As we pass the anniversary of the loss of Randy’s Guide Dog, the Mighty Quinn, we share a post from January 30, 2016 when Randy shared a chapter from his book-in-progress about taking Quinn’s ashes on his climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.
As we pass the anniversary of the loss of Randy’s Guide Dog, the Mighty Quinn, we share a post from January 30, 2016 when Randy shared a chapter from his book-in-progress about taking Quinn’s ashes on his climb up Mount Kilimanjaro.
By Greg Neault
Just over a year ago I was scurrying about making last minute preparations for what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime: a trip across the world to Africa with a group of people I respect and admire to scale the flanks of Kilimanjaro, to watch the sun rise from Stella Point, to stand at the continent’s highest vantage point and look out onto the cradle of civilization, and then to explore that region’s amazing natural splendor, a wildlife show like no other on earth.
I remember very distinctly the eve of our departure. A torturous night spent memorizing the subtle nuances of ceiling tiles. My body calling for sleep, but my mind a flurry with myriad questions about the journey to come. A new continent, country, and culture.
What would the climb be like? Would I make it to the top? Did I forget to pack some critical item? Would Cathy Merrifield be eaten trying to pet a lion? Excited anticipation goes a great deal further than caffeinated beverages in terms of fending off the sandman.
Earlier this month, life found me once again being robbed of sleep by anticipation of a major event: a trip to the hospital with the girl I love to welcome our baby into the world. Fortunately, I had a whole new ceiling to explore as I pored over the questions of things to come.
Kilimanjaro is a giant, for sure, but I’m not unfamiliar with the ways of mountains. My experience and knowledge, acquired over a life of traveling through mountains, canyons, deserts and forests would serve me well in this endeavor. I’m quite accustomed to packing and traveling with the necessities of daily life outside the comforts of home, to living within nylon walls and staying warm on cold nights under starry skies. Kilimanjaro was a new, exciting, and unique experience, but was still representative of a new chapter in a story that has been unfolding for decades.
As I lay waiting for the alarm to sound on the morning of October the 6th, my mind was a whirlwind of rumination. I have about as much experience with babies as I have with firearms: people have let me handle theirs, but I don’t think they’d be foolish enough to let me wander off with one unattended. We went to the birthing class, we had a baby shower, and I was confident that we possessed all of the equipment necessary for a baby to survive in our care, but once we leave that hospital, we’re it. We are now solely responsible for the survival, well being and healthy physical, mental and emotional development of a brand new human being.
We didn’t even know what sex the baby was and had no clue what we were going to name it! How would we fare in the transition from unfettered adventurers, traveling about the region, country, and world to find new places to run, jump, and climb on a whim, to being responsible for a tiny person in need of care for every necessity around the clock? Do I have what it takes to be a good father? What kind of person will our child grow into? What is up with common core math?
Any anxieties I had in relation to my imminent parenthood were put to rest the minute the nurse put that sweet little baby in my arms for the first time. She was tiny and cute and weighed not even eight pounds. At that moment I knew that I didn’t have to know all the answers to all of the questions swirling around in my mind.
Too few days have passed to declare our success in clearing the hurdle that is the transition from carefree youth to steadfast parental figures. Obviously only time will tell what kind of person she’ll grow to be. I still have no idea what common core is all about.
What I do know is that I’ve mastered the changing of the diaper. I know that, for the time being, if she’s crying, there are only three reasons why and the process of elimination is a short route to a happy baby. I know that a car ride is an even shorter route to a happy baby. I know that my chest is a very comfortable place to take a nap. I know that there are more problems with more complexity than poop in the pants coming our way, but I know that we only need to solve one problem at a time. I know that with the right amount of forethought and a little help from my people, that we can make it happen.
The Kilimanjaro expedition was billed as the adventure of a lifetime, and it did not disappoint. A trip to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu could be in our future, and that may bear the “adventure of a lifetime” moniker as well.
But raising our daughter, that will be an adventure that LASTS a lifetime. She wasn’t even two full weeks old when she went on her first hike. I’m pretty sure she slept through most of it, cuddled up in a bundle on my chest (like I said, she loves to nap there), but she seems to enjoy the fresh air. As her eyes develop, I bet she’ll grow to appreciate the scenery as well. I hope that one day Stella and I will stand on lofty peaks together, sharing in the types of adventure that I hold dear. But right now, only weeks old, she has a very long journey ahead of her and it’s my job to put her on the path.
By Randy Pierce
“’There and Back again’ by Bilbo Baggins” was the alleged epic title of the fictional hero’s epic recording of his own journey from Lord of the Rings. I struggle a bit with the notion because every experience changes us so much that even while it may seem like yesterday, we are so vastly different there is no real return. As if autumn nostalgia wasn’t already powerful enough in my life, the shadow of Kilimanjaro also looms over as I make the return trip in my reflection for the one year anniversary.
