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Thursday, 25 October 2012

Peak Of Paw-fection

On Wednesday 19th September 2012, six people and four dogs took on the challenge of climbing Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK. The party comprised Helen and Gav, with their Golden Oldies rescue dogs Flint and Ruffles; Jo and Dave, with their rescue dog Jim; and Kath and Paul, with their fourteen month-old dog Chloe.

Before heading to Scotland, they raised sponsorship for the climb and received pledges totalling £445, which has been split between local animal charities.

This is the story of how they got on.

No matter how strong a bond you share with your dog – they might greet your return from work with a wag of the tail, or impeccably perform any task required of them – there are some things you simply cannot communicate.

However hard you might try, for example, there’s no telling them that cow muck does not form part of a healthy balanced diet. You can’t explain that the football on television is not a real ball. And you certainly can’t get across what length of walk you intend to give them.

Having said that, with 4409 feet of relentlessly steep mountain standing before us – of which only two-thirds was visible, thanks to a permanent blanket of cloud over the summit – even we owners weren’t sure what length of walk awaited us. Estimates and averages declared seven or eight hours was the norm. The weight of our packs suggested we might be out on the hillside for a week.

Mind you, just reaching the foot of the mountain was an achievement in itself.

* * *

Less than six weeks before the climb, Chloe developed a worrying limp in her right hind leg. With a little rest (only a little, for a youthful Springer Spaniel is incapable of remaining still!) it cleared up and allowed us to do some hill walking in preparation. Even so, she had never done anything like the kind of distance that lay in store, and as if to prove that maybe she did know what was planned, the limp suddenly reappeared that very morning.

To add a little more drama to proceedings, just two weeks before making the 360-mile journey north, Ruffles broke a toe in the most innocuous of circumstances – chasing a ball. A three-week recovery was diagnosed, but a heroic period of doing as little as possible saw the toe heal sufficiently for her to suddenly do rather a lot. Helen and Gav just hoped she wouldn’t need carrying.

Nobody was quite sure whether Flint had it in him to do a ten-mile round trip. Not for health reasons, you understand, but simply because he often chooses to stop and sniff anything and everything along a walk. And he is equally capable of deciding enough to be enough and staging a lie-down protest from which there is no shifting him!

The only dog you would have put money on completing the journey was Jim, a veteran of previous mountain expeditions and long country walks. In fact, with such ease does Jim scamper about that you suspect the only challenge he would ever relish is attempting to break a pedometer.

One further challenge remained before we could actually start walking, and that was to make canine introductions. Thanks to their backgrounds, Ruffles and Flint make a good team but are not at ease with other dogs. No one is sure what Jim experienced in his previous life, and past attempts at socialising the three were not successful, while Chloe had never met any of them. But with a bit of careful control (from the owners) and a flurry of excited barks (from the dogs), a truce seemed to be quickly agreed and we could all get on with the adventure at hand.

* * *

An hour later than planned, we eventually got going.

All the dogs except Chloe found this sudden progress overwhelming and duly felt the need to poo, meaning prompt retreats to the car park for responsible disposal. Wishing not to be left out entirely, Chloe waited until it was no longer feasible to turn back before doing her ‘business’. Yours truly was thus given the dubious pleasure of tying a used poo bag to his rucksack and taking it up the mountain with him.

Despite the unique perfume of this unexpected extra cargo, progress was smooth. Ruffles and Flint remained very much on lead; the former on instruction from the vet so as not to over-stress her broken toe, and the latter because he possesses no sense of self-preservation and would have merrily run off the side of the mountain!

Chloe and Jim, meanwhile, were given the freedom of the mountainside but repaid the trust shown and stuck resolutely to the path; the fabled pony track. Yes, the desire to explore was in their noses, but good training and good instincts kept them on the rocky trail, always quick to return to our sides if called.

We encountered a few other dogs along the way, most of them making the return trip as we continued to labour against the wishes of gravity. They looked none the worse for their experience, and so it was with good spirits that we tackled the second half of the climb. The valley floor became an increasingly distant memory, and thick cloud an ever-present threat. In the gloom our party strung out, with me and Kath lagging behind. Chloe remained faithful and stuck with us, trotting a short distance up the path and back again with wonderfully reassuring consistency.

