by Randy Pierce
A mostly new group of Outdoor Education students with the University of New Hampshire signed up for a backpacking trip expecting several days in the White Mountains and particularly a journey across the Kinsman peaks. Along with their typical curriculum came the 2020 Vision Quest project to hopefully demonstrate a much more challenging aspect of their leadership journey. The four-day traverse would begin simply enough up the gentle Lonesome Lake trail and allow them to witness and admire the work of Quinn’s mountain guiding. Most seemed impressed enough by the AMC hut at Lonesome Lake but would be far more overwhelmed as the Fishin’ Jimmy trail unleashed a daunting challenge for the sighted. A few students chose to try some “blinded” steps with a human guide and realized quickly why the footing in the White’s is legendary. A couple even took short sections to guide me as we ended our day at the Kinsman Pond shelter where several outdoor education programs from Yale and Harvard also joined our camp. North and South Kinsman loomed large across the pond to the west and provided a stellar sunset as we settled into evening routines.
Student leaders closed out the day with discussions and activities to help us become better acquainted and enhance the bonds of community of our group. We would rely on each other as a team to perform all the activities of living and traversing this wilderness together. Most of these moments are personal for those on the trip and are part of the experiential learning which makes such undertakings so powerful. The care, trust, and confidence would be essential for the days ahead when the students would have the opportunity to guide me directly, which often gives people an entirely different understanding of the nature of a trail.
Early rising and weary students left the work of North Kinsman vastly to Quinn. It was impressive as an already difficult stretch of trail was further challenged by more night rain soaking the rocks and making them far more slippery. Reasonable time still allowed the group to use the ideal daytime weather and reach the gorgeous overlook of North Kinsman.
From here students took over for much of the rest of the trip down the gentler saddle to work up to South Kinsman in very reasonable time. A short way beyond brought us to lunch at another slightly less spectacular overlook. We used a compass, maps, and peaks to find our exact location on the trail and prepared for the most challenging leg of our journey as training helicopters began to take advantage of the perfect conditions to practice their emergency maneuvers. We hoped it wasn’t an omen as that descent beyond South Kinsman was as challenging as anything we’ve traversed, with the possible exception of the Owl’s Head slide. Student after student took on the challenge of guiding me and learned how much communication was essential to succeed as well as how mentally taxing it can be to guide on such tough trail. It was also clear how much more impressive only four miles of White Mountain trail is compared to any other similar distance. Arriving at Eliza Brook Shelter, we had come a tremendous distance as a group. We had worked through a significant amount of mud only to hear reports the next stretch of trail would be the most muddy any of us had ever experienced.
Our longest mileage for any single day would take us through slightly less challenging ground but a vast amount of mud which needed to be traveled through cautiously. Many seemingly endless smaller peaks and cols led us eventually to the summit of Mt. Wolf. It was here that the susurrus of many separate wind patterns raised their voices all around us to soothe us with a bit of Nature’s own surround sound. From there, the long descent brought us to the Gordon Pond trail and an almost magical site of tranquility in the Wilderness. As the usual activities waned into darkness, a very large moose strolled down past our tarps and waded into the pond to feast on tall grasses as the final light faded. This was our last night together and we exchanged many personal thoughts on our shared experience. There was a dichotomy of emotion: civilization and comforts had an allure, but so did the desire to hold onto how much we had grown together. This group and this experience was nearing an end, which was unfortunately unavoidable, and already had a nostalgic hold upon most of us.
The final morning together was enshrouded in a thick fog which followed us for much of the day. Its surreal quality fit the mood of departure but much work remained. We had a long trail and a hope to cover it more quickly than any prior days. Brent took the lead and set as quick a pace as our more practiced teamwork could handle. We hit the zone and the distances were passing impressively. By the time the sun had cleared for a late morning snack, we checked the maps to try and determine our success. Maps do not always capture the many peaks and valleys of a trail, and this led to the misleading impression we had not gone as fast as it had seemed. Yet each person there believed differently from the feel of the speed. We had set a pace which slowed briefly for the toughest footing but sped impressively over any section which allowed us to and more than once we outdistanced the group around us. Thus, when moments later we arrived at our our half-mile remaining trail junction, it was to the astonishment of all, including Professor Brent Bell. So intent and determined had been his focus in the guiding we had nearly finished the trail faster than any of his prior trips over the same ground. The final steep descent was past but the group was energized by the success. At the bottom much congratulatory sharing replaced the awe of our accomplishment. Two of the 4,000 foot peaks were achieved and along with it much more which won’t show on a list but will remain in my memory and hopefully the entire group who shared the experience.