Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Vision On Lafayette

I watched the weather closely as the week progressed and it never once looked promising. They were calling for snow and frigid temps, high winds, and a warm front moving in from the south. Never once did the forecast sound even remotely promising and I knew I had a tough decision to make. Randy and I wanted to hike Lafayette to play homage to Guy Waterman, the visionary who claimed his own life on this summit's frigid peak in 2000. Paying homage to Guy didn't include the risk of our own lives, but there were certain tangibles to this hike that added to the risk assessment of going.
For those who haven't frequented here long enough, Randy Pierce is a man who in my mind needs no introduction. He exemplifies Inspiration, Human Potential and "Vision." Randy is visually impaired, 100%, and has aspirations of becoming the first person with visual impairment to become a member of the AMC's Four-Thousand Footer Peak-Bagging Club. His 2020VisionQuest is his way of raising funds for and awareness of the invaluable services that other organizations such as the The New Hampshire Association for the Blind, and Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Having put off this hike one week because of the Super Bowl all ready, I had it in my head that I didn't want to push this back again. I thought long and hard about the weather forecast, the risks, the problem solving. And then I went back to a conversation I had had over a year ago with fellow hikers in New England. One hiking enthusiast had warned his brethren that winds above tree-line were to reach above 60mph on the upcoming weekend and told (not suggested) hikers to pick different peaks to hike given the forecast. I argued that, this practice in particular robs individuals the valuable experience of A.) Feeling 60mph winds and B.) Gaining the knowledge and experience necessary to make sound judgements to turn back in the future... on their own... without a know-it-all holding their hand. I knew that this weekend was one of those hikes to gain such experience.
Randy's first winter hike was Saturday, up Pack Monadnock, a tiny bump in New Hampshire's landscape that holds virtually no merit as compared to the Franconia Beast we were about to tackle. Thanks to the education I helped give Randy a year ago about layering and regulation of Body Temp, he had some clue as to what to wear for the adventure. So when I met Randy at 6:10AM at our rendezvous point, I could see clearly that he was perfectly prepared for the adventure ahead and ready to rock n' roll. It was here that I realized that I made the right decision for our hike and this day was playing out perfectly.

On the way up to the notch we confirmed earlier conversations about our plans. The forecast this morning called for increasing clouds, snow 2-4", winds 60-80 MPH with higher gusts diminishing later at night with higher gusts. A warm front moving in from the South/SouthWest could make things sticky. Knowing the terrain we were going to be on well, our plan was to try and obtain the Greenleaf Hut, assess the situation and if all seemed right, to hike to tree-line so Randy can feel winter's wrath against his body and face. Randy agreed with the plan. We had no intentions of summiting but knew that if for some holier-than-thou reason we had the opportunity, we still might take it.

