Forty-eight mountains in New Hampshire; four thousand feet or more each; ten years: that's the challenge blind hiker Randy Pierce set for himself and his charity 2020 Vision Quest.
Pierce lost his sight in 2000 from a neurological disorder, but was not formally diagnosed until last week. His doctors believe that the disorder is a type of mitochondrial disease, a cell dysfunction, and they are currently doing tests.
In the past, the disorder affected his balance and put him in a wheelchair for over a year.
But Pierce worked to regain his balance and get out of his wheelchair. One of the tools he used to help him was a hiking stick, which reminded him of hiking as a kid. He realized that walking and hiking are "precious," and started to take advantage of his ability to walk.
Pierce, who graduated from UNH with an engineering degree, founded 2020 Vision Quest this year to send the message of "ability awareness rather than disability awareness." The name comes from both Pierce's goal date for hiking "the 48" and a play on what people call perfect vision. According to Pierce, no blind person – either completely blind, like him, or even those with light sensitivity – has ever climbed the 48.
Another goal for 2020 Vision Quest is to raise proceeds for the New Hampshire Organization for the Blind, which helps people adapt to the challenge of being blind, and Guiding Eyes, the company where Pierce's guide dog and partner of four years, Quinn, came from.
Quinn helps Pierce in everyday life, but also lets him know where there are obstacles and easier paths to take while the pair is hiking the 48.
Pierce also hiked with Eric Weihenmayer a blind hiker who climbed the tallest summits on seven continents. Weinhenmayer convinced him to go further with his hiking and start 2020 Vision Quest.
Pierce called Weihenmeyer "a legend of the climbing world." Another partner is UNH outdoor education professor Brent Bell, who received an undergraduate degree with Pierce and helped him to figure out what it would take to hike these mountains.
Recently, Pierce took part in the annual "Flags on The 48," a 9/11 memorial during which hikers climb the 48 and plant flags on top to remember the attack on the Twin Towers. The first flag was raised by a group of hikers seven years ago on Mount Liberty, the same mountain Pierce climbed this year for the memorial with Quinn and Bell.
Pierce was inspired by another blind man and his guide dog, who were inside one of the Twin Towers at the time of the terrorist attack. The man turned his guide dog loose to escape the building, but the dog came back to help him and others escape.
"[9/11] was the first significant event [in] the world that I didn't witness in some visual capacity," Pierce said when speaking of his motivations for participating in the memorial.
Pierce said he has eight of the 48 down and will continue participating in "Flags on The 48" for as long as he can.