Rescued: A Boy and His Dog

Her origin story will always remain a mystery. One of the few known facts is that she was born on or around March 3, 2015, near the Mescalero Reservation in southern New Mexico.

This is a familiar tale. Stray dogs on Native American reservations are a growing epidemic. It blew me away the first time I saw it first-hand, driving through the town of Shiprock near the Four Corners. Most of these mutts will never see a veterinarian, much less a spray/neuter clinic, and when they breed their puppies enter a harsh and unforgiving world. Many are killed well before reaching adulthood. Most survivors earn an emaciated life as scavengers scraping by in a barren landscape, detested as rodents by the human world.

A few are lucky.

She and her brother found their way into the hands of a La Luz, N.M., woman who makes a hobby of rescuing these “Rez Dogs.” She was even given a name: Daisy. I try not to think about what happened to the rest of the litter.

Daisy and her brother were nursed to health, along with four other mutts. When they’d reached the proper age, on May 8, 2015, the puppies were surrendered for adoption to an animal shelter in Ruidoso, N.M. This is speculation, but I’d wager that a humane society that borders a reservation in rural New Mexico probably falls on the wrong side of the supply-and-demand equation. I don’t know if whatever shelter that housed Daisy and her brother has a no-kill policy, but it’s another of those things I try not to think about.

Here’s where Daisy’s good fortune continued. She was located by Colorado Puppy Rescue and brought north to the Denver metro area, renamed “Puppy #509.” In case you didn’t know, Coloradans think dogs are just super neat-o. The supply-and-demand equation suddenly flipped.

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Empathizing with the early part of her life is heartbreaking for me. She was born into a world that didn’t want her. I can’t imagine what was going through her little puppy brain as she saw the harsh realities of reservation life before being passed from kennel to kennel and finally being put in the back of a van with a dozen other crying canine orphans as they drove for hours to the Colorado state line. Here’s this sweet girl, so full of curiosity, affection, intelligence and playfulness, who spent the first three months of her life without a loving hand.

The weekend she was born just happened to also be one of the worst weekends of my life. I was on a two-year anniversary trip with my girlfriend in Del Norte, Colo., hunting down some new ice climbs and enjoying all the leisures of the surrounding San Juan mountain towns. Things had been heading south for a while, but our long-weekend adventures were always the highlight of our relationship. No matter how bad things were at home, we always found love again on the road.

That trip was different. We bickered and fought almost constantly. Though we went through the motions for another couple weeks, it wasn’t a huge shock when she said she was moving out. She took with her a dog, Remy, that I’d grown to love as if he was my own.

I didn’t take it well. Without going into too much detail, I found rock bottom pretty fast. I was depressed, I was careless with the feelings of others, I alienated friends and I retreated into a shell of self-loathing and self-pity.

I grew up with dogs. There was always one around, or more likely two or three. Cowboy, Wolfie, Babe, Clover, Lucky, Cassie — and even that awful min-pin Shadow — bring a smile to my face to this day. I always wanted my own, but I forced myself to wait until I had the maturity, living situation and financial security required to be a responsible owner. By then I had Remy. As I pulled my life back together, I realized the timing was finally right.

Puppy #509 wasn’t my first choice. She wasn’t even my second, third or fourth. I showed up to Colorado Puppy Rescue’s May 28, 2015, adoption event with a handful of other dogs in mind. I arrived an hour early expecting to be near the front of the line, but in classic “me” fashion, I was unaware there was an early online check-in beginning at midnight. Despite being one of the first arrivals, I was roughly 20th in the first-come, first-served line to see the puppies. The four I was most excited about were chosen first. I guess I have a good eye for cute dogs.

I’d driven all the way to Aurora, however, and I figured I’d at least play with a puppy. My friends counseled me both before and during the adoption event to be patient. It’s as much about a dog choosing you as it is you choosing a dog.

“When it’s the right fit, you’ll know it,” said seemingly everyone.

The black-lab mix I’d been eyeing found her forever home with the family literally in front of me. With few puppies left, in a rushed last-minute decision I locked onto #509 and her brother, still sharing a kennel after their long and improbable journey from southern New Mexico. I remember observing how calm, quiet and alert they were despite all the fuss. Most of my favorite dogs growing up were girls, so I asked to see #509. The sign on her kennel called her a “Border Collie Mix.” I walked over to the small playpen as a volunteer went to grab the puppy I was pretty sure I was going to pass on.

I knew I’d been chosen from the second she wobbled over to me, tail wagging in overdrive. I even teared up waiting in line to pay the adoption fee. Very little in my life has ever felt so right.

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Daisy/#509 became Zia, in honor of her homeland. She’s served as my constant companion ever since. From the almighty Wikipedia:

The Zia Sun Symbol is featured on the New Mexico flag. The Zia Indians of New Mexico regard the Sun as a sacred symbol. Their symbol, a red circle with groups of rays pointing in four directions, is painted on ceremonial vases, drawn on the ground around campfires, and used to introduce newborns to the Sun.

