Randy Pierce says it best: “You can’t choose to be someone’s inspiration.” His plan to climb the 48 tallest peaks in New Hampshire by the year 2020 isn’t motivated by a desire to be viewed as a hero. Rather, he plans to use the attention as a means to honor those people and organizations that have helped him reach the top.
Pierce, who lost his sight in 2000 due a neurological disorder, has been climbing his entire life. Today he takes his guide dog, the Mighty Quinn, with him on each quest. In conjunction with his plan to summit “the 48”, Pierce created 2020 Vision Quest, an organization aimed at inspiring others through education and support.
“I recently took a hike with Eric Weihenmayer,” Pierce said. “Eric is a blind guy who has done the seven summits—he hiked Everest and all of the summits on the seven different continents. I don’t know where he’d heard that I was undertaking hiking, but here’s a guy who I could talk with a little bit about it. It gave me some inspiration.”
A native of New England, Pierce is an avid Patriots fan and was named the team’s fan of the year in 2001, which led to an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary based on his experiences. Pierce, who recently received his second-degree black belt in martial arts, is adamant that his disability not limit his opportunities. “I wanted to be sure that I didn’t get my black belt just because I was pretty good for a blind guy,” Pierce said. “I wanted to be appropriate for a black belt. And I have no doubt that I am.”
Locally, Pierce served on the board of directors for the 98-year-old New Hampshire Association for the Blind (NHAB) after it was forced to lay people off due to the struggling economy. “They’re not in danger of going away,” Pierce said, “but they’re in danger of not having the resources to give people the same level of service that made a difference in my life. It was pretty clear I had to do something.”
That “something” was to create 2020 Vision Quest. Pierce was recently named the first recipient of the $10,000 Teva Life Agent award for his adventurous lifestyle, and will use the award to help fund his goal to summit the 48 peaks. His endeavor will begin this summer with the tallest of the 48 peaks, Mt. Washington. He hopes this will give him a national platform from which to talk about how organizations like Guiding Eyes for the Blind and the NHAB have helped him.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pierce about his honors, his hiking experiences, and his advocacy for people with blindness.
JP: How did you get started hiking and climbing?
RP: I grew up in New Hampshire. I was born in the southern part, but I moved to the northern part when I was young, maybe 10 years old. That’s a pretty deep woods area, right on the edge of Vermont, and Mt. Monadnock was probably a five-minute walk from my house. So I spent summers as a boy exploring that mountain and learning to climb. That planted the seed of my interest in climbing.
I went blind a year after finishing college. I took a step back from hiking after that time, and I didn’t hike a lot in college. My condition is ongoing—I have a neurological disorder. I spent one year, eight months, 21 days in a wheelchair because of damage to my cerebellum. When your ability to walk is taken away, it really highlights that you take some simple things for granted. As I worked my way out of my wheelchair, I began to use a hiking stick. That reminded me of this great passion I had when I was younger, and I began to think it was something I could get back into again. I did, and I found it pretty rewarding. I’m sure you can imagine the magnitude of going from not being able to walk across a room in your house to climbing to the top of a mountain. There’s a personal accomplishment in that.
JP: Was hiking a goal for you, or did you see it as a reward for yourself after having gotten out of your chair?
RP: It was a little of both, actually, and that mirrors my philosophy of life. You’ve got to set a lot of goals for yourself. You can set one great big goal and lay it out there, or you can set staged goals along the way. When I was in the chair, the long-range goal wasn’t “When am I going to be able to climb a mountain?” Once I’d determined what walking stick I was going to use in supporting myself, I decided I wanted to explore as much as I could. But I didn’t want to set a goal that was unrealistic, so there’s a sense of balance there.
JP: Did you go through a training process before hiking again?
RP: I did. The whole experience, I think, is training. I’m a fairly fortunate person in that I’m driven when I set my sights on things. When I was in the wheelchair, I used a squat machine so I could keep my legs strong. All along the way, I did physical therapy and had some pretty remarkable people working with me to help me improve my balance. Then I went to two totally different experimental levels of treatment for my balance. One was called the BrainPort, which is getting a lot of attention. The other was a surgical procedure called the transtympanic injection, in which doctors basically put steroids—similar to the ones Christopher Reeve used— into me to boost the signal from my inner ear. Would the brain be able to adapt? It turned out the answer was yes.
After that, the regimen went up steadily and I took longer and longer walks. I couldn’t work with my guide dog while in my wheelchair, so when I got him back, that was a big leap for me because it signaled I was walking again. There’s no better therapy for learning how to walk than by just being able to do it. But I had to reach a point at which I could do it safely.
JP: Can you explain the process of going on a hike for you? Do people go with you?
RP: I do hike with people. I think community is an essential part of my life. One of the things you feel when you’re hiking is the strength of community. If five of you go on a hike together, you’re going to leave that hike knowing a lot about each other because you have supported each other through something substantial.
