“Every moment is a fresh beginning.” —T.S. Eliot
More than a decade ago, I put my hand on Quinn’s Guide Dog harness and invited the process of learning which took us to so many incredible peaks. Since then, I made a fair number of similar journeys with my sweet Autumn guiding my steps along the pathways many have suggested are surprising for a sightless step.
Recently I went back to my roots, literally, as Mt. Piper is a place both prior mountain climbers had taken me and now it was time to introduce Swirl to the trails. It is early for such a journey and I adjusted my intent appropriately. After all, my trust in his training from Guide Dogs for the Blind is very high. We’ve practiced at their campus under the watchful guidance of our instructor and have been home working and building the teamwork and training for the ordinary routes. This was of course something dramatically more involved.
Just one month and six days after arriving to Nashua, I invited Swirl to visit a New Hampshire mountain with me. Piper Mountain is an introductory peak. It’s where I first hiked with Tedy Bruschi ten years ago as he prepared for his Kilimanjaro excursion. While Swirl has had an absolutely fantastic recent round of work here in Nashua and everything is very promising, a mountain trail is very different work. How might I set expectations properly?
I already knew he loved when we worked in the woods on the easy trails of Mines Falls here in Nashua. I intended for him to get a chance to guide and if he enjoyed it and worked reasonably well, I’d let him continue. My friend Michelle was prepared to leash manage him if either of those things changed. My friend Rob was prepared to guide me. I thought in that case Swirl could follow us and observe how I navigate the trail, perhaps learning some from the experience anyhow.
I did not expect how well he would take to the trail. When asked about the results recently , my friend Sharon replied that Swirl responded as if he was born to guide me over mountains. I loved the answer. The truth is I loved so much about his approach to the entire process. This is not easy work for anyone and certainly not a young guide team. I’ve learned my fair share about how to handle myself on a trail but even I hadn’t been on trail since October 2019. He was in good focus, great patience and high learning as he steadily seemed to start looking at both the trail and our relationship differently.
I always wonder when my dogs will transition past doing their work because they’ve learned that following these “arbitrary” rules earn praise and reward from trainers and now me. Eventually I hope they learn that I need them to perform these tasks to keep me safe, and that they are not arbitrary but essential for me. Somewhere around 3/4 of the way up the often twisty routes, narrow rock/talus fields and steep slabs with occasional edges, Swirl seemed to realize the importance of our work together. I can always feel his pride in himself and his work, and yet I could feel that increase as the significance of his role became more apparent.
We rested on the summit for a bit while some of our crew took to the nearby Belknap peak. I wanted us to rest, refuel, and reflect so that he could take on the even more daunting challenge of going down. Here’s a bit of additional beauty. I was so confident in his drive and work ethic that I set out with a smaller team which was prepared to support me as needed, but both Rob and Michelle were on the other peak by this point. They would soon catch us if anything went awry. I didn’t anticipate a problem and Swirl ensured we didn’t have any.
It was work going down–harder, more deliberate–and requiring him to really evaluate the consequences of route choices, my down-step needs and his role in waiting for me to take those steps before he could step down to direct me the next section. When it allowed, we picked up the pace and when he slowed I knew we needed higher foot focus. My trust in him grew and grew. I regularly caught the hikers in front of me and we had to wait for them to manage the tricky footing so that we could continue. This is unheard of for me and a sign of how skillfully we worked together.
There will doubtless be many more peaks and both videos and images to support and illustrate the incredible work we share together. For now, I just wanted to celebrate Swirl’s absolutely amazing accomplishment. Hiking up and down the full trip on his first mountain peak is a tough guide request for anyone. Doing it so soon after arriving home is nearly unbelievable and an incredibly positive sign of the possibilities ahead. “See You At the Summit, Swirl!”