Summiting Colorado’s highest peaks can be perilous. Imagine doing it with somebody else’s life at stake: that of your dog.
A dog is a boon companion who trusts you completely. But a canine can also be a dangerous burden to have along on a hike (never mind a summit attempt), because an owner’s first instinct is often to protect that animal.
(This reporter understands this firsthand: On a trek above Silverton, my West Highland White Terrier stepped into a seemingly-shallow creek and got whisked downstream. I leapt in, grabbed his collar, slipped on a rock and got pinned beneath a log. The whole thing took 15 seconds. A stranger saved us.)
Author Josh Aho, who will speak at the Wilkinson Public Library on Sunday, has summited every 14er in this state with his golden retriever, Sawyer, save one: Capitol Peak, outside Aspen. It wasn’t Capitol’s notorious knife-edge ridge that kept human and canine away. By that time, Sawyer was 11 and had developed arthritis. And so Aho — a vigilant owner — retired him.
“I have never had a relationship before where we were both pushed to a life-or-death limit,” Aho said of his extraordinary relationship (and accomplishments) with his golden retriever. “To have that kind of bond and trust with someone who literally puts their life in your hands, it’s indescribable.”
Nevertheless, Ajo has tried. In fact, he’s written a book about the experience, “Climbing 14ers with Sawyer,” which he’ll sign copies of from 3-3:30 p.m. at the library. Following the signing, Ajo will offer a 90-minute or so presentation. He’ll show off a few pieces of gear, “some of the harnesses and dog shoes and such that were helpful, and things to watch out for, but it’s not a technical presentation,” Aho stressed.
The Internet groans with gear suggestions for hiking with your dog. Aho’s — and Sawyer’s — tale is about resilience, and challenges and devotion.
“Climbing means taking a calculated risk,” the author reflected. “And in a sense, the more a dog weighs” (Sawyer was 70 pounds), “the more challenging it becomes to have along,” because there are technical sections on more-difficult peaks where you have to be able to hoist your canine companion.
“I didn’t have any early failures in the early years,” Aho said. “We were just blessed. We got summit after summit. And then all of a sudden, things started to happen. Sawyer never fell, but I did a couple of times. You become aware of your mortality.”
If fear was testing, patience was crucial: “We turned around a lot” during summit attempts, Aho recalled. “We had to try Little Bear five times. We made it to the South Summit, maybe two city blocks from the top — but we had to traverse a ridge and I just didn’t feel safe about it that day. And several times, we got to within 50-100 feet of the summit of Snowmass Mountain. It’s hard to turn back and know you have to wait another year to try again. It’s very frustrating, but,” as every successful summiteer understands, “you have to know when to turn back. I have a friend who says, ‘Getting to the top is optional. Getting back is not.’”
Aho’s book is self-published and not available in any bookstore. Sales on Sunday will benefit the Telluride Humane Society. “These stories are likely to bring tears of joy to dog-lovers everywhere,” wrote Gerry Roach, the author of the seminal guidebook (for humans) titled, simply, “Colorado’s Fourteeners.”
“We are used to hearing stories about great deeds, but seeing Sawyer on the heights settles us into a simpler place. Unfettered by our modern world, Sawyer climbed for the pure delight of being up high with his best friend.”
You could strike the words “up high.” As any dog lover will attest, all a canine wants (besides a few good treats) is simply to be with his human.
Learn more at 14ercanine.com.