Adoption day was a whirlwind, full of friends and wild emotions. When I finally had some alone time with my new pup, I whispered into her ear a promise of which I remind myself almost daily: “I’m going to give you the best life, little Rez Dog.”

Zia turned 1 year old today, on March 3, 2016. I’ve had her for barely nine full months and already I feel like I have a lifetime of happy memories. It’s a symbiotic relationship. I provide her with love, food, attention, exercise and limitless toys to eviscerate, while she continues to help me heal and grow as a person.

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There were lows, to be sure. The time she cut her paw and had to wear a bandage for weeks because some jackass threw a glass beer bottle over the fence. The time she had the runs inside a retail store. The time she turned her (third) brand-new $40 bed into tatters. The time the wind blew open my back gate while she was outside and I didn’t notice for nearly 20 minutes, assuming she was gone forever. (She was waiting patiently at the front gate, wondering what all my melodramatic screams were about.)

The highs were far more numerous. The time she was my kickball team’s mascot, the time she went for her first hike at Elk Meadow Park, the time she summited a 14er and spent the night clawing her way into my sleeping bag with intense terrified shivers because she heard a coyote howl a mile away. Our Christmas together. The time she caught her first frisbee in mid-flight. The time she tried to play with my now-girlfriend’s cats and got swatted so hard she wouldn’t go within 10 feet of them for weeks. The time I picked her up from being spayed and her groggy eyes finally focused on me and I saw pure, unbridled happiness.

My favorite memory is the first time she experienced snow. Zia, my little Rez Dog from southern New Mexico. How would she react? Well…

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It’s a good thing, too. Snow and ice are two of my favorite things. I only know a handful of people who feel the same way. I don’t say lightly that Zia might even love frozen water more than I do.

Today, for her birthday, we went to St. Mary’s Glacier. I had grander plans, but an absurd wind forecast scared me off. The end goal was just to let her play in the snow for a while. Per usual, she went insane. So much so that she’s been snoring on my feet during the entire writing of this blog. She’s starting to wake now. Oh, these border collies — dead weight one minute, juiced the next.

I might be a crazy dog man. The thing is, I don’t take that as a negative. Anyone who doesn’t “get it” probably has never felt the bond between a boy (or girl) and his (or her) dog.

She was born on a reservation and didn’t know love for the first three months of her life. She’s now snoozing on a dog bed that’s two sizes too big after spending a day running in the snow with a belly full of some sort of expensive dog food that’s supposed to mimic the diet of wolves or some crap. Yet, somehow, I feel like it’s my life that’s become richer.

Happy birthday, sweet girl.

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5 Winter 14ers for Beginners

Often the most difficult aspect of committing to a big endeavor, such as climbing a 14,000-foot mountain in winter, is knowing where to start. It’s a common misconception for summer hikers that winter is off limits, a no-man’s-land of arctic temperatures, sheer ice faces and hourly avalanches. That’s simply not true. I previously wrote a basic overview for exploring the alpine in the so-called offseason, and now I’ll attempt to answer another oft-repeated question: Which peak(s) to try first?

As a disclaimer, none of these routes offer guaranteed safety. It’s imperative for anyone venturing into the winter backcountry to have at least a basic understanding and awareness of avalanche terrain. The stakes are also exponentially higher. More care needs to be given to gear selection, route knowledge, emergency preparedness and other safety precautions. A forced night out in the summer could be uncomfortable. A forced night out in the winter could be fatal.

I chose the following five mountains based on access, minimal avalanche danger, ease of routefinding and general popularity. Many others are doable as relatively safe winter daytrips. These are simply the lowest-hanging fruit.

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1. Quandary Peak

Winter Trailhead: Quandary (same as summer)
Winter Route: East Ridge (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 7 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,500’

When asked what’s the easiest 14er to attempt in the summer, an argument could be made for several different mountains. When the same question is asked for the winter months, there really is only one best answer. It’s Quandary Peak.

Quandary’s standard trailhead is right off Highway 9, which is consistently plowed. No extra effort is needed to reach the summer starting point. It’s also the most popular winter 14er, meaning there likely will be an established snow trench unless you’re climbing immediately after a major storm. Snowshoes are still recommended, but the need to break your own trail is rare. Staying on the ridge nearly negates avalanche danger except in extreme conditions, though venturing out onto the East Face can put you in harm’s way.

In short, if you hug the ridgeline, carry a bit of extra gear, have a good forecast, enjoy minor suffering and go in moderate or better avalanche conditions, Quandary isn’t much more challenging in winter than summer.

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2. Mt. Bierstadt

Winter Trailhead: Roughly 1.75 miles below Guanella Pass at the Guanella Pass Campground (Georgetown side)
Winter Route: West Slopes (same as summer)
Winter Mileage: 10.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,800’

The only thing more difficult about Mt. Bierstadt in the winter is about three miles of road walking. The west-facing slopes harboring the summer route are often blown clear by intense winter winds, with lengthy segments of the trail exposed above treeline. Some avalanche danger is possible during part of the approach up the road, as well as while gaining the upper shoulder at around 12,000 feet. In most conditions, a safe line is apparent.

