New Hampshire hikers have long enjoyed the challenge of "The 48" - 48 mountains, each towering 4000 feet above sea level. To reach the summits of all the peaks in one season is a goal of some. For one hiker and his dog, the experience was nothing short of amazing. That’s because Randy “Zip” Pierce is blind, and his canine companion, “The Mighty Quinn,” is his guide dog.
Pierce is the first blind person to complete the climb in one winter. To put the accomplishment in context, only three other people and their dog companions have completed the same hike, and in grand total, only 46 people have done the same thing on their own two feet, and they all could see.
"It stands for what people can accomplish if they have a goal and they’re willing to put some work into it," said Pierce, a Nashua native. “It’s really limitless. The sky is the limit on this."
Pierce and Quinn’s trek began on Mount Tecumseh ended at the summit of Cannon Mountain on Saturday. The pair was greeted by friends and well-wishers and his wife Tracy. The group greeted him with music, noisemakers and bells. "I am extremely proud of him,” Tracy said. “But I am not one bit surprised he did it. That's just how Randy is."
Pierce said, "I'm blown away by this experience. I'm absolutely exhilarated." He paused for a moment and reached down to pat his seven-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. "I'm a little choked up right now."
Despite a painful foot injury, nothing was going to keep Pierce from completing his 300-plus-miles trek. "I’m going to look back at what we accomplished this winter, and I’m going to be very proud of this little dog and myself and all my friends who made this possible," Pierce said from the summit.
Recounting his hiking adventure, Pierce acknowledged he couldn’t have reached his goal without the help of his friends and his dog. "I don’t just love my dog, I marvel at him every day," Pierce said.
Quinn helped Pierce navigate the snowy climbs every step of the way. Quinn alerted Pierce to potential problems and obstacles in their way and worried when Pierce was guided by someone else, as Pierce had to do on occasion. But it wasn't all work. Off-duty Quinn would enjoy the sunshine or bury his nose into the snow.
"The freedom a guide dog gives you is incredible," Pierce said. "He’s doing the work that lets me interact with the world. My focus doesn’t have to be on how this world is a danger to me. My focus can be on how he and I are just buds traveling through it together," Pierce said.
Their hike was to help raise funds and awareness for 2020 Vision Quest, a non-profit that raises funds for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind (NHAB) and Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Pierce wants to ensure anyone who goes through vision loss like he did has access to services like those that helped him. "For me, the reward of what we can accomplish, the attention we can get for things, I believe, are going to be worth the fact that for the next week I'm going to be really sore,” he said.
Pierce began losing his vision in 1989 due to an unknown neurological disease and was completely blind by 2000. Later he was wheelchair-bound, when the disease attacked the balance center of his brain. Thankfully, after a series of experimental treatments, Pierce began to walk again. As he recovered, he found a passion for hiking and wanting to inspire others. "The most important thing I can tell anyone is the choice we make in how to respond to our life is going to have a bigger influence on our life than anything else ever could,” he said.
His hiking adventures with Quinn aren't over yet. He plans to complete a 100-mile walk in June as a tribute to NHAB's 100th birthday as well as tackle "The 48" again in the summer. It will be much more challenging in the warm months because rocks, roots and uneven ground makes it more difficult to find safe footing, which is easier in the winter because of the snow. But for now Pierce and Quinn can enjoy a short break.
For his part, Quinn was presented with the Order of the Golden Biscuit at Saturday's climb, being the fourth canine to have completed the 48 peaks in a single winter. He also got a couple bits of steak to enjoy.
As friends, family and well wishers congratulated Pierce, Quinn remained by his side. Pierce, leaned down to his friend and passed on the good will. "You’re the best boy, Quinn," he said. "You're the best."