Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Owls Head Sensation

We arrived at the Lincoln Woods parking lot at precisely 7:30am. Myself, Sarah and Robby were ready to rock n' roll all ready. As we pulled in we saw Randy, Quinn and Tracy excitedly sitting in the car raring to go as well. We made our final preparations while Vikky and Tim showed up to join us as well. This small team had assembled in this tiny parking lot off of the Kancamagus Highway, uncertain in the initial moments of this expedition what story they were about to help write. However, upon our return to this lot some 38 Hours later, the pages would be written forever on a trip that in this hikers opinion will forever go down in infamy.
Bonding
After I signed our group into the hiker log book next to the front door of the rangers station, our group descended the short flight of stairs and rocked our way onto the suspension bridge that spans the mighty Pemigewassett River. Below us is a raging torrent of water, obviously full from a combination of spring rains and late season snow melt. I rocked the bridge back and forth while everyone crossed and sent a few jitters up the spines of those whom were unsure of the bridges strength. After we all planted our feet on dry land, we took a right and began our trek down the Lincoln Woods Trail and heading towards the wilderness. It was during these early miles that everyone in our group took some time to introduce themselves to those we didn't know, time to commune and create our early bonds as a group. Based on the many smiles present on all of our faces, I knew this trip was going to be pretty special. Though, I knew that before we even showed up.
It was some time in 2010 when Randy Pierce asked me when we were going to hike Owls Head. When he first asked I thought he was joking. I knew Randy has had grand plans to hike the 48 four-thousand footers in New Hampshire and Owls Head is on that list. I guess at the time he asked me, it was one of the first moments that I realized that he was pretty damn serious about taking on this monumental task. So when he asked again months later, with excitement at finding a date for it to be done, I wasn't as surprised anymore and took the idea pretty seriously. Yet still, in all honesty, my expectation for this trip was that I would plan two days for us to hike into the Pemi. We'd never summit Owls Head yet we'd enjoy a few days camping along the shores of this storied river. 
 
 
Yet as we took the left turn onto the Black Pond Trail, I started to feel that magic hit me. Our group was hiking true to the pace I predicted we'd need to carry if we were to have a serious shot at even attempting for the summit. I felt bad, here I was, a cynic deep down and unsure of if we could actually do this yet.. trying like hell to make the magic happen. Maybe this is entirely possible, maybe we will see true human potential on this trip. We rambled through the woods enjoying the many rolling ups and downs of the Black Pond Trail. Randy making great time across various early brook crossings. Quinn was in top form and the pace was brisk yet comfortable. As we arrived at Black Pond and enjoyed the vast views of the bonds over this black swampish looking puddle, I looked at a watch and determined that yes, we were right on time.

Our group was an amalgamation of characters. Some who had been to this peak before, some who never have. Some of whom it'd been years. Some who just a month ago doubted they would even make the trip given their level of fitness. A diabetic. A cancer survivor who had had 2/3 of her lungs removed. And Randy.. a visually impaired man with high hopes and gutsy determination. As we ate orgasmic pineapple on the shores of Black Pond, I determined that yes.. yes we could make the summit of this dirty bird and we were going to try like hell to do it with this rag tag bunch of stubborn ramblers.

Whackin' On
After a brief break at Black Pond we headed off into the woods and began our bushwhack. So named, the Black Pond Bushwhack, I began by leading Randy off into the woods. This proved to be quite the challenge. I was the only person in the group who actually knew the route of the bushwhack and it became increasingly difficult to guide the entire group in the right direction and guide Randy. Randy was hanging onto my pack as he went into tank mode. His sunglasses on and a Headsweats Hat on his head angled down, nothing was going to graze his face. Yet as he tussled through the trees to the left and to the right, so too did I tussle with each jerk of Randy's arm. I was growing every more tired as we carried on through the woods. There was no trail, just the 7 of us navigating a sea of blowdowns, re-growth and swampy water.
 
Eventually I had to relieve myself of the duty in guiding Randy which I passed on to Robby. In that moment, I was quickly able to reconfigure our course of direction. With the Bonds to my right, the hill side to my left and the "Owls Ears" straight ahead; I managed to lead the group back out onto a hit or miss herd path, down a steep embankment and out onto the Lincoln Brook Trail. Upon emerging from the thick woods, we saw first hand why we had taken this bushwhack. In doing so, we avoided two dangerous and bone chilling river crossings. Each 50 to 75 yards in width with raging frigid waters about waist deep. Yet, as we sat beneath a blazing sun, listening to the water rage on by I checked a watch once more. We had completed the bushwhack and were eating an early lunch at the best case scenario time I'd set pre-trip. I was in early disbelief at what I was seeing yet, elated by our progress.

