Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Column for the Northcountry News: Some Trails We Just Won't Do

We slept in the car last night. It was 18 degrees out.

We don’t make a habit of sleeping in my Honda Fit; and I hope to never have to do again. But I did it for Atticus.

Two nights ago he woke me up just before 3:00 a.m. He had a panicked look on his face, the kind he gets on the rare occasions he wakes up in the middle of the night and really needs to go to the bathroom. I let him outside. He walked to the middle of the backyard and sat down. Ten minutes later we returned to the bedroom. He woke up a short time later in more of a panic, his body trembling, his eyes wild, his tongue out. He was nudging me with his nose. He wanted me to get up. I got dressed and brought him outside again. This time we took a walk and he was fine. Forty minutes later we settled into bed again. A minute later Atticus was nudging me, acting strangely, this time worse than before.

Luckily Dr. Christine O’Connell at the North Country Animal Hospital is on call 24 hours a day. We called and half an hour later Dr. O’Connell was checking Atticus out: temperature; blood work; ultrasound. Other than gaining a couple of pounds due to his numerous new friends in Jackson and their generosity with treats, he is in good health. We were mystified. I was told to keep my eye on him.

Upon returning to the house the symptoms started again. I opened up the windows, aired out the house and called the landlord. White Mountain Gas showed up in a bit. No gas leaks. We shut off the boiler thinking it may be carbon dioxide kicking back into the house. (However, the carbon monoxide detector was running and quiet.) With the windows open and boiler off, Atticus calmed down. All was well until late last night when the temperatures plummeted. Even though the boiler was off Atticus became nearly wild. His trembling turned into something near a seizure. I opened the windows and he and I took a long walk. As soon as we were outside the house he was fine. When we returned the same thing occurred. We tried sleeping in the master bedroom, the guest bedroom, the den and the living room. Each time Atti’s discomfort was clearly visible. He wanted to get out of the house as soon as possible.

I knew there was nothing my landlords could do at that late hour back in their Massachusetts’ home so I decided not to bother them. I gathered a couple of pillows and comforters and Atticus and I went out to the car. As the car iced over, he slept well. I can’t say the same.

What does all of this have to do with a hiking column?


Dogs are like children. If you have them they are your responsibility. If you love them you’ll do anything for them. Even if 'anything' means spending an 18 degree night in a Honda Fit just down the road from Mount Washington.

Just yesterday I read an on-line trip report about a woman who is attempting to get her dog to finish the 48 4,000-footers. (This is a different woman from my last column.) She had already finished the list but she wanted to make sure her dog became a member of the AMC’s 4,000-Footer Club and received the patch and scroll. Their last peak was to be North Tripyramid.

Now North Tripyramid is not the most challenging of peaks, but you still have to work to get to it. It sits quite humbly in the middle of the Sandwich Mountain Range with its siblings Middle and South Tripyramid and you can see where they got their name from the moment you lay eyes on them (which is something you can do from the Waterville Valley ski slopes).

There are numerous approaches, but there is one I’ve never been on. It climbs a slippery and steep slide up North Tripyramid. It’s one of the few trails I refuse to bring Atticus on. (The others are the Huntington Ravine Trail and the Flume Slide Trail.) I think he could probably hike each of these, but there’s always a chance there could be trouble. So why chance it? Why put my friend through that even though he’s climbed some 500 peaks in the last four years?

I know very little about this woman, her dog or the relationship between them. I’ve never met them. From her on-line reports it’s clear she loves her dog dearly. But see, that’s what confuses me. One slip on such a trail and the dog could be terribly hurt – or worse.

I know some other dogs have done the trail, but I don’t see the point in it. I know some hikers love the challenge of climbing the North Tripyramid Slide and I guess they figure the dog will love the challenge too. I guess.

People tell me, “You don’t know what you’re missing. You’ll love climbing the slide!”

Sorry, it’s not going to happen. I think I’ve climbed the Tripyramids at least seven times and I’ve tried numerous beautiful approaches. All were rewarding. More importantly, Atticus was safe on each of the approaches.

There are many great things about these mountains, including the joy and inspiration they bring. Atticus loves it here, but he also always has a say. We turn back when he wants to, even though that’s only happened a few times. We don’t hike when he doesn’t want to. Twice we showed up at trailheads on very cold days and he refused to get out of the car. We didn’t hike. Last fall we were climbing the Hale Brook Trail and when we came to the first stream crossing it was running harder than usual. Now Atticus can leap this deep gully easily enough but on this day the water bothered him. I offered to pick him up and carry him over. He wanted none of that. Instead he lay down as a sign that says, “Don’t pick me up.” And so I didn’t. We turned back. We returned the next day. Same thing happened. On the third day he leaped over it without a second thought.

It’s important to me that he has a choice.

This does not make me a better dog owner than the other person. But I do think I pay more attention to what Atticus likes and dislikes, his needs and safety requirements, than most dog owners do. Perhaps that is a product of the time we spend together, which is more than most people spend with their dogs.

As for the woman who wants to make sure her dog gets a 4,000-footer patch and scroll, they didn’t make it up North Tripyramid on a cloudy, slippery day on those treacherous slabs. The dog eventually said ‘enough is enough’ and that was it. Smart move. I was glad she listened to her dog after it sent her several signals. But I guess she wasn’t listening all that well because she reported they would return for another attempt this weekend – dangers of the slabs be damned!

While I’m sorry for her dog, I’m happy for this woman. I’m pleased she’ll never know what it’s like to sleep in a Honda Fit on a November night when it is 18 degrees out.

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