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Maxed Out: Every dog has its day

'It’s time for a cute dog story. And don’t we all need one about now?'
Good boy.

I’m conflicted. It seems unless you don’t go near a newspaper or any other source of news you can’t escape what’s happening in Israel. Something, I think it might be the devil on my shoulder, says, “Hey, you ought to write about that.” But I can’t think of a thing to say about the inhumanity that’s happened and is happening there that hasn’t already been said and there’s nothing I could add that wouldn’t piss off, well, almost everyone.

So instead, it’s time for a cute dog story. And don’t we all need one about now? I was reminded of it the other day hiking with a friend.

This is a true story. You may not think so when you’ve read it, but it is.

I think it was Christmas break, 1975, and after final exams, eggnog and too many spirits, I needed something physical that involved wilderness. It might have been the year before or the year after. The river of time gets braided when you get old.

Four of us decided it would be a good adventure to head north from Albuquerque and climb to the top of Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico. Tucked into the Sangre de Cristo range, southeast of Taos ski resort, Wheeler tops out at 4,013 metres, 13,166 feet. Sounds big, but one might remember the base lodge at Taos sits at over 2,800 metres.

My climbing partner and I had been to Wheeler in the summer, but never in the winter; the other two, never. So, gathering warm clothes, crampons, ice axes, and renting snow shoes, we set off.

The nearest affordable place to spend the night was a funky, dorm-style hostel about a 25-minute drive to the ski area. It reminded me of pictures of dorms in military basic training camps, but it was less than $10 for a warm place to sleep, well within a student’s budget... and we weren’t going to do much sleeping anyway.

Up at 4 a.m., in the ski area parking lot by 4:30, everything was dark and quiet. So we set out on the easternmost ski run, a green run called Rubezahl. Along the east side of the run were a number of homes, and out of one of those a big, red, apple-headed Irish Setter came gambolling out to greet us.

After a few pats on the head and some “good boys,” we continued on our way. Being a non-skier, I couldn’t believe how steep and icy this green run seemed to be. I was tempted to strap on my crampons!

I also couldn’t believe the dog was following us. I had a friend with an Irish Setter, and a more neurotic dog I’d never known. Then again, he wasn’t the most stable person I knew. It was a time when the breed had enjoyed more than a decade of increasing popularity, and many breeders looking for a quick profit had mined an already shallow gene pool and were producing dogs with “issues.”

Besides, Richard Nixon had one. Need I say more? But the dog followed.

Half an hour later, we reached the end of the run and continued a bit further, this time with crampons, along a black run, the name of which escapes me. People ski down this? Insane, I thought. Both the run and the fact the dog was still there.

A short time later, within sight of the foot of Wheeler, we left the ski-area boundary, swapped crampons for snowshoes and broke trail across a wide open valley. Wheeler peak was about 22.5 kms southeast of where we were, mostly uphill, and it was getting light out. When I say we broke trail, I mean there were times when the dog—still with us—broke trail. Other times he lagged behind, running back and forth, back and forth. In the absence of formal introductions, we hung him with the name Switchback.

There was a bit more than 900 metres to gain the summit, and sometime around 11 a.m. we stopped for lunch and to swap snowshoes for crampons since the going was getting steep and in some windswept areas, icy. The dog seemed to instinctively know we were easy touches and were going to share our food with him. Or he was just being a dog, which is to say a mooch. He also guilted us into melting some snow for him to drink, and thanked us by slopping it all over us. Nonetheless, we were in awe he’d come this far, still had abundant energy, still wanted to play, catching snowballs whenever we lofted one his direction.

It was a steep slog in thinning air, strong wind, and temps well below freezing to get to the summit. But once there, we dug the register out of the stone cairn it lived in, added our names and Switchback to the list—the most recent name having been entered in mid-September... and noting fresh snow—took the required photos of each other, the group and the dog, shared a joint, not with the dog, and headed down.

The descent to where we’d cached our snowshoes was a hoot, definitely worth the effort to make it to the top. Strapping our crampons onto our packs, we managed to glissade most of the way, sometimes on our feet, more often on our butts, using ice axes as rudders, if needed, to slow us down. The dog barked at us and launched itself downhill trying to keep up now that we were travelling faster than him. We tumbled into our lunch spot looking like four snowmen and a snowball-covered dog. Had a quick snack, some water, pulled some snowballs out of the dog’s long hair and paws, and headed down on snowshoes in fading daylight.

Switchback was noticeably slower on the return trip, opting to follow rather than posthole his way through the snow ahead of us. We arrived at the ski area as it got dark. There was no sign of groomers in the area, so we quickly retreated back down the run we’d walked up 12 hours earlier.

At the same spot where the dog joined us, he left us, no long goodbyes, and headed to where we figured he lived. I can only imagine the scene that evening. Arriving wet and snowy was probably nothing new. Ditto coming home hungry. Whether his people wondered where he’d disappeared to all day or not we could only guess.

But I imagined him sprawled out, sound asleep in front of the fireplace, and his people looking at him and saying, “Lazy dog.”

If they only knew.