Blind Man Piles on the Peaks in Pursuit of Top Dog

By Randy Pierce

Quinn is a master climber as he leads Randy up a treacherous path.

Our winter hikes on the “NH 48” have begun in earnest and have been very successful so far. We have already traversed a number of peaks, with our most impressive achievement this winter to date being our climb of seven summits of over 4000 feet in four days. More than 40 miles and over 10,000 feet of elevation gain is simply a respectable challenge for most people; we have accomplished this and significantly more as winter has barely begun to overtake the White Mountains. Our challenges have been significant–the trail-heads are generally bare ground or icy coated rocks, which makes the hikes more difficult. They transition above 2500 feet to several feet of snow with a narrow snow shoe trail broken through where other hikers may have passed. While the snow often makes the going easier, that transition has some steep and slippery points with hidden foot traps throughout. These are not the ideal conditions to make climbing easier for me or my guide dog Quinn.

Quinn’s fame is growing both along the network of trails and in the cyberspace network which carries the tale of the tail-wagging wonder who is guiding a totally blind man to the top of peak after peak during the White Mountains winter 2012 season. To be certain, the accolades are well deserved as our speed and efficiency continue to increase and the number of peaks begin to fall beneath our feet.

"Has Dad found someone else?"

In that four-day span, Garfield, Tom, Field, Willie, Liberty, Flume and Moosilauke were added to Tecumseh, Jackson, Hale, and Cabot on our winter season’s summit success stories. An assortment of different hikers have joined us on the various hikes and we’ve met an significant number of fantastic people upon the trails. Many of those who witness the marvel of Quinn’s work are astounded by the dedication and ability he possesses. What many may not realize is that in our group, there is a battle for top dog.

It is not with Dusty, the recent rescue pup of Bob and Geri Hayes, though he is admittedly a little marvel in his own right. His boundless energy in surging ahead on every trail to the extent of his 20-foot leash or his near-constant darting into the side woods to plunge his rodent-sniffing nose after every squirrel scent with rarely a moment delay in our progress.

It is in fact Bob Hayes who is battling it out with Quinn for “top dog.” Not only does Bob bring a fair bit of hiking experience and motivation into our undertaking, he also brings a supportive human guide element to particularly tricky areas and many of the descents when we need or want to increase our speed.

Randy, Bob, and the Mighty Quinn make the best team!

Bob’s and my teamwork has continued to improve our communication and efficiency. Using techniques such as putting my hand upon his pack so I can follow along behind him have helped us traverse vast sections of trail in times better than the AMC book suggests for those regions. We have developed an endurance of work which has far surpassed any prior guiding efforts, and in the case of Mt. Hale actually involved virtually jogging the entire descent of the trail for a summit-to-car travel time of an incredible 2 hours and 15 minutes!

Each person accompanying or encountering us for any length of time upon these wilderness excursions will undoubtedly catch a different part of our experience. Many have provided me with encouragement and inspiration in various ways, for which I am incredibly appreciative. As for who will be “top dog”: the simple fact is that both Bob and the mighty Quinn share honors as my guides, both outstanding in their own ways. They have my full gratitude for their willingness to team up with me and make this incredible journey possible.

How many thousands of feet of elevation we climb, miles of trail we cover, or simple number of peaks we achieve this winter will be determined as the winter unfolds. I already know full well how much I love the experience and celebrating our joys and accomplishments together!

Team portrait!

Visions of Mt. Hale

by Randy Pierce

If a picture paints a thousand words then this video montage of our Mt. Hale ascent tells a fair bit about the Mighty Quinn’s magnificence. Team 2020 is very proud of all aspects of the day’s accomplishments. Personally, I think there is a great progression of how to enhance the appreciation of an experience. Words are enhanced by pictures, which are in turn enhanced by video. I certainly find that living the experience is the most incredible part of the process, but I hope the following video gives you a feel for our fun and fortune on this day!


An Accomplishment on All Fronts

by Randy Pierce

Team 2020 doing a virtual High 5 to their fans at the summit of Hale.

As I settle into the electronic world to share our excursion details, I’m tremendously buoyed by the feeling of full accomplishment. This was our second official hike for 2020 Vision Quest, and while Washington was a great and successful experience, it was not a full success – as we “only” completed the impressive ascent of the mountain. This time, we conquered both the up and the down and can now name Hale as our first officially-completed peak in our quest for the 48.