We made it to the Lafayette Place campground to find Robby Caldwell and his girlfriend Sophie preparing for the hike. Robby brought 2 friends, in a separate car, who had summit dreams so they left ahead of us. Randy, Sarah and I then waited for Randy's gang of friends, Lianna, Claire, Steven and his son Steven. By 8:45 our group of 9 was saddled up and ready to take on Lafayette one step at a time.
The bright morning sun was quickly giving way to the storm moving in. As we drove up to the notch we could see the lenticulars had formed over the summits, an indication that the winds were indeed whipping up high. Cannon was shining brightly as we set out thanks to the reflectiveness of the sun on snow, but it wasn't long before the world was turning to gray. I had bells on my pack so Randy could track my location with his hearing. I jingled as we walked along. To whole reason I had propose winter hiking a possibility to Randy was because I knew it would be easier for him. Gone were the billion obstacles of rocks, water, roots and other pieces of fragmented earth. Everything was filled in and/or hidden by the snow. TONS of snow. Even with his snowshoes on, the trail had been packed down by travelers before so much so that Randy could had shuffled to the top as if he wore slippers.
For the first time since knowing Randy and leading him on hikes, he wasn't the slowest in the group... he was the fastest. I let young Robby have a go at guiding Randy up the mountainside and in that moment, the two of them, the tallest of the group, put their long strides into over drive and kept leaving most of us in the dust. Having run 50K yesterday, I was certainly one of the ones in the back of the pack, dragging my legs through the snow yet smiling the entire way. This group was perfect. Hiking isn't supposed to be rocket-science and today wasn't one of those days. A carefree group of smiling happy hikers, with no qualms or complaints, all content with where they settled into the pack in terms of speed, all of us respect of each others desires and needs as outdoor enthusiasts.. it was perfection, like a well oiled machine and surprisingly put together by strangers.
Robby and Randy
The higher up we progressed across Agony Ridge, the deeper the snow got. We made it to "Lunch Rocks" where we enjoyed plenty of jokes and enjoyment of the views. More getting to know each other and unfortunately now that the weather was fully moving in, the group was starting to split up a bit. The two Steven's took off for the hut. Neither one of them had been on snowshoes in over a decade so for them to have made it that far even is impressive. I think this was a testament to the inspiration Randy provides. Robby called his two friends on their cell-phone and they told him they had made it to Little Haystack. The weather up high was terrible and their plan was to retreat back down from there. Sophie had forged ahead in an attempt to catch them earlier so now Robby needed to go catch his girl for safeties sake. So this diminished our group to Sarah, Myself, Randy, Claire and Lianna.
From lunch rocks to the hut was a walk on the moon. There was so much snow on high that it seemed to encase us. Snow drifts higher then 6 or 7 feet, 2 to 3 feet of snow piled up on top of the fir branches. Many times I had to get Randy to duck under low hanging branches that in summer are over your head but this time of year, are at chest level and weighted down by mounds of snow. A few times we stepped off trail and fell into the spruce traps. Some of these traps I found myself in up to my neck. It was hard to not laugh from the sheer enjoyment of walking through the landscape. I told Randy how I felt like we were in an airplane. As we peered through the gaps in the trees over at the ridge, the snowdrifts created a discernible foreground while the ridge in the background seemed to move on it's own.
After 4 hours of hiking, we reached Greenleaf Hut. The snow was so high as we made the final approach that we seemed to be up higher then the roof. Snowdrifts on the western side of the hut were deep/high enough that we could have walked right up to the roof and taken a seat. In only 4 hours we'd travelled 3 miles. During the summer, it took Randy and I three-and-a-half hours to hike eight-tenths of a mile. We had reached our primary goal for this expedition with relative ease. Randy was of course covered in snow but smiling. The entire group was smiling. Robby had caught up to Sophie, the Stevens had made their return and the wind was whipping. While we stood at the hut and tried to re-apply layers, I glanced up at the ridge. I could see the snow coming up and out of Walker Ravine dancing across the tops of the Krumholz. We watched as a few hikers we'd seen before came careening down across the frigid white landscape almost running and rushing to get out of the elements up-high. We asked a few when they reached us if they had reached the summit. 3 teams of hikers, all 3 had turned back before summiting. I spotted a large cairn across the col and up at about eye level. I knew that it was built by Guy, you can tell.. and it was above treeline. I asked the group if they wanted to go and everyone said yes. We all dropped our packs and put on our puffiest coats. Then we made our way over.
As we reached down into the Col, the wind came screaming up and out of the ravine racing across Eagle Lakes. We ducked quickly back into the trees, crossing the sign for the Alpine Zone and then up and out of it all, into the open and on the spine of the ridge. As we all huddled around the cairn, I asked Randy to pull his balaclava down a bit, face South and feel the wind. He did so, then turned back at me and said, "yep" before covering back up again. And just like that, our group hurried to take a group photo before we retreated for the comfort of the trees again. These are the moments I'm talking about. The summit's not going anywhere nor is it the most important thing out here. Randy had experienced, in one hike, all that winter has to offer. From the terrain to managing body temp to feeling the effects of the wind on his face... and even without sight, being able to make the right decision that turning around was the right choice.
Back at the hut, we all removed our snowshoes so we could prepare for the fun that was about to commence on the way down. We knew from the hike up that Glissading and boot-skiing was certainly an option. Options we were about to take full advantage of. As swiftly as we'd made the hut and our journey above the trees, it was now time to swiftly take to home. Instead of using bells, Randy held onto the pack of who ever was leading him and we just went. As we hit our first decent, we sat down on our butts and let fly. We slid down the mountain taking the turns like we were on a winding roller coaster. Through the trees you could hear the hoots and yahoos! of people truly having fun. Randy himself exclaimed as he slide down as fast as he could, "This is sooo awesome!" From time to time I sat down and wrapped his legs around me so we could get more steam and go together. I'd never heard a grown man laugh as giddily as he.
As I sit here now and write this report, I can't help but feel humbled by my continued experiences with Randy. All of my life I've had the privilege, and it is a privilege, to see the world around me. Though Randy could see before the year 2000, he is doing more now with his life now without vision (presumably) then he ever had with vision. As much a I enjoy helping Randy realize his true potential, to dream, to engage his goals and to test the limits of his potential... I think Randy is more the one helping me. I can't put into words, yet, how it is that he is helping me but I want the world to know that this man gets my inspirational gears turning. After a hike with Randy I am more motivated then ever to dream big and reach higher.

The best part of hiking with Randy is that... I don't view him as someone with a disability and this is important. Randy is my friend. He's honest, candid, caring and full of life yet to live. I often forget that he's visually impaired and this is evident by the number of times he walked straight into a branch out on the trail (sorry bud!). Together we're always smiling, laughing, joking and giving each other about as much guff as we can each take without thinking it was personal. You'd think that, most people who are committed to a disability such as Randy's choose to suffer. They'll do what they need to do to get by. But not Randy... Randy takes life by the balls, says "Screw it!" to all the rules and dares to achieve a Vision Greater then his own.. I'm eternally grateful to be a part of Randy's Journey.. from our First Hike up Agamenticus, to our 8 days in the Pemi... I hope the chapters keep coming.

(2020 Vision Quest inspires people to reach beyond adversity and achieve their highest goals -- personal, professional, and philanthropic. We believe in leading by example, in climbing the highest peaks, and in sharing our successes and challenges with each other. Funds raised through these endeavors will be given to two remarkable organizations which benefit the visually impaired community: Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and the New Hampshire Association for the Blind. To learn more please visit: http://www.2020visionquest.org/)