Many people try to save themselves a couple hundred feet of elevation gain by leaving the road early and making a beeline for Bierstadt without visiting the summit of Guanella Pass. I generally advise against this, as it takes you through a soul-sucking patch of willows. In my experience, it’s easier to stick to the road and suck up the minimal extra gain.

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3. Mt. Elbert

Winter Trailhead: South Mt. Elbert
Winter Route: East Ridge
Winter Mileage: 12.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,900’

See the other side of famous Mt. Elbert. The hardest route statistically on this list also comes with perhaps the lowest avalanche danger. Mt. Elbert’s broad and gentle East Ridge seldom gets steep enough to allow a slide. Like many winter routes, it starts with a two-mile stroll along a closed 4WD road before joining the South Mount Elbert Trail. In some seasons, especially early on, all or part of this road can be driven.

Prepare your mind for the upper portions of this hike. It includes several heartbreaking false summits. Combined with the incessant wind that almost always berates Colorado’s highest peak in the winter, this is as much an exercise in mental fortitude as it is physical endurance.

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4. Mt. Sherman

Winter Trailhead: About 2.5 miles short of the standard summer 4WD gate
Winter Route: South Slopes
Winter Mileage: 8.5 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 3,100’ to 3,500′, depending on parking area

Be careful on this popular winter peak. Avalanche-safe lines abound, but the danger is insidious. Venturing even a hundred feet in the wrong direction could put you in a slide area. Along with Quandary and Bierstadt, this is probably the most attempted winter route, due to its short length. I personally know at least three parties that have gotten caught in slides on this mountain. Avalanche terrain awareness and careful decision making are essential.

The starting point for this hike varies considerably. I’ve logged four attempts in winter and began from a different staging area each time. In general, plan to start about a mile below the Leavick site. Anything closer is a bonus. Walk the road to just before the summer 4WD gate, then veer right. The terrain here can be confusing and deceptive. Select a cautious line and make your way toward the obvious shallow gully to the right of the Mt. Sherman summit, targeting the broad plateau between Sherman and White Ridge.

It’s important to take this alternate route and not attempt to stay on the standard trail. Gaining the Sheridan-Sherman saddle on the summer path comes with considerable avalanche risk, including a large and reliable cornice.

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5. Pikes Peak

Winter Trailhead: Crags Campground
Standard Winter Route: Northwest Slopes
Winter Mileage: 14 miles
Winter Elevation Gain: 4,300’

It would be hard for 14 miles to feel much shorter. This gentle route maintains an easy grade most of the way, with only a few steep sections. The popularity of the Crags area as a dayhike also means that a trench is a nearly permanent fixture. The upper portion of the hike, above Devil’s Playground, parallels the summit road. Because Pikes stands largely alone, it’s often subjected to blasting winds. Large sections of the wide, obvious trail above treeline were visible every time I’ve done this peak with snow.

In contrast with Mt. Evans, the road up Pikes Peak remains open year-round, weather permitting. It’s hard to express the sheer joy that’s felt while eating a donut and drinking hot chocolate in the confines of a brick shelter after seven miles hiking uphill in a subzero wind chill. It’s also hard to express the willpower that’s necessary to leave that shelter for the seven-mile hike down.

One More Drink, and I’ll Move On (Conundrum Couloir)

Mountain(s): Conundrum Peak (14,060′) and Castle Peak (14,265′)
Route: Conundrum Couloir (Steep Snow)
Date: July 11, 2015
RT Distance: 14.5 miles
RT Gain: 4,850′
RT Time: 10 hours
Climbers: Ben, Jeff

Summer is here.

It’s crazy how fast the Colorado mountains transitioned from buried to dry. Most standard 14er routes only require a few short snow crossings these days, which is hardly believable after all the late-spring moisture. The wet weather made for a weird couloir season, with the window between “avalanche prone” and “rage-inducing scree field” short and difficult to judge.

Few traditional snow couloirs remain in mid-July, but what’s left is generally safe. Ben and I decided to attempt one more before the soaring summer temperatures claim the last of the continuous snow lines. My original idea was Cross Couloir on Mt. of the Holy Cross, an incredibly famous route that’s gathered dust on my to-do list for years. Ben, who’s trying to finish the 14ers this summer, was more interested in two new checkmarks on Castle and Conundrum. A few minutes of research uncovered that Conundrum Couloir, another classic option, was likely still filled. A plan was born.

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Our intention was to meet in Golden around 3 p.m. and depart directly from my office at the American Mountaineering Center. That would give us plenty of time to establish a camp, start a fire, drink a couple beers and catch up. Unfortunately, Ben got stuck at work and then in the heinous Highway 93 traffic. He didn’t get to my office until shortly after 5 p.m., which might be the latest anyone has worked at the American Mountaineering Center on a Friday since at least 2009.

