I am a huge fan of the Dirt Bag Diaries – a great podcast series about hiking, climbing, and all things outdoors. For over a year, I’ve been trying to come up with a cool story to submit. After a lot of false starts, I actually came up with something and fired it off to Fitz. I don’t know if it will ever get produced, but it was fun to actually write something.
We’ve all seen the headlines and read the articles about the death of climbing partners. In a recent Patagonia catalog, I noticed the small print at the bottom of the first page dedicating the shot to a skier who fell to his demise just prior to publication. These amazing athletes were a huge loss to their families, their friends, and – almost more importantly – to their fellow climbing partners.
If you skim through almost any gear catalog, or browse any of the major online outdoor gear retailers (REI, EMS, Mountain Gear, Backcountry, MooseJaw, etc.), inevitably, you’ll find an entire section on dog gear. RuffWear even makes performance gear for “Dogs on the Go.” See, not all climbing partners have two legs and can lead a route. In fact, some of these four-legged mountaineers can barely contain themselves to the trail. However, despite the fact that they don’t always carry their own food, that they have a propensity for finding mud on even the driest trail, and that they love to snuggle in your sleeping bag after having found aforementioned mud, dogs make awesome climbing partners.
On Christmas morning, I was watching my 20-month old nephew decimate presents and squeal at new toys when my husband’s cell phone rang. He grimaced at the number and then waited to get a voice mail. Five minutes later, I found myself on the phone with Matt, the owner of our kennel. Mad-Dog had not woken up that morning; he had found her in her dog bed. The other dogs around here were all fine. Later, our vet would tell us that it must have been sudden heart failure. She had never been a perfectly healthy dog, so she could have had an underlying heart condition all along. Regardless of the reason, we had lost our climbing partner.
I consider myself a hiker, not so much a climber. My husband and I have scaled a few Presidentials, Mt. Langley (known as the “easiest 14er in the Sierras”), and a few other peaks in the Adirondaks, Whites, Greens, Rockies and Cascades. We aren’t training for Nepal or the Andes. We just like a great way to get into the woods and wear out our climbing partners, first the Mic and then the Mad-Dog.
My husband and I started dating, and actually began really hiking because of Mic. The then year-old Shepherd-Husky pup took miles before she could stop straining at the leash. Part mountain-goat and part sled-dog, she tore up trail whether it be boulder strewn or snow covered. Mad-Dog was different. We rescued her off of a transport truck from Georgia when she was barely a year old. I found her picture on Petfinder and drove Mike nuts until he said we could go get her. Little did I know that bringing that pup home would start a six year adventure in frustration, agony, elation, and heartache.
Her name was supposed to be Maddie, short for Madeline, from the children’s books that my mom read me about the sweet little orphan that lived in the nunnery. However, we named her in the first 10 minutes of the car ride home. By the time we reached our house, two and a half hours later, she had peed all over the backseat – twice – and then tried to jump out the back window on the highway when I rolled it down because of the stench. Upon getting let loose in the yard at home, she turned into a psycho banshee chasing Mic and our roommate’s dog, Wally. At that moment, Mad-Dog was born.
Turns out that Mad-Dog was terrified of the world. Clearly the runt of the litter who was never socialized, she also feared men, especially men with beards, oven mitts, the microwave, and vacuum cleaners. Someone had starved and beaten this poor little, freckle faced, red headed beauty. She just needed some patience, some playtime, and definitely some training. Nine months after we brought her home, she had mostly settled into a routine, completed obedience school, could be trusted off leash with an e-collar, and had discovered the joy of tearing up and down a trail. For every mile that we hiked, Mad-Dog covered at least two, until we decided to take a quick snowshoe one frigid January day in Vermont.
With the temperature dipping towards zero, and 30 mile-per-hour winds, we decided to bag skiing and take both dogs for a quick romp before heading home. Not five feet onto the trail, Mad-Dog disappeared. She just vanished into the snow after some unseen critter. First we tracked her. I skidded down a ridge and found where she doubled back. Mike discovered the spot where she took a quick nap in the snow after drinking in the stream. Her tracks took us back to the car and then evaporated. The kids who lived down the street from where we had parked the car before hiking up the unplowed road to the trailhead searched until dark on their snowmobiles. They apologized for abandoning the search because their mom told them to come finish their homework. A nice man with a Chow called for her as he walked his dog into the night. With every person that I met, I had the same conversation.
“Hi. Have you seen my dog? We were at the trailhead up the road and she took off.”
“Dog like that one?” they would ask pointing at Mic.
“No. She’s a Collie-Retriever, red with a white face and white paws.” I’d say.
“Oh.” They would respond before motioning to Mic again. “Shepherds go in straight lines.”
Mad-Dog had no nodding acquaintance with straight lines. Clearly, she had no sense to wait for us at the car, either. We camped that night in the car, taking shifts to wander into the sub-zero darkness and look for her. At dawn, we headed back into the cold to continue our search. As I crossed through another backyard, calling for Mad-Dog and praying to hear the jingle of tags, a woman came out in her bathrobe and ordered me into her house.
“Just slow down a moment and give me some information.” She said. “I’ll make a few calls. Dogs go missing all the time around here.”
Deflated, Mic and I hauled ourselves back to the car to check in with Mike. As we choked down the last of our frozen Clif bars, one of the boys with the snowmobile came running up to the car.
“They found your dog!” He shouted. “She’s up over the mountain. My mom can take you there.”
Twenty hours after our trial had started, we found Mad-Dog curled in a blanket, on a love-seat, on someone’s porch, twenty minutes away. She had circled around the car and then took the wrong fork back to find us climbing back up over the next peak. At two o’clock in the morning, she had set off the motion detector lights at these people’s house and was then too afraid to go inside. These saintly individuals had fed her warm water and food through the night, eventually covering her with a blanket on their porch. Suffering from mild frostbite and hypothermia, Mad-Dog had learned her most important lesson: always go out and back at least in mostly straight lines.
From that point forward, she became a model hiking partner. Though not always the best dog (we were asked to move out of our last apartment because she tried to eat the neighbor – he deserved it), she was awesome on trail. Last winter, she conquered a 14-mile trek in the High Peaks of the Adirondaks across frozen Avalanche Lake. This past fall, she bagged Jackson, Pierce, and Eisenhower with us on an overnight in the Presidentials. On Veteran’s Day, she ensured the safe passage of seven of my students on a climb to the top of the Great Blue Hill in Massachusetts. She ran up and back on the trail to make sure that everyone was accounted for at all times. I explained to the boys that they needed to stay within sight of the person behind and ahead of them.
“We don’t have to,” one of the younger boys said, “Mad-Dog knows where we are!”
The day before she went to the kennel for Christmas, Mad-Dog, Mic and I walked six miles across town and then down to the beach where she flushed seagulls at full sprint with a huge smile on her face. Yes, Mad-Dog could smile.
I know that I never had to depend on Mad-Dog for a belay. She didn’t even carry her own pack! But for six years, she was our climbing partner, scouring trails for critters and always making sure that the “herd” stayed together. On Christmas morning, Mic – now almost 14 – and I also lost our pace-dog. We started moseyed through town, sniffing more than walking. Invitations for snowshoe outings, cross country jaunts, and future summer hikes loomed in the distance. However, like other climbers who have lost their partners, my husband and I knew that we wouldn’t be able to stay out of the mountains. As I finish up this story, the Zoey-Monster is curled in a pile of chew toys at my feet. Though only 15-weeks and 20-pounds, today, her feet are bigger than her head, so she should be ready to climb by summer. Oh, and she’s part Shepherd. She should go in a straight line.