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How the Worst Crag Dog Saved My Life

In the thirty-fourth year of my life, I walked into a ring of oak trees in the foothills west of Carbondale, Colorado, to kill myself. Pixelated by panic under a bright autumn sun, I was fresh off a rapid taper of the final psychiatric medication I would (or will) ever take, the antidepressant nortriptyline. It had plunged me into a fat, apathetic fog that left my mouth dry and heart palpitating each time I stood up. 

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Thirteen lost years of taking pills to suppress the twin specters of anxiety and depression had left my nervous system thrumming like a shattered bone; I was raw, wrung out, destabilized by withdrawal, marooned in an agitation called akathisia that drove me to pace, wring my hands, and tear at my brow, leaving half-moon fingernail imprints. As I’d learned from online support groups of psychiatric survivors, the only thing that would heal the damage was time. But each minute that passed was an obscenity. My central nervous system was in hyperdrive—all gas, no brakes. I could no longer recall what it was like to feel calm, to not see threat lurking in each object and interaction.

It was 2006. I had a job at Climbing Magazine, but was often so paralyzed with terror and searing muscular pain that I had to lie facedown on the floor with my eyes closed, the voices of my coworkers echoing and distant, as if heard through a culvert.

I was sleeping three hours a night. When I did fall asleep, at 3 a.m., I’d awaken awash in sweat, hallucinating a phantasm in the corner that slowly dissolved into shadow.

I’d given away almost all of my possessions.

I no longer wanted to be alive.

My plan was to hang myself, but I had only the leash I’d fashioned from an old orange climbing rope for my dog, Clyde. Clyde and I had ridden up that morning to Thompson Creek Road with two friends who then headed off on a trail run where the track dropped into a canyon. When they disappeared, I took Clyde and headed for the nearest stand of trees. The smell of sagebrush was in the air, mingled with the faint tang of cowshit from summer-dry patties. This moment hadn’t exactly been planned; nor unplanned either.

I unclipped the rope from Clyde’s collar, twisting the gate on the locking carabiner. At the cliffs, Clyde—an 85-pound Bengali-striped Plott hound who was ruled by the millions of olfactory cells in his bulbous black nose—would wander off after scents, and he’d long ago figured out how to unclip a single carabiner. His rope leash had to be secured either with a locker or two carabiners reversed and opposed.

Clyde was a year and a half old then, a big brown dog rippling with muscle, his ears floppy, snout long and eyes ringed with black fur that framed long lashes. He howled at you with elation—Whoo, whoo whoo!—after an absence, and had soulful brown eyes that he locked on you, studying your every move. These he turned up to me now as I slowly coiled the rope in my right palm, beginning to tie a knot. Clyde whined.

I see you. Don’t do this. I need you.

I slowly undid the rope, and then clutched Clyde in a bear hug, feeling his warm fur slip over his ribs, smelling his hound-dog odor, sobbing into his ear that I would never try to leave him again.

Clyde had come into my life through happenstance. In spring 2005, my then girlfriend, Kasey, was working as a reporter at Boulder, Colorado’s paper The Daily Camera, when she was sent to the Humane Society to do a puff piece on adopting pets. I received an email that night in Carbondale, where I was living: “Should I get him?” We hadn’t been looking for a dog, but were set to move in together in a few months in Boulder. A dog wasn’t the worst idea.

The photo showed a brindled, pot-bellied furball, his eyes bright and muzzle dark. His sister, Bonnie, had already been adopted; both were identified as “Lab/pit bull mix.” They’d been found along a highway near Taos, New Mexico, abandoned, running, terrified.

Later, as Clyde’s and my lives intertwined, I came to know his idiosyncrasies like he did my own. To my dismay, he was reactive—growling, hackles raised—around people who had dark skin, big jackets, and gloves, or who smelled of cigarette smoke. When we were on the highway and slowing down to exit, Clyde would flip out, yowling and trying to climb into my lap. I imagined a man striding across northern New Mexico hardpan, a dilapidated trailer behind him. Bundled up against the high-desert cold, he took a drag on a cigarette before gathering the unwanted puppies and loading them into his vehicle.

Clyde lived to be fourteen, venerable for such a large dog and testament to the benefits of giving your hound an active life. Over the past fifteen years, as I’ve lived through myriad ups and downs with my healing, I’ve had to take breaks from climbing that spanned months and even years—dark periods in which my nervous system exploded again, affecting every part of my body from my gut to my hands to my teeth. The one constant, for most of it, was Clyde. Every day until he could no longer walk, Clyde needed exercise. He forced me to move. He forced me to stay alive, and not abandon him, as had already happened so early in his life. And he loved to be at the crag. 

Whether that was good for anyone other than Clyde, however, was another matter.

Hounds wander and hounds steal food. Their sensitive noses and floppy ears form a cone that imports the faintest scents—it’s sensory overload. They can’t stop tracking.