Sunday morning looked ominous. Tracy reported to me that our drive through Franconia Notch was enshrouded in storm clouds, and the pelting rain on the roof had me concerned. We reached the Zealand Road trailhead early as intermittent rain fell on a less-overcast sky. I reviewed the trail description one final time and – just as the rain tapered off – we heard the sounds of several cars approaching.

Randy lunches on the summit of Mt. Hale

It is amazing how our isolation, alone in early-morning quiet at the trailhead, transformed into a high-energy group laden with anticipatory excitement. This experience, like most hikes, was likely to change and strengthen our friendships. It is precisely this transition and community bonding that I particularly enjoy. The trail offers plenty of time for introspective personal growth, and an equal measure of understanding the social growth and dynamics of the people with whom I’m fortunate to share the experience.

We headed up the trail, and I quickly found that it suited my hiking style well. Quinn’s guidance was inspired, and at our first short break, there were some jovial complaints about the speed of my pace. Kevin even quipped that I was a “Hiking Shark,” having lured him in with talk of being a slow hiker. There were certainly challenges to slow me down, though the better understanding of them I’ve been gaining over the past few hikes, and the steady improvements Quinn has made, led to overall quick and strong hiking.

Randy & Tracy on summit of Hale
Randy & Tracy at the summit of Mt. Hale.

There were some tremendous birch trees along the route, and I remembered that in 1903, much of this mountain and many surrounding mountainsides were ravaged by fire. Birch trees are among the earliest growths, so those great trees we encountered on the trail likely started growing in 1904; just over 100 years of age. The birch tree, which delivers the name White Mountains, is so young and yet so old. It’s one of many reflections I treasured along the hike.

The summit transition was swift and redolent, from slight forest humidity to the open and wind-cooled, grassy peak. The summit was a great celebration as the overcast sky eased enough to give us ideal conditions to enjoy a lunch – not to mention the humor of having achieved this summit several hours faster than anticipated. It gave us time to relax and enjoy our accomplishment as a group, knowing we had eradicated our challenge of time to summit. We took many photographs, told a few stories, and shared some time with other infrequent visitors to our mountaintop. We had the luxury of spending an hour together in such fine spirits before stretching well-worked muscles and returning down the Hale Brook Trail.

Jenifer (Hale hike leader), Randy, and K atop the cairn on Mt. Hale.

The descent was slower but not tremendously so. The section of trail that is very narrow with a perilous drop off was challenging, since this time the drop was on my right, which meant Quinn could not shield me from it with his body. Quinn, as a guide dog, is always on my left side and my use of the Trekker Pole on my right side was mostly impossible due to the steep edge. Quinn was very cautious, and we took our time to navigate the slippery surfaces of wet rock and root, which were less challenging when climbing up.

While climbing down, I recollected considerable portions of the trail, such that predicting the switchbacks and first stream crossings gave me real familiarity with my terrain and my journey. This comforting knowledge helped inspire me through each section and gave me the mental freedom to converse more than many other hikes would allow. By the final stretch, where we were at full speed again, I could not help but appreciate how complete and successful an experience we had enjoyed on this mountain. Hale is our first official success in the quest for the 48. I successfully climbed several others before launching 2020 Vision Quest, but this was the project’s first full success. I will savor the accomplishment, along with the companionship of the people who shared the journey with me.

There will be many more mountains and many variations of Team 2020 ahead. I look forward to all of them, for each trip is distinctive in the challenge and reward. I will, however, fondly recall this group and Mt. Hale as the first of them all.


Looking to Hale: Moving Concerns

by Jenifer Tidwell

On Mount Washington, we learned some hard lessons about how slowly Team 2020 hikes. We knew already that we need to allow plenty of extra time for Randy and Quinn to work their way through difficult terrain, but the actual numbers that we put up on the Ammonoosuc Trail were a bit discouraging. We found ourselves losing time here, there, and everywhere.

