Finding the right climbing partner is critical.
It has to be someone you trust with your life, someone with whom you can communite, someone you want to share the highs and lows. Ellie Briggs, 38, found her perfect partner 7 1/2 years ago -- a Siberian husky she named Loki Eddison. Since then, the adorably bad ass dog has become the first to climb all 58 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks and the first service dog to summit 14,411-foot Mount Rainier in Washington state. The pair, which lives in Littleton, Colorado, tackled their first mountain when Loki was only nine months old and finished the 14ers in September. They've traveled to 15 states and two Canadian provinces, hiking in 10 of them and climbing in four. Want to learn more about this dynamic climbing duo? Read the Q&A below:
Q: Why do you climb?
A: There’s no one single answer. I climb for so many different reasons. I love the physical and mental challenge, but I’m not one of those people who revels in “the suck.” I hate being cold, and I don’t particularly enjoy suffering on an especially hard climb. But I’ve learned to accept these things as part of the process because at the end of the day I cherish the reward. Mainly, I love the serenity of being immersed in nature, away from all the day-to-day neuroses of normal life. Climbing is the time that my brain gets an opportunity to process anything I might be struggling with, and it helps me to compartmentalize my thoughts. It also helps to put things in perspective because being surrounded by a vast landscape reminds me of how tiny I am in the grand scheme of things, so any seemingly huge problem suddenly doesn’t feel so important. It’s a very humbling experience. At the same time, reaching a summit that we worked really hard for can often feel monumental, so there’s a sense of pride in that. It’s an interesting oxymoronic blend of emotions, and I love that both of those feelings can coexist simultaneously within one single pursuit.
Q: What made you decide to tackle the 14ers?
A: When we first went into hiking 14ers, I didn’t expect to ever finish all 58. That wasn’t something I even thought about, much less being a goal to which I aspired. We did our first fourteener during a camping trip with a couple of girls I’d recently met during a happy hour meetup. I had very little hiking experience and knew absolutely nothing about what to expect, but I was excited about the camaraderie in making new friends. I wore head-to-toe cotton and $35 hiking shoes that I’d bought at a discount sporting goods store. It was a really tough day; we got lost on the way to the trailhead, started at a time when most people are hiking back down, and at one point my speech was so slurred from the cold air that it felt like my lips were three sizes too big for my face. Somehow, though, we made it to the summit, and as soon as I took in the surrounding view, all the exhaustion faded away. It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. From that day on, I was completely mesmerized by Colorado’s highest mountains.
Q: Did you ever turn around on any of the summits? Why, and what was that like?
A: Oh my gosh, we’ve turned around on so many! There have been a lot of different reasons for failed summits - unexpected weather, fatigue, route-finding issues, injury, mental weakness. Snowmass Mtn took us four attempts on three different routes; I wasn’t sure we’d ever get up that thing! But I think it’s important to always keep “summit fever” in check and I have no qualm turning around if something doesn’t feel right in the moment. We can always try again another time.
Q: Which summit are you most proud of reaching and why?
A: I don’t think there’s really any one peak that I’m especially proud of summiting because each peak holds a different meaning to me. With each mountain I felt a different emotion. For Sneffels, the feeling was awe-struck because it was my favorite summit view. For Snowmass, the feeling was utter relief because it had taken so many tries in the past. With Sunlight Peak, I felt liberated because it was the first time Lokes and I had ever done a class 4 climb by ourselves. And on Capitol, our finisher, I was just overwhelmed with gratitude towards Loki for being such an incredible partner and making this whole journey possible.
Q: Describe your bond with Loki. How do you two read each other/take care of each other?
A: I think rather than being proud of reaching any particular summit, the bond Lokes and I have created through climbing is what I’m really the most proud of. Sure, we use verbal cues to communicate, but what’s really special is our unspoken partnership. We’ve learned to read each other’s body language and energies. He can sense when a particular area makes me nervous or uncomfortable, so it reminds me to take a moment and center myself so that nervous energy doesn’t translate over to him. For the most part, as long as I stay calm and confident, he’s motivated to continue because he knows that I’m always going to keep him safe. Likewise, I can tell when he’s apprehensive about a move but wants to try it anyway, or when he’s actively thinking to figure out the best way to maneuver a particular section that may be harder for him. He’ll give a certain whimper to ask for help when he needs it so I can then give him a little boost, or he’ll back away if he’s too scared to try and then I know we’re done. Sometimes he’s not comfortable taking the most direct route, in which case I’ll tell him to “find a better way” and he’ll look around for an alternative. You can see the wheels turning in his head, and once he puts together all the pieces and figures out where to go, he sort of prances while his face just lights up with happiness. Those are really special moments for me.