For me, it is so often the people which take primary focus and even upon a pillar of the earth that was once again true. The team which stood together on the slopes of that mighty mountain were passionately dedicated to supporting each other and yet we never know until it happens whether we ever will stand together on any similar quest. The commitment to each other, the determination to achieve, the raw emotional sharing, the joy of celebrations and the feeling of absolute certainty we would reunite were powerful and real. Many of us will connect for various adventures and in fact have already throughout the year, but capturing that exact group is a difficult and unlikely reality for most expeditions. Even should we manage it, we all will have changed and so too will our experience together. That seems sad initially but for me we’ve achieved those glorious moments and have them captured in our memories as well as how they have shaped our lives. So I’ll be glad for the reflections even as I plan many future adventures and experiences, hopefully including many or all of the team who touched my life so well in Africa
This day, I will remember September 2015 and the energy and nervous anticipation we shared in Arusha. I’ll smile at our challenges ordering pepperoni pizza, I’ll feel the awe of the real exclamation from those in my van as the first view of the mass of Kilimanjaro came into view. I’ll recall the shift from playful monkey thievery to worry that my friends shared as they noted the monkey making Darwin-like realizations about my blindness and ability to protect my juice boxes! The hopeful eagerness as the rainforest wide and smooth trail of the Machame gate allowed us to hike a little too quickly before “Polley-Polley” eased us to the “Slowly – slowly” we would need. The ever ascending views above the clouds day after day in a world so foreign in both plant and animal life, the cold winds at Shira camp, the ever cheerful and polite porters, “Harris Tweed!”, the impossibly distant summit cone illuminated each night by the splendor of a nearly full moon, and a foreign night sky my companions would share with voices filled with marvel and delight. All these and more were common occurrences as was a rotational sharing of guide duties for my ability to trek the trails.
There were struggles and some of us took ill. There was difficult terrain at times and none of us will likely forget how well our team came together for the Baranku Wall! That was our team together in the most health and celebration during the higher climbing I think, but you climb a mountain ultimately for moments near the top. While we did not all reach the summit together, a large contingent did and in weary, oxygen starved, sleep deprived, cold and hungry reality; we touched a point atop the second-largest continent in the world. With the glaciers beside us, the crater of Kibo peak and a horizon more distant than any of us had known from the ground, we experienced something together.
Each of us had different dreams and visions which brought us to that point and likely were touched a little differently by the experience. I do not envision ever standing at that point in the world ever again and yet I know the strength, determination, sacrifice, pain and amazement which are part of that moment and stand within me since then. It is as fresh as yesterday in some ways and as fleeting a memory as something from another life at times. Such is the difficulty I have with trying to hold time in my mind, yet I know if I close my eyes and breathe deeply, I can let my mind slowly wander to that time and place and steadily things become more clear and vivid to me. I can travel there and back again just well enough to keep it all so very real for me and to remind me of the fortune I have in the companions I keep here and there.
By Michelle Russell
What an amazing Event!
Last night I attended my fourth Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction (the sixth one they’ve held). As I reflect on the night one word comes to mind:
G ~ Guiding Eyes for the Blind
The event was attended by 24 puppy raisers from NH, ME and MA and 6 puppies in training (3 black Labs and 3 yellow Labs).
The hit of the party was 8-week-old yellow Lab “Honey” that was carried around and loved by all. This event is a special night for the puppy raisers. It is a chance to socialize with each other while supporting a cause that is at the core of each of us. This is to provide the gift of love and raise a puppy for approximately 14 months and then give it back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. This priceless gift – a Guide Dog will provide a person with vision loss, not only independence and mobility but also companionship.
The dinner works as a wonderful training venue for our pups. It allows the puppies to practice greeting people, settling at the tables with other dogs and practicing good house manners while food is being served. We each appreciate the chance to be welcomed with our pups by all of those attending the event.
Pat Weber, the Regional Manager for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and Bill LeBlanc, the NH Region Coordinator, accepted a check from 2020 Vision Quest of $20,200 for the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
A second check for $20,200 was given to the NH Association of the Blind.
I ~ Inspiration
The culmination of the dinner is getting the chance to hear Randy Pierce speak. The slideshow that accompanied Randy’s talk reviewed some of his amazing accomplishments as a blind athlete this past year: running the Boston Marathon and the National Championship, being the first blind athlete to compete in the Tough Mudder in LA, watching the amazing video and then Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Throughout the slideshow Randy mentioned his beloved Guide Dog Quinn who passed away from cancer a year and a half ago. His dedication and devotion to Quinn is evident as you hear Randy’s voice quiver at the mention of his unforgettable pup. All of the puppy raisers also learn by watching Randy’s Guide Dog Autumn working the event with Randy. She is a beautiful black and tan Labrador retriever that Randy received from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
V ~ Vision
My take away “nugget” from Randy last night was this: “You do not need to have sight to have Vision.”