Business
Quinn took over once more and we continued our journey towards Owls Head. The Lincoln Brook trail follows along the banks of the mighty Lincoln Brook which eventually feeds into the East Branch Pemi. The trail varies between wide and narrow. At it's narrowest points it's also the most treacherous. A steep drop off to the right carries the errant hiker 10-15 feet down into the icy river below. Quinn remained cautious and nervous for his friend Randy yet he guided him safely, yet slowly along the rivers banks. Those in our group who had yet to see these two work as a team, are all ready hiking with their mouths wide open.
After 2 miles of brisk walking we reached the first of 3 tributary crossings. This first one is about 20 yards wide. The water crashed over as a small waterfall to our left as it feeds down into the Lincoln Brook to our right. We could see a downed tree to the right that was too small and slick to cross upon. We all put on our river shoes and prepared to wade through the icy waters. Robbi crossed first, being tall afforded him the opportunity of a rock hop. I took Quinn by the leash and led him across the same rocks which got him safely across. Then, after the rest of the group had crossed, I guided Randy to the waters edge and then led him into the water. He used his poles and found his way across while Robbi yelled "Over here Randy! Over Here!" from the far side of the bank. Randy followed Robbi's voice and safely made it to the other side. All told, I had criss-crossed the stream 4 times while here; each time more painful then the last as the frigid sting of the water robbed my body of it's breath and caused almost instantaneous bowel movement at the same time.
We continued along the trail, working our way through mud and muck before eventually reaching the second crossing. This crossing was followed up some 300 yards later by the third crossing. After crossing this time, I prompted Randy to leave his Teva's on until after the next crossing. It was at the third crossing however that we were invited by a new challenge. Still clinging to the sides of the river are a 2-3 foot thick remnant glacier that rests 5 or so feet up from the river. First, we had to descend off the glacier then walk along side it using it has a hand rail. From there, we once again trudged across the now thigh deep water and to the other side of the river bank.

Delayed and Frayed
As one could imagine, it was evident that by now the group was growing a bit exhausted. The river crossings had added a challenge unforeseen by many in our group. We wasted a fair amount of time with the taking boots off and putting water shoes on then boots back on.. only to repeat the process again and again. That and the crossings wee frigid and brisk, causing us to utilize more caution in their crossings. We went from being right on schedule to two hours behind. As we finally reached the base of Owls Head slide, much of the group was out of water and in need of a rest. Vikky and I forged ahead to scout out a camping site however past the Owls Head slide entrance was nothing more then trail still covered by knee deep snows. We returned to the group and decided to set up camp very near the slide and then we had a group meeting.

After much painful thought, I came to the decision that ascending Owls Head at this time would be the wrong decision. What if someone got hurt? We'd be hiking down in the dark. I was almost certain that there was amble snow up high and some are visibly tired. If I could choose a time for anything to go wrong while heading up and down Owls Head, not to mention that some of what lay ahead was a dangerous rock slide where we'd climb some 1100' in less then a mile... if I could choose a time I'd choose the morning as opposed to very late in the day. As much as many of us were ready and willing to give it a go, we all also were easily swayed by the decision not to. Yet we agreed that we'd try for the summit in the morning providing we were engulfed by the impending driving rain storm.
 
With this in mind we set up camp and cooked our dinners. As the sun set we watched as the alpine glow illuminated the side of Owls Head. We listened to the rivers raging waters whisk on by our camping spot. The more relaxed our group got, the more we were joyed with the decision to not try for the peak today. We had plenty of down time yet by 7:30, many of us were ready for bed. Some retired early while others of us stayed awake until the sun finally set and the moon had risen brightly to the south. We enjoyed great conversation, many jokes and some of that memorable camp time that's easy to cherish. Yet, as I lay awake in bed this night, I couldn't help but whisper to Sarah how impressed I am all ready by our adventure. "I can't believe I got Randy this far into the Pemi in one day.. this is a huge victory and I'm not sure how I'm going to feel if we actually hit the summit tomorrow. Our victory is all ready large. I'm thrilled.. but I'm still unsure if we can actually do this." I dose off to sleep with these thoughts of uncertainty filling my head.

THE OWL
We all awoke at 5am, ate breakfast and broke down camp. While most of the crew continued to pack their packs for our later departure, Randy and I sat amongst the rocks of the river and filled everyone's Camelbak's and water bottles. The sky was now over cast. Having been on the slide in stifling heat, I know how much of a god send overcast skies really are. However, even though it's not raining, we had no idea when it would actually start and we hoped it wouldn't be until much later. Would we take the risk of hiking the peak only for it to start raining while up on the ridge. Hell yes we were. This group was very much on a mission this morning. With Quinn off lead and venturing up the mountain on his own, I took the early task of guiding Randy up the steeps of the slide. This being my seventh ascent of the mountain, I felt I knew it's nooks and crannies well. We all hiked with slack-packs on or our packs emptied of the heavy gear. We figured up and down would take 5 hours at best but who really knew.

