by Randy Pierce
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.
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.
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.
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.