Randy has vision. He is a goal setter. We found out that in the next year, Randy plans on writing a book. It was fun watching Randy act as an auctioneer – one of the special auction items was to be emailed pages of the book he will be writing each month. The silent auctions were fabulous. It was fun to take my pup “Gary” and walk by all of the incredible silent auction items. What a great way to raise money for the 2020 Vision Quest charity.
E ~ Education
One of the key missions of 2020 Vision Quest is to lead and inspire students and professionals to reach beyond adversity and achieve their “peak potential.” It is mind boggling to think that Randy and 2020 Vision Quest have spoken to 45,000 students. He recounted letters he has received from some of the schools. Just recently, a student that attended one of Randy’s presentations was going to drop out of school — but decided not to because of the inspiration and impacting message that he received from Randy. He does this all while integrating life lessons into little stories that teach about overcoming obstacles by managing adversity.
By attending the Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction, I am able to support the organization that is so important to me – Guiding Eyes for the Blind – but I gain so much from Randy. He inspires me to do more…. To push myself….. To set Goals…. To have vision… in both my personal life and in my career.
“To Believe and Achieve Through Goal Setting, Problem Solving, and Perseverance!”
Thank you, Randy… you GIVE .
Michelle Russell, MBA, is a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind and a NH Region Volunteer. She has raised 3 pups, currently one of the pups she raised – Black Labrador Retriever “Randy” is in NYC working as a bomb detection dog keeping us safe. The puppy that she is currently raising (pup #4) is 5-month-old black Lab “Gary” who attended the dinner. She is also a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Nashua, NH. Please visit her website.
If anyone is interested in becoming a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind or buying/selling a home in NH they can contact Michelle@NHselecthomes.com for more information.
By Jose Acevedo
On October 21st, 1991, I walked out of Malden hospital just outside of Boston with a new lease on life. Just 3 days earlier, I had attempted to end my life. It wasn’t a cry for attention–I was deeply depressed and honestly wanted to die. I recognized at the time that life had its ups and downs and thinking it through logically, as well as accounting for where I was emotionally, I felt that living simply wasn’t worth it. I honestly don’t know if everyone feels like this at some point, or if it is only a subset. Is it 1, 50, or 99% of us that faces deep depression at some point? Despite varied research findings, I don’t know and frankly, it’s irrelevant to my message. A good friend encouraged me to write down this story when I shared portions of it recently, and I realize that even if it only touches one person, it will have been worth it. As you read, please consider the possibility that you or someone you care about may need help and pushing through any awkwardness towards open dialogue could make all the difference.
Without jumping into all of the details, I’ll summarize the various aspects of my life that influenced my state of being at the time. My home life was terrible with a lot of bad history and I had very little relationship with my parents. I had made bad choices and alienated my closest friends. High school was over and I wasn’t on my way to college, so I felt adrift. The tipping point was reached when a close friend died in a tragic accident, leaving me to face questions of mortality for the first time, seemingly alone.
Alone. What a tricky little concept. When we’re there, in the roughest of times wrestling with our demons, some of us can’t see anything or anyone that we imagine could truly help. Or, we don’t want help for various reasons, including feeling unworthy like I did. In these moments, we feel utterly alone. Yet the reality is that we are surrounded by so many people and resources that can help. For perhaps the first time in human history, it’s nearly impossible to not trip over some well-meaning person or organization that can assist with just about any problem we might have – at least here in the states. In our darkest personal moments, there are almost always a number of people who care about us, either personally, or at least as fellow people.
When I was at my lowest point in October of 1991, it didn’t matter that my future had plenty of possibilities to be bright. I didn’t care that people loved me – I didn’t love myself. To be more precise, I think I probably hated myself. It’s tough to say exactly through the haze of time and change, but that’s likely true on some levels. Ironically, I had volunteered as a peer counselor in high school and had formal training on this kind of thing. I knew the symptoms of depression and resources available better than most but when it came down to it, I couldn’t see through the fog of my own depression and didn’t value my own life enough to cherish it. I vividly recall considering my options on the afternoon of Thursday, October 17th, when I hit rock bottom. I remember eyeing a local police officer and wondering if I could wrestle his gun away for personal use, sifting through toxic chemicals available in the basement to drink in volume, and watching trains roll by on nearby tracks. What if I failed to get the gun or the officer was hurt? What if the chemicals ruined my internal organs but left me alive, or the train crippled but didn’t kill me? No thank you. I share these details to make it clear that contrary to any sensationalized image of an obviously emotional time bomb ticking away its final moments, I was the picture of rationale thought that day, logically weighing exclusively bad options. In the end, it was 64 over the counter sleeping pills for me. I even went to 4 different stores to purchase them without unwanted attention.
Luckily, the human body doesn’t easily tolerate vast amounts of weird chemicals so you’re more likely to get really sick and vomit than anything else with this kind of attempt. One doctor would later tell me that the manufacturers of such pills put a little something nauseous in every pill, but I’ve heard and read conflicting reports since. Regardless, I wrote my suicide notes that Thursday night, overdosed, and went to sleep – hoping it would be forever. I can’t tell you exactly how sick I got that night or how close to serious harm. I only know that I was found in rough shape the next morning and rushed to the hospital.