This olfactory acuity and the shenanigans it inspired were something I came to take for granted, forgetting how Clyde’s behavior might affect others. In 2007, after I moved back to Boulder, my future wife, Kristin, and I took a trip to southern Colorado to climb in Newlin Creek Canyon. When we went into a gas station, leaving Clyde in Kristin’s Honda CRV, he gnawed a hole through her favorite purple-and-white backpack to access some vacuum-sealed salmon jerky. All of which he devoured, leaving the bag on the passenger seat. Clyde had been planning the escapade, waiting for us to leave him in the car.

“Darn it!” Kristin shrieked in astonishment. “Look at my pack! Clyde ate a hole in it!”

I pulled my crag pack out of the back, showing her where Clyde had chewed through a mesh pocket to steal Corn Nuts. “He does stuff like that,” I said, and then added, “He’s a real fucker.”

“That doesn’t help,” Kristin said. “That doesn’t help at all.” Clyde sat in the back seat licking his chops.

In no particular order, during his lifetime Clyde pilfered and devoured: an unopened packet of Twizzlers I’d stashed in the door of my car (how did he know Twizzlers were even “food”?); three-quarters of an extra-large pizza; innumerable sticks of butter off the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables; a package of Newman-O’s, the chocolate overload so agitating him that I had to walk him around the local reservoir for four hours; a packet of frozen elk meat he stole from the mini-fridge at the Climbing office, prizing open the door with his snout; multiple packages of hot-cocoa powder; a Starbucks mocha, whipped cream and all; the morning scones of this magazine’s former publisher, who’d just taken over the role and thought the employees were stealing the food off his desk each morning as a prank; poorly buried human feces at a cliff in Boulder Canyon, which Clyde vomited all over my car on the ride home; and whatever bilge he could find in the garbage in our kitchen, until we wised up and started shutting the garbage can in the bathroom when we left him alone in the house. Clyde then learned how to head-butt the door open, as well as how to access the pantry where we kept his dog food—I secured a latch that eventually gave out when Clyde forced his massive paw under the bi-fold door one time too many.

Clyde could sleep on anything, at any crag. Photo: Matt Samet

Even knowing his predilections, I’d bring him to the cliffs. Clyde had terrible separation anxiety, plus he needed the exercise. He was so strong I’d often load his doggy pack with bolts, water, and battery packs for new-routing days in the Flatirons, and then watch him bound ahead, up the steep sandstone talus, on his long stilt legs.

My partners learned to hang their packs in trees to keep them safe from Clyde, as if we were in bear country. “Oh great, it’s Clyde,” Chris Weidner would say when we met up to climb and Clyde bounded out of my car. “Hi, Clyde.” Chris keeps his crag snacks in old harness bags, one of which Clyde had shredded one day in the Flatirons to purloin Chris’s Whole Foods sandwich. “Fucking Clyde,” he said, surveying the wreckage. “Why do you bring this dog?”

In 2008, Chris, Kristin, and I were cragging in Eldorado Canyon along the West Ridge, an accordion of alcoves, corners, arêtes, and slabs that rises to meld with a tumble of crags—Rincon, Shirttail Peak, the Potato Chip—on the canyon’s beetling northern scarp. I remember well the route I was leading, Pool of Blood, a 5.9, because it was the first time I trusted my nervous system enough to tackle a 5.9 traditional lead again, and not implode on me and trigger a panic attack mid-route. I’d led the opening fist crack, laying it back and sinking a few big cams, and had reached a small stance. There weren’t many other climbers about that cold winter day, so we’d left Clyde off his leash. Then I looked down. As with so many other times before, Clyde had simply vanished. 

Sometimes he would be gone for hours, sending Kristin and me casting about the woods at twilight hollering his name. Other times Clyde escaped in town, roaming alleyways, knocking over trash cans like a grizzly until he wandered home or I found him tearing in circles, chasing his own tail in someone’s yard—or I got a call from the Humane Society to come pick him up (he was microchipped). One evening in November 2005 when I was in the throes of tranquilizer withdrawal, hemorrhaging fear, I’d taken Clyde for a trail run (well, shuffle) on Mount Sanitas west of Boulder, and he’d disappeared. As snow and gloom descended, I’d wandered up and down Sunshine Canyon behind Sanitas, screaming, “Clyde, Clyde, Clyde!” until I went hoarse. Soaked, miserable, wracked by sobs, I’d returned to our duplex only to open the door and see Clyde sitting at Kasey’s feet, both of them looking at me nonplussed.

Then I looked down. As he’d done so many times before, Clyde had simply vanished.

“Where were you?” she asked. “Clyde came home an hour ago.”