As we began the climb we immediately felt the steep grades of the mountain and quickly, Randy's feet slid and his ankles rolled over the loose jumble of rocks that has accumulated near the slides base. As we began to climb, it was my job to find the best way to get Randy up the mountain. While some in our group were fearful of heights and conquering their own challenges, Robby was tending to Quinn. At times, Quinn didn't know his options to climb the mountain at which points Robby picked Quinn up and placed him atop of the cliff edges. Randy and I? We soldiered on at a break-neck pace. At times I simply told Randy to feel the route with his hands and follow with his feet, while I sang inappropriate and ridiculous songs which allowed Randy to follow my voice up the mountain. When he asked me to silence myself I did, and I found new ways for him to hear his way behind me. I wished we had the bells we used on Lafayette. Instead, I tapped trees for him to cling onto.
After conquering the slide, we let Quinn lead for a bit however Quinn was nervous and unsure of the environment. He was being stubborn and unwilling to guide Randy over the now icy terrain. They made a decision to have Robbi lead Randy to the summit while Sarah and I confirmed the route up Owls Head Path. The higher up we got the icier the path became until eventually we were kick stepping into the icy monorail. Upon reaching the ridge, we made our way round various blowdowns until eventually reaching the "old" summit of Owls Head. I asked the group what they wanted to do from here, "Do we go to the new "true" summit or call it a success here." After short debate, I made the executive decision that we were going. I'd lead Randy this far, I was finishing the job. We began our trek over to the top of Owls Head, all the way to the tip top. Along the way we made our way around many blowdowns and maneuvered through knee to thigh deep post holes. The woods up here are a mess and the walk is now taxing, and drenchingly chilly from melting snow.

Yet, I made it to the summit first having found the way for the group. I heard them call my name as I waited. They were some 50 yards back and contemplating turning around. I yelled over and told them I had reached the top. Robby brought Randy and the rest of the crew over and he passed Randy off to me. Randy placed his hand upon my shoulder and I lead him over to the pile of rocks, a meager cairn that marks the top of the 48's most isolated peak. I grabbed Randy's hand and together we placed our hands atop the top piece of the cairn. A wash of emotion flowed through me. The entire group was ecstatic. We'd really done it. We led Randy Pierce to the summit of Owls Head. When I took on this challenge, I wondered if we actually could do it and right up until last night I doubted we could. However, human potential reigned supreme and achieving a vision beyond our sight was realized. Yet, in the moments where we felt ecstasy, we also felt fear. The real work was just ahead of us. Descending the dangerous and steep slide safely and then walking the 8 miles out to the car.. all today!
 

Down and Out
Robby took over once again and agreed to guide Randy down to the Spring. The spring is at the very top of the slide. There, I took over and guided Randy the rest of the way down the mountain. What we accomplished here in these moments would prove to be some of the most inspiring and moving moments of this entire trip. I stood below Randy on the steep slope of the slide and instructed him to turn around and face the mountain. Then, he crawled down the mountain, in reverse, feeling his way with his feet and hands while I tapped his legs to the left and right directing him in the direction I wanted hi to go. At times, it was hard for me to move quick enough to get out of Randy's way. During moment's where I could guide, I stood him up, he'd grab my pack and we walked carefully across the slide landscape. When we came to steeper sections, I once again had him face the mountain and lower himself backwards and in reverse. We blazed down the mountain and reached the base of the slide in a time which was unfathomable in any of our minds. Randy and I embraced in victory before I turned him over to Quinn. We finished our trek off by arriving back at our camping site and we rested while waiting for the rest of the group.

Once everyone arrived at camp, we huddled around and ate lunch. We all sat around with huge beaming smiles on our faces. In disbelief at what we just saw and participated in. We did it! We accomplished a major victory for ourselves and for 2020 Vision Quest. Randy Pierce had just become the first blind man ever to climb Owls Head and he did it with a conviction, a style and an unmatched determination. We were in awe as words such as inspiring, incredible and unbelievable spread around camp. Tim said it best, "I wouldn't believe it unless I'd have seen it with my own eyes." Amen to that! Once again however, we still had work to do.

The Real Challenge Begins
At camp during lunch, Randy bumped his head hard on a tree. Fearing migraine and vertigo, we tried his best to gather himself for our hike out. As we started the adventure back to the cars, Randy was still uneasy and definitely not steady. Quinn was guiding him yet knew Randy was not ready to go. Being stubborn and electing to go on strike, Randy relieved Quinn of his duties for the day and I took over the guiding once more. As I led Randy to the first river crossing, he stumbled about. He rolled his ankles and bashed his shins and knees into a variety of rocks and downed trees. I tried my best to guide Randy appropriately but was not ready to guide him myself.