My sketchy memories start that morning with trying to make the bed, while it and I were covered in vomit, trying fruitlessly to pretend to the caring person who found me that nothing was wrong. My next memories are in the hospital as my family arrived, then being transferred to another hospital by ambulance, meeting with various nurses, and trying to pee in a cup for them so they could determine what exactly was inside me. I even remember that I was such a mess, I tipped over a full cup of urine in my completely disoriented state, much to the dismay of the medical staff. I probably have about 60 seconds of recall scattered across 12 hours that day, before I started to come down from my really bad trip in Malden Hospital’s psychiatric ward. I do remember that as I tried to eat dinner that night, my arms were shaking quite a bit – a lingering side effect of the drugs still in my system. I was in a frightening place, surrounded by strangers, trying to play it cool, and I couldn’t even get food to my mouth. It’s still hard for me to think about to this day, without feeling minor emotional aftershocks.
I spent that weekend getting clean in the hospital, but only because I couldn’t sign myself out as an adult until Monday. I sat in group and individual therapy sessions, spoke superficially about my problems, and faked a desire to get better. That Saturday, a friend I barely knew at the time came and brought me clean underwear. It may seem like a small gesture, but it meant a whole lot to me and we grew much closer that coming year. Only years afterwards, when we had drifted apart like people do, was I able to express my gratitude for his act of kindness. It had sparked a desperately needed bit of gratitude in me and on some level, revealed a glimpse of the fact that people really did care. On Monday morning I signed the appropriate paperwork and wandered out into the next phase of my life, not much better equipped to face my depression than when I had walked in.
24 years later, this is a cry for attention. I know suicide prevention day/week/month is in the rear view mirror, but this is a topic that simply doesn’t ever get enough attention, so yes, I’m crying out. I’m crying for people to open their eyes and hearts to a massive hole in our society that last year reported the highest suicide rate in the US since 1987. Suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst 10-24 year olds, accounting for more deaths each year than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. I’m crying for each of us in a position to help, that we would act with compassion, ask the uncomfortable questions, make ourselves available, and refuse to let the stigmas around mental illness and self-harm continue to be perpetuated. I’m crying for those struggling with depression to take one more chance at life and seek help.
I was reminded on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro of a decision I came to years ago, after breaking free of my own depression. If I want my life to have any one specific impact, it is to share my experiences in ways that would help others live. That those in need would feel just a little less alone and seek help, and that those nearby would be more quick to offer it. Scaling Kili was one of the hardest challenges I have ever undertaken. I keep telling people, it was only about 30% physical and 70% mental. At that altitude, unless you are an elite athlete or you have trained a whole lot, your body simply starts to fail. You can breathe, but you aren’t getting enough oxygen per breath. By summit day, every single member of our team was dealing with multiple symptoms of altitude sickness – shortness of breath, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, light headedness, disorientation… you name it. You don’t make it to the top of Uhuru peak at 19,341 feet because you feel great – you make it because you choose to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. You reach the top of the world because you persevere, even when you don’t want to anymore and feel like you can’t. Eventually, when you get back to normal altitude and you get more oxygen, you can truly appreciate what you’ve accomplished and be thankful. Before getting oxygen and rest however, I described the summit experience in the moment as the most defeated I have ever felt after a victory.
I sure am glad I went up that mountain, and that I came back down. It is not lost on me that mountain climbing is a great metaphor for dealing with adversity and just as we made our last push for the summit of Kilimanjaro during the deepest hours of night from midnight ‘til dawn, so were the worst years of my depression utterly dark. Just like I stumbled up through switchbacks for hours on end a month ago, wanting to quit and doubting I would ever reach the top, the years after my suicide attempt are somewhat of a blur. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, think of all the dreams you quickly forget each morning when you wake up. Try to remember them even 5 minutes after brushing your teeth, let alone years later, and you can’t even be certain the memories are of your own making vs something you may have seen on TV.
After leaving the hospital 24 years ago today, I politely refused medication and therapy. In my mind, if I couldn’t figure out how to survive without help, I shouldn’t live. What a stubborn idiot I was. I’m eternally grateful it all worked out in the end, but it was touch and go for years. If you knew me between 1991 and probably around … 1996, you knew a dead man walking. I was so depressed during that period that I barely recall the early 90s. Months and months of my past are simply lost based on how little I cared at the time. If you did know me back then, you may have caught a glimpse or a steaming heap of that particular symptom – how little I cared, for myself and others. There was a façade that I was trying super hard to make true, so congratulations if that’s what you saw. The truth is I was extremely selfish and made a further high volume of bad decisions during that phase of my life. What I did do however, that worked out in the end, was to choose one thing I hated about myself at a time and work to change it. It didn’t happen overnight and I still make mistakes today, but eventually the scales tipped the other way.