Rain lashed down upon us and disappeared as quickly as it arrived. The cloud, however, was every bit as immovable as the mountain. We reconvened at a cairn to take on refreshment and some extra layers, and there was a certain amount of relief in the dogs’ eyes as we fastened their canine coats. The temperature was getting uncomfortably low now – snow started to litter the sides of the path, and people returning from the summit looked damp and talked of ice.

Differing levels of fitness saw us string out once again. Ben Nevis took on the appearance of an Arctic wasteland, but the inches of snow brought out Chloe’s playful side and suddenly she was a dog having fun rather than a dog enduring a hard walk. There was no doubting how hard it was though, for as the path started to level out toward the summit we noticed a few spots of blood tarnishing the pure white of the slippery ground. One of the pads on Chloe’s front left foot was grazed, and the thrill of us all making it to the top was tainted slightly by the thought of our little girl being in discomfort. Photos were taken to mark the achievement, but the cloud and the cold offered nothing to savour and we commenced the descent without hesitation.

Chloe’s graze quickly stopped bleeding, but the mountain had further tests in store. As if taking revenge on us for daring to succeed in our quest, ‘The Ben’ threw down a sustained, stinging shower of hail. Harsh and painful it may have been, but we were not demoralised. The arduous journey finally got the better of Ruffles’ toe, however, and Helen had to carry her a short distance to give the foot some respite.

Flint continued as stoic as always, showing no signs of displeasure or discomfort at what was being asked of him. And if you need any evidence of Jim’s indefatigable nature, you need only know that once back at the campsite he was chasing his beloved ball for all he was worth.

Lunch was eaten once the company of the unforgiving cloud had been left behind. With full stomachs and rapidly weakening knees, we all found a comfortable pace – giving in to gravity is harder on the body than going against it. Partners got separated however hard they tried to support each other, and Chloe and Jim took to going back and forth between their Mums and Dads, as if rounding us up. Perhaps they were desperate for us to finish the interminable journey without delay, or perhaps they just care about us and wanted to keep an eye out that we were okay.

Late summer sun witnessed the first two hours of our ascent, and it saw us back to the car park well within the eight-hour mark. An average time, but a far from average day. A brief shower accompanied the removal of our weary boots – a cleansing, refreshing rain rather than a further endurance test. Under the kind of rainbow that the Scottish Highlands seems to have perfected, Flint and Ruffles gave a metaphorical shrug and casually resumed residence in the back of the car. In the following days, they showed no after-effects of the epic journey – even when climbing mountains, life with Helen and Gav clearly suits them.

Jim might have played ball that evening, but he showed some signs of strain at the end of the week; Jo and Dave were just grateful to know that something can tire him out. Chloe, in many ways still a puppy, suffered the most. Every bit as stiff as her owners the next day, she continued to sleep off the effects of the walk right through the weekend.

* * *

So unpredictable is the weather around Glen Nevis that even setting out from the visitor centre we had no idea if the elements would prevent us from making it to the top. Though we would never have taken unnecessary risks, thanks to the generosity displayed by everyone who donated sponsorship, it would have been doubly frustrating had we been forced to turn back prematurely. In the end, it was the sense of satisfaction that was doubled as we returned to the car park knowing the good faith of those donations had been fulfilled.

All four pooches conquered the fearsome peak, but they had no concept of standing at the highest point in the UK. Nor of raising a fabulous sum of money – in Flint and Ruffles’ case, for the very charity that had found their home. For all that we fussed them and told them they had done brilliantly, no amount of praise could help them understand how proud they should be, and exactly what that seven-and-a-half hour walk achieved. Proof, if any were needed, that there’s no telling dogs sometimes.

The £445 raised was split as follows: Cheadle Animal Welfare received £145; £100 went to each of Greyhound & Golden Oldies and Paw Prints; and Rottweiler Rescue and Cocker & English Springer Spaniel Rescue were both recipients of £50.

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