The Final Season Begins with a Bang on Cannon and Lincoln!

By Randy Pierce

Old Man of the Mountain, 1911

It was my intention to begin our final hiking season with a bang–and starting on Cannon was the ideal first shot. Cannon is where we ended our single season winter quest and is for many the heart of NH as the home of the Old Man of the Mountain. His immense craggy profile collapsed ten years ago in a massive boulder slide. An iconic image gone from the world provided some reflections even as our crew began part one of our epic cross-notch journey!

Six of us set upon the trails a little before 9 a.m., knowing the first stage of the day was only 4.4 miles along the Northeast Kinsman Ridge Trail. It’s a reasonably steep trail with respectably challenging footing in many locations. This presents two challenges and the clear sky and unseasonably warm temperatures added a little unexpected heat to the mix as well.


Friendship on the trail
John, Dan, Cathy, Tracy, Randy and Quinn share a moment on the bench on Cannon Rim Trail

Still, the sounds of laughter made clear how quickly the mountains may overshadow other challenges of a normal day and help to guide us back to a serenity rare in other places. Jimmy Buffett would call it a “Latitude Adjustment” and Dan Gagne prefers “Altitude Adjustment” though the results are rather the same. The majesty atop East Cannon’s ledge is spectacular and the Lafayette ridge across the notch dwarfs most other considerations quickly. It was daunting to consider that later that day we’d be on the edge of that ridge having hiked both sides of the notch in a single day.

With that sobering thought, we packed away lunch and hiked to the rim trail. We took special note of the bench honoring all these mountains share to those who open themselves to such. An all-too-brief climb of the summit tower let us descend the still slightly icy trail that separated us from the next stage of our commencement hikes. Reaching the bottom is usually the end of a day, but we had only set the stage to make our launch more epic and worthy of our 2020 Vision Quest goals!

Quinn guides Randy up Lafayette

Greenleaf hut sits above 4,000 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Lafayette. The Old Bridle Path winds reasonably steeply with several sections known as the “Agonies” for good reason! Many of our crew departed and one new member joined us. Ultimately, three of us and the Mighty Quinn would undertake the next phase.

We had feasted and hydrated as best possible as the lower elevation heat remained respectable. As the path worked into the Walker Brook Gorge, we all noted how quickly the sounds of traffic fell to the mountain’s solace. It was our latest start ever for a mountain, but we knew that only 2.9 miles separated us from the hut and the rest we would need for Sunday’s Ridge walk.

While we already had obtained the summit of Lafayette several times, its neighbor across the ridge, Mt. Lincoln, was still necessary to reach our original goal of summiting all 48 in the non-winter. There is no direct ascent of Lincoln by trail and so a loop over Lafayette delivers the reward of an incredible ridge while adding very little to the total mileage. In fact, by adding in the hut stay we made our Sunday goal less than our Saturday work. Perhaps “less mileage” is a better description than “less work” since our final traverse through Falling Waters would prove to be the most difficult stretch of trail to date in our project!

We reached the hut as daylight was fading and not without some difficulty from weary legs and tired minds. The final scramble over the Agonies had drained me significantly and in hindsight a touch of heat stroke may have been at work. While my counterparts celebrated later into the evening, I trusted water and sleep to rejuvenate me for the next day.

The crew at the summit of Lafayette

Sunday began leisurely with much of that intended rejuvenation achieved. There was a good breakfast and much water before idyllic temperatures enabled a 7:40 a.m. start up the summit. Rising quickly above tree line, we reached the summit of Lafayette ahead of schedule and with views beyond the expectations of the team who had been told to expect an overcast day. Those views and perfect temperatures would continue for the entirety of the mildly challenging ridge walk over Mt. Truman and then up to Lincoln’s pointy peak. A brief summit celebration for our 38th peak obtained was short lived because the most challenging part of the entire weekend ordeal was still ahead.

Down into the col and across the knife edge of the ridge, we then strode up to Little Haystack and found the turn for Falling Waters Trail. Most choose to climb up this difficult, steep, slippery, and narrow trail and the reality of our choice was quickly upon us. True to trail reports, icy coatings on the steep upper section required a little traction for best risk management.

Randy takes a break to reconnect with an old acquaintance met on the trail

It was still slow going and required all the human guide skills and my own mental efforts. We traded out guides to allow for needed mental rest but my own concentration was tested repeatedly. Each greeting of a hiker heading up past us was a welcome mental break but always the miles ahead needed our attention. By the time the slope had eased considerably, we had reached the series of cascades and waterfalls which–while beautiful–provided a different style of challenge with slippery slab steps, narrow-edged ridge walks, and nearly endless tricky footing.

As the five stream crossings required yet a different bit of work for my blindness, it was not surprising that physically and mentally the day slipped a little closer to gruelling than ideal. But perseverance has its place; the rewards of what we had experienced were probably foremost on our minds after the final bridge crossing was achieved and we knew that officially only ten peaks remain in our quest.

While that might be dramatic enough to culminate our epic first weekend, there’s one further detail deserving of our attention. It wasn’t the many friends encountered along the trails either from our new community of hiking friends, or the encounters with folks on trails repeated often enough that acquaintances have begun. It was instead the smell of a grill and fresh steak tips and the surprise of finding my wife had set up a glorious tailgate of food and beverages to revitalize the most weary of hikers. It was the glorious moment of sitting in a comfy lawn chair and removing bruised and battered feet from the confinement of well trodden hiking boots and socks! It was revelling in the overall accomplishment and the potency of loving support.

The journey held many wonders and inspirations for me and our mission. Ten more peaks await this summer and I believe we’ll achieve our mission. It won’t be easy nor assured but with good friends, my faithful though aging Quinn, and a lot of perseverance, we will celebrate with another tailgate on August 24 and I hope many more of you may be there to revel in the experience with us!

A  spectacular view from the Cannon Lunch Spot
A spectacular view from the Cannon Lunch Spot

Hiking the Kinsmans

by Randy Pierce

The mists on the mountains.

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.

Gorgeous Kinsman overlook.

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.

Quinn takes a break with one of his new friends.

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.


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