The result was arriving at the Castle/Conundrum trailhead around 9 p.m. My low-clearance 2WD Mazda 3 could only make it up the road far enough to reach the first four campsites, all of which were inhabited by squatting retirees from Texas. We limped back to the pavement and debated our options. Signage made it obvious that no camping is allowed apparently anywhere, ever. Given the late hour and our 3 a.m. wake-up call, we figured no one would notice if we just set up our tents in the corner of the parking lot. It meant packing all our gear first thing in the morning rather than leaving it up to dry, but our assumption was correct. We snagged a few uninterrupted hours of unsanctioned sleep. Don’t tell anyone, Internet.

Rather than risk my car’s oil pan to crawl a half-mile up the road, we decided to hoof it from the paved highway. Sunrise greeted us a couple hours later high in Montezuma Basin, well beyond the Pearl Pass turnoff. Pre-dawn road walking is an easy way to pass miles and time.

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Our solitary vigil ended along with the road. A pair of solo hikers caught us while I was transitioning from trail runners to mountaineering boots, and a brave soul in a stock 4Runner arrived carrying a full cab of hitchhikers. Our newfound crowd began moving up the snow-covered headwall together. Ben and I opted for crampons and a direct line up the snow, while others found a more-or-less dry path through the rocks.

A big push up steep terrain delivered us to the upper cirque, where Conundrum Couloir was beautifully filled. No decision needed to be made here. We’d stick with the original plan.

Surprise cloud-cover, a steady wind and the early hour meant firm snow conditions. The moderate apron quickly gives way to steeper terrain, and the morning fog dissipated from our heads as the need for focus increased. The choke point about halfway up turned out to be the crux. The angle hovered around 50 degrees, and the inset nature of the section meant a general lack of sun. The hard snow meant Ben could only produce minuscule steps, which I did my best to widen with a few extra kicks. Solid ice ax self-belays did provide an extra measure of confidence and security.

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The angle relaxed slightly as we climbed above the choke point and approached the massive cornice. This late in the season, an easy exit existed on the right. A few more feet of 50-degree snow deposited us on the saddle between Conundrum’s twin summits.

We scrambled up to the high point and enjoyed the rare summer solitude. Castle was beginning to look crowded, and a few people had started to traverse over, but for about 20 minutes we had the top to ourselves. The multiple forecasts calling for calm and sunshine looked worse by the minute, with clouds building and an incessant breeze that forced us into down jackets. Still, we were treated to inspiring views of the surrounding Elk Range giants.

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The fun was over for the day, but Ben also needed Castle Peak to notch his 53rd Fourteener. Rather than blissfully glissade the Castle-Conundrum saddle for a quick reunion with beers and burgers, we had to slog up a couple hundred more feet of crumbling Elk rock. It was all worth it, of course, to stand on the range’s highest summit. Stellar views of Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells and Pyramid were a worthy reward. We spent another 15-20 minutes snapping photos before the worsening weather urged us to retreat.

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We opted to take the standard Northeast Ridge down to complete a loop of the cirque. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I was shocked to hear a female voice casually say, “Hi, Jeff.” Standing just below were Zach Smith, Noel Finta-Johnson, and their hiking partner Joe. Random encounters with friends in the mountains are always welcome.

A graupel storm kept the descent interesting. The weird weather would hound us all the way back to the car, alternating between blistering sunshine, pouring graupel and brief rain showers. The crux of the day was deciding what layers to wear while walking down the road.

I might have gotten a late start, but I was able to salvage a bit of this couloir season the past couple weeks. Classic routes like Conundrum Couloir are a great reminder of the joys of steep snow. The crampons and ice ax will now get shelved for a few months before the fall ice season begins, but it’s hard to feel depressed with summer scrambling, multi-day backpacking rambles and long nights around the campfire with good friends on the horizon. Winter is coming, but summer is here. Might as well enjoy it.

Cornice Busting on Southpaw Couloir

Mountain: Torreys Peak – 14,267′
Route: Southpaw Couloir
Date: July 3, 2015
RT Distance: 8 miles
RT Gain: 3,000′
RT Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Climbers: Speth (speth), Adam, Jeff

This snow-climbing season was disappointing. Between major life changes, a new puppy, a minor finger injury and the unsettled weather, I accomplished almost none of my goals. I hardly climbed at all in May and June, even missing the Spring Gathering and the past several happy hours. “Stir crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. With Friday off for the Fourth and an acceptable forecast, I pinged Speth and Adam about climbing Mt. Edwards via the Goatfinger Couloir. They immediately agreed.

The need for an early start and time constraints (this spring’s theme) Saturday led to us driving up Friday night to bro out around a campfire at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. It was car camping at its finest, complete with a brick-walled fire ring and wooden benches. A few IPAs, many Dave Chappelle quotes and a magnificent sunset later, we were ready to crash in anticipation of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

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First light saw us high in Stevens Gulch staring at a half-dry Goatfinger. Lost Rat was melted out at the top as well, and Dead Dog appeared to be limping along. Looming beautifully in front of us, however, was a fat-looking Southpaw.