Q: Did either you and/or Loki get injured during the project?
A: Both of us have experienced mishaps along the way. I’m a huge klutz and have often joked that it’s not a good hike unless I fall down at least once. The worst injury for me was a broken tailbone during a snowy glissade on Castle Peak in the Elks outside of Aspen. It was the middle of August so the snowpack was thinning when I slid right over a pretty sizable rock. I remember it hurt a little in the moment, but I had so much adrenaline pumping that I didn’t feel the full impact of having a broken bone until the drive home, which was brutal. I carried around an inflatable doughnut and was on a liquid diet for a week after that. FYI - don’t ever try pooping with a broken tailbone. It is NOT a pleasant experience! Loki had two injuries over the years, both involving other animals, unfortunately. One was during a backpack into Navajo Basin to attempt the Wilson trio near Telluride. Lokes stuck his face in some tall bushes that line the trail and to my horror, came out with a face full of porcupine quills. I immediately dropped my pack, potato-sacked him over my shoulders for two and a half miles back to the car, and rushed him to the on-call veterinarian. While he was under sedation, she extracted 44 quills from his muzzle. We didn’t summit any of the Wilsons that weekend, but he did get to recuperate in a cushy hotel bed.
Q: What was your scariest moment out there?
A: The scariest moment was Loki’s other injury. We were heading up Quandary Peak, one of the easiest and most-heavily trafficked 14ers, for a sunset summit and overnight camp. In the past, we’d encountered plenty of mountain goats on other peaks with no issues, as Loki walks right at my side and the goats usually just keep to themselves. Sadly, the resident mountain goats on Quandary have become more and more aggressive in the last few years due to the increasing number of hikers who’ll chase them around for selfies or try to feed them. On this trip, Loki and I were above tree line and steadily making our way up the trail when a nanny goat, with baby in tow, charged at us from behind. I didn’t even know she was there, and I barely had enough time to turn around and see her coming before Lokes, being in between the goat and me, took a horn right into his shoulder. I immediately started screaming and waving my trekking poles in her face until she backed up long enough for us to get away, where I could then inspect his wound. Thankfully, the resulting gash wasn’t all too deep and he was able to walk back down on his own, but it still required a small surgery to cauterize the area and stitch it closed. That experience haunted me for a while and I often wondered what may have happened if he wasn’t there with me. Would she have gotten me instead? Would she have attacked at all? It was definitely an extraordinary circumstance, although I still use it as a cautionary reminder when tackling other peaks. Nowadays, the only time we climb Quandary is in the winter when there are fewer goat sightings and we keep an especially wide berth whenever they’re on the trail.
Q: Did you ever think about quitting?
A: Oh, of course. I think when you spend such a long time working towards a goal, it’s only natural to have moments where you question why you’re doing it. I never want to climb a mountain simply to get a checkmark. I want every experience to be fulfilling. A few years ago, after we’d spent two summers climbing 20-25 fourteeners each, I was getting burnt out and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue dedicating that much time to them. I made the choice to slow down and pursue other things that I enjoyed instead. We took some road trips and hiked smaller, less conspicuous mountains just for fun. I rock climbed while he played crag dog. When we did get back out on the high peaks, I had good days and bad days. At one point last year, I drove us 300 miles down to Silverton, hopped a train 45 minutes to a trailhead, backpacked 6 miles in to Chicago Basin and then hiked another 2.5 miles to the summit of North Eolus. Then a storm quickly blew in. The adjacent summit of Mt. Eolus was only a mere 200 feet up, but it may as well been lightyears away as we were surrounded by falling graupel and distant thunder. Knowing that Mother Nature had defeated us, I slogged back down the mountain towards camp. When the sun poked out less than an hour later, I was too tired to make the ascent back up, knowing full well that this one failed summit meant we’d have to repeat the entire trip again later. At that realization, I plopped down right in the middle of the trail, buried my face in my hands, and cried. That was the first time I’d ever considered saying, “Screw this,” and quitting. But as most things do in time, that hopeless feeling passed and I was able to use it as motivation to get stronger for our next successful attempt a few months later.
