Each step is into a void. But out of that darkness, slight pulls one way or another serve as a beacon. Pauses, angled movements, and varying degrees of tension on a harness create a path felt, if not actually seen.
Voices serve as landmarks. Subtle changes in the air and wind indicate elevation; the methodical clack of a walking stick illustrates the layout of the land’s rocks and trees.
Randy Pierce doesn’t see a thing, but in this way — following silent cues from his yellow lab, The Mighty Quinn, and feeling, listening, and visualizing — he works his way to the tops of New England’s highest mountains.
In March, the Nashua resident, 46, became the first blind person to climb all 48 of the 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in a single winter (with Quinn being the third dog, and the first guide dog, to do so by his side).
Now, in a mission he’s called “2020 Vision Quest,” Pierce aims to scale all of the summits in a series of summers.
“I’m not a blind hiker; I’m a hiker,” said Pierce. “I don’t put anything out of my reach.”
He started his summer journey in 2010, has done 36 of the peaks so far, and expects to complete the task — hopefully alongside Quinn, who, at 8, is nearing guide dog retirement age — by the end of next summer. Although it might seem just the opposite, his summer adventure is ultimately more perilous than his winter one. During cold-weather hikes, the trails are blanketed in snow, so he doesn’t face the pitfalls of rocks and gullies, and he also wears studded, slip-on aids known as MICROspikes to increase traction.
On Sept. 1, he and Quinn crossed No. 35 off the summer list: Mount Willey, a 4,285-footer, which they summitted via a roughly 5½-mile trail.
At 9 a.m., his group gathered at the trail head, just off the whooshing Route 302.
Like a sage adviser, Quinn sat in the back of an SUV, watching as his human companions — Pierce, his wife, Tracy, and their friends Justin Fuller and Dina Sutin — laced up their boots and cinched their packs.
Then Pierce — 6 foot 4 inches with gray-salted hair, a skinny braid occasionally finding its way to the front and getting tossed to the back again — tapped his leg. Quinn hopped out, pirouetted into position by his side, and Pierce secured his dog’s harness.
As they set out — a walking stick in Pierce’s right hand, Quinn to his left — the dog scanned the trail to Pierce’s gentle coaxes, “Hop up, show me buddy . . . what you got?”
“It’s mind-blowing when you think about it and watch what’s going on,” said Fuller, 30, a lifelong hiker and self-described “outdoor junkie” from Claremont, N.H., who met Pierce on Mount Garfield on Jan. 1, and was so inspired by what he was doing, he joined him. “He can’t see a thing, yet he’s navigating.”
None of it would happen without Quinn. Pierce called his guide dog’s abilities “incredible.”
The two share their own language of feeling: Quinn’s pauses, backward steps, slight or hard movements, and tugs on his harness let his human partner know how, when, and where to step and turn.
“To Randy, Quinn basically is talking,” Fuller said as he watched the pair traversing a section of trail studded with ankle-twisting rocks, dips, and valleys. “They have such an understanding of each other.”
Pierce grew up fully sighted, but in 1989, at age 22, within the span of two weeks, he lost all the vision in his right eye, and half in his left.
For several years, he endured tunnel vision, the dark closing in from the edges.
In September 2000, he went totally blind.
The unconfirmed diagnosis is mitochondrial disease, which affected his brain and left him using a wheelchair for 1 year, 8 months, and 21 days. But he eventually moved up to crutches, and then a walking stick.
“I had all the normal reactions: anger, denial,” said Pierce, eyes flickering back and forth [a symptom of his disease] behind his shades emblazoned with the logo of the Patriots (who named him their “Fan of the Year” in 2001).
But as he came back from the literal and figurative darkness, he settled on the attitude that, “Really, what it meant was that I couldn’t see, and everything else was up to me.”
The disability ended his career as an electrical engineer. He keeps busy (when he’s not scaling mountains) with volunteer work, speeches for schools and businesses — in just the past two years, he’s talked to 16,000 students, he proudly reported — runs road races with Quinn, and is working toward his third-degree black belt in karate.
Meanwhile, he has raised thousands of dollars through 2020 Vision Quest for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and Quinn’s school, Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The pair’s winter adventure also was chronicled by Sutin in the documentary “Four More Feet.”
“I didn’t plan to go blind; I didn’t plan to go into a wheelchair. But none of that is what defines my life, because we have full power to choose how we respond,” Pierce said during a rest on the Willey trail. “The only thing a blind person can’t do is see.”
As he stopped to talk, Quinn stood by his side, took a moment to sit and enjoy a pat, or lap water out of a bottle Pierce carries just for him. He’s forever attentive, and never off-duty.
“He loves his work. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t be out here with him,” Pierce said. “He worries about me.”
At points where wet rocks pock the ground like jagged teeth sloping into the mouth of a gully, or 10-foot-high boulders require the use of both hands and feet to traverse, Pierce relies on the voices of his wife or Fuller to lead him up or across, and maybe a hand on a shoulder as a light escort. Quinn stands back and watches; as soon as he sees Pierce make it safely across, he bounds back by his side.
As the Willey trail progressed, Pierce felt his way up a steep set of ladders with his hands and feet and following voice commands; shimmied sideways across double log bridges; and, along the way, shared jokes and stories.
Ultimately, he hikes with all senses, and spurs others to experience the trail beyond their eyes. He remarks on the warmth of patches of sunlight speckling rocks, or cool breezes passing through, describes how the “wind plays a symphony,” and remembers the voices (as a sighted person might recall a face) of passing hikers, nearly every one of whom he engages in conversation.
Still, “I know one of the reasons people hike is what they get to see,” he acknowledged.
But he sees it, too, in his head, through the detailed descriptions of his companions, hearing the emotion and awe in their voices, and, prior to a hike, feeling the terrain and the surrounding mountains through the use of raised relief maps and a compass.
“My fingers get to feel those mountains, so I know the view. I can build those mental images,” Pierce said.
When he talks about experiences in his quest, it’s hard to believe he’s not able to see. He describes the Lafayette range during a winter hike in “Alpine glow,” when the sun’s just setting and it’s enveloped in a pink, red, and orange aura.
“He helps me put life in perspective,” said Tracy, who met Pierce in 2008 and married him in 2010. “He has a way of letting you see your way around things.”
Ultimately, because mitochondrial disease can be fatal, they don’t know how much time he has. But that reminder of mortality “helps us enjoy things a little more,” his wife noted.
“I want to be as much immersed in any experience as possible,” Pierce said with a shrug. “That’s just how I live my life.”