This couloir, which is shorter and steeper than the more famous Dead Dog, is seldom climbed because the exit is guarded by a menacing cornice. We stared at it for a while and decided that, this late in the season, a few reasonable options existed to surmount the final obstacle. All I knew about Southpaw was that it wasn’t supposed to be terribly steep and that Moonstalker wrote an excellent TR a couple years back. We set off without a ton of beta, and like any such adventure, the result was equal parts joy, laughter, terror, adrenaline and accomplishment.

Southpaw begins with a long, mellow 30- to 35-degree apron. We were shocked and thrilled to find surprisingly good snow conditions. The angle gradually increases as you ascend, culminating in a 50ish-degree finish to the vertical cornice.

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The climb itself was simply amazing — supportive snow, attention-keeping yet easy terrain, and copious jokes relevant to 30ish-year-old “grown” men. As we neared the top, the two exit options looked to remain feasible. We hugged the right side of the couloir to avoid an unstable Volkswagen-sized block and eyed a less-than-vertical ramp just to its right for our escape.

Adam, in the lead, was the first to reach the cornice. The ramp we’d chosen comprised only about four-to-six feet of 70-degree snow. A couple swings, a few kicks, and we’d be over the top. It quickly became apparent that our optimism was going to go unrewarded. Unlike the rest of the couloir, the snow on the cornice was 100 percent pure garbage.

IMG_4637After Adam deemed our intended finish too dangerous, I started peering over my shoulder and weighing our retreat options. The first 200 feet or so was steep enough to require face-in downclimbing, and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Still, it seemed reasonable.

A horizontal two-foot-wide ledge of snow, ice and scree also caught our attention, as it led to a spot where the cornice was only about three feet high. If we could reach it — which would require several delicate moves across exposed Class 4 terrain — it seemed like it would go. Speth led across first, balancing on crampon points and grasping for anything that resembled trustworthy rock. He made it safely to the ledge and disappeared around the corner. Adam went next, talking himself through the balance-y moves. Only a few tiny islands of solid rock interrupted the 50- to 55-degree scree and snow. Without much in the way of handholds, it was a mental battle to trust your frontpoints and shimmy across. A few sections of thin ice that took a pick or point provided extra security.

Adam reached the ledge and talked me through the traverse, which I completed with only minor whimpering. A couple deep postholes kept the pucker factor high while crossing the snow ledge, but before long we found Speth standing on terra firma above the cornice. He offered a hand to help us over the final waist-high wall, and we all collapsed into a heap on the standard trail near two frat bros sipping PBRs. Welcome to summer on Grays and Torreys.

IMG_4638We stayed put for a while, giddily releasing adrenaline, before taking off our climbing gear and finishing the trudge up to the summit The Big T. Awaiting at the top was the standard July fare, including summit signs, selfie sticks and trail-runners in Colorado flag bikinis. Kelso Ridge was a popular route choice on this Friday, and it was cool to watch party after party come up, basking in their accomplishment.

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Thanks to Speth and Adam for yet another fun day out. Southpaw Couloir isn’t climbed much for a good reason — unless conditions are perfect, that ever-present cornice is a monster. If you catch it right, however, I could see it being an absolute classic. I suspect that only happens for a week or two every couple years, though. Happy hunting.

P.S. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddd.

7 Ways to Hike with Your Dog Off Leash (and Not Be a Jerk)

(Note: This article is specific to 14ers and other backcountry zones. I’m always for keeping dogs leashed in crowded foothills/city parks, especially if mountain bikers are present, with the exception of dedicated off-leash areas.) 

It’s one of the most heated debates during summer 14er season. Multiple times every year, an online wildfire ignites as people argue the merits and horrors of hiking with off-leash dogs. On one side are the anti-canine crusaders who cite laws and regulations, biting incidents, dog-on-dog aggression, jumping, food stealing, wildlife harassment, safety, tundra trampling and general annoyance as among the reasons to keep canines on leash or leave them at home altogether. In the other camp are the dog-lovers who roll their eyes at the aforementioned blowhards as they happily let their twin huskies Dollop and Mr. Sprinkles chase pikas all the way up Grays Peak.

Obviously, those are the extremes. Most trail users fall somewhere in the middle. The truth of it is, there’s no going back. We live in Colorado. Coloradans have dogs. Coloradans swarm the mountains. With the exception of the most difficult summits, the likelihood of hiking a 14er in 2015 and not seeing at least a dozen off-leash canines is pretty slim. The issue isn’t going away unless a peak steward is stationed at 500-foot intervals on every trail in the state. I doubt even that would help. The anti-dog crowd can scream about leash laws all they want, but it’s ignoring the reality.

So, how can the gun-toting dog hunters and Susie’s gaggle of mountaineer pugs coexist?

It’s important to note that while many areas do require a leash, in others owners are only obligated to have voice restraint. Not many people are aware that leash laws aren’t ubiquitous. Whether or not you choose to abide by them, know the rules and regulations of the area in which you’re hiking. If you’re a dog owner, prioritize the places where off-leash romping is legal. The guidelines included in this blog, however, also apply to those areas.

