ONE LAST HIKE WITH A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND
Words and Photos by Sarah Strattan
The jar of Chandler's ashes had sat on my shelf for months now. I've seen people keep their loved one's ashes in urns, proudly displayed above a fireplace or similar location, but this just felt weird for some reason. For one thing, it wasn't the ashes of a human but rather those of our old dog Chandler who had died last year.
Now I'm not super religious, nor do I really have a preference on pet cremation vs. burial. Still, I knew these ashes should be spread somewhere special, somewhere where Chandler had had the most wild and awesome adventures in his life as a doggie.
This past year dragged on, and I found myself glancing over at Chandler's ashes from time to time, wondering, when and where are you doing to spread these? Come on already! Chandler and I had had the most adventures together in the Gore Mountains of Colorado, so it was only fitting that I spread them there. However, my own selfish pursuits took priority each weekend, as did planning for my upcoming mountain climbing expedition in Pakistan. It just never seemed like the right time, and it was as if Chandler was looking over at me from the jar of ashes with those begging eyes, the same ones he used to give me when he wanted me to throw the tennis ball for him over and over (and over).
I had been part of a dog-owning family ever since I was born; however, Chandler's circumstance was a little different. My parents got Chandler soon after I went off to college, but he got caught in the middle of their divorce and soon juggled between three different homes throughout Colorado. Unfortunately, I didn't have the ideal living situation or schedule to fully adopt Chandler myself, but I tried to make up for it by climbing as many mountains with him whenever I could. I often found myself similarly juggled between school, jobs, and climbing partners in different states, but somehow Chandler and I always found ways to escape off into the mountains together and have some of the best adventures either of us could imagine.
Fast forward to 2021 and Chandler's last days. He had been living with my dad's old business partner and his family for many years and wasn't climbing too many mountains anymore. Luckily, I got to see Chandler one last time in Taos, New Mexico, and even though it was clear he wouldn't be with us much longer, he was still his old self in many ways. Soon after this, I was given his ashes with instructions to spread them somewhere where Chandler loved to be. I vowed to take them to the Gore Range and spread them from the top of a summit that he and I had been on together.
Despite an April dust storm, high winds, and the relatively early melting of Colorado's snowpack, I was still getting out and training each weekend in the spring of 2022, mainly in the Elk Mountains near where I live and work. However, I was long overdue for a Gore Range adventure, so one weekend in mid-May, my friend Billy and I decided it was time to ski a line that had been on my wish list for many years–a couloir off the back side of Peak H. The snowpack at this point in the year was stable, although we worried about crusty conditions and the high winds that were forecasted. Nonetheless, I decided to bring Chandler's ashes along in hopes of spreading them on the summit of Peak H, a peak he and I had climbed together back in 2012.
Hiking and skinning up to Pitkin Lake was challenging with heavy packs and breakable crust. There were numerous creek crossings with sketchy snow bridges that we feared could be our ultimate demise. When we finally made camp up at the lake, the winds had picked up, and the clouds had moved in. We settled into bed, wondering if the weather and conditions would work in our favor for tomorrow's long slog up and over three passes to reach the base of the couloir we wanted to climb up to reach the top of Peak H.
Early morning alarms went off with the typical grogginess and longing for just one more minute of blissful sleep. We set off across Pitkin Lake and up to Might Pass with fortunately lighter backpacks than the previous day's slog up to camp. I carried Chandler's ashes with me, wrapped up securely in my warm hat nestled within my backpack. As we ascended and then descended Might Pass in crusty snow and high winds, we began wondering if today's goal would be feasible. The ski down from the pass into the next basin over was horrendous; we were barely able to make turns in the crusty snow. The winds made it impossible to talk or stand upright in some cases, and we began to realize that the snow in the couloir coming down from Peak H would probably not be warming up anytime soon to make for decent skiing.
When Billy and I made it up to the second pass in between Peak P and Peak Q, we took a break and looked around. We were deep in the heart of the Gore Range, yet there were at least six peaks surrounding us that Chandler had climbed with me through the years. After minimal deliberation, we agreed that Peak H wasn't in the cards for the day; the winds were only supposed to increase over the next 24 hours, and the ski conditions were not going to improve anytime soon.
I thought about holding onto Chandler's ashes and saving them for a different trip, one where I could spread them from a summit we had shared together. However, as Billy and I chatted about the gorgeous views we currently had of Peaks K, L, the Partners, and more, I changed my mind. Chandler had never been on this pass before, so maybe spreading his ashes in a new place would somehow enable his spirit to roam even more freely throughout the Gore Range. Plus, with the incredible winds we were experiencing, I figured his ashes would fly for potentially miles and miles before finally resting all over the mountains that he loved so much.
Billy took some memorable photos as I opened up the glass jar and tossed Chandler's ashes up into the crisp mountain air. The small and subtle tears that had accumulated in my eyes were hidden behind my sunglasses, but as Chandler's ashes were carried away towards Peak L, I felt a gradual sense of happiness and contentment settle in as if Chandler was finally in his ideal resting place. Although knowing him, his spirit wasn't resting at all; it was running all over the peaks, swimming in the lakes, chasing birds, marmots, and any tennis ball that he could find.
Billy and I retraced our route back up and over the pass to our camp at Pitkin Lake. That night the winds howled, and it snowed, but I lay curled up warm in my sleeping bag, thankful for that day's adventure and all of the hundreds I had had with Chandler over the years. He had been a wild puppy from day one, full of energy and non-stop excitement. Despite this, he was loyal and well-behaved in the mountains. He checked in with me often and stayed with me no matter how many birds he wanted to chase or how tired he was after some of our most intense days. Chandler was my consistent best friend throughout my 20s and all of the wild events that decade of life often entails. I hope his spirit is running wild throughout the Gore Mountains, a place where my memories with him will never fade.