Most climbers who attempt Capitol Peak’s infamous Knife Edge either scoot across à cheval or use the serrated ridgeline as a handhold as they work their feet along tiny ledges on either side. Which is all well and good, unless you’re a dog and lack opposable thumbs.
Loki, an eight-year-old Siberian husky, had an out-and-back trip over the 150-foot Knife Edge—which features a sheer drop of at least 1,000 feet on either side—between him and becoming the third dog in history to climb all 58 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
A nipping mid-September wind served as a reminder that snow could arrive any day in the high country, bringing an end to the brief 2019 summer climbing season. If he wasn’t successful, the completion of Loki’s (no, not that Loki) seven-year quest would be put on hold until the following summer.
It was a situation his owner, Ellie Briggs, knew well. She and Loki initially attempted the peak in September 2018 but bailed before making much progress due to high winds. They’d waited a full year for another try at Capitol, a mountain that made headlines in 2017 for killing five climbers in a six-week period. The prospect of another failure, of another year of frayed nerves, weighed on Briggs’s mind. Because she’d done all of her climbing alongside Loki, Capitol would be her final fourteener as well.
“I’d built up the mountain as being so treacherous and so much worse than it really was. I had so much anxiety,” says Briggs, 37. “Every time I would think about it, my heart would start racing.”
There’s a running joke that dogs tend to look like their owners, but one glimpse of Briggs and Loki together dispels that notion. She’s a scientist with striking red hair and a rangy climber’s build, while Loki is short and compact for a Siberian husky, weighing in at only 40 pounds. Briggs believes he was the runt of his litter, though she has no way to be certain. She adopted Loki through Craigslist after another family rescued him from a closed puppy mill in early 2012.
Within a few months of welcoming Loki into her home in Littleton, Colorado, Briggs developed health issues that she says made her eligible for a service dog. She entered Loki into training, unsure how he’d perform. Siberian huskies are often independent and difficult to teach, but Loki passed his two-year course with flying colors.
Neither dog nor owner had much outdoor experience when they started hiking fourteeners in 2012. Their first success came on Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak and one of the few fourteeners with a groomed hiking trail from parking lot to summit. Briggs immediately craved more. It was obvious from an early stage that Loki, too, had a talent and passion for climbing.
“The way that Loki moves over the rock, it’s like watching a dance. He’s just very agile and very light-footed,” Briggs says.
The pair ripped through as many summits as they could each summer, beginning with the easiest hikes and progressing to Class 3 scrambling. As the difficulty continued to ratchet up, beyond what most dogs are capable of, Loki simply kept on climbing. Briggs figured they’d attempt more and more challenging peaks until they reached a point where he seemed uncomfortable. It never came.
“If he doesn’t want to do something, we’re not going to do it. I’m not going to force him,” Briggs says. “I always thought as long as he wants to keep going, we’ll keep going.”
They summited 57 peaks over six years, until only one remained: Capitol. After the initial aborted attempt in 2018, it took a full year for conditions, nerves, and partner schedules to align for a second try. For Briggs, that meant 12 months of worrying over whether the risk was worth the reward of getting Loki to arguably the most difficult of Colorado’s fourteener summits.
The existence of 14,130-foot Capitol Peak is perhaps the main reason so few dogs have joined the increasingly trendy ranks of fourteener finishers. While many of the easier fourteeners—two-thirds of them are considered walk-ups—might easily be confused as off-leash dog parks, the seriousness of the exposed Class 4 scrambling required on the most dangerous peaks serves as a natural barrier for four-legged companions. Few are more sustained, loose, or exposed than Capitol.
Longs Peak and privately owned Culebra Peak have also historically proven difficult for dogs, mostly due to red tape. Pets aren’t allowed on trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, which includes Longs, and the ranch that owns Culebra has changed hands several times over the past few decades. Some proprietors have limited or blocked access. Briggs and Loki climbed both legally, with permission, based on Loki’s status as a service dog.
