Coming down off Mount Bierstadt, I crossed paths with one of the most obnoxious dog owners I’ve ever seen on a mountain. A man and his yellow lab were beginning the climb from Bierstadt’s shoulder up the gnarly boulder field to the summit and the dog was lunging at the end of the leash, pulling her owner dangerously off balance on the rocks. In response, her owner was yanking the dog and bellowing, “NO BELLA! HEEL!”. He had left his wife/ girlfriend below with a second dog, who was also pulling and barking frantically, upset that she had been left behind. As the closest 14′er to Denver, Bierstadt isn’t known for being a quiet mountain, but it was quite a scene.
Coming down off the peak, Dio and I picked our way down the boulders, each finding our own careful way through the rocks. Dio’s leash was wrapped around his middle so I could grab it if I needed to, but we weren’t physically tethered together. When I was young, I was pulled down by my dog and broke my elbow and I’ve been dubious of leashes in uneven terrain ever since. Besides, Dio’s ties to me are stronger than a leash; He stays with me because that’s where he wants to be.
Last summer Bierstadt made national headlines when a man abandoned his injured german shepherd/ rotweiller mix in a storm on the ridge between Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt, a jagged Class 3 crossing known as the Sawtooth. The dog’s paws had shredded on the rough rocks and the owner and his friend tried to carry her, but the terrain was too rough to safely manage a 100+ pound dog. Leaving an injured companion behind to seek help is a wrenching decision, one every hiker hopes never to have to make, but after he was informed by the local sheriff’s office that they don’t rescue animals, he simply gave up and left her for dead.
Incredibly, “Missy” survived eight days alone at 13,000 feet until a couple traversing the Sawtooth found her near death, wedged in the rocks. She was so weak that they were unable to evacuate her by themselves, but when they got down, they posted a report of an abandoned dog on 14ers.com and soon a volunteer search party was underway. After several frustrating, fruitless searches a team found her and brought her down in an oversized backpack. Renamed Lucky, the five-year old made a full recovery and now lives with one of her rescuers. Her former owner was vilified in the press, received death threats, pled guilty to animal cruelty charges and paid all of Lucky’s vet bills.
All day on Bierstadt, people kept asking me how Dio was doing and I assured them he’s a pro. Four and a half years ago (my how time flies!), while hiking in the desert in Arizona, I crossed paths with a scared, scraggly, starving stray dog who followed me all the way back to my car. When I opened the door, he jumped right in and he’s been at my heels ever since, over thousands of miles and hundreds of mountains. He’s never showed any signs of distress or fatigue at altitude; he doesn’t chase, bark, or wander and he’s unfailingly friendly to people and other dogs.
Of course, neither of us is invincible. In all our miles, Dio has never shown any footsoreness – lots of long miles have toughened his feet into hard soles, but even so, I check his feet often and always carry a canine first aid kit, including a bandana and vet wrap to bandage injured paws. I’d have to be in some seriously life-threatening dire straits before I’d ever consider leaving him behind to seek help – the same goes for my two-legged hiking companions – but you best believe I’ll walk through flames and move Heaven and Earth to return.
Thinking about taking your dog up a 14′er? If Fido isn’t well trained and well versed in the trials and temptations of the mountains (goats! sheep! marmots! pika!) you should log a lot more miles on less extreme trails before you head into the big mountains. The simple truth is that a lot of dogs aren’t cut out for climbing 14′ers. I tend to agree with the Colorado 14′ers Initiative that most dogs should be left at home for their own safety and the safety of their owners and other hikers. The guy with the lab is a perfect example: somehow I doubt that dog walks nicely on a leash around the block, let alone up a mountain.