By Geri Hayes
I’m trying to remember my expectations of this hike in the weeks prior to the actual event. Randy and my husband Bob had been running together frequently this summer. Knowing how much we both hike, Randy talked to Bob about leading a hike with 2020 Vision Quest. Plans slowly started to come together, and we finally agreed on a date to tackle the Wildcats.
My husband Bob would be primary ‘leader’ and he asked if I’d bring up the rear in case the group spread out. We’d be hiking over 9 miles and wanted to be sure that we kept a pretty steady pace. The plan was to meet at Wildcat ski area to car spot, then start the hike a few miles north at the 19 Mile Brook trailhead. We’d cross Wildcat Ridge hitting Wildcats A>D and descend via the Pole Cat ski trail.
Bob had done the Wildcats a few weeks ago with another friend, and the two of us were recently on 19 Mile Brook Trail. 19 MB was rockier than I remembered from prior years, yet a fairly comfortable grade. Other than the steep section approaching Wildcat A, and the C-D drop and summit, I felt this would be a fairly comfortable hike. I knew it would be slower than if it were only the two of us, but I’ve seen Randy in action running a few races and the trails at Mines Falls; I knew he was quite fit and ambitious to say the least!
Of course, this was all pre-Irene. And sadly, those thoughts were also ‘pre’ Bob spraining his ankle late on Sept 3rd!
Based on initial reports we knew that 2 of the bridges were out, yet we expected the trail to be in fairly good condition. No blowdowns had been reported and the trail was open. With Bob out of action from his ankle, I would be group leader. Luckily several friends planned to join us on the hike – Liza, Darlene, and Melissa, all of whom have rather extensive history hiking in the Whites and other areas. Them being there brought a huge level of comfort to me. Besides Randy and his wife Tracy (and Quinn of course), we were joined by Cathy and Mike. Cathy, a long time friend of Randy’s going back to high school days, and Mike a newer acquaintance from one of Randy’s UNH student collaboration.
After introductions, car spotting, and initial photos, we set off on 19 MB a few minutes before 9am. The first section of the trail is quite rocky, then smooths out rather nicely. Or rather it did before Irene. Sadly we found lengthy and deep washouts in the middle of the trail… this on the supposedly ‘easy’ section. We kept a good pace nonethless, and I was impressed watching Randy navigate the trail with Quinn. Being tall, Randy has rather long feet – I wondered if this extra platform helped him keep balance on the uneven terrain.
In a rather rocky area, we decided I’d take a turn leading Randy. He placed his left hand on the back of my pack, and used his pole in his right. All of a sudden, my preliminary thoughts of how smoothly this would work went out the window. And all I can see are the usual obstacles greatly multiplied – rocks lurking and waiting to jump out at Randy’s unsuspecting shins and knees, holes ready to toss him off balance. As we start out I’m giving Randy too many details. He has the patience of a saint (more like a room full of saints) and helps me along the way to understand what verbal tips are necessary, informative, or really not needed. It takes some time and we fall in (and out) of good rhythm along the way. It’s probably not until near the end of the hike when I start trusting myself more and understand Randy’s amazing skill reading the trail from my backpack movement and needing fewer instructions.
The whole team took turns leading along the way. While this gave us a break, it also put Randy into training mode with us novices over and over again. Mike led up to the junction with Wildcat Ridge Trail. Darlene coordinated the steeps from there up to A. This section, although only .7 of a mile long, is very steep with some fairly narrow trail sections. The team spread out here, although we were in site of each other to the top. High fives, a bit of whooping, and we were beyond happy to have this difficult section behind us as we savored a few minutes on the summit of A. Sadly the weather was not clearing and the lovely overlook towards the northeast was only fog. Those here for the first time had to trust us about the spectacular view. Quick bites to eat, and time to head out again.
While I generally do NOT carry a phone on a hike, I brought one this time so we could try to touch base with Bob along the way. No service on A, however it rang a few minutes later. Bob called to advise us about a band of clouds/rain heading our way – we should expect rain in another half hour, lasting 20 minutes or so. A few grabbed jackets in preparation, although with the heat most of us just put them near the top of our pack within easy reach. Miraculously, we only got a few drops early on and it actually felt good.
The A-C sections along the ridge are rolling ups and downs. Tracy led Randy here and we later found out this is the furthest distance she has lead him. Liza bravely took her turn and found herself leading the final climb to C and down the steep rocky section beyond. She managed the tricky sections and helpfully advisesd us that we were crossing bog bridge number 574 of the day. It started sprinkling, however with tree coverage it felt more like heavy mist. Most of us managed without rain coats and were quite comfortable.
I found myself back in the lead as we headed up the final approach to D summit, the top of Wildcat Mountain. I heard a groan from Randy as one foot slipped off the side of a bog bridge – this one is my fault for not warning and I felt awful. He regrouped for a moment and was ready to press on. I’m thankful he wears heavy gaitors and wonder if he’d stand for football padding. This approach is fairly steep and rocky, Randy navigated several areas free climbing, using both his hands on the rocks with some verbal advice in the transition areas. We knew we were getting close to the summit and finally heard cheering from some of the team in front of us. What a wonderful sound!
A few minutes later, Randy is climbing the stairs to the platform on the peak. More cheering, hugs, photos, and snacks. It’s still a rather dismal day weather-wise, but not by the look of accomplishment on the faces of entire team. Mike won the prize for the dirtiest pants and we are all quite helpful with suggestions to make him presentable for any stops later enroute home. Our last summit activity is being entertained by Randy, Quinn, and Delilah (Melissa’s black lab) as they play a bit of tug of war with one of Quinn’s favorite toys. Quinn politely shares, but keeps hold of his end of the ring. Randy finished with a few minutes of special time with Quinn, and it’s time to head out to finish the hike. We’ve got over 2 miles down Pole Cat trail to the parking lot below.
We enjoyed a rather easy and comfortable walk down. We were all quite tired, but we finished in the daylight and actually got a few views of the peaks across the way. We saw Adams and Madison, and enjoyed the various shades of gray between the different layers of ridges and peaks. We reached the parking lot shortly after 7pm, so just over 10 hours of hiking. What an accomplishment and learning experience for all of us! I only wish Bob could have been with us to experience this amazing day.
To recap: we struggled, we learned, we laughed; we bled a little, we probably swore a few times, and we all succeeded. I am humbled by Randy’s ambition and patience, I have new respect for a guide dog’s skills and training. I am thankful for the company and support of good friends. And I greatly respect Tracy for her strength to manage her own hike while entrusting her beloved partner to us. A very memorable day for me, thank you all.