The Dog That Came Back From The Dead
Reader's Digest US|February 2019
The Dog That Came Back From The Dead

On a run in the Rocky Mountains, the author’s dog, Merle, fell 800 feet, injured beyond hope. But he wasn’t done yet.

Eric Wagenknecht with Tess Strokes

We charge up the final ascent of the 13,041-foot Grand Traverse Peak, about seven miles east of Vail, Colorado. My new running partner, Merle—a one-year-old blue Australian shepherd—seemed unfazed by the previous eight miles we’d covered. I also felt strong, energized by the clear Rocky Mountain air and endless blue sky. It was Father’s Day 2017, and I was set to return home to my four-year-old son, Axel; my nine-year-old daughter, Lily; and my wife, Susan, by noon. As I reached the summit, I heard a short yelp but assumed Merle would be seconds behind me, as he had been all morning. I snapped a photo of the view for my family, called out to the dog, then tucked my phone in my pack and headed back down the trail. Merle was nowhere to be seen. “Merle! Merle!” I called. “Where are you?” I felt a tickle of panic in my throat as I threaded my way down the ridge, still seeing no signs of him. But he was athletic and young and invincible. He must be fine, I reasoned.

Then, several hundred feet farther down, I saw his paw prints on a five foot-wide strip of snow at the top of a steep chute. I followed them cautiously until they disappeared entirely off the edge. About 800 feet below, the chute ended abruptly in a boulder field and a massive cliff. Below that, I could see a wide, empty, snow covered basin. There was no sign of Merle in the rock field or the basin. I could still hear that last yelp in my mind, and now I realized what it had signaled. Merle was gone.

Merle and I had started the day at 4 a.m. at our home in Eagle, Colorado. I’d stacked my running clothes next to the bed the night before and filled my pack with water bottles, trail food, and a can of sardines—my go-to for big days in the mountains. It would be my first long run in the Gore Range this summer and my first big adventure with Merle.

We’d bought the 40-pound blue-and-brown-eyed Aussie shepherd six months earlier from a breeder in Durango. Merle quickly proved himself to be a phenomenal running partner. He could easily bang out 15 miles.

That morning, we drove 36 miles from our house to the Deluge Lake trailhead in East Vail. I’d grown up in Illinois but as a kid made frequent trips to Vail, where my late father had a house. I’d hiked this trail every year since I was seven. My dad, a mountaineer and ultrarunner, would take me and my younger sister up the eight miles to Deluge Lake—training, he called it, for our annual summit of Mount of the Holy Cross, the peak where I would spread his ashes in 2002.

I hadn’t thought twice about taking Merle up Grand Traverse; in fact, I’d expected him to beat me to the summit. Which is why, even as I stood above the steep chute, I still thought, “It’s going to be OK.” I knew this summit was the only spot on the trail where I would get cell service, so I called Susan, panicked. “Merle fell! I don’t know what happened,” I told her. “I’m going for him. It’s OK. I’m OK.”

Then I saw something running in the basin below me. “There he is! Oh my God! I’m OK. I need to go.”

“OK, be safe” was all Susan had time to say before I hung up and ran down the ridge. Merle was sprinting downhill, away from me. I couldn’t follow his nearly vertical route without technical climbing gear, so I needed to find a safer way down.

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February 2019