Four Footed Feats: Canine Alpinists Conquer the Summit
Who know there were such accomplished dog-climbers out there!?
In 1875 all the guides of Chamonix turned out to honor a lady who had just completed an historic ascent of Mont Banc. Reposed in state on a sofa in her hotel drawing room, the victorious climber acknowledged the praise of her contemporaries. Shortly thereafter, she was elected to honorary membership in the prestigious Alpine Club of England. No other female was to gain admittance to that august body for nearly a century.
This distinguished 19th-century lady alpinist was Tschingel a small dog whose owner, the great Victorian mountaineer, W.A.B. Coolidge, described as “in no sense a purebred, resembling generally either a small Bloodhound or a large Beagle.” She is said to have had long silky ears “most expressive” eyes, a “deep and musical voice” and a taste for red wine.
W.A.B. Coolidge was an Englishman who completed an outstanding number of Alpine summits including several winter ascents in the 1870s when this form of mountaineering was just beginning. Tschingel’s high-altitude ascents took place in the Alps where, with Coolidge and his guides, she scrambled up glaciers; jumped across crevasses; and clawed her way up the snow, ice and rock of alpine ridges. This mountaineering canine can claim eight first ascents, and reached a total of 30 summits—most notably Mont Rose, the Jungfrau, the Monch and, of course, Mont Blanc, the highest summit in Europe.
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Since Tschingel, many other dogs have carried on to great heights. On August 12, 1972, a party led by Warren Bleser started up the near-vertical Kain Face of Mount Robson in the Canadian Rockies using the latest in mountaineering equipment: ropes, ice screws, crampons, etc. Accompanying the party was Bleser’s Siberian Husky, Talkeetna, who had tagged along with Bleser on a number of climbs. With such a steep ascent ahead of them this time, however, Bleser expected Talkeetna to wait at the base of the Face, curled up in the snow. He was sure this steep route was beyond his dog’s abilities. But Bleser had underestimated Talkeetna’s climbing prowess. A few hours later, the struggling and exhausted party was surprised to be overtaken by the light-footed Talkeetna, who had somehow contrived to find a way up. The dog accompanied them to the summit without difficulty, but required assistance from the rope on the icy descent.
On January 20, 1975, a party of four climbers befriended a stray pooch at the Tiamacas Hut—a climber’s resting point part-way up Mexico’s 17,925-foot Popocatapetl. The dog then followed the party up the Los Cruces route—a snow-clad side of the giant volcano. He followed right behind the lead climber most of the way and required aid from the rope only for two steep, smooth and icy spots. This nameless canine alpinist had no trouble on the descent, and probably joined in the celebration that evening when the victorious climbers returned to the hut.
In 1952, Dick Pownall and Glenn Exum were guiding a party up the Grand Teton, when two young Labrador Retrievers attached themselves to the group. Exum took one of the Labs up the Owen route, on which the dog needed aid for only one move, while Pownall escorted the other in somewhat less pure form (sometimes in his rucksack) up the nearby, aptly named Exum Ridge. Both dogs reached the summit at almost the same time, then led a good deal of the descent. When Pownall and Exum returned to the El Bo Ranch at the base of the Grand, they discovered the Labs belonged to an employee there. Little else is known about these dogs, but this was very likely the first canine Grand Teton ascent.
In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when Bill Putnam was making his exploratory trips to the Northern Selkirk Range in the Canadian Rockies, his constant companion was a Malamute named Henry S. Pinkham. In 1947, the Malamute, who was known as Skagway to his intimates, participated in the first ascents of almost a dozen 10,000-foot peaks in the Coast Range of British Columbia. The following season, he made the first complete traverse of the Northern Selkirks, entering via Swan Creek and ascending another noteworthy series of 10,000-foot summits en route. In 1951, in the Rogers Pass area of the Selkirks, he climbed Mounts Sifton, Rogers and Hermit and the Truda Peaks.
On one of these trips to the Coast Range, Skagway and the Putnam party were caught in an avalanche, which killed one man and injured several others. It was necessary to retreat immediately, and the noble hound—who was barely a year old at the time—seemed to take charge. As Putnam told it: “Our trip in had been done with the benefit of a local guide and on horseback. During our hurried exit, minus the guide and horses, we almost constantly followed the dog rather than he following us. It was as if he sensed the urgency of our journey and resolved to be of utmost assistance. We hiked out in half the time on foot that we had required going in on horse.”
Because of his dog’s illustrious accomplishments in the mountains, Bill Putnam decided to propose Skagway for membership in the prestigious American Alpine Club. This blue-blooded group, to Putnam’s knowledge, had never elected a canine to membership, so to be on the safe side, he, Putnam, applied for Skagway’s membership under the dog’s more dignified, human-sounding name of Henry S. Pinkham. Still, however, the ruse was discovered, and Skagway was unable to join his forerunner Tschingel in the ranks of alpine club membership.
In our humble opinion, the most remarkable canine peak-bagger was a Sheltie named Ketchil San (Malay for “Little One”) of Scotland, known to many a British hill-walker as Kitchy. In the company of his professional guide companion, Hamish Brown, Kitchy made an astounding 702 ascents of Britain’s highest peaks, including Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest. As his experience grew, Kitchy became a strong and independent climber, with an unerring instinct for locating summit cairns in thick mist. “In bogs or along corniced ridges” wrote Brown, “I would follow him much more safely than I could have led myself.”
The resourcefulness of climbing dogs was emphatically demonstrated by a twelve-year-old Shepherd named Jerry, who belonged to the Prater brothers, Gene and Bill, noted for their first ascents in winter in Washington’s Cascade Range. In 1952, the Praters climbed Mount Kendall late in the day, accompanied by Jerry and another dog. After snowshoeing most of the way, the climbers kicked steps up to a notch in the corniced ridge that overlooked the drop-off down the stupendous north face of Mount Kendall. Here they left the dogs, as they had often done before, and proceeded up the harder sharp ridge to the summit. On returning to the notch about an hour later the climbers were aghast to see only one dog—Jerry’s new friend. The only indication of Jerry’s whereabouts was a broken-off gap in the cornice that overhung the north face. Stunned and heart-broken, but lacking either technical gear or daylight hours with which to descend that remote side of the mountain, the brothers headed home, convinced that Jerry could not possibly have survived such an incredible fall. A full two weeks later, they received a collect call from a state trooper, telling of a stray dog at a service station in a town near Mount Kendall, who persisted in checking on the passengers of each car that stopped. The stray was in fact Jerry—thin, bedraggled and limping from a swollen leg joint—but somehow alive, having survived not just the fall, but a long circuit around the mountain, without food or medical attention.
No account of mountaineering canines would be complete without mention of our own dog, Ralph, a Collie-Golden Retriever mix of noble bearing and a hill-walker of renown. In his thirteen years, 1963 to 1976, Ralph climbed all 46 of the 4,000-foot summits of New Hampshire at least three times each, some as many as six or seven times. His climbing feats were so extensive that we decided to sponsor him and his Queen Anne Spaniel friend Robyn for membership in the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club, in which we ourselves were members. (Robyn and her human companion, Ira Brant, travelled west many summers to climb the many peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. And she and Ralph met while climbing at New York’s Shawangunks.) But once again the Membership Committee questioned closely as to who, exactly, these Ralph Waterman and Robyn Brant characters were, and the dogs were denied membership.
The only thing left was for Robyn and Ralph to form their own club, and so the Canine Mountain Club came into being. Each served a term as president in the early ‘70s. Ralph and Robyn have long since gone to the everlasting ranges in the sky, but their legacy lives on in another canine climbing club called FLEA: the Four-Legged Explorers Association. Founded by pioneering Golden Retriever named Barley Mayer and his human companion, Doug, FLEA is centered around New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Elsa Waterman, Shepherd-Coyote mix of mild disposition and Ralph’s successor, attended all FLEA gatherings and kept her humans up-to-date on the club’s events.
We think Tschingel would be pleased to know that so many other canines have gone on to great mountaineering feats. And Coolidge would be pleased to know that so many human climbers think to bring their dogs. In our experience, when Ralph saw us pulling out our packs for a climb, he would wag his tail. When he heard the word “hike” he wagged even harder. How could we leave Ralph at home? A day in the mountains gave him as much joy as it did us.
In response to recent canine mountaineering ascents recounted in Rock and Ice, and at the prompting of a friend, Laura Waterman sent “Four Footed Feats” to Rock and Ice and gave permission to reprint. The piece, written by Laura and her husband, Guy, first appeared in slightly different form in Off Belay (April 1978). In 2001 Bark magazine ran it in the form reprinted here.
Laura and Guy Waterman’s classic Yankee Rock & Ice: a History of Climbing in the Northeast, originally published in 1993, is out in a new edition updated by Michael Wejchert. Laura has just published her first novel, Starvation Shore, on the Greely Arctic Expedition (1881-1884). Following Guy’s death in 2000, Laura and friends launched the Waterman Fund to combine education and hands-on stewardship in the alpine areas of northeastern North America. See www.watermanfund.org.