Some thoughts on Missy, a dog rescue, and putting your pet at risk on the trail

Volunteers get ready to transport Missy, a German Shepherd, off the Sawtooth Ridge in Colorado. Missy became stranded there when she could not continue the traverse of the ridge and was left there by her owner. (Huffington Post photo)

We love our dogs.

We treat them as family. Name them, adopt them, rescue them. We carry them around in dog-purses, photograph them like they were our first-borns and write books about them.

For many people, their dogs are part of their outdoor pastimes. Our faithful friends are running buddies, hiking partners and even pack animals on the trail.

So it’s no surprise that the story of Missy has touched a nerve nationally.

Here’s the backstory.

Missy is a German Shepherd who, along with her owner and another hiker, were in the middle of hiking a challenging route in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans is a rugged and exposed connecting ridge called the Sawtooth. While a hike up Bierstadt is relatively straightforward, traversing the ridge is a Class 3 climb that involves some careful moves over areas with significant drop-offs.

This is a challenge, and quite honestly, a lot of accidents have occurred on the ridge that have seriously hurt or even killed some people. While it’s not considered the toughest ridge traverse in the state, the accidents that have occurred there underscore that it’s not a walk in the park.

Somewhere in the middle of the traverse, Missy could go no further. She was tired, her paws were bleeding from the rocks and she’d had enough. Her human companions, from what has been posted online by acquaintances, grew concerned about deteriorating weather conditions and could not carry the 100-pound animal out.

So they made a big decision: They decided to turn back and leave Missy on the ridge.

The story went national not long after another couple traversing the same ridge came across Missy. She was still alive, but in worse shape. They also could not carry her out. So they gave her some food and water, left the ridge, and made a post on about Missy with hopes that someone might be able to organize an effort to get her off the mountain.

People rallied, Missy was found alive and is now recovering in the custody of local authorities.

A view of the Sawtooth, a connecting ridge between Mount Bierstadt and Mount Evans in Colorado.

There are a lot of subplots. The owner came forward, expressed gratitude to Missy’s rescuers and said he hoped to get his dog back. There’s been a lot of anger about this incident, and not just a little bit of vitriol. Two separate threads on the forum had to be locked by the site’s administrator because of how heated things got.

My thoughts on this don’t center on Missy’s owner, his decision to leave the dog there, and the good fortune that she was found alive and successfully removed from the mountain (a pretty remarkable team effort). (UPDATE: Missy’s owner was charged with animal cruelty on Friday, according to this report from Outside Online.)

Instead, I look toward the decisions made before that little excursion started.

Back in 2005, I was hiking along the shore of the Gunnison River deep in the Black Canyon, getting ready to start a nice little climb to some pretty hot fishing. Down the shore, I saw a couple hiking toward us, with the woman carrying her toy-sized pooch in a dog purse. I thought this was strange, but laughed it off. It was Paris Hilton meets “Man vs. Wild,” a punchline of the funny extremes people will go to for the purpose of including their beloved pet in their daily activities (it’s doubtful that little guy would have made it far on such rocky terrain on its own).

A few years later, I saw something similar but much more disconcerting while climbing Mount Yale.

Much of that mountain’s route is pretty dog-friendly, a well-marked and maintained trail. But the summit ridge is a rocky, boulder-strewn mess. It’s fun for people who like boulder-hopping and scrambling. No problem for hooved creatures like mountain goats and bighorn sheep, and likewise pretty friendly for smaller animals like marmots and pikas.

For canines, not so much. And after one dog – a beautiful golden lab – reached its limit, it pooped out and stopped cold.

So what’s an owner to do? Turn around? Rest with his pet for awhile? Nope. The guy picked up the dog and carried it to the summit.

That, my friends, is ridiculous.

It’s obvious the dog either did not want to go any further or could not go any further. The decision to haul it up to the top was entirely a decision of the owner. Why do this? To get a summit photo with his pet? To say he did it with his dog? To put a checkmark by the name of the mountain he climbed? No matter what the answer is, the decision in that case was done without the dog’s well-being in mind. That little trick was all about what the owner wanted.

I’m all for bringing your dog on outdoor adventures. But you need to be certain that the adventure in which you’re embarking is within the capabilities of your companions. Remember, just the act of taking your dog with you makes you responsible for the animal’s safety. Your pet didn’t drag you to the mountains. You made the decision to take it there.

In the same way you are responsible for your kids, or beginner hikers/climbers, or clients, you are responsible for your animals on the trail. They trust you. They are unaware of the challenges that lie ahead.

An out-of-shape or old dog probably isn’t up for a long hike. Fewer dogs are up for anything above Class 2 hikes, and certainly any climb involving the need for three to four points of contact will rule out your pet.

Take your dog on your hikes. Get it some exercise and outdoor time. But just remember that heat, cold, elevation and bad weather will affect dogs as much as they do people. And unless you put booties on Fido’s paws, the wear and tear from rock scrambles will chew their paw pads up badly over time.

Don’t let your dog end up like Missy. Don’t let yourself get vilified like Missy’s owner. And don’t leave it up to others to haul your animal off the mountain.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

An ascent of Colorado’s Mount Bierstadt

Mount Bierstadt's west slopes.

Among those who live on Colorado’s East Slope, Mount Bierstadt is one of maybe four 14,000-foot peaks that end up being their first to climb.

Its proximity to Denver, easy access and short, straightforward route make it an ideal introduction to the state’s high peaks – not too risky, but at 14,060 feet still a summit that requires some effort for the uninitiated.

