Adventure Dogs: The mutt that climbed 23,000ft

(C) Don Wargowsky

We're running an 'Adventure Dogs' feature throughout the season and it is all down to this stunner of a pooch called Mera. It's believed that she made the first ascent of a 23,000ft mountain for a dog.

Her story begins when Don Wargowsky, an American mountaineering veteran, was leading a group up to the Himalayan peak named 'Mera Peak'. They were 13 days into what was shaping up to be a memorable trip anyway - little did they know what was in store for them. That day saw them summit Mera, pack up their high camp, and meet man's best friend.

"Every alpinist climbs for their own unique reasons. I still haven’t completely figured out why I climb, but I know that part of it is being in amazing places with great people." - Don Wargowsky

The team were on their way back down to the main pass, where to the West was a four day walk back to normal civilisation, and to the East, another three weeks of climbing. So at 18,000 feet it was more than a shock to Don that a Nepali street dog came strolling towards them up the glacier that was pocked with crevasses and hazards!

"We’re above fixed lines, ropes that the Sherpa and guides attach to the mountain in places that are too steep for climbers to ascend using only their crampons (spikes on their boots) and ice axes. "

(C) Don Wargowsky

The little treasure, now known to be a Tibetan Mastiff / Himilayan Sheepdog mix, seemed to blindside the rest of the climbers, working her way around them and heading towards Don. It was only then that the mountaineer realised he had met the dog previously.

He had spent a few nights in the small village of Khare where the two had first met. " she’d barely let me touch her" Don said in his journal of the events. It wasn't until he shared with her some beef jerky that the pair became friendly.

Don - being an avid dog lover - sprung at the chance of having a little four-legged companion for the remainder of the trip. Then the reality of the situation kicked in. He realised they had days upon days of hiking to go, ascending on hundreds of metres of rope, not to mention the camping in -30 degrees (Celsius) wind chill.

If she came with us, she’s surely die.

Despite it all though, Mera (named after the peak she first joined the team) stayed with the expedition for the next 4 days, travelling 14 miles to Baruntse Base Camp. It wasn't always easy for either man or dog however. The first night of camping she refused to enter Don's tent, opting instead to sleep on the icy ground outside. The next morning Don found her curled up in the same spot as he had left her, covered in a dusting of fresh snow. Following that though, she went into the tent with Don. Through the harsh, bitter nights, Mera became trusting of Don as he welcomed her into his climbing party as they reached Base Camp.

(C) Don Wargowsky

Following a day of rest at base camp the Sherpa's set off up the mountain to locate a spot for Camp 1 with Mera in pursuit. Upon their return - without Mera- one of Don's first questions was of her whereabouts. The Sherpa's told him that she had climbed with them all the way up to 20,100ft where the ground flattened off and was to be Camp 1. What unsettled Don however was the news that Mera was scared by the views looking back down from the camp and had refused to follow the Sherpa's back. She was alone and exposed to the elements. Had it not been for the fact that Don was guiding a group up the mountain, he would surely have set off that instant to find her.

It broke my heart thinking of her lying in the snow with no food and wind chills dropping well below zero.

The trip took a dark turn the next day, when Don was awoken by the rumble of a helicopter. Not unusual on the Nepalese mountains. It didn't take long for Don to realise the helicopters purpose was for recovery over rescue as the sight of a frozen body met him. It made him think again of the harrowing position Mera was facing.

It wasn't until the following day that the Sherpa's began the next leg of the preparations. Don, eager to know more about Mera's situation, handed one a piece of meat for her.

I can’t bring myself to say “if she’s alive.”

Thankfully, a few hours later on the radio, a Sherpa declared that she was still very much alive, and while it would be a few days before the Sherpa's would return to base camp, Don was relieved that Mera would at least now have food and company.

The Sherpa's progressed up the mountain, setting up fixed lines and Camp 2 at 21,000 all the while with Mera in hot pursuit. They kept radio contact with Don and Base Camp, being sure to feed back a status report on Mera. It was on the 3rd day that Base Camp recieved the long-awaited message “We are done. Climbing down tonight. At 22,300’ with dog now. Will bring her down.” That night when the Sherpa's arrived back at Base Camp, Mera bounded towards Don and needless to say a tear was brought to his eye.

A dog just a thousand feet below the summit of Baruntse? That can’t be possible, right?

The following day marked the start of the summit push for Don and his team. Sadly he petted Mera good bye, knowing Base Camp was the safest place for her. 30 minutes later though, he felt the familiar tickling at the back of his knee as Mera followed right behind him. It was sketchy, having a dog trek up this terrain, but she was persistent and loyal.

Apparently, I need to wear $1,300 worth of footwear to do what Mera does barefoot.

They made it to Camp 2 by the end of the second day with the wind rushing around them in excess of 40mph. The little mutt isn't scared though, sticking close to Don as they camped there for 4 days waiting for the winds to calm. Rations were tight, and several party members bailed on the summit trip, heading back to Camp 1. All the while, Mera powered through.

I have limited amounts of food, but I split all my meals with her 50/50.

(C) Don Wargowsky

Finally a break in the weather allowed the team to head up towards the summit, and as the team packed away their things, Don was relieved to see Mera sleeping peacefully in his tent. It meant that she could stay here, in the relative shelter while the team made a final push to the top.

The upper parts of a mountain like this are far too cold and dangerous for a dog, even Mera.

The remaining team climbed up the sheer steep faces of the mountain, facing the knife-edges and vertical snow for 7 hours until they pause for a break. Don turned to take a picture of the ridge they had just scaled when he spotted the determined dog making her way towards him. Moments later, she was in his lap. How she scaled the vertical wall of snow is still unknown.

The team pushed on and on through more ridges, more knife-edges and a seemingly endless expanse of snow as they neared the summit. Finally, they reach the very top. A Sherpa, Don, a single client, and a possibly the most loyal dog ever known to man.

At 23,389’ this may be the highest elevation that a dog has ever climbed.

Coming down was of course harder, and the team ended up fashioning a make-shift harness for Mera to bring her down safely in the sheer drops and steep declines. Eventually, they made it back to Base Camp. By now the pair have formed an unbreakable bond - so much so that Don began to put Mera's vision in the darkness above his own.

I walk next to her shining my headlamp in front of her so that she can see.

As with all good things, the relationship of Don and Mera must come to an end. This came when it dawned on Don that he would not be able to fly her home and back to his home town in Seattle. Thankfully the camp manager, Kaji, realised how special Mera was and that he would adopt her rather than leaving her on the streets. Mera would be in a loving home, with food, warmth, and company. But most of all, she would be cared for and Kaji chose to rename her 'Baru' after the name of the mountain she climbed 23,000ft to the summit.

I will be forever grateful for the time that I got to spend with her, and for Kaji for taking care of Baru, the world’s greatest mountain dog.

Read the full blog post from the climber:

Image credit and Copyrighted: Don Wargowsky

Do you have a story to share? Get in touch to tell us more!

As part of our 'Adventure Dogs' season, we're looking for stories of the marvelous companions that bless our lives. If you have a story to tell us about your adventure dog, please do get in touch. Stories like this is why I set up Active Elements in the first place.

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