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Why Pets Don’t Belong at the Crag—Ever

It’s easy to think that we can look after our pets’ needs at the cliff, but, in reality, we can’t.

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Wesley, a mohawked Labrador-chow mix, chased my red Saturn station wagon as I drove down Buttermilk Road. It was winter 2010, and I was housesitting in Bishop, California, for Wesley’s owner, taking the 70-pound dog to the boulders and then “walking” him afterward—OK, redneck-running him. Being at the boulders with me four days a week helped Wesley stay fit and happy. Wagging his tail behind me, he’d spend his days doing dog things—sniffing, running around, sleeping. Nine years ago, the Buttermilk Boulders were empty, and it felt reasonable to have an off-leash dog. Today, with the crowds, it would be chaos.

Though friendly, Wesley liked to wrestle with other dogs. This created a few fiascos in the small canyon of the Happy Boulders, but it was less of an issue at the more-open Buttermilks where Wesley often joined a dog pack that dashed from one end of the boulder field to the other, chasing each other or tearing after rabbits, getting into dust-tornado-forming fights. At times, other dog owners complained about Wesley’s rowdiness, but I brushed off their criticism. Spot pooped just as much at the Tableland Boulders, and I’d seen Mr. Peanut Butter steal lunches and chew climber shoes below High Planes Drifter. How was Wesley any worse? Dogs, I thought at the time, belong at the rocks—even rowdy ones like Wesley.

I was in denial.

It’s easy to think that we can look after our pets’ needs at the cliff, but the reality is we can’t—the rugged, often-crowded venues make it nearly impossible. “That was the worst belay of my life!” Hayden Kennedy griped in 2009 after I lowered him off Omaha Beach, a 5.14a out the Madness Cave in the Motherlode, Red River Gorge. I couldn’t deny that I’d short-roped him three times, once for every time a pack of four unattended dogs ran around my feet. The owners had let their hounds play wildly, fighting at the crag base, making it hard to focus. I neglected to say anything, given that the owners were already the type of clueless/inconsiderate people who let their dogs cause chaos at the crags, so would probably have said something defensive like: “They only get aggressive around people wearing climbing shoes because of crag trauma as puppies”—or just get indignant. And I worried that by complaining I’d just come off as some animal-hating sociopath who strangled puppies and punched kittens.

The same winter that Wesley roamed the Buttermilks, Gus, a prize-winning show pug, followed dutifully behind Cedar Wright on the 25-minute hike out from the Monastery in Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado. Cedar fell into a bolting argument with his partner, and then looked behind him only to see that Gus had disappeared. Gus—all 15 pounds of him—spent a week in the Colorado alpine, eating berries and hiding from predators. He eventually found his way to a nearby porch, 15 miles from the Monastery, escaping the epic and bumping his Instagram account to 14.6k followers.

Earlier this winter, Gus, now a wizened old man of 14, came bouldering in Roy, New Mexico, with his “mom,” Nelly; my girlfriend; and me. I pulled on to Upper Mesteño Canyon’s Ergonomicon, pushing through the big opening moves to a pair of crimps at 15 feet. I stabbed for a sloping jug then fell, nearly landing on Gus, who sat cluelessly on the pad—our fault, really, since we’d forgotten to move him off what must have looked like a giant dog bed. While Gus avoided being smushed that day, dogs have been injured by falling boulderers. To rest between tries on Ergonomicon, I walked to another boulder. When I came back, another dog barked at me, baring his teeth as I approached my bag. He wanted to protect his owner.

* * *

The cat sunk its teeth into my hand, then extracted its bloody mouth and hissed. I held the cat while three other climbers restrained the dog that had been mauling it. We were at the Hueco Rock Ranch in 2007, and an itinerant dog had been chasing the barn cat, shaking it violently in its mouth. The other boulderers had pulled the dog away while I tried to save the cat. Scared about being attacked again, the cat bit me, leaving a deep puncture. Then it died in my arms. Without insurance, I worried that the wound would become infected, or that I’d wake up feverish in the night, desperate to lick milk out of bowl and eat mice. In the end, the wound healed, though I was unable to pinch for the next six days.

Frankie Von Quillsbury hangs near the Ruckman Cave, Rifle, CO. James Lucas

“Look, Pika loves you!” Julia MacKenzie said on the eight-hour drive from Santa Cruz to Bishop in 2006. She’d decided to bring her cat bouldering, and so I’d ended up sandwiched in the back of the Volvo next to the litterbox and cat bed. After Pika did her business, she’d jumped onto my lap, the smell of cat shit wafting through the car. There’s an obsession with bringing cats to the crag. They’ve been spotted on leash at Indian Creek where one owner exclaimed, “Why are all these dogs barking at my kitty?!” Another friend brought his kitty, Norman, to the Bishop Pass camp where he was doing trail work. Norman had spent around 50 days in Owens River Gorge, summited Thirteeners, and logged three seasons on the High Sierra’s backcountry trails. That day, passing hikers thought Norman was lost and brought him home with them. My friend got Norman back, but the idea of crag kitties seems ridiculous given how escape prone, small, and unfit for the outdoors domestic cats are. A 2013 study in Animal Cognition showed that cats recognize their owners when they call them but choose to ignore them. So science has shown that your pet will avoid you, and yet you still insist on bringing it climbing?

Another time, after a day of toproping on Freerider on El Capitan, I had my partner bail on the summit. She didn’t have “time” to help pull up the ropes because she had to head home and feed her cat—as if it couldn’t wait another 15 minutes—leaving me to the onerous task. As I tugged on 200 meters of heavy cord, I felt myself becoming impawsibly frustrated.

* * *

Pets also impact wildlife. In Yosemite, I’ve watched Kuna, a local’s dog, chase squirrels in Camp 4. Emiko, a sassy Shiba, has killed marmots. Other dogs chase cattle and deer. In Roy, after one pooch dug into my chalk bucket to eat $30 worth of Friction Labs, he excavated a huge hole under a boulder to lie in and digest his meal, creating an unsightly burrow.

It’s easy to point to animals’ impacts and why they should be left at home, but these reasons often fall on deaf ears: Owners love their pets. It’s not the end of the world if Barley runs around the corner at the VRG, eats human shit, and then gives you a big, sloppy kiss. He’s cute. But really, who wants to huff shit-breath while shoeing up for Fall of Man? Nina brought her hedgehog out to Red Rock, Rifle, and other climbing areas when she first got the prickly creature. The tiny animal spent most of the day curled up inside Nina’s hat, hiding. Eventually, Nina started leaving Frankie Von Quillsbury at home. Even this minimum-impact animal required time and energy that Nina realized was better spent climbing. Plus, Frankie ultimately enjoyed being at home more. Though I’m not a pet owner myself, back in 2010 when I had Wesley I slowly began to shift my thinking.

After Wesley rolled in climber poop for the third time that season, I had to leave the boulders early to wash the dirty dog. Missing out on climbing stunk—literally. Why am I bringing an animal to the crag? I asked myself. What’s the point? While Wesley enjoyed being outside, his impact on myself, other climbers, and the boulders created serious concerns. Each small bit of impact had added up to a meowtain of problems for cats, dogs, and climbers at the rocks.

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