Anyone that knows me, or can view these pictures, knows the side of this debate on which I fall. Regardless, trails are a public space that attract people from all walks of life. I respect the right of everyone to spend a day in the mountains free from annoyance and fear, just like I enjoy the ability to hike with my four-legged adventure buddy. As with most raging debates in the hiking community, the solution doesn’t have to be that hard.

(Hint: Everything can be resolved with mutual respect. In short, don’t be an ass.)

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1. Train, Train, Train

Put in the effort to raise a well behaved dog or don’t let it off leash in the mountains. It’s that simple. A mountain dog should come when called, stay mostly on trail, exercise restraint around wildlife or other pups, not jump or get underfoot, not beg for food, show no aggression and, yes, walk comfortably on a leash when the situation warrants. Every dog has its quirks, despite any amount of training. It’s the owner’s job to understand, assess and manage those behaviors to avoid a conflict.

Some dogs are just not meant to be around other dogs or people without a leash. That’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. No one knows your dog better than you. Be honest with yourself about your pup’s tendencies and make responsible decisions.

2. Your Dog Is Not Perfect

You’ve had Grumblebutt since he was an 8-week old puppy. You’ve spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars on training. He’s under tight voice control. He doesn’t jump or chase animals. He can solve basic math problems, walk your cats, cook Easy Mac, set up a tent and bag his own poop.

Guess what? He still does something that will make someone else out there uncomfortable. Don’t fall into the all-too-common mindset that your pup can do no wrong. Always be willing to admit that Grumblebutt’s tendency to pee on the legs of teenagers might be frowned upon, and act accordingly to control your dog. (Unless said teenagers have a selfie stick, in which case it would be deserved.)

As a more serious scenario, I know several hikers who are afraid of dogs as a result of a previous attack. Grumblebutt might fart rainbows and occasionally sprout angel wings, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a living nightmare to a stranger. You love your dog and everything about him. Not everyone else does. Practice some empathy.

3. Exercise Common Sense

Are you and off-leash Capt. Cuddles approaching an on-leash German Shepherd with his hackles up and a straight tail? How about a family with a small child that acts fearful and hides behind her mother’s legs? A bearded redneck with a Duck Dynasty vest and his finger on the trigger of one of four barely concealed pistols? A skittish horse? A herd of mountain goats?

Call your dog to your side, put her on a leash and give a wide berth. Once you’re clear, Capt. Cuddles can happily go back to running 15 feet ahead of you, plopping down, and licking her genitals while giving you side-eye.

If you’re on a trail that’s crowded enough that this is happening every 30 seconds, such as an Open Space park or a Front Range 14er in July, just keep the dog on leash. It’ll be less annoying for everyone involved.

4. Keep the Leash Handy

I use a dog pack that includes a harness attachment. It’s easy enough to keep a leash clipped on and shoved into a a pocket, where it’s out of the way but easy to grab. That way, when you encounter scenarios like those just mentioned, there’s no time wasted in securing the pup. If you’re a slave to your dog and not making it carry its own food and water, keep a leash in your hand or slung around your shoulder for immediate access.

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5. Communicate with Other Trail Users

This applies to both pro- and anti-dog hikers.

“Is your dog friendly?”
“Can you leash your dog while we pass?”
“Is Sgt. Snuggles bothering you?”

Hey, that was almost too easy.

6. Know the Truth About Dog Poop

Wild animal scat is 100-percent biodegradable. Dog poop is not, largely because most domestic pets eat a cheap and unnatural diet. Dog feces can also contain harmful diseases that are transmittable to other animals or even humans.

You might still be 8 miles from the car while Sir Poopsalot just had the canine equivalent of beer shits, but you should still bag it and pack it out.

There’s also no such thing as a Poop Fairy. No mythical creature is following you around and picking up the soggy bags you left on the side of the trail. This is another bonus of making your dog wear a pack — they can carry their own crap. Literally.

7. Understand the Risks

Dogs die or get seriously injured in the mountains on a regular basis. Something as “cute” as a marmot or mountain goat can kill even a large dog. Your best friend will try to follow you anywhere, even across a knife-edge ridge or up a steep snow gully. They don’t understand the hazards. They just want to be close to you, the center of their world. It’s heartbreaking that every year dogs die from heatstroke, falls, animal attacks, or other hiking-related incidents. They didn’t choose to be there. You made that choice for them.

I’m not saying to always leave dogs at home. Anyone who’s seen a happy pup running free in the mountains knows the rewards can outweigh the risks. Owners simply must put the wellbeing of their dog above their own ambition. In general, I don’t bring dogs on anything more difficult than easy Class 3 rock or 35-degree snow. That’s my personal comfort level. Every individual and every dog is different. Also, carry a dog first aid kit and consider an LED collar or reflective vest for low-light situations.

IMG_2615Now, can’t we all just get along? Dog lovers and dog haters can indeed peacefully coexist, it just takes a little effort and human decency. Happy trails!

