Author recalls climbing 14ers with his golden retriever in new coffee table book
“Climbing Colorado’s 14ers with Sawyer” is available on the site 14ercanine.com. It is $49.99 and features 350 full-color pages, more than 600 photographs and difficulty ratings for dogs, along with a history of 14er canines, climbing tips and route descriptions.
As their list of fourteeners they’d climbed together continued to grow, Josh Aho found himself more often turning to his golden retriever, Sawyer, and asking him where they should go.
Many of the fourteeners have trails, some of them as wide as sidewalks, all the way up to the summit. But there are still a few that remain fierce, with seas of jagged rocks, exposed cliffs and confusing routes that can make climbers feel like a gerbil caught in a maze.
When Aho, now 39, of Greeley, formulated a plan to go after the fourteeners with Sawyer, the leftover puppy in a litter, he didn’t know anything about climbing mountains, and it showed. He climbed Longs Peak in thin shoes with one canteen of water. He hiked Mount Audubon in sweatpants. His first few trips with Sawyer made him realize how much more difficult it was to hike with a dog. He had to boost his pooch over rocks, and he had to endure some taunts from people who didn’t like a dog on the route.
Yet, as they got more experience and they began to tackle the tougher fourteeners, Aho discovered that Sawyer was the more talented of the two. He could do things that most dogs simply couldn’t do. When people wondered if he really should be taking a dog on, say, Little Bear, a mountain that sometimes tosses boulders down on those brave enough to try to climb it, Aho would smile. Sawyer, in some ways, was the more qualified of the pair.
“I just assumed, at first, that the mountains were his natural habitat,” said Aho, who works at the Greeley Tribune as a graphic designer. “I didn’t think about shoes for him, and we had some failures at first because, unfortunately, he had to be in pain before I started to learn. There really was something about him. It took time to really appreciate how gifted he really was.”
Even so, Aho would have liked to have some guidance for climbing with a dog. When they climbed many of their fourteeners, in the early 2000s, there wasn’t much out there specifically geared for it. That’s one reason why, years later, Aho released a book, “Climbing Colorado’s 14ers with Sawyer.”
The book is a coffee table centerpiece, with hundreds of full-color photos as well as tributes to other dogs and Aho’s own thoughts on his journey with Sawyer. But it’s also a guide book, with ratings that measure how hard a peak is for a dog, not necessarily a person (although the two don’t really clash, either).
It took Aho years to put together the book, even years after (spoiler alert) Sawyer died of old age. Aho was still motivated, however, because he wanted others to get the help he didn’t have with Sawyer.
“Even if they don’t want to do all the 14ers, maybe they’ll just enjoy hiking with their dogs in general,” he said.
Aho, using his own experiences and those of other dog owners, gives tips on whether your dog should carry a pack, what to bring and whether your dog should do the more difficult mountains.
Aho never pushed Sawyer up the hardest mountains, and he never attempted one of the most difficult mountains in Colorado, Capitol Peak, considered by many to be the toughest fourteener. The peak has a knife edge, and the difficulties of navigating that with a dog, plus Sawyer’s age and trying it late in his life, prevented them from attempting it. Aho and Sawyer made all fourteeners but two of them. There are only a handful of dogs that did more.
Aho ruptured his Achilles’ heel, and later, as they both got older, Sawyer underwent regular physical therapy in a pool with a laser and on inflatable balls, just like other athletes. But it wasn’t injuries that did both of them in. His age caught up to him, and Aho retired Sawyer after 11 years of climbing. He died last year in July.
Aho doesn’t have many regrets after initially struggling with the decision to bring Sawyer. He believed he let Sawyer down, and he still feels that way.
“He was held back by me and my limitations,” Aho said. “He easily could have done it, including Capitol.”
Aho, though, tries not to dwell on their incomplete quest. Sawyer helped Aho through difficult times in his life. He went through a divorce and lost his first job. Aho teared up when he talked about his connection with Sawyer. While Aho’s reasons for his love for Sawyer aren’t much different from others who love their dogs, Aho considered Sawyer a partner, not just a pet.
“He was always there, and he never judged me,” Aho said. “The pride I had in him was probably what a parent feels. I viewed him as a person.”
That deep connection kept Aho from finishing the fourteeners himself. He goes into greater detail about his decision in his book, and he doesn’t want to give away all of it, only to say that climbing the rest of the peaks with another dog, or even by himself, wouldn’t feel right.
“My motivation for it was how many peaks he had, not how many I had,” Aho said. “That’s what made me happy about it.”
Indeed, as the Internet and sites such as 14ers.com grew, people would recognize the two of them, and they knew Aho as Sawyer’s owner.
That’s why Aho prefers to think about their journey together. He thinks about the joy they shared. He thinks about how Sawyer seemed to lead him as much as Aho led Sawyer, either up a mountain or through life.
They would talk about what they were going to do. He would ask him, at times, if that was the way, and Sawyer would take off. And to this day, Aho remains amazed at how often Sawyer was right.
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