I’ll be leading our Mt. Hale hike this coming Sunday, and I want to share some of my thoughts on moving fast through the wilderness.Jenifer on Mt. Washington

Now, no one who’s hiked with me in the past – Mike, Karl, Dan, and all you others – will claim that I’m a speedy hiker! However, I’ve learned a few lessons over many years of hiking, climbing, and mountaineering. I’ve failed to summit mountains in about all the ways you can imagine, many of them time-related.

First lesson:  Both “slow and heavy” and “fast and light” travel are dangerous in their own ways. Find your happy medium.

I started as a “slow and heavy” hiker. I would carry everything the AMC recommended in an enormous, heavy pack. However, I found that weight slows you down, throws off your balance, and makes you prone to injuries. And, if you go too slowly, you incur all kinds of costs, such as the following:

  • long travel days
  • mental fatigue
  • frustration at unreached goals
  • the need for more food and water, due to more on-trail time
  • afternoon thunderstorms, common in the White Mountains in summer
  • not being able to reach safety quickly when travel is dangerous

(In some conditions, like winter above tree line, or on multi-pitch rock climbs, these can cost you far more than just summits. Sharpens the mind, I tell you!)

On the other hand, I’ve traveled “fast and light” too. In winter, I’ve been caught shorthanded when I needed certain equipment that I hadn’t brought with me! Also, warm-up hikes for 2020VQ have seen participants running out of water on long days, and that’s never good. Fast hiking over rough terrain can cause injuries, too. People trip and fall, and fatigued hikers make mistakes when they down climb. I tried to keep up with my long-legged trekking companions for two days of downhill in the Himalayas, and my knees hurt for years afterward… ouch!

Therefore, here’s my advice for Team 2020 hikers – and other hikers too – on moving both quickly and safely through the wilderness:

  • Move fast, but not too fast. Once you’re warmed up, get your body working at a level where you can still converse (between deep breaths), but where you can cover ground quickly and smoothly. Experience, fitness, and good technique help here. Everyone has a “sweet spot” – a speed at which they move most efficiently – and it’s okay for a varied group like 2020VQ to spread out a bit, up and down the trail. On Hale, the leader will go last, to make sure no one is left behind, and we’ll regroup as necessary.
  • Minimize stop time. Sometimes we all need to rest, or eat, or pee, or adjust boots – but “short” group stops can easily stretch out into ten or fifteen minutes. That’s lost time, and lost momentum. Disciplined habits help here. Need to take your pack off? Do it as soon as you stop, finish what you need to do, and get the pack back on before the group gets ready to go. Can’t find something in your pack? Organize it carefully ahead of time, and memorize where everything goes. Need to “chase a rabbit” in the woods? Drop your pack and go; no need for a group stop. Randy and Quinn will need to stop at certain obstacles (e.g. stream crossings), and those are fine, but we don’t want to add to the total stop time with unnecessary stops. During the Mt. Hale hike, I want to work on shorter group stops, and I’ll be a stinker about it. Team 2020, you have been warned!Jenifer on Mt. Washington
  • Lighten your load. As I said above, a heavy pack is a safety risk. Go through your pack and see what everything weighs, if you’re curious. What can you honestly do without? Can you replace a critical piece of equipment (shell jacket, headlamp, etc.) with a lighter alternative? Can you reduce food weight by carrying dehydrated or dense foods, instead of water-heavy foods like fresh fruit? Of course, some things are necessary no matter what. Just before the Mt. Hale hike, I will see that certain items (Quinn’s gear, first-aid kit, etc.) are distributed fairly among participants, so that Randy, the most injury-prone of us all, gets a lighter load than he’s carried in the past. 
  • Stay fueled and stay cool. Thirst and low blood sugar make you ineffective in all kinds of ways, even before you notice it. I recommend never waiting until a stop to eat or drink, since it may be a while before the next convenient group stop. (Team 2020, we don’t really want to stop Randy and Quinn while they’re “in the zone,” right?) Make sure you have water and small amounts of food accessible to you while you walk, so you don’t even have to stop at all, let alone unpack. In the summer, keep cool to the extent you can. The mountain air is so much more invigorating when you’re not miserably hot!

Which brings me to my last point: a hike shouldn’t be a death march. It’s supposed to be fun! If you’re working yourself to exhaustion, you won’t enjoy it so much. Think, plan, pack, learn the techniques and systems, and stay disciplined, but once you’re out there, smile and enjoy the beautiful surroundings!


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