“You’re putting an animal at risk, and it’s a very personal decision. You’ve got to be as responsible as you can in the calculated risk that you’re taking.”
Only three canines, including Loki, are known to have climbed all the fourteeners, compared with the nearly 2,000 human finishers who have registered their accomplishment with the Colorado Mountain Club. Roger Edrinn and a fuzzy white mutt named Diente came first in the 1990s, followed by Mike Gulsvig and his chow chow–German shepherd mix, Melvin, in 2014.
Two other dogs finished just one peak short. A golden retriever named Sawyer completed all but Capitol during his heyday in the 2000s. Dylan, an off-white mixed breed belonging to brothers Paul and Dan McCabe, never secured access to Culebra.
Sawyer’s owner, Josh Aho, turned their adventures into a book, Climbing Colorado’s 14ers with Sawyer. Though he retired from climbing when Sawyer passed away in 2014, Aho continues to record the history of dogs on fourteeners on his website, 14erCanine.org. His research has found that only eight dogs have summited at least 50 fourteeners, a benchmark after which difficult scrambling becomes unavoidable.
Six peaks require Class 4 moves: Little Bear Peak, Pyramid Peak, North Maroon Peak, Mount Wilson, Sunlight Peak, and Capitol Peak. Most dogs physically can’t handle that level of scrambling, which involves near-vertical pitches. Those that try can find themselves one slip away from certain death.
“You’re putting an animal at risk, and it’s a very personal decision. You’ve got to be as responsible as you can in the calculated risk that you’re taking,” Aho says.
As they advanced from the walk-up trails to the more difficult peaks, Briggs and Loki honed techniques to mitigate the potential hazards. The dog’s extreme trainability also allowed Briggs to teach him skills specific to mountain climbing, including staying directly in front of her on the uphill scrambles and leaning against her body as they negotiated steep descents. They climbed on weekdays or practiced extreme alpine starts to avoid other hikers and lessen the rockfall danger, and Briggs rarely climbed challenging routes without a competent human partner to assist.
Loki and Briggs even learned technical rope skills to belay him across dangerous sections—techniques they’d put to further use when they climbed Washington’s Mount Rainier, again with permission from the National Park Service, in June 2019.
Briggs carried a rope to protect Loki as he crossed Capitol’s Knife Edge during the 2019 attempt, but it proved unnecessary. She and her climbing partner, Korrena De, kept Loki sandwiched between them as they all slowly scooted across, ensuring they could grab Loki’s harness in case of a slip. Having De along for the finisher climb brought the journey full circle, because she was the one who introduced Briggs to fourteeners back on Elbert in 2012.
Though she got choked up as she neared their final summit, Briggs didn’t allow much room for celebration until they were safely back at camp. The Knife Edge gets all the press, but the terrain between it and Capitol’s highest point also requires sustained scrambling over rock that makes a Jenga tower seem stable. It took all the knowledge and skills the pair had acquired together during their seven-year journey, plus the methodical patience inherent to seasoned climbers, to reach the top.
Of course, the presence of a dog on Capitol attracted the attention of other hikers.
“Every single person that we passed was like, ‘Congratulations!’ They were so excited. They were so psyched to see Loki. It was really, really heartwarming,” Briggs says. “All the encouragement made it so much more special.”
With Capitol completed, Loki joins Mike Gulsvig’s Melvin as the only living canine fourteener finishers. Melvin still resides with his owner in Golden, Colorado, though at 14 years old, his peakbagging days are behind him.
“He’s retired and enjoys Home Depot,” says Gulsvig, 34. “That’s his adventure now.”
Like most people who have just achieved a major life goal, Briggs shies away from committing to exactly what’s next. She’d like to explore some of the fourteeners in California with Loki, though she acknowledges completing that list, which includes Class 5 routes, would be impossible for a dog. Her ultimate aspiration would