In the beginning, I thought about killing myself multiple times daily. That faded to once daily, then every few days, then weekly, and eventually monthly. It didn’t matter that good things were going on in my life or that I had great people who cared about me. I was secretly struggling with these emotions and at any moment, I could have ended it. One day, years later, I realized months had gone by and I simply didn’t feel that way anymore. I actually recall the occasion. I was on my way to work one morning and saw a small child passed out in the back seat of his mother’s car. Mom was navigating her station wagon around a rotary and this little boy was only loosely strapped into his car seat, such that he was leaned forward unconscious on the back of his mom’s seat. For whatever reason, this blissfully exhausted child mashed up against the driver’s seat at an awkward angle struck me as beautifully funny and I laughed out loud to myself. I realized in that moment that I had fallen back in love with life again. Perhaps not even again, but for the first time in my adult life.
Where am I even going with all of this? I suppose it comes back to a few key concepts:
This whole experience is something I am completely available to talk about. If you feel alone and ever consider harming yourself, I hurt for you. Whether you are facing your own demons or thinking of a friend, please don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help in any way. I own no capes and can’t solve your problems, but I can find time to listen really well and offer my own perspective if you think that may help. Whether it’s me, someone else you know, or specifically someone you don’t, seek help. No one should have to face this by themselves. I’m not a professional in this space and contrary to my own journey, I strongly recommend seeking professional help, but we can talk about that and other options you have. That’s the key: you always have options, no matter what it feels like. Speaking of help, if someone makes the offer, they’ve made a choice – they’ve put themselves out there. They care on some level and have broken through at least some levels of discomfort to be there for you. Try not to dismiss these offers off hand, as is so easy to do for various reasons from embarrassment to attempted selflessness. Respect their choice and effort – see where it may lead. I didn’t accept as many offers as I should have and my road was much harder as a result, needlessly, for me and probably others.
I’m lucky enough that after facing this head on for over half a decade in my late teens and early twenties, I was able to pick up the pieces and move on, depression-free since. I’m still a passionate and oft-times fickle person, and I still make plenty of mistakes – just ask my closest friends and family. But for years, I have experienced a love of life and found joy in the little things. I’ve been able to navigate a successful career, build loving relationships with people I care about, enjoy the present deeply, and look forward to so much more in the future. That’s not necessarily possible for everyone who battles depression, but various strategies for balance and opportunities for happiness exist if you choose life.
If you need emergency help, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1-800-273-8255. If you aren’t in immediate danger and think trading perspectives with me would be of any assistance on your journey, please email me by clicking here.
I know this was a long read and may have been tough in portions. Thank you for taking the time to get all the way through. Thanks as well to my dear friend Randy Pierce, who has been an incredible source of strength and support to me through the years – including the invite for this guest blog post.
By Randy Pierce
While there’s still so much more to tell about our own African adventures, Autumn wasn’t just left home to sing the blues, despite what our playfully adjusted image to the right might suggest! She is due a little attention because her part of the experience was very important to us as well as rather worthy. On the lighter side, I suggested to our social media manager, Greg Neault, that perhaps he could Photoshop some fun pictures of Autumn’s virtual world tour to post intermittently while we were away. He took the challenge and created a fun series of adventures which our Facebook and Twitter followers were able to enjoy while we were away. We include all those images in this blog for your enjoyment.
Meanwhile Autumn actually was staying with our friend and Guiding Eyes trainer Chrissie Vetrano. Chrissie originally trained the Mighty Quinn and also brought Autumn to me to work us into the team we are today. Of her own kindness she was taking our precious girl into her home with the promise of plenty of love and attention from the humans of the house and Chrissie’s lovable lab Malcolm. Her accommodations were more like Club Med for dogs than our own home and pictures and video clips of Autumn crossed the Atlantic regularly to keep us posted on her being well loved and tended.
During the days, Autumn would travel with Chrissie to Guiding Eyes to enjoy their accommodations and a little bit of extra work along with her vacation. The poignant part of this process is the ongoing care and attention which Guiding Eyes brings to all their teams and dogs. Their work doesn’t end with the training of their incredible Dog Guides but continues throughout the lives and work of the teams. While I’ll never forget the over-the-top care and support they provided to Quinn and me during his battle with cancer, I’m similarly appreciative of the demonstrated way in which they provide this to all handlers and dogs. They were all too glad to accommodate, ensuring our girl would have the best of care in all ways while we were away. She even returned freshly bathed and pampered and so very eager to see and snuggle with us again.
The real key to any organization is always the people (and pups!) who make it great. In this I end as I began, and endured our time away from Autumn with the incredible appreciation I had knowing Autumn was in Chrissie’s so very capable and attentive care. I’m not sure I can ever be thankful enough for the gifts of Guiding Eyes in the dogs and people they’ve brought into my life. I will say with full conviction that I am very, very grateful and hope that every day the open way in which Autumn and I share our teamwork with the world helps to showcase the power of a great organization and the people behind them. Meanwhile, as the photos show – we have a little fun along the way!
