Paws-ing to Reflect: The Presidential Peaks

By John Swenson

My job this past weekend was to guide a blind man on his journey up Mt. Washington and several other Presidential Peaks. I was to be his eyes on the trails. White Mountain trails are strewn with rocks, roots and river crossings and countless other challenges for a blind hiker. I would use subtle and not so subtle signals to protect him from the many dangers such a trip involves. We had done this work before, yet there is always room to learn and perfect our teamwork and communication.

Many of you reading this know Randy Pierce and his story and are also aware of the amazing work of The Mighty Quinn. Normally, Quinn guides Randy along these treacherous trails, but on this past weekend’s hike up Mt. Washington and the ensuing traverse across the ridge, there were stretches of trail where Randy asked for assistance from a human guide.

It was not that Quinn could not perform the work. Indeed, he has successfully led Randy on many a trail and entered the record books with Randy in March for completing the single season winter 48. Randy requested a human guide this time because a human can move a bit quicker in certain trail conditions and offer verbal communication that Quinn cannot. The end result is hopefully the same–a successful trip–but a human guide can sometimes speed the trip a bit. This is helpful when there are many miles to log.

I had guided Randy for brief stints last summer on the Hancock trip and again this spring on the Jackson hike to kick off the 2012 season. I knew that in a small team of five hikers on the Washington trip, I would likely be called on for more assistance than previous hikes and was excited yet nervous about the opportunity. A hike in the demanding terrain of the Presidentials is a workout for seasoned hikers. Add to that the physical and mental demand of successfully guiding a blind man on this trek and the demands and dangers multiply significantly. I was now responsible for my own safety and Randy’s as well.

Randy pressed me into service on a good stretch on the upper portion of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. I eagerly accepted the invitation yet quickly realized the demands. The ledges in front of us were steep, smooth and in many places wet. I was looking at them wondering how to approach them myself; yet at the same time; the gentle tug I felt behind me was that of Randy placing not just his hand on my pack, but his trust in my ability to safely navigate the trail ahead of us.

As I began to talk Randy through the obstacles ahead of us, I saw every root, every wet rock and the countless crevices and potholes as chances for Randy to slip to a dangerous injury. I instinctively began to warn him of these dangers with explanations such as: “There’s a large slab ahead of us with water running down it and some branches sticking out that might scrape your shin if you go too far left”. I was feeling proud of this detail but quickly learned that in the time it took me to utter such a warning, Randy was slipping, scraping, and stumbling because the key message was not delivered in time for him to adjust for or avoid the hazard.
With some guidance from Randy, I learned that “less is more”. Quickly, the above phrase became: “Wet slab; shin bash left”. Randy now had the key pieces of information he needed to deal with the conditions underfoot or overhead.

As the guiding on the Ammonoosuc trail progressed, I found myself with a newfound appreciation of the challenges and wonder of Quinn’s work. I was surprised by the additional exhaustion that came from the special mental and physical work involved in being Randy’s eyes on the trail. If it tired me so, how must Quinn have felt at the end of the winter 48? While he eagerly accepts each new hike with that trademark tail wag, there’s no doubt that he is also tired at the end of his day guiding Randy in these mountain quests. Quinn cannot warn with a “Stop while I assess our approach to this” or a “Take this section slow; lots of loose rock ahead”. Quinn’s tools are body positioning, cadence, and gentle tugs and nudges. How immensely difficult and yet how effective this communication has been for Randy. Less truly is more.

On Sunday of our trip, we journeyed across the Crawford Path from Lakes of the Clouds Hut to take in Mts. Monroe, Franklin, and Eisenhower. Each of us in the group had our stint of guiding for portions of the trip. Cliff offered to take some of the uphill challenges and I accepted a number of downhill shifts. We descended from the ridge via the Edmands Path and our afternoon was filled with much lively conversation. At one point late in the day, Randy was quite engaged in conversation as I guided him and although I could interrupt him to warn of dangers ahead, I found myself wanting to minimize interruptions so he could fully participate in the dialogue.

A short while later, we were discussing how my guiding had changed in two short days from the overly detailed communications I described above to the “less is more” approach. I realized, and Randy observed, that I had just guided him for a good length of trail without uttering a word. I had become Quinn-like in my guiding, using body positioning and speed to communicate without speaking. When there was a step down, I sometimes exaggerated it a bit with my step so that Randy would sense the need to step down. If the footing became rougher, I would slow my pace as I hiked through so Randy would pick up the need to move carefully. If we had a water crossing, I would stop while I assessed approach and in so doing, the stop signaled Randy to be alert for more guidance.

I have been impressed with the work Quinn does since Randy first shared it with me a few years ago. After two days watching Quinn work in his quiet effective manner and experiencing my several opportunities to be a human guide dog, my respect for what Quinn does and for the way he communicates with Randy have reached new heights. While I look forward to my next tour of guide duty, I will forever tip my hiking stick to the work of The Mighty Quinn.


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