Mountain Therapy

An Ode to the Constant

Life is chaos. Nothing ever stays the same. Regardless if it’s positive or negative, change often leads to stress, uncertainty and a whirlwind of difficult emotions. It’s the constants that serve as a lighthouse in the fog, helping us chart a course through the choppy waters of human experience. For some people, that constant is sailing. Others choose fly fishing, salsa dancing, surfing or storm chasing. These are places we can go that calm our minds and offer a deep internal sense of enrichment. They’ll always be there, whether we’re going through a divorce or changing jobs or dealing with the loss of a loved one. We bond with people over them, forming long-lasting relationships and even entire communities. They define who we are and how we perceive the world. Mountains are my constant. No matter what’s happening in my personal life, I can always find solace in the hills. It can be a simple stroll through the forest or a difficult ice climb; as long as I’m in the mountain element, my troubles melt away.

IMG_1945 Why do people climb? It’s a silly question. How can you explain to an uninitiated bystander the joys of graceful movement, breathing in the cool morning air from a campsite lightly wet with dew, the never-ending views from a hard-earned summit, the sound an ice ax makes as it plunges into perfect snow or the human connections that form through mutual sacrifice, suffering and success? Climbing, like any constant, leads to a sense of personal happiness and fulfillment. Sure, there’s the added element of risk, but acquiring the skills to mitigate it and gaining a fundamental understanding of how you react to adversity and fear is part of the allure. It’s comforting to know that I can always lean on the mountains. Even when the current steals me out of a sheltered bay and into white-capped open waters, a few hours in the alpine remind me that everything will be all right. It’s not an escape. I’m not running from anything. It’s that when you approach them with the right mindset, the mountains distill life to its most basic form.

IMG_2998 Most tasks in the real world come with ill-defined goals and even looser parameters. With climbing, the objectives are much simpler. You have yourself, the gear you choose to carry, a point on the map to reach and only one rule — return safely. You gain an understanding of what truly matters, as well as how to let go of situations you can’t control. You learn your capabilities and limitations. Most importantly, it affords you the opportunity to look at yourself in a figurative mirror and see a clear vision in return. So many outside influences affect how we perceive ourselves. Our self-esteem is too often based on the opinions and actions of others. Climbing brings everything back to center. Mountains recalibrate the soul.

The hills aren’t for everyone. Some people don’t get it. That’s OK. All I wish is that those folks have their own constant, whatever it may be. Life sure would be a lot harder without one.

11 Tips for Hiking 14ers Like a Grown Up

1. THE INFORMATION IS OUT THERE

Don’t ask for information on Quandary’s East Ridge in August. There’s no faster way to rile up the masses. If you have a question about the 14ers, it’s already been posed and answered at least a dozen times. Invest energy in doing your own research. I promise, it’s more fulfulling. The search function on the 14ers.com forum is easy to use, and there are thousands of archived trip reports containing everything you need to know. Nearly a half-dozen guidebooks specific to the 14ers exist. Pick one (or several) and read them. Still have a question? Frame it in a thoughtful, intelligent way and post it on the 14ers.com forum or Facebook group. The answers will arrive within minutes.

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK

I can’t emphasize this enough. Whether it’s arrogance or naivety, too many people head into the backcountry with little to no information. Study your intended route. Read trip reports. A shockingly large number of accidents are caused by hikers getting off-route, and it’s heartbreaking that many of these are avoidable. Fancy GPS units with programmed waypoints are a nice supplement, but they’re not a replacement for genuine knowledge and intuition. A map is essential. There’s no excuse for not carrying one — free software such as Caltopo.com is readily available for easy printing.

3. BE SELF SUFFICIENT

Traveling in groups is a double-edged sword. Yes, there’s an added measure of safety. The dynamics can also lead to a false sense of security. Regardless of party size, always ask yourself: “Could I make it up and down this mountain on my own, survive a night out if I become stranded, and somehow get the attention of Search & Rescue if necessary?” If the answer is no, pick another objective.

Carry and know how to use the 10 Essentials. Either bring more water than you think you’ll need or a purification system. Most 14er routes cross or follow streams — if you do your homework (hinthint), you’ll know where to find them. If you don’t want to invest in or haul a traditional filter, iodine tablets are cheap and weigh next to nothing. Sure, they taste terrible, but that’s preferable to dehydration.

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4. START EARLY

Yeah, that 5 a.m. alarm sucks. It’s also your ticket to safety and success. A summer afternoon free of thunderstorms is rare in the Colorado high country. The risk of death via lightning may be overblown, but no one that’s been caught above treeline in a thunderstorm is jumping to repeat the experience. For most 14er routes I aim to start at first light, which generally comes between 6-7 a.m. I’ll start earlier for high-mileage days. Just get up and go. Missing out on an hour of sleep is better than having to turn around or putting yourself in a life-threatening situation.