By Randy and Tracy Pierce
Our African Expedition to Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater was an absolutely amazing experience. While it is not reasonable to chronicle it entirely in a single blog, Tracy and I thought we’d share a couple of insider questions to each other to help you understand just a little of the experience.
Randy: While the elephant looming behind our kiss is eye-catching, there’s another elephant in the room in that we did not summit together. Would you be willing to share a bit about that?
Tracy: Oh, dive right into the tough questions! So I did not reach the summit, which was a very tough choice for me. I spent much of the trip plagued by headaches and shortness of breath. These symptoms caused me to progress far slower than the rest group so I requested a head start on summit night. About three hours into the hike (2am) the rest of the group caught up and easily passed us. By 4am (5 hours in) I was feeling extremely dizzy and was starting to stumble, after about 45 minutes of this I began to question whether I should continue. My teammate Maureen and guide Goodlove encouraged me to keep trying. I pushed on, hoping that sunrise would reinvigorate me. Sunrise came (amazing, gorgeous) but I had no rejuvenation. Finally at 7 am, after 8 hours of climbing I decided that if I kept pushing I would not be able to make it back down. I felt that I made a smart decision that was right for me and was proud that I persevered for hours and came within 10 minutes of Stella Point (5685 meters). In hindsight I wrestle with feelings of being left out of the experience that the rest of the team shared, yet, I also learned that I reached high enough in my climb to have technically reached Stella Point and I am mighty proud to have climbed so high.
Tracy: Day two was some of the toughest footing we experienced can you share some thoughts on how you felt at the end of the day?
Randy: Day one had particularly easy footing with water bars being the main challenge so in contrast day 2 was a little bit of a wake-up call. It still wasn’t any different than most of the trails in the White Mountains upon which we train. As we were climbing over 10,000 feet there was a constant barrage of incredible views and that gave us pause for photographs and side explorations commonly. As we neared the end of the uphill climb which was handled in the entirety by a strong and motivated Jose, we hit a few interesting side scrambles with a drop off. This required us to be slow to manage the risks of the falls which might have otherwise been a problem. Ultimately it was not the most tricky footing for me on the trip but in comparison to day 1 it was a slow down reality check on our pace even before altitude really reduced our speed.
Randy: Do you have a particularly powerful moment from the Kilimanjaro hike which you might also like to share?
Tracy: I think there were two experiences that I’d share. The first was on day two which is arguably the hardest 2.8 mile route I have ever hiked. I was hiking ahead of you and Jose which provided frequent occasions where I would be worried about how the two of you would navigate extremely tough footing. I occasionally stopped long enough for the two of your to catch up so I would know that you were well. The combination of fear and pride at what the two of you accomplished together will be with me until I die. Such powerful emotions do not fade easily.
The second powerful moment was on the Barranco wall. We camped at the base of the 800′ Barranco wall on day three where it loomed imposing and scary. I woke feeling more than a touch apprehensive. Once we started on the wall I realized that the rock scrambling that we experienced in the Whites really set me up to tackle the wall strongly, although I was still scared of the notorious Kissing wall. We navigated a particularly tough spot and I mentioned out loud that if that one was so tough how hard would the Kissing wall be? That was when my guide told me that we had just done the Kissing wall. I felt so triumphant to have handily tackled something that I’d been so worried about.
Tracy: As we know, summit day was extremely hard. You had some unexpected difficulties while trying to make the lower camp, will you share that story?
Randy: Absolutely I’ll share what all those on the hike already understand all too well. Summit day was incredibly difficult in many ways. We’d had little, or in many cases no, sleep; we had too little nutrition as feelings of nausea hamper the ability to eat. We hiked in the dark which restricted my guides abilities and as the oxygen thinned it was harder on all of us to find ways to keep working. Seven hours of hiking brought us to the summit with nobody feeling well or strong. Still things were good enough to savor the sunrise and the summit before we began the long descent. Down is almost always harder on me though the skree of the upper levels wasn’t too bad. Few guides had much strength to guide long and Jose and Rob had spent much of their efforts in getting me to the summit. Greg Neault really stepped in at a critical time. Unfortunately the last half mile before Barafu (high camp) was truly the most difficult for my feet and we worked incredibly hard to get through it. With my headache pounding at impressive levels, food reserves non-existant it would have been great to get a refreshing break at Barafu. Unfortunately plans called for us to rest briefly, get lunch and then hike six difficult trail miles back to a more reasonable elevation at Mweka camp. I was unable to sleep or eat and while Greg put in two of the miles guiding, we switched to Jose with me feeling more and more nauseated, light headed and struggling to give the focus I need to walk even a moderate trail. Two full days of no sleep along with the mental and physical exertion caught up with me and I lost consciousness for a moment, collapsing behind Jose.
