A wide shot of the Andes Mountains with a snow covered Mt. Ausangate in the center. The 2020 team of eleven are hiking in the foreground on a beautiful day.

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Standing up to the Challenge
19 Mar
By 2020
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By Randy Pierce

“You made it seem easy!” I heard this sentiment from a few folks in celebration of our accomplishment of climbing the NH 48 this winter. Not so fast with that notion–looks definitely can be deceiving.

I consider setting a goal like this as “Positive Adversity.” I have challenged myself with a task which I must then problem-solve and persevere to achieve. The more worthwhile a challenge, the more it is going to seem like it has a few brick walls. Randy Pausch, author of “The Last Lecture” said it rather well:

“The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

This is why I think the idea of “positive adversity” is so important–because the goal has to be sufficiently rewarding to justify the effort and potential pain involved in the process of achieving it.

While I didn’t choose to become blind, I no longer look at the blindness as my adversity. The goals I set for myself become my adversity, and my lack of sight is one of the potential challenges connected to the process of achievement.

This winter, my goal was to summit all 48 of the New Hampshire 4,000-ft mountains in the limited time of a single winter. This required considerably improving my conditioning, which meant regular training. I heard “no pain, no gain” many times as I pushed the borders of feeling tired and exhausted to ensure I would be ready for some of the physical challenges that awaited on the frozen mountains. Speed and the ability to be steady would be essential in the cold mountain trails and both of those were new challenges for me.

While I walk, my feet become my eyes in many ways. With each step on the trail, in an instant I have to discern as much information as possible as the next step is already on the way. The fact that I broke multiple sets of micro spikes and wore out a pair of boots over the winter is a solid testament to the stress that my feet, ankles, and knees endure upon the trails.

I rarely find that perfect step–I most often settle quickly on “good enough” and endure the resulting impact on body and gear. I’m fortunate that my ankles have some natural flexibility and strength, though it was a rare day that I didn’t have a little swelling and discomfort. The lower snow this winter meant many lower elevation trails were harder for me–the snow didn’t fill in the holes, gaps, twists and rocks which can snag the blind stepping foot. In fact, ice or slippery low snow were added to the mix and at times made my choice of winter goal seem questionable! Fortunately, higher elevations gave me a break and eased much of that particular challenge.

My hands are my eyes in managing equipment, food, water and of course Quinn. In the frigid air up on the mountains, I had to be as good as possible with gloves and/or mittens to limit the time of complete hand exposure. This required constant learning and improvement of processes and dexterity.

Unfortunately for me, my hands are always out on harness and hiking pole, which starts me out at a disadvantage. Worse still, I’m not apparently genetically gifted with high cold tolerance in my hands. On many hikes, a few simple seconds with gloves off left my hands without feeling and unable to work the key gear I needed. Even the simple manipulation of a zipper becomes impressively challenging when you can’t see to align it and your hands have gone numb.

In these difficult moments, my greatest fortune was the eager help of so many hiking partners. Justin, Dina, and Bob each risked their own exposure time often to help me deal with these challenges as we steadily became better at organization.

Early in the season, I slipped on my driveway at home and dislocated my left thumb–hard to believe that falling injury came at home on flat ground. But luckily it was my left hand, which meant I could continue. My left hand is the one I hold Quinn’s harness with, and it didn’t require extensive strain on my thumb. Had it been my right hand, the quest would likely have ended in early January.

My long legs are a tremendous benefit to me as I stride up or down particularly steep terrain. However, along with that benefit comes the fact I was the tallest person on each of my hikes, which becomes a liability when ground snow lifts you higher on the trail and branch snow presses the branches lower.

A common winter challenge is knowing when and how to duck beneath these snow-laden branches. While Quinn can show me these and did when requested, finding what he’s warning about (footing, side obstacles, or head obstacles) can greatly slow down the key need for speed on these hikes.

We developed a system of others telling me key duck points while for the non-critical points I frequently “grazed” the branches and dealt with the snowfall onto my head and back. This often made me colder and certainly led to some interesting “snow face” moments. It also meant all of my gear tended to get more drenched than the typical hiker, which adds both weight and drying time. The number of mild scratches and bumps was also probably a bit above average, but I accepted this as just part of the choice I was making in this goal.

Overall, we were tremendously fortunate in many ways throughout the process. I fell a bit more than most but kept vastly free of injuries of consequence. Not until our final week did I receive the first significant health challenge on a hike.

As our winter window started to narrow, our Presidential Traverse kept us waiting for nearly two weeks before giving even potentially acceptable weather. When we finally did get on the hike, we did it in frostbite-warning cold. I had to do it with new boots, which caused blisters on the heels we couldn’t treat in the moment with moleskin because of the danger of exposure. We decided to push through due to the time pressure.

Before long, bloody and deep wounds became part of the challenge. In adjusting the foot repeatedly to avoid rubbing them, I inadvertently drove the nail on my big toe back into the foot seriously enough to require the nail to be removed and the area patched up by a specialist.

But that minor surgery couldn’t take place until after the next day’s hike of the Wildcats, and our final hike on Cannon three days later. Our Wildcat hike was the most physically challenging of all as a result. Part of pushing through the challenge was knowing the reward of success was close and with it would come plenty of opportunity to rest.

I share all of these challenges not as part of a pity party. Far from it. The experience full of incredible moments and rewarding experiences that I will recall for a lifetime. My intent in the sharing is to make clear that much is required in to achieve a great reward. The higher the cost, the sweeter the reward may often become.

Our immediate team is absolutely jubilant from the experience and the achievement. Support and congratulations have steadily poured in from many fantastic people. All of these quickly help diminish the costs which were part of the process.

In the full reflection of this winter, I wanted to be sure not to forget the price paid by many along the way for this achievement. For me, the monumental nature of the accomplishment far outshines the investment. I hope that as many pursue goals, they find motivation through the challenge in the reward awaiting those who can persevere.

Lack of adversity isn’t the goal. In fact, that is closer to stagnation than I would wish for anyone. The goal is an adversity we craft to be worth its weight in reward. Obstacles are opportunity–that’s my vision of this winter and the entire world!

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