Topping Out

On the top of Colorado’s highest mountain, I kept a promise to a very good friend of mine. At the summit of 14,433 ft. Mount Elbert I discreetly pulled from my pack a small white box with the ashes of my dog Talus. I snapped a few quick photos of his collar wrapped around the ashes and resumed the celebration with friends — my 10th time to the top of Elbert.

Fremont and Mystic the border collies climb Mount Elbert, Colorado.
Fremont (foreground) and Mystic ascend Mount Elbert with Mount Massive in the background

I’m not going to go to tearjerker mode here, don’t worry. Just the facts. Talus was a 1-year-old dog I adopted from an amazing rescue organization, Western Border Collie Rescue. Despite being handled with great care and kindness, Talus had been exposed to the distemper virus before making it into the hands of the rescue. Neither myself nor the organization could have known this when I adopted him. What followed was a heartbreaking descent into illness and perhaps the most intense two months of my life before I had to say good-bye to the spunky, sweet border collie on May 2, 2009.

On the day he came into my care, I wrote him a letter of 10 promises. Most of them were what you’d expect: he’d never go hungry, never have to sleep on a hard concrete floor again, he had free passes for the shoes to be chewed, he would have a friend and defender till the end, those sorts of things. And I promised him mountains. I promised him the incredible freedom and big sky of the hills, all the way to the highest point in Colorado.

The illness cut my promise short.

The best I could do before the seizures began to overtake his strong little body was a sunset climb to the top of Mount Sanitas here in Boulder. By then, his legs were wobbly and weak as the disease slowly infected the part of his brain that controlled coordination. I decided to sling him on my shoulders and with my eyes glossy with tears, brought him to the highest summit we could reach in his lifetime. We stayed up there until the stars sparkled above and the matrix of city lights illuminated the landscape from Boulder to Denver. Two weeks later, he was gone.

Talus the great
Talus with his foster dad Andrew (left) and me on his adoption day.

It’s been just over a year now and I’ve stared at those ashes and empty collar many nights. I’m not ready to let go of the ashes yet, not until I’ve kept my promise. I know the act is purely symbolic, but I feel life had dealt my friend an unfair hand. The last thing his memory needs is a broken promise. Of course, any memorial tribute is a balm for the living not the dead. My own catharsis and a fitting honor to Talus’ memory waited over 14,000 feet.

As I set out on a picture perfect morning for the top, my team consisted of my cousin David and Uncle John, my 10-month-old border collie pup Fremont (from the same rescue) and Mystic, a friend’s dog that had been Talus’ best pal in his short life. The weather was ideal and when we reached the top, four of the crew had made it to the summit of their first 14er: John, David, Fremont and Talus.

I don’t know exactly why mountains ease the harshness our loss. After all, the pain of a lost friend lives only in our memories, an intangible void that is somehow soothed in sacred places. In my time in the mountains, I’ve seen ashes spread, dignified memorials and tasteful tributes. I’ve also witnessed marriage proposals, anniversaries, major goals – all while climbing the non-metaphorical mountains.

If anything, mountains have a way of restoring our dignity and validating the hard work we put into climbing them. From the high reaches, we gaze down upon a world of daily difficulties, broken promises, selfish pursuits—social Darwinism in all its glory. It seems fitting to honor those we’ve loved and lost by rising above the bustle and chaos, if only to say good-bye with an open and undistracted heart.

Talus made it to the top. As I watched Fremont romp and wrestle with his doggie friends in the summit snows, I know the “T-Man” would have loved every minute. I paused a moment before sliding his remains back into my pack, my heart lighter and now fully equipped to let him go.

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