by Randy Pierce
We’ve learned so very much and come such a long way in our first season that it truly seemed fitting to make the long trek of Owl’s Head our first success. More than this, though, my friend and hiking mentor Sherpa John is leaving New England with time enough to share this one last hike with us. John has an appreciation for the Pemi and this mountain which is infectious and rare. His leadership and a fantastic team led to one of my proudest successful summits!
We began strong with heavy overnight packs and a higher level of fitness than the previous year. Quinn quickly showcased his talents to the wonder of some of the new folks watching him work a mountain trail for the first time. We reached the Black Pond ahead of schedule and prepared to undertake the Bushwhack which avoided some very perilous early spring crossings of the larger rivers required in the conventional trail. For this we planned a human Guide and Sherpa John did the honors. Though we soon learned this made it more challenging for Sherpa to navigate, as the nature of guiding me caused him to be shifted left and right in disorienting fashion. We switched out and had learned one of many quality lessons of the trip.
The next lessons would come in the several significant stream crossings we still had to manage after connecting back to the main trail. In my Teva water shoes I could use two hiking poles and the voice of someone on the far bank to navigate the streams strong and well. Bone chilling cold and swift currents were in full force for all and ultimately dangerous enough that Tim, Robbie and Sherpa had to tend Quinn’s safe crossings which included carrying him at some points! The icy glacial sides of the river bed made clear the cold and harshness of this challenge and this was one of the hardest parts of the trek.
We reached the hardest part, the Owl’s Head Slide, at 4:00 p.m. and this was just barely too late for a reasonable summit attempt. We didn’t want to return down the slide in the dark (headlamps for the sighted!) or manage the risk of such dangers knowing anything going awry would be better handled with a morning response. Camping in such a remote location was a great bit of quality time and community building which even exceeded the summit ‘high five.”
Leaving our full packs behind, Sherpa led me on my undertaking of the slide. It was an experience unlike any other of my hikes so far. Its unrelenting steepness, loose footing and wet, even icy, challenges were impressive. It is no wonder a moose even met its end on this slide not so very long ago. Still, with my hands to the ground for almost all of it, we made great time and soon stood higher than “the spring”. The unmaintained trail had the extra challenges of the long lingering deep snow, post holes, and many blown down trees. For Quinn’s safety and speed I used Robbie as my guide again. We hit not only the old summit but added the additional half mile of rough work and searching to get to the ‘new’ summit as well. We were right on schedule and pleased especially since the ice and snow depth had significantly enhanced the challenges.
Our descent down the slide was a marvel of efficiency as I backed down on hands and feet for the bulk of it. I think our success surprised all of us and the pride at the bottom of the slide was something earned by every member of the team. We supported each other physically and emotionally, well deserving the elation we felt. Resting only for lunch, we picked up our packs for the long hike out.
During this break I bent to pick up equipment and struck my head into a tree that I had been warned of earlier. This moment of sloppiness would challenge me for the next few hours. My head was pounding, my balance impacted and now the burden of my wet pack would make me struggle too much. A mentally weary Quinn would have been my guide, but he reacted to my unsteady struggles by not wanting to lead. He knew I was not at my safest and wanted me to get stable first. We took him off duty and I tapped the human guides for the next stretch. I slipped and fell a bit more during this struggling time and the rain began to fall lightly. By the time we crossed the streams which had grown from the prior day, we achieved a speedy safe efficiency. It was incredibly taxing but the results were ideal. Enough so we kept Quinn off duty for the remainder of the trip.
Our final challenge was a Bushwhack gone slightly awry. The Spot Adventure shows the challenges and realities of such expeditions. A steady soaking rain, thick fog and weary hikers can miss the mark and force back-up plans. Sherpa and Tim coordinated to bring us to the streams which would allow us to exit via Franconia Falls. This was hard hiking for certain and mentally draining as well. The team pulled together, gave full support and the aching muscles were pushed to successfully get us all through this. Robbie set a new record for human guiding time and most of it in the unfamiliar bushwhack approach.
The surge of adrenaline and enthusiasm we found at the Franconia Falls was tremendous. Our group then began the long but vastly easy Wilderness trail egress. So much pride and sense of accomplishment poured out even as those final three miles extended into full darkness. Headlamps here were certainly safer than on the slide had we opted for the prior day summit. The day was long and demanding but our crew found dry clothes, celebrated an amazing success and still had the strength and desire to linger longer together. We met at the Woodstock Station for the hot meal and camaraderie such an expedition demands. I will never forget many moments of this marvelous trip or the strength and dedication of the incredible people who were part of the adventure. The views on this hike are not the majestic panorama sought by many, excepting perhaps upon the slide. There were glimpses of the ranges and wilderness which was very worthy yet the most spectacular aspect by far was the spirit of the people who rose up to this challenge and showcased the power of human potential! It was that spirit to which we toasted each other at the end of an incredible journey. Our second season begins with success on all levels and I am thankful for the ever growing Team 2020 Vision Quest and this Owl’s Head expedition!