Down at the first crossing, Quinn refused to cross through the raging waters. The waters are up higher then they were yesterday and traveling faster still. There was only one way to get Quinn across. I picked him up in my arms and began marching across the brook. Tim met me half way and grabbed him from me and completed the task while I returned to my side of the bank to guide Randy to the Waters Edge. Once on the other side, I led Randy to the next crossing where I once again carried Quinn across and returned to assist Randy.

After the second crossing, Robby took over the guiding duties and we had set up a plan. Robby would lead Randy to the next crossing and then I'd take over and bring Randy down to the start of the Bushwhack. Then, Robby would take over for the whack while I found the route. This is exactly what we did. Robby guided Randy with brisk precision and when I took over, we continued the pace. Back on the top of Owls Head we had figured we'd reach the cars for 10/10:30pm. Now we were looking at 8pm. We were moving at a great clip. After leading Randy on the last section of trail before the 'whack, we moved so briskly and with such precision that Randy found himself exhausted at the resting place we'd chosen before the whack.

As we sat around and all snacked one more time before entering the thick woods, the rains finally came. It began to rain more heavily and we all put our rain covers on our packs. Yet Sarah, was the only smart one who put her rain pants on. We entered the bush whack with Tim and I in the lead. As we entered the woods he told me of some of our group members tire. "Not too many uphills John.. they're worked." It was after 5pm and we were all indeed tired and hungry. With this caution in mind we followed a herd path up hill until I got nervous. I thought the herd path was going to high and to far to the west. With that in mind, I ducked down off  the path and into the woods far too early. I carried our group across the hill side and got even more nervous. I thought we'd over shot Black Pond and we bailed off of the hill side and down into the valley. Then... I was clueless.
I weaved back and forth through the woods before leading the group into a thick and vast fir stand. The bush whacking got thicker and tougher. I felt awful. I knew everyone was tired, hungry and now soaked. How could I screw this up!? I began to well up with tears and swallowed by now injured pride. I asked Tim for help and with his compass in hand we determined I had undershot the pond and we were not where we wanted to be. However, I remembered the old fishermans path along the rivers edge and we agreed to walk to the water and hope to locate it. After 35-40 more minutes of tough bushwhacking I found it. I was so over joyed and at the same time, totally apologetic to the group. For the next hour or so I'd run ahead to locate the trail, then double back to make sure Robbi and Randy were ok. Then, I'd run ahead and repeat the Process. All the way to Franconia Falls where we hopped onto the popular trail and then eventually the Lincoln Woods Trail.

The rain continued to pour down, however we were finally on the home stretch. I took over for Robby and guided Randy down the Lincoln Woods Trail. As the sun continued to set, and the fog saturated the woods; a weird illusion took over the landscape. As we looked ahead down the trail, it looked like the pancake flat yet slightly downhill pitched trail actually looked like a steep uphill. Puddles filled the trail and I began to shiver. My hands so cold they were swollen and red. My feet were encased in water and I was tiring now. Yet, with a mile to go, Sarah and Robby turned on a head lamp and helped guide the way. Soon, Randy and I crossed the swinging bridge, made our way to the Ranger station porch and embraced once again. I couldn't believe it.. we actually did this thing from beginning to end in two days.

In the days following this magnificent adventure I am saddened by my own thoughts heading into the hike. I didn't know if we could do this or not and I very much doubted we could at all. Yet, I think that's what drove me out there, what led me to the Pemi with Randy Pierce and our group. It's what motivated me and inspired me to rise to the challenge. At the end of this weekend I know now that in my mind there is no doubt that Randy Pierce will summit every one of NH's 48 peaks. However I'll say that it's the bagging of the peaks that isn't the remarkable part of Randy's Mission or the aspect of him being Blind. The real magic in Randy's Adventure is within. It's within his soul and the souls of the countless others who are sure to join him on this incredible journey. Achieving a vision beyond their sight... think about that... then meet Randy in the woods. The Pemi has a new story to his hallowed past now. One that includes a man of incredible fortitude, guts and desire. The story of a man who tamed the wilderness and reached a peak.. the story of a man.. who see's more within himself in one day then many of us ever will. And it all happened beneath the canopy of New Hampshire's magical forest. J.E. Himself would only believe it if he saw it himself.

Happy Trails.... Happy Trails
SJ
[To learn more about Randy Pierce and his 2020 Vision Quest, ways to donate or how you can join him on a hike visit: http://www.2020visionquest.org/]


PS... not bad for a shmuck!