Once again a strength of the entire experience was the incredible dedication and capability of the Climb Killi guides and porters. Our main guide, Emmanuel, and one of the assistants, Vader, walked beside me with our arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders for steady support. The trail became a washed out stream bed which is amongst the worst for my making time. We plodded on slowly and with little progress towards my recovery until we neared 12,000 feet. Finally the nausea lifted enough for me to hold down a couple of Jenn’s sports drinks and keep me conscious through to the final camp. I collapsed into the tent and slept through until morning with again no dinner. While this concerned the guides, Tracy and the team understood I could eat a hearty breakfast but sleep was my essential need. This allowed full rejuvenation and a strong hike out on our final day which was blessedly back on trail which is more easily managed. I’m certainly not proud of how rough it was for me but I’m thankful for how much the team supported the efforts necessary to let me struggle through ultimately enough. A very special thanks to Michelle for the constant medical care along the way and to you, Tracy, for having our tent so well ready for my essential collapse.
Randy: My next question involves our team. As I was so commonly connected to a primary guide and each of us formed our own interactions, I wonder what you took away from the development of our team?
Tracy: That is an great question. I knew every member of the team to varying degrees prior to our trip, with the exception of Maureen. A wonderful development was that Maureen was by far my biggest, most pleasant surprise. We found that we hike at similar paces and have similar hiking styles and really got along famously. As to the rest of the team, I loved how quickly the entire team settled into a fun camaraderie coupled with kindness and helpfulness. It is true that sharing epic adventures with a group of people creates a bond that is both amazing and unrivaled. I will cherish this group of people for their sense of fun, adventure and their willingness to help their fellow teammates!
Tracy: One of my favorite, most celebratory moments was the singing that we were greeted with at the Mweka gate on our completion of the trip. Can you share a time that was most celebratory to you?
Randy: You know I’m never shy so I’ll share two very different experiences which took place on the same day, I believe. On Wednesday night we camped at the Barranco Camp with the massive and intimidating 800 foot wall directly ahead of us. This was a hands to the trail slightly technical scramble for much of the morning. Our entire team has enough familiarity with scrambles in the white Mountains that we treated the entire journey like the East Osceola chimney. We were quick and capable such that at the top of the wall we stopped to celebrate together. It was a great bonding moment of achievement and pride for how well everyone had worked. I relished that feeling then and still.
Later that evening we were in the mess tent sharing a dinner when Greg asked Rob to read his guest blog that had been released back home. It was powerful and moving on so many fronts and led to more team emotional sharing which brought us together on an even deeper level. We had plenty of trials ahead but the team was cemented into a strong and caring enough core to undertake that challenge together.
Randy: The Serengeti was so vastly different from what I expected and definitely an incredible experience. What surprised you most about the Safari adventure?
Tracy: The Serengeti was amazing and the one thing that surprised me the most was just how close most of the animals were. Whether it was hyenas or lions sleeping right off the road, or elephants passing behind our Landrover almost close enough to touch.
While this is just the barest insight into the experiences of only two of our eleven team members, it hopefully provides you with a little flavor as well as the incentive to reach out to any and all of our team for the rest of the many stories. Life has the potential to be an amazing series of adventures whether by hearing or living the stories. As in many things, however, they are always the sweeter when shared together. Thank you Tracy for sharing life’s adventures with me!
By Randy Pierce
“You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.
– Tom Hiddleston
I’m writing this before departing to Tanzania for my attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. When we publish this, the success or failure of that summit goal will be known. To me though, the success began with the belief that it was a worthy experience and the confidence to choose to try for it. Hundreds of people with whom I speak often relay to me their lack of belief in their own abilities to attempt a variety of things, sometimes within the realm of common activities for the majority of people. What is it which allows doubt or fear to paralyze people in their pursuits? Why even are people so easily consumed by their own lack of confidence?
One of the simplest approaches to easing this challenge is to surround ourselves with people who encourage and support our ideas. Our basic community has such a powerful impact upon us and we forget that we ultimately choose the people with whom we share our lives. I have a marvelous accompaniment of supportive friends and for me it constantly makes a difference. I, in turn, encourage myself to always be that supportive influence in their lives as well. If we are commonly given doubt from the outside, it’s simply no wonder it might ease into us and impact our own thoughts and feeling for ourselves.
Secondly, I believe we so easily focus upon the negatives in our world. Yes, I too have many doubts and some fears which could easily paralyze me if I gave them the chance. I choose to focus on the means of resolution to challenges, of the rewards and benefits possible rather than those doubts and fears. It isn’t that I do not realistically evaluate them and identify the crucial points–it’s that I dwell on solutions more than problems and rewards instead of failures. Whether this approach is of help to anyone else, I cannot be certain, but I do know that in my pursuit of my own peak potential and my well wish for all of your similar abilities to reach new heights, I think the most perilous peak of all is the choice not to climb!
