. We paused only a short time to celebrate our second summit because the deep saddle into Lafayette awaited us.
A long and dangerous descent seemed to last forever before the rise of Lafayette began. We thought we might never reach tree line and the famed Skookumchuc Trail. The theme of the day was endurance and support, and appropriately so. Finally, we achieved the Franconia Ridge, and each false summit allowed the powerful winds from the south to punish us. The wind would buffet us all and challenge our balance while making hearing impossible. However, the splendor of this ridge and the long line of the mountain spine are unparalleled. We took Lafayette late into the afternoon and knew we would forego the Lincoln spur for sake of time and energy. We achieved three summits, more than any other single Team 2020 hike. Most powerful of all was the growth of this group in our experience. We closed the day with a trip to Greenleaf Hut to celebrate and finally feel the signs of the end of our journey. The change was palpable and yet feelings were mixed with an eagerness to end a weary trip versus the desire not to lose the moments shared on the trip. When the red-hued bolts began to strike all over the range and on the Garfield Ridge that we had camped on the night before, we were all glad of a roof and walls around us. It finalized the magic of the evening and the journey. Friday’s descent on a steep, wet trail was slippery and a bit treacherous across the three agonies, and we finally made it to the end of the Old Bridal Path. Words cannot describe the emotions throughout such a journey nor the changes in the people who shared it, but each of us will hold it forever in our memory, and for me at least, reflect on it with incredible appreciation. Quinn led me on the last leg out of the woods, just as he had led me into them. Along the way, I was led, taught, and moved by some incredible students and a Professor friend of mine. Their mark is on me and I hope we gave them something worthwhile to remember as they go forward. That’s the purpose of all this, to share, grow and savor the many rewards of life. There was power in the Pemi and even more in the people and pup who shared it!