Q: Tell us about some of the technical peaks. How do you go about that with a dog?
A: Well for starters, safety is always my biggest priority. That includes Loki’s, mine, my human partner(s), and anyone else there on the mountain as well. So the first thing I think about is minimizing unnecessary hazards. For the most part, I’d choose to climb non-standard routes where the ascents were more remote or less technical, and we’d try to go during weekdays to avoid any crowds. As far as climbing with a dog specifically, Loki is special in that he’s unusually small statured for a husky in addition to being naturally light-footed and agile. Having gone through service training where he works off-leash and being eager to learn new tasks was especially beneficial to his mountain training process. I taught him to follow specific directives as we’re climbing so that I can control the path where he’s going, and we employ different techniques based on the terrain. For ascents, he’s positioned directly in front of or above me, usually within one body length so that I can mitigate any dangers, like if he were to ever dislodge a rock or if his foot slipped. I’m also right there to give him a boost if he needs help scrambling up a section that might be too steep to do on his own. For descents, it’s the opposite. He follows close behind me so again, I can act as a buffer. On really steep sections where we have to actually down-climb, I’ll tell him to “get behind,” and he tucks his body directly against my back while I sort of crab walk down with him. On a few occasions we’ve even put him on a safety belay just as a backup if I’m worried about a particular high risk zone, but incredibly, he’s never needed to weight the rope. Before we did Rainier, I spent time creating a method for rope travel and crevasse rescue with him, and I’d dangle him from a rope to make him comfortable taking sudden falls. He uses a Ruffwear harness created specifically for dogs who rock climb and rappel, so it’s strength rated for all of the things that we’re out doing. He can even route-find and follow cairns, which I still find astonishing because I never actually taught him that. I think the most important thing to note, though, is that we went about these peaks in a progression, starting with the easiest and working up to the hardest. It takes time to build up confidence as a climber, not just for him but I think for anyone who’s out there. By working our way through slowly, practicing moves and fine-tuning our techniques, Loki gained confidence to handle climbing in situations where there’s exposure present or some other added danger. He knows I’m going to keep him safe, and most importantly, he knows that he always gets a veto. If he ever doesn’t feel comfortable going up something - or if he’s just plain not in the mood - he backs away and we stop. We’re done for the day. He gets the same level of input that any other partner would, and he’s never forced to do anything he doesn’t want to do because maintaining our trust in each other is fundamental. There’s absolutely no way we ever would have gotten through 58 different 14ers if he didn’t want to be doing this, so I’m really appreciative of his motivation. Overall though, it’s great that we’ve developed a system that works efficiently, but the fact is that all of these very unique qualities had to come together perfectly for us to be a successful team. If any one of the pieces weren’t there, none of this would have been possible. I think that’s what makes him extra special.
Q: What was the best part of this journey?
A: Finding out who I am in the world. At the beginning, I had just come out of a really abusive relationship, so I was pretty emotionally damaged and had no feelings of self-worth. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t have hobbies. I was just sort of lost with no sense of direction of where to go in life. Climbing that first 14er lit a fire inside me that I didn’t even know existed. It was a single spark that became a flame, contained at first, but then it grew bigger and bigger until it was like a wildfire spreading out of control. Not only had I found something that I loved doing, but it was something that would consistently challenge me, showing me the highest highs and the lowest lows. Climbing taught me what I was made of, and gradually I learned how to heal all the wounds of my past. Being out in the wild, I gained a true sense of confidence for the first time in my life. I found my individuality in the mountains, and also found true friendships, as all my closest friends today are people I met at some point because of climbing. The life I have now is one I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams, and I owe it all to some huge piles of rocks and one little dog.
Q: What kind of support did you have along the way?