5. LEAVE NO TRACE

I wish I was kidding, but last summer I saw a group hitting golf balls off Grays Peak. People have left lawn chairs, grills, toasters, flags and even human excrement on summits. On top of these extravagant affronts, there’s the routine garbage such as food wrappers and discarded summit signs. The Front Range is attracting more and more people, and the overcrowding on 14ers is only going to get worse. Respect the resource; leave the backcountry as you found it. Take your summit signs down with you (or better yet, don’t bring them in the first place), remove your trash, dispose properly of human waste, camp responsibly, follow Wilderness and Forest Service guidelines and most importantly, don’t be a golf ball-hitting jackass.

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6. RESPECT OTHER TRAIL USERS

We all hike for our own reasons, using our own methods. Want to smoke pot, let your dog off leash or blast music from a portable speaker? I’m not going to turn you in to the fun police — as long as you aren’t disturbing the experience of other hikers. Leash the dog if it’s being a nuisance, find a spot off trail to smoke and turn down the music when you see other people approaching. If someone is faster than you, let them pass. Give a brief greeting to people heading the opposite direction and yield the trail if necessary. (The general agreement is that uphill hikers have the right-of-way, but most of them won’t pass up a chance to stop for a breather. Communicate.) Mutual respect really isn’t that hard.

7. THE MOUNTAIN ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE

Smart decision making is not synonymous with failure. Many hikers consider it a point of pride to have only turned back “X number of times” because of weather, fatigue or other factors. It’s not. There’s more honor in good judgment than putting yourself in a dangerous situation to tag a meaningless summit. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts. Watch the sky. Turn around if necessary and return to the mountain when conditions are more favorable. Not only will you reduce the risks, I guarantee you’ll also have a more enjoyable summit.My first time on Capitol I called it quits at the subsummit “K2″ because of slick rock, cloudy skies and a forecast that called for an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms after 9 a.m. Most of my party continued on, summited in a whiteout and safely returned to camp. The lightning started soon after. I returned three weeks later on a warm, cloudless day. Even with the benefit of hindsight and knowing my friends experienced no major issues on the first trip, I’d make that same decision 10 out of 10 times. You can only toss so many dice before you roll snake eyes.

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8. PUT EFFORT INTO A TRIP REPORT

Title: “Mt. Quandry – East Ridge”
Pictures: 3 (one rotated off-axis)
Words: “We climbed Quandry yesterday. It was crowded. Dan had a peanut butter sandwich on the summit. I could see Pike’s Peak. On the way down I tripped on a loose rock. Overall the hike was fun.”

Would you want to read that? No one else does, either.

(It’s Quandary Peak, by the way. Mt. Lindsey. Longs Peak. Pikes Peak. Mt. Bierstadt. Grays Peak. Torreys Peak.)

Writing a trip report should be fun. Don’t make it work, you’re not getting paid for it. Relive your experience and inject some energy into the content. Tell the story of your hike. Include personal anecdotes, or if that’s not your thing, provide unique details about the route and trail conditions. Trip reports are personal endeavors. Photographer with no interest in writing? Share a photo essay. English major with nothing but a flip-phone camera? Stretch that sucker out to 1,500 words. Bottom line, make the report interesting. Consider your audience and what they want to see, know and hear — then deliver.

9. SHARE THE STOKE

Whether you took a vacation from sea level to hike Mt. Sherman or just jogged Capitol Peak as a daytrip, you’ve just notched an awesome life accomplishment. Celebrate it. Share your photos on Facebook. Write a trip report or blog post. Blow up Instagram for a week. It’s OK to be proud of yourself. More importantly, fellow hikers will benefit from your reports on conditions, the route and the overall experience. It’s easy for veteran climbers to forget what it was like to try their first summit, first Class 3 or first couloir. It’s always on to the next challenge, with little time for the rear-view mirror. Forget ’em. For every blowhard rolling their eyes at your accomplishment, there are 10 people who will find it inspiring.

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10. STAY HUMBLE

You are not a special snowflake. Regardless what you’ve accomplished, many people came before and many more will follow. Narcissism is a widespread disease in the climbing community. It’s a constant game of oneupsmanship. An impressive climbing resume does not make you an awesome person. To be honest, no one except you cares. Even if you’ve finished the 14ers and climbed Denali, it’s not an excuse to talk down to or consider yourself above a fellow human being. Mountaineering often serves as a cornerstone for a climber’s sense of personal worth, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t embrace those self-esteem boosts. They’re awesome. Just don’t let your head get lost in the clouds. It happens all too often.

11. ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE

There is no parade or world-shattering epiphany when you finish the 14ers. Life beats on as it always has. You get a little street cred, a certificate from the Colorado Mountain Club and a sentence for the “Other” section of your resume. That’s about it. So, what’s the rush? Swap those three-peak sufferfest weekends for setting up camp in Yankee Boy Basin and climbing only Mt. Sneffels. Breathe the mountain air, observe the wildflowers, linger on campfire conversations, pause to ponder the world under a twinkling blanket of stars. Those are the moments you’ll remember, not your round-trip time on Pyramid Peak.