By Randy Pierce
“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – Henry Ford
Our early plans for this epic climb have grown considerable as our winter training hike demonstrated. Each of us has been in various ways attending the training and conditioning we will all want for the successful experience we hope is ahead. Just four short months remain before we will board planes and fly to Tanzania to begin the official expedition. The questions have begun in earnest and our teamwork must now also begin in earnest: What route are we taking? How many days will it take? Where is Autumn going to be staying? What’s the most challenging part? When do we summit? Will we have updates?
The truth is most of these already have answers and I’ll provide more now but the full trip sharing is still ahead as we must first finalize all the details of our teamwork ahead.
We are working with an expedition company called “Climb Kili” and will be using the most commonly traveled Machame Route up the mountain. We expect to depart the United States near the middle of September and return in very early October. The climb itself will involve six days of ascent with a summit planned for dawn after an all-night hike under a full moon. The sunrise from atop the tallest standalone mountain in the world has an incredible allure, though we all recognize the amount of work involved for all of us to experience this together.
Speaking of which, Autumn is not joining us for the trip as the impact of low oxygen upon a dog is something we do not understand well enough to undertake at this point. She has plans to stay with Chrissie Vetrano of Guiding Eyes where she will get incredible love and care as well as some potential opportunities to show off at Guiding Eyes for the Blind!
While we are there we have decided to undertake a four-day safari following our climb. It is unlikely that many of us will ever have such an opportunity again and thus it was an easy part of the plan. There are so many safari variations and we are building ours to take advantage of the best regions for the season we are there.
So what can we do to train? We are all building aerobic conditioning. Running, biking, and climbing locally are certainly some ways. Stair climbers and treadmills can help though we simply need to get time out in the mountains as often as possible this summer as well. We have an oxygen-restricting mask to help simulate the low oxygen of higher altitudes when it is literally one breath per step to ensure the muscles have the oxygen they need to function. Equipment research and purchasing is happening. Finding ways to fully share all of the experience ahead is one of our goals. We’ve even heard from a company giving consideration to sponsoring our trip on our more significant scale but all of that remains for future development. Today we just want to share a little more and invite any of your questions or comments about the great adventure ahead!
By Randy Pierce
“Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay
Our rather epic adventure to summit the tallest standalone mountain in the world should become reality this year. We have assembled a team of 10 friends to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in September 2015. January 30 brought 8 of the team together for a practice hike in the frigid Franconia Notch.
Originally we hoped the steady steeps of Mt. Lafayette would be excellent work and the views a worthy celebration, but as temperatures began to drop and wind speeds began to rise we adjusted plans to avoid the 2 miles above tree line in dangerous conditions. Hiking just across the notch Lonesome Lake trail and the Kinsman Mountains allowed for more sheltered work which would still have team building challenge and experience. As we assembled by the trailhead, the lowest temperature noted dropped all the way to -8 along with winds to make it more challenging still. This was below the range of our comfort and we expected the hike might be curtailed yet chose to at least work towards the well traveled trail up to the frozen tarn.
Tracy took the lead quickly so we could begin keeping warm with the exertions, but many snow drifts quickly had her stopping to don her snowshoes. The long legs of Rob and Randy stayed with micro-spikes to the start of the tree-sheltered incline which made the trail more packed from the frequent daily trips to the AMC hut. This also eased the worst of the wind chills and we all came together along the trail enjoying the beauty of the snowscape and mountain escape.
Autumn guided me with enthusiasm to be working and moving. Pups and people were fine in motion but every stop brought a uncomfortable chill for both Dina and Autumn, the two dogs on the trip. Worse, Dina’s furry paws kept binding snowballs and neither her boots nor the musher’s wax seemed to be helping her.
Thus just before reaching the lake, Michelle turned around and the group consensus suggested that Lonesome Lake would be our turn around point as well. Those few who braved the gusty Arctic chill of the winds on the lake did so mostly to appreciate temperatures well below what we are ever likely to experience during our African journey. We all then headed down with Autumn and me managing much of the down on our own, knowing we had Cat and Tracy ahead of us and the main crew of Rob, Greg, Frank, and Cathy not too far behind. It was a fun part of our trip to work the trail entirely on our own. Once caught up though Rob Webber took over guiding to help us make a faster return to the warmth below. While vastly shortened as a hike, it allowed us to explore the group dynamic for making decisions and supporting each other in fairly difficult conditions.
We spent the rest of the day together feasting, planning the final timing for our travel, Safari, and just having fun. Whether it was a teaser to some of the deeper questions and answers we may share on the trail or the laughter and competition of Catch Phrase, it was quickly apparent that the friendship held by some quickly led to a warm and welcoming friendship for all to share. It’s just over six months away, but it finally feels like the real beginning to our journey together has arrived. We’ve set the next date for a little hike and hang out work. I’m excited to bring the full team steadily together and make the dream a reality. Thank you to the entire Killy Team: Rob, Jose, Greg, Tracy, Michelle, Cathy, Frank, Maureen, and Cat!
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