Right up until the moment I blacked out and fell forward, September 12, 2007 had been one of the happiest and most satisfying days of my life. It had long been circled on the calendar as the day Emme and I would attempt a climb of Colorado’s Mt. Yale, our first Fourteener.
One of the reasons I found myself on the verge of attempting a Fourteener at the age of 64 was because Emme, my strong-willed, 6-year-old Aussie terrier, had been signaling on our regular hikes that she wanted to go higher. Wherever we went, she would climb on top of the tallest thing around. I marveled at her joy whenever Igrabbed her orange hiking vest for one of our treks near our home. “Someday,” I told myself after one such outing, “I want to be as happy about anything as Emme is about hiking.” Like any Colorado hiker, I knew about Fourteeners, but until Emme came along I thought they were out of reach. Her attitude of never quitting—in heat, rain, or rocky terrain—inspired me to try my first. As the Mt. Yale hike drew nearer, my enthusiasm about climbing mountains nearly matched hers.
Mt. Yale’s approach is just under 5 miles with 4,300 feet of elevation gain. We started at 6 a.m.—Emme and I, plus my son Brett and his dog Amos—following the Denny Creek Trail north through a thick forest of tall aspens and mixed conifers. If Colorado had a “state smell” it would be this bouquet of pines and firs.
Emme and I had spent the six weeks or so leading up to Yale acclimatizing at higher elevations. But I still felt the altitude. As we settled into the first significant uphill, my pace dropped noticeably, and I saw Brett throttling down to match. Although the hike must have seemed more like a crawl to him—he was 25 years old and at peak fitness—he never mentioned it.
When we got above treeline at 12,000 feet, I began to feel lightheaded and unsteady. I wondered how much more altitude I could handle. But I kept going up, slowly, and soon the summit came into view. Rock cairns marked the 1.5 miles and 300 feet of elevation gain over rough terrain to the top. I was feeling more wobbly than ever.
That’s when Emme took over. Until that point, she had been “smelling the roses,” poking her head into every rock pile looking for marmots or pikas. But when I got shaky, she surged ahead, obviously deeming it her mission to lead us the rest of the way to the top. When the route got steeper, Emme hopscotched between boulders, some larger than her. How and where could she possibly have learned these high-wire skills? She was landing her jumps perfectly, as though performing for a panel of judges. Watching her antics distracted me from my own struggles. Where she went I was surely going to follow—and I think she knew it.
After slogging and scrambling through the final boulders to the top of the summit cone, I was relieved there was no more mountain to climb. The sky was clear with views of 14,197-foot Mt. Princeton to the south and 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak to the east. But we didn’t linger. The ascent had taken longer than planned and we needed to get down.
After descending below the rocky summit cone, I was still fired up because Emme and I were on the board—we had bagged a Fourteener. But as soon as the adrenaline wore off, I found myself in full panic mode—struggling to breathe, with the sensation that my lungs, quads, and head were about to explode. In the middle of the developing crisis, I tripped and couldn’t catch myself. That’s when I blacked out. When I came to a few seconds later, any sense of triumph I had felt was replaced by stress. Brett and Amos had gone ahead, and I suddenly feared that I might not be able to hike out alone.
Emme took the lead again. She kept checking back on me to make sure I remained on the trail. Locked onto the scent of other hikers, or possibly Amos’s lingering smell, she focused on selecting the proper descent route, and I stumbled along after her.
We made it to the trailhead just before Brett came looking for us. I was relieved, of course, and exhausted—but also inspired. Emme and I would go on to hike many more Fourteeners, but on that first one I learned she was leading me as much as I was taking her—and our enthusiasm for the trail seemed to be in lockstep.
Rick Crandall’s memoir, The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain, is out this month.