A: We were really lucky to have some wonderful climbing partners over the years. With the exception of Sunlight where my partner had to hang back after falling ill, Loki and I never climbed a peak above class 3 by ourselves because often there would be sections where we’d need the extra help. In a situation where the stakes are high, it’s imperative to have a partner who I can trust with my dog’s life, and also who Loki knows he can trust completely. That kind of relationship takes time to build, so I’m really thankful to those friends who were not only willing to get out with us in the first place, but also willing to put in the time and patience required to forge a skilled partnership with both of us. As far as company-based support, I’m very grateful to Woolx apparel for providing clothes that kept me warm and dry, Blue Buffalo for keeping Loki fed and energetic, and Rexspecs dog goggles for protecting his baby blues during snowy ascents.
Q: Any superstitions/traditions you adhered to along the way?
A: Well I’m not flexible enough for those Instagram-worthy summit yoga poses, and Loki’s only yoga move is downward-facing dog. However, I do like to steal a quiet moment on each summit with him for a quick cuddle. I thank him for being such a good partner and getting me up there safely.
Q: How did you celebrate once you tagged the last summit?
A: Finishing with Capitol had an upside and downside. It’s Colorado’s hardest 14er and quite a few people have died attempting it. On the one hand, saving Capitol for last allowed us time to accumulate a lot of skills needed to tackle the varying terrain we encountered up there. It was a very challenging peak for sure, both technically and mentally, but building up experience on all the other 14ers and beyond made the climb feel a lot less difficult than I’d originally imagined. To finally reach that summit with him felt surreal but also very relieving, because I’d been carrying around so much anxiety about climbing Cap for over a year. The downside, though, was that we couldn’t have a big summit celebration with friends and family like a lot of people do on other peaks. We couldn’t really have much of a celebration at all, because like any difficult climb, getting up is only halfway. My partner was so sweet in bringing up a cute little congratulatory headband and pin, but I don’t think I really relaxed until we were back at our campsite with all the technical challenges behind us. Our mini celebration came later when Loki and I shared two chalupas in the parking lot of Taco Bell. I’m telling you, we raged hard on those that evening.
Q: What do you say to the naysayers who think a dog shouldn’t be out there climbing big mountains?
A: Well this should go without saying, but I’m not some fame-seeker trying to pull off stunts for attention, and I’m definitely not trying to encourage anyone to copy what we’re doing. I understand why some people might be concerned because mountain climbing is often dangerous, and people tend to have particularly strong feelings when it comes to dogs doing dangerous things. I personally agree that the majority of dogs shouldn’t be out on peaks where the rocks are loose or where advanced climbing skills are needed. But what most of the naysayers don’t really seem to grasp is that Loki is not just a pet that I’m taking out for a crazy Sunday stroll with no preparation and no regard for safety. It’s easy to look at a simple photo of us and immediately pass judgment without knowing anything about us, but those people aren’t seeing the full scope of the situation and understanding that this is an extremely unique case. Loki is a medical alert dog and an exceptionally gifted climber who spent years training in the mountains with me so that we could safely navigate technical terrain. So not only is he performing a job that he loves - a job that keeps me safe - but he is a legitimate mountaineer. I get that it may be hard for folks to comprehend that our process is very secure and that Lokes has earned the right to be out the mountains with everyone else, so to them I’d say, come climb with us and see for yourself. Regardless of any negative opinions though, at the end of the day, climbing mountains is the fire running through our veins. And no one can ever extinguish that blaze.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’ve been mulling over this question for a while, and truthfully, I’m not really sure. Working through the 14ers took so many years that I’m just enjoying the satisfaction of finally being done! I have a few ideas for projects in California and Alaska, but anything we do is 100% dependent on how Lokes is feeling when we get to them. He’s 8 years old now, and while he’s still climbing hard and pulling really long days, I don’t know how long that will last. So for now we’ll just take things one day at a time, enjoying each experience as it comes. Want to follow along on Ellie and Loki's adventures? Find her on Instagram: @followyourfeet17.
Note: Loki is a service dog with technical climbing training and experience. Please use caution and check wilderness rules before bringing your four-legged friends on mountains.
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