By Randy Pierce
Announcing that Tracy and I were “expecting Twins” created an interesting social media sendoff for our longest single day hike of the 2020 Vision Quest hiking project: North and South Twin, together with Galehead, all on July 21. The jovial approach belied significant respect for a section of trail expected to be our most difficult. My prior experience on that stretch supported this assessment of difficulty; in addition Backpacker Magazine gave special attention to that stretch when rating the region. It deemed that hike the second most challenging day hike in the United States! That section descends from the summit of South Twin to the AMC Galehead hut in the col with Galehead Mountain.
Drew and John were the hike leaders for the expedition with a mixed range of experiences in the diverse group of Randy, Tracy, Erik, Sharon, Tim, Mike, Chris, Aaron, Andy and yet another Chris. The Mighty Quinn shared warm greetings with Mike’s pup, Tahoe, and we were ready for the trip!
The day started cool and we progressed on the trails at high speed for the first few miles until we encountered the first of a trio of respectable stream crossings. These were challenging points; different people in the group evaluated the best means for each of us to cross, though keeping the blind guy dry so early in a long hike was an additional consideration. It’s always wise to bring an extra pair of dry socks to use if necessary after the stream crossings–but unfortunately I had managed to leave my intended pair in the dryer! Several different people had route suggestions and were feeling pretty challenged at finding a particularly clear option. Many of my friends were willing to spend a lot of time helping to ensure my best comfort.
Then there was Drew who took command and plodded through the shallowest section with me to save that most valuable resource of time… or was it my patience! Either way, it worked and there wasn’t much water impact, just jokes and laughter. True to the guidebook warnings, these crossings earned our respect and caution though neither Quinn or Tahoe seemed to have any trouble!
After the final crossing, the fantastically smooth and easy trail vanished and was replaced by a steady uphill march for two miles. While nothing was unreasonably challenging, our pace was slowed and the temperature began to rise steadily.
As we neared the summit of North Twin, an ideal overlook arose on our left with great boulders to provide seating. Soon we were teased by the
mass of the Presidential range and peaks into the northern Pemi Wilderness along the Twinway. You burn a lot of calories climbing steep sections, and a food recharge had been well earned. We were well ahead of schedule and while we were feeling the climb, spirits were nearly as high as the summit was close. Thus shortly after we had begun, four hours of labor had produced the first of the Twins and a happy crew atop the wooded summit.
Starting the descent, we switched from Quinn’s work to Drew’s guidance to keep time steady on the downhill. The group was again making fantastic time and we worked our systems to keep the steady pace which quickly brought us the 1-mile jaunt to South Twin’s above-tree-line views in every direction. This time, the short break wasn’t so much for rest as it was to appreciate the splendor. Doctor Drew had delivered the second Twin and had a few words to share about the experience of being in such a remote setting!
It was almost all downhill from there as the next 0.8 mile would drop 1,200 feet of elevation on the trail that had taken me three hours in my first journey there mere weeks before the founding of 2020 Vision Quest. It was perhaps aptly described as being less like a trail and more like one of the twins had spit up boulders the entire distance to the col!
The plan was that all of the group who wanted to add Galehead to their list of summits would go ahead at their comfortable pace to the hut and take the Frost trail out and back. On that trail, they would experience the overlook into the backside of Lafayette and Owl’s Head on the way. All would wait at the Galehead hut to rest, refill water, and bring the full group together. I had already achieved Galehead with UNH in 2011 and this would allow for my slower pace on the tricky journey.
Sharon and Tim remained with me with Sharon’s first time guiding me on a hike taking place on that most challenging stretch. We were slow and steady with Tim helping select routes and Sharon talking me through the challenges while Quinn watched intently. It was slow going, but my pride and appreciation at the success and the improvement from the first summer trip there was immense. Timing was ideal as the last of the group arrived from Galehead in time to finish the rest stop, share a foot stretch and begin the final stage.
The footing near the hut is particularly perilous to ankles and I had guide help from John to get me through the worst of it and to the top of the Gale River Trail. There CJ took over and we quickly developed a quality communication through steadily easing trail. By the time we had passed the new bypass trail we were cruising seamlessly and listening to the many conversations and bouts of laughter from our group which had come together so well.
By the time the final mile of the long day had arrived, the traverse brought everyone to weariness–well, everyone not named Erik or Quinn! Quinn was in fact demanding his job back and ready to show that he could put some speed into the teamwork. We left the sweeper (that final person ensuring the rest of the team is ahead) behind and reunited with Andy and Aaron. The car spot team stole the drivers to retrieve vehicles while the overflow people relaxed and reflected upon the accomplishment.
It was a long hard hike and as always the latter part always seemed like the limit of what we could do, but the smiles and memories were etched firmly upon each of us. It’s unlikely this exact group will ever share a hike again but not for want or appreciation of the company. We always will have those moments and for some of us we’ll likely have them very intensely for a long time. It’s one of the many aspects of sharing an experience that cannot really be relayed properly in the retelling. Just as the images are never as vibrant and wondrous as the eyes report or the viewer shares while in the moment.
Speaking of sharing, Andy had a few fantastic IPAs (Dogfish) to offer and teased us all by showing a cooler and grill ready to tailgate in the hiking style. Those of us without such foresight in the planning settled for holding on to the experience a little longer at the Common Man in Lincoln. Our numbers had dwindled but we kept the rest of our crew with us in spirit. For me those spirits are with me even now as I reflect on peaks 27 and 28 for our 2020 Vision Quest!