For the experienced hikers and mountaineers, Bierstadt is a peak to be avoided during the summer months, as its heavily trafficked west slope trail attracts, quite literally, hundreds of people. Sure, you can go up the mountain’s more difficult east ridge, but you’ll be greeted by a sizable crowd at the summit. That’s a huge turnoff for some (though it can’t be quite as weird as the parking lot and gift shop at the top of Pikes Peak).

Looking back across the willows.

I can’t say this one was high on my list of mountains to hike or climb. But many times, it’s more about the company you keep than the mountain itself. Back in 2009, me and my two brothers, Mike and Steve, made the short trip from Breckenridge to one of the most well-trodden trails of all Colorado’s high summits.

This mountain is different from most of the ones I’ve hiked and climbed. The entire route is in view from the trailhead parking lot. The only greenery, aside from the alpine grasses, are thickets of low-lying willows (with a few trees here and there). Absent is the normal blanket of pines and aspen stands common throughout the rest of the Rockies.

You also lose elevation before starting to gain it again, dipping downhill from the parking lot before crossing a stream and heading up again.

The Sawtooth Ridge.

Bierstadt’s west slopes used to be more arduous than they are now. Not too long ago, hikers were forced to slog their way through the marshy tangle of willow thickets low on the mountain for nearly a mile – easily the toughest part of the route, aside from the challenges of elevation higher up. All of that is circumvented by a convenient wooden plank walkway that keeps you above it all.

Once you cross Scott Gomer Creek, the uphill portion begins.

The incline is fairly gentle, mimicking the graceful sweep of the mountain’s west slopes. The trail, well-marked and maintained, is easy to follow and gives you an excellent view of the striking connecting ridge between Bierstadt and its taller neighbor, Mount Evans.

Looking up the final pitch on the summit ridge.

Evans is the centerpiece summit overlooking Denver, but here it’s that ridge – the Sawtooth Ridge – that inspires a bit of awe. It’s long, jagged and foreboding. Traversing the ridge is a rocky and exposed route that can make for a long day for climbers who chose to do it. The Sawtooth is seen as a bit of a test piece for people who seek to overcome fears of steep, towering drop-offs. Conquer the Sawtooth and bigger challenges beckon. Those who are exhilarated by it take the bait; those who are not chalk it up as an accomplishment and leave it at that.

The Sawtooth was not on our agenda that day, but it didn’t mean we wouldn’t be without a little fun. Even though we were ascending on a weekday, summer crowds were still pretty thick. We saw all sorts, including one guy hiking the route barefoot. I might have nicknamed him Frodo if he wasn’t so tall.

Looking down the Sawtooth from Bierstadt's summit.

Eventually we made our way to the summit ridge, which had us doing a little boulder-hopping and the occasional scramble. I’m not sure why, but I find boulder-hopping and scrambling kinda fun, a sort of mental break from the constant one-foot-in-front-of-the-other that goes on for miles and miles on most walk-up peaks. I don’t have a problem with mountain hikes, it’s just that sometimes a change in terrain – and the methods used to go higher – add more to the experience.

A USGS summit marker.

On the summit we see more of Bierstadt’s wilder sides. There’s a bird’s-eye view of the Sawtooth, but also a great look at the mountain’s formidable east ridge and Point 13,641. (The east ridge is highly exposed Class 3, and for the more ambitious, there is a short Class 5 section going up the subpeak).

Aside from that, we had company. Dozens of people were up there, as were not just a few marmots and pikas looking to score a free meal from the peak’s visitors.

The folks up here weren’t much different than me and my brothers. Everyone I saw was with someone, making it an outing with friends and family. For us, this was a poignant time, as Steve was months away from a deployment and, unbeknownst to all of us at the time, a sort of last hurrah for Mike.

The east ridge and Point 13,641.

For the novice, Bierstadt is the goal and the prize. For others, it’s something else. For the three of us, it was about brotherhood in the truest sense. Leaving behind the lives we led in our hometowns in three different states, there we were – aged a bit, maybe not the picture of youthful vibrancy we once were. But this new experience, mixed with all those memories from childhood, made for the kind of stew that satisfies. The mountain was beautiful and memorable, but in this case, it was appreciated most of all for its ability to be a venue for some good times shared with a couple of dudes who just happen to be two of the most important people in my life.

Mount Bierstadt is a first for many and an afterthought for some. For me, it’s a place of importance.

A hungry marmot looking for a snack.

GETTING THERE: If you’re coming from Denver on Interstate 70, take the Georgetown exit. Drive through Georgetown and follow the signs for the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Drive 12 miles to the top of Guanella Pass and park in one of the two large, paved parking areas on either side of the road. The Bierstadt trail starts near the parking area on the east side of the road.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: The early part of the route is mixed trail and wood plank walkways that go across a sizable patch of willows. They lead to a crossing at Scott Gomer Creek, which entails a little rock-hopping to get across dry. Continue following a well-maintained trail as it winds its way up the west slopes, eventually leading to a rockier approach to the summit ridge. From here, follow the summit ridge to the top. The route is classified Class 2 with very mild exposure; it’s about 7 miles round trip.

EXTRA CREDIT: From the summit, head down to the Sawtooth Ridge connecting Bierstadt and Mount Evans. Rated Class 3 with higher exposure. Or gain the summit via the east ridge, Class 3 with high exposure.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088