[The following is Part 1 of a report based on a trip taken in May 2010. The trip was conducted under the guise of The University of New Hampshire Outdoor Education Option and with the cooperation of 2020 Vision Quest. The enormity of this trip coupled with the amount of energy taken to complete it and various life events following prevented me from writing a proper report. This is the story now..]
It was the spring of 2010 when I had the privilege of serving as the Teaching Assistant for the Kin: Spring Backpacking class out of the UNH Outdoor Education program. However, this class was like no other. Back in March I was introduced to Randy Pierce and his dog Quinn while guiding him and Eric Weihenmayer. Eric is the first blind person to have ever climbed Everest and Randy was an aspiring peak-bagger. After April’s shake-down weekend, a lot of discussion was conducted about whether to bring Quinn to guide Randy or not or if the role of guide would rest on humans. And, coming out of a tumultuous time in my own life, I was unsure I was psychologically available to lead on this trip myself.
Day 1: Lincoln Woods to The Wilderness Trail/Bondcliff Junction
Regardless of these concerns, I was ready to roll as was Randy and Quinn in the Lincoln Woods parking lot on a very warm late spring morning. The temperature was all ready soaring up into the upper 70’s-low 80’s and the black flies were out in force. Our group of 10 plus a dog was ready to tackle the Pemi-Loop, consistently rated as America’s toughest, yet most scenic, backpacking adventure by Backpacker Magazine. After a quick morning check-in from our leaders of the day, we all paused for photos on the suspension bridge leading us into the Pemi and our adventure had begun.
Our group made amazing time on the way towards our primitive campsite. We were all very quickly thankful for our decision to bring Quinn in seeing how he and Randy were able to work together on the old rail bed. We were making magnificent time, far in advance of what we anticipated. Upon reaching the Franconia Brook where the bridge welcomes us to the wilderness area,, we dropped packs to practice our river crossing techniques. The water was frigid as we practiced going back and forth. Brent guided Quinn over the river by way of the bridge while Randy joined the students in the river crossing. After practice was over, per my tradition, I stopped to dunk my body underneath the frigid waters of the Pemi as my yearly baptism. These waters definately can cleanse the soul.
From here, we continued our brisk walk to the junction of the Bondcliff and Wilderness Trails. Here, I took one of the leaders off into the woods to locate a primitive campsite down along the river. Of course, we managed to find flat ground 200 yards from the rivers edge. The rest of the class filtered in and we began our camp preparations for the night. The bear hang was hung, water was retrieved and I hung up my ENO Hammock. After wonderful dinner and evening activities, we all met for our nightly meeting.
It was during this meeting where the LOD’s from today handed the torch off to tomorrow’s leaders. Tomorrow’s leaders had a plan.. not a very good one. As they told us of our insanely early wake up of 5:30am followed by an on the trail time of 8; I couldn’t help but laugh out loud then they told us we’d make it to Guyot Shelter for 5pm the next day. In my heart of hearts I felt terrible but at the same time, they knew not what they were about to undertake. The terrain up and over the Bonds is vastly different then what they had experienced today. Yet, at the same time, none of them conferred with their local expert about what they would experience. After I voiced my concerns in an educative manner, I sat back quietly before heading off to bed. As I lay awake in my hammock for a few hours, I blew some soul into my harmonica while thinking deeply about what I would experience tomorrow. I knew it was about to be a day from hell, and I’d have to remain strong if I was to lead this group for the extent of it.
Day 2: Wilderness Tr./Bondcliff Tr. Junction to Guyot Shelter
After waking up insanely early, we all ate our breakfast and packed up camp. With packs on and ready to roll we began the trek up the Bondcliff Trail. Randy did his best with his 35+ pound pack and with Quinn. I really feel that the idea of carrying such a heavy load uphill for so long was quite shocking to Randy and his ole’ boy but the enormity of the slowed pace was even more shocking to the 8 others in the group. Patiently I hiked at the back of the pack and let the leaders do there thing while Randy did his. By the time we reached the second stream crossing on our ascent of Bondcliff, we had travelled a total of 2.5 miles in more than 4 hours. Our group had run out of water while the sun blazed down upon us. We stopped for lunch here while we soaked in the rays and filled all of our bottles, a task which took almost 45 minutes to complete.
Around 1pm we put the backs on once again and continued our trek uphill. It continued to be slow and the longer into the day we got, it was evident that the group was growing more and more concerned for what was happening. Randy was giving everything he had and it was becoming ever more clear that his energy was draining. The time ticked by incredibly slowly while the group’s mental status ebbed and flowed. Finally, at 5pm we crested up and over the Hillary Step and emerged above tree-line and onto the summit of Bondcliff. It’s 5pm, the time our leaders predicted we’d be at Guyot and we’re still 3 miles away. The 4 miles to the top of Bondcliff took us 9 hours and the rockiest terrain of the day was still ahead.
After pictures and a minor celebration, we saddled up and took off for Bond. I decided to cruise ahead of the group and along the way I moved every loose rock I found from the trail and placed it upon the scree walls. I kept looking back to monitor the groups progress and all seemed fine. Me? I was in a bad place emotionally and I opted to hike to the top of Bond to get some rest and watch the sun set over the mountains. That’s exactly what I did. I made it to the top of Bond where I layered up and felt the cool breezes flowing over the mountain tops. Without a road in sight, I watched as the sun set to the west. The mountains turned black against the orange sky and I had no idea what was taking the class so long. I must have been up there for over 2 hours before a few of them came running up the trail.
The students scolded me for leaving them. They were exhausted and reported that Randy had banged his knee on a rock, Quinn was limping after having rubbed his pads raw and Randy was also suffering from Vertigo. The slow moving group only got slower. After the rest I had gotten, I jumped into action all the while feeling terrible for my selfish decision to leave them. I ran down the trail and immediately began hauling their packs to the summit of Bond. Everyone continued to assist Randy. On the summit of Bond I learned that everyone had once again run out of water. I looked at Kyle and he agreed to run with me down to Guyot shelter to filter water from the spring. We took the brains off our packs and filled them with bottles. We then took off running across the still snow covered and icy ridge, slipping and sliding off of the monorail and at times post holing into the deep snow. We filled the bottles and immediately turned around to meet up with the class. With our headlamps on we ran through the now frigid darkness. We found the class and dumped all the water off on them before continuing back to the summit of Bond. We retrieved our packs and then gave chase to the class.
We finally made it to Guyot shelter around 10:30pm. The group was a mess. Both physically and mentally. We decided to finally cook dinner and save our debrief of the day for some time in the morning. For now, our main mission was food and sleep. In the morning, we’d wake up and figure out our plan for evacuation. Quinn is injured and our group was significantly drained of energy. Our plans to finish the entire loop of the Pemi were now dashed away.
(To Be Continued)