This day in Eldo, Clyde had been there minutes earlier, curled into his trademark ball below a tree. He couldn’t have gone far. Kristin set off to retrieve him. As I lowered, she rounded the bend, short of breath, dragging Clyde by his collar as he smacked his lips and snuffled. 

“You won’t believe this one,” she said.

As Kristin recounted it, Clyde had foraged off uphill. Up at the next crag, he’d homed in on a climber’s backpack, dragging it off into the woods. When the climber realized what was happening, he’d followed Clyde. As the guy approached, Clyde unzipped the pack with his teeth and extracted a roast-beef sandwich, a Dagwood with all the toppings made at home that very morning. Clyde stood over his treasure growling and baring his teeth until the guy backed away, leaving Clyde to unwrap the sandwich and devour it in peace.

“I was really looking forward to the sandwich,” the climber had told Kristin. “But your dog wouldn’t give it back to me.”

“Unreal,” I said. As Kristin and I gathered our food to bring to the climber as a make-good, Chris gave me a look. “Fucking Clyde,” he said. “Your dog is insane.”

Clyde liked to dig dirt nests at the cliff, which I’d fill in and cover with duff. He’d often use rocks as pillows or even find horizontal fissures in cliff-base slabs to lie in. If your backpack looked like the softest thing around, Clyde would lie on that, too. I mostly climb at obscure cliffs, so I could leave him unleashed, but after the sandwich incident in Eldo, if I was visiting a busy area I’d either leave Clyde at home or tie him up.

At a semi-secret spot south of Eldorado Canyon, Clyde excavated a nest in the “Silver Saddle,” a treeless col that overlooks a ponderosa-filled gulch opening east onto the Great Plains. Clyde was 10 or 11 then, still in good health, but as I watched him curl into his hole under white winter sunshine, my thoughts turned to mortality. The climber who’d named the Silver Saddle, Alan Nelson, had died of cancer at a young age. I’d look at Clyde and wonder how many days he had left—or how many I did, for that matter. At some point Clyde would be too old to make it to the cliffs. That day was coming.

Kristin and I have two boys now, ages six and nine, and our life has reconfigured around the exigencies of raising them, especially during the pandemic. The boys are high energy, wild, unpredictable—gleefully play-fighting with foam swords one minute, and, the next, hurling each other’s Lego constructions across the room over some perceived insult. Yet in a way Clyde was my first son—the first dog who was not a family dog and for whom I had, after Kasey and I parted, sole responsibility. It was a responsibility that kept me alive on days when I might have otherwise given up.

Around the time Clyde turned thirteen he went deaf. I’d come home to see him lying on the stairs and would approach from the front to pet him; otherwise Clyde would whip his head around, teeth bared, as if to say, “Dude, what the fuck?” Soon his eyes took on a milky cast, and I wondered how well he could see. He had a fatty tumor on his right rear leg that the vet said would be too dangerous to remove. We left it there; it grew. Clyde’s back legs gave out, and I bought a harness that let us take a precious few final walks together, me lifting his rear haunches while he skittered along the path.

In the final month, Clyde somehow knew. “He’s giving us these looks,” Kristin said. “Like he’s trying to tell us something.”

On Clyde’s last day, he could no longer move, and I had to carry him from room to room, him now a too-thin sixty-five pounds that were still somehow heavy. As pale evening sun filtered through the cottonwood grove beyond our living room, I did a yoga practice next to Clyde. With each dip into Upward-Facing Dog, I marveled at the twinkling of sunlight on the glossy fur of his muzzle, on the dark, textured skin of his nose, on the fact that he—or any of us—exist at all. Clyde lay there, looking up at me occasionally, breathing slowly, his flanks inflating and deflating like a bellows. I’m still symptomatic from the iatrogenic damage psychiatry did, mainly in the form of an electrical current running along my spine that makes my muscles burn and locks up my diaphragm, causing me to wheeze. But that evening, as I moved through the Warrior series beside my dog, the symptoms lifted. It felt like Clyde’s final gift to me.

Clyde died at 3 a.m. on May 2, 2019, as I lay next to him on our upstairs landing, his eyes rolled up in his head and breath growing fainter and more rapid until there was no longer breath to draw. Numb, hollow-bellied, I bundled Clyde in his favorite blue blanket and took him to the vet for cremation before the boys woke up. 

As he’d aged, I’d taken Clyde to the cliffs less and less. But I still remember the final time he asked to come, with an eager, puppyish look, as my friend Jay and I geared up to climb north of Taos. Clyde had some strange final burst of energy that day, twelve-plus years old, me carrying our things this time so he wouldn’t be burdened by his pack. As Jay and I stopped at a spring to fill our water bottles, Clyde bounded ahead, surging up the rocky trail. He was home then, back in northern New Mexico where he’d been born. Clyde howled with joy as he waited for us. 

Let’s go, guys, he seemed to be saying. We’ve got this.

Matt Samet is the editor of Climbing.