I’m a huge believer that we don’t plan to fail, we fail to plan. I really want to go into things with preparation and understand what I’m getting into. There have been some remarkable accomplishments in the hiking world by people with challenges similar to mine. For example, Bill Irwin did the Appalachian Trail with his guide dog, and he did it quasi-alone. He had a lot of support from folks who were hiking the trail, but he undertook the trail alone. That’s fantastic. But by his own admission, it would have been tragically unwise had he not had some of those helpful people supporting him.
The first thing to make sure to iron out is to understand who is going on the hike, where you’re going, and to try to learn enough about the trail so you all feel prepared. That’s not only important for myself, but is also important because I’m hiking with a partner. I’ve got my guide dog with me. He doesn’t know the day before the hike that we’re even going on a hike. He’s not going to do any preparation, so I have to. I have to know if we’re going to come across water so I’ll have a source where we can refill. I have to know about water purification so that he and I are both getting good water. I carry water for both of us, which affects my pack load, my footwear choice—am I going to cross water and walk in wet boots, or am I going to have water shoes of some type?
JP: So the rule of thumb is to do your research?
RP: It’s preparation. Find out what is ahead and learn what you need to do to meet it properly. With trail maps, the wonders of the Internet and the general accessibility of everything, I can read a lot of details about what we’re going to find, which I can then transfer into my own form of preparation. Although I don’t want to overburden myself with details that aren’t necessary, I’d rather have a little more preparation than a little less.
Recently, I was hiking in the White Mountains. They’re not huge by the standards of the Rockies, but they have a higher number of fatalities. The reason is weather— incredibly unpredictable weather. On Thursday of my most recent hike, a foot of snow fell on the very mountain that I climbed that Saturday when it was 70-plus degrees. You’ve got to understand what you’re dealing with. Looking at the National Weather Service online is part of that process. Bad weather didn’t mean we couldn’t go on the hike, it just meant we had to significantly change our preparation.
JP: One of your next goals is to hike the 48 tallest peaks in New Hampshire with your guide dog, Quinn. Why did you set this type of goal?
RP: They’re called “The 48”, and they’re pretty wellknown by frequent climbers. The 48 peaks are each over 4,000 feet by various standards. There are more mountains that are higher than that, but they are either too close to other mountains or you don’t get down enough from the other range. Because I live in New Hampshire, those are the most locally accessible mountains to me as a first-step goal. I’m really about that first step. I’m not climbing 48 because I want to notch 48, put that feather in my cap and move on. In fact, I’m going to climb a bunch of them multiple times because I’m going to climb for the organization but also climb some of them on my own.
It’s really all about the experience of climbing. I really do believe that it’s more about the journey than the destination. But those are 48 significant aspects. The most significant of them has the worst weather in the world and it’s pretty renowned. We picked July 3-4 to summit Mt. Washington because the weather is easier then. But this is just the start of it.
JP: If this is just the first step, that tells me you have goals to go beyond the 48.
RP: I do. I’m always considering what the possibilities are, and that’s the beauty of multiple mountains. One mountain is a quick goal. We need a lot of goals in our world, and we strive toward each of them in time.
JP: How is your dog involved in pursuing these goals?
RP: My guide dog, Quinn, comes from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which is in Yorktown Heights, NY. That’s fairly close to where the Appalachian Trail hits New England. I sort of have a notion that at some point I might walk a guide dog from school to home if that’s possible. I wouldn’t do it with a fresh guide dog, though. You and your dog have to spend some time together before you can take on something so challenging. You have to make sure the dog is suited for it.
My present guide, he’s going to help drive this goal of the 48 if he can climb every one of them with me. I figure he’s got about three to five years left of loving the climbing. We’ll put out a video soon of the last climb we did together. Good luck finding a spot on that video when his tail isn’t wagging. He’s delighted in it. He was worried about me in a few spots, but it was fun to do that together. I might try to squeeze these 48 into a shorter timeframe than the 10 years.
I picked the year 2020 as a goal point because it encompasses the notion of having clear vision. Also, it’s sort of the year by which I imagine I can reasonably complete the 48. But maybe I’ll finish them a little quicker, just to give this pup a chance to be involved in this goal.
JP: It’s clear that your goals are not centered around yourself, but instead involve others like the organization, your guide dog, people around you. Is there a conscious effort to include others in your goal-setting?
RP: There’s a little bit of conscious effort in there, sure. I’m very proud of my accomplishments, but I don’t take easily to the notion of my own inspiration being within myself. I really believe people find their inspiration. You can’t choose to be someone’s inspiration. I am proud of what I’m doing and I think there’s some quality in the message that I want to share with folks, but I get an enormous amount of inspiration from a lot of sources. One of the things I want to do is provide an opportunity for some of those venues who have helped me to get a platform for some visibility. I have a reasonably good presence in general and that will help me share some of this success.
There’s a video online called Tyler. It’s a five-minute clip featuring a guy named Tyler who has cerebral palsy. He’s the first person from whom I’ve ever heard the term “ability awareness,” which is also a term that relates to this magazine. In the video, Tyler says, “I don’t want to talk about disability awareness, although that has value. I want to talk about ability awareness.” I completely buy into that. Tyler is an inspiration. So I hope through this project, through these hikes, we’re going to give a lot of voices to a lot of inspirations before we’re done.