Colorado man shares advice for hiking with dogs after summiting almost every 14er with golden retriever

Antonio Olivero
Summit Daily
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“Climbing Colorado’s 14ers with Sawyer” by Josh Aho 352 pages and more than 600 photos $49.95 at

Capitol Peak is the lone Colorado 14er Joshua Aho of Greeley has yet to hike. He says he never will because the best friend, who he hiked the dozens of other 14,000-foot Colorado mountains with, is no longer here.

That best buddy is a golden retriever named Sawyer, who died five years ago at 14 years and 28 days old. But before Sawyer died, he and Aho summited such precarious 14ers as the Maroon Bells and Crestone Needle. Along their decade-plus quest to hike every 14er in the state, Aho said Sawyer taught him the greatest life lesson in trust. It was the kind of lesson he never could have learned from a human, only a dog.

“When we’re with people, climbing with them,” Aho said, “we can kind of lie to each other a little bit and be like, ‘Hey, man you trust me. I trust you.’ Meanwhile, both of you are terrified and are faking it through the day. But with an animal, it doesn’t work that way. They know whether or not they trust you, and they are not going to let themselves do something that they don’t trust. If they sense I don’t trust this person, they just won’t let it happen. And that’s something I saw with Sawyer: how much he trusted me. Which really was something I appreciated because it allowed us to be so much more successful.”

Aho had only climbed one 14er in his young, 20-something life before he adopted Sawyer. It was the iconic Long’s Peak, the 14,259-foot summit of which he could see from his then-home in Loveland. Aho climbed the peak like so many do on their first foray: in old, beat-up basketball shoes, an old college backpack and plastic water bottles. The experience left his human hiking partner and friend without any urge to hike again. But for Aho, it lit a fuse for adventure at a time in his life when he desperately needed it.

Sawyer came along soon after, in June 2000, when Aho’s mother saw an advertisement for a golden retriever in the Thrifty Nickel classifieds publication. It turned into the greatest decision Aho ever made in his life. Just a few weeks later, Aho was gifted a book for his birthday dubbed “Grand Slam: Colorado Fourteeners,” by Roger Edrinn. In the moment, Aho became convinced not only that he would hike all of the mountains in the book but that he would do it with his beloved “Soy” — short for Sawyer — by his side.

Once Aho got out on the Rocky Mountain trails with Sawyer in 2001, he found out Sawyer would be the one up ahead, ready for the next bend in the journey.

“As far as who was the leader, I got to tip my hat, Sawyer was,” Aho said. “He and I were basically at the same skill level. … He was always leading, looking back at me, ‘You amateur, can we hurry?’”

At the outset of their quest to climb Colorado’s 14ers together, Aho soon realized it would take some trial and error to dial into an ideal system for the man and dog duo. Aho said he soon learned it wasn’t optimal for him to pack a small, plastic bowl in his pocket for Sawyer, one that would dig into his thigh throughout hikes. He eventually pivoted to a collapsible bowl for Sawyer, one that he could easily squirt water into from his Camelbak.

In terms of how much water Aho brought for Sawyer — and how much he recommends hikers bring for their dogs — he said to find how much water you individually need, and pack twice that plus a little more.

“If you’re going to be responsible, you’re going to carry their water, food, an extra pair of their dog shoes, because they lose some, occasionally,” Aho said. “You’ve got to bring a doggie first aid kit. Might have to bring a little short rope to attach to a harness. Bring a leash. Just so many little things. You know, a dog might lose a shoe but, unlike people, they’re not going to immediately stop and retrieve it and bring it to you.”

Aho said the harness was crucial for Sawyer in helping Aho to more safely and efficiently lift Sawyer up or lower Sawyer down while the retriever jumped to and from steep terrain. The more 14er hikes in myriad weather conditions that Aho and Sawyer went on, the more Aho learned such seemingly random things as Doggles — or dog goggles — were crucual to have, just in case.

“Those are pretty good to have in the winter because a lot of ice crystals blow around and get into a dog’s eyes,” Aho said.

One he and Sawyer got their system dialed in, the duo tackled one 14,000-foot mountain after another. Then, about three years into their quest, in summer 2003, the duo began getting into bigger Class III and IV climbs. That’s when Aho began to research information on how to tackle the peaks with a dog, but he found scant advice. It wasn’t until a few years later, in 2007, when Aho decided he’d write a book about his journey with Sawyer. Whatever precarious mountain they approached during that time, Aho always had the same game plan.

“The attitude was, ‘We are going to take this a step at a time and be careful,’” Aho said. “‘But if we get into something that is just outside of our safety realm, our comfort level, we’re either going to have to retreat, find another way, or call it quits for the day.’”

There were times Aho and Sawyer called it quits, such as the five times they started the remote Little Bear Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range. Thinking back to some of those rugged mountains, Aho is especially proud of conquering Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells, some of the first Class IV-type mountains they attempted. When they got back to the bottom of the Maroon Bells, the spot by the lake where all the tourists convene, Sawyer, in his dog shoes, was the hero of the day.

Then there was the time the duo hiked Crestone Needle. This was one of the times Aho said the duo’s trust was put to the test, as Sawyer refused to scale the mountain via the traditional Class III gully to the south and west. Rather, he led Aho up the Class IV terrain straight up the Needle.

“I was never able to confirm it,” Aho said, “but that may have been the first time a dog did that route on Crestone Needle.”

And it was on Sunlight Peak in the Needle Mountains where Aho, again, was impressed by Sawyer’s trust. It happened when Sawyer was preparing to jump down from a cliff. Though an experienced mountaineer had helped the duo out and was there for Sawyer to jump into his arms, the dog refused to leap until Aho presented himself as an option.

“That was far into our quest, nine years in, 2009,” Aho said. “I only then realized, ‘He really does love me and trust me that much.’ And that that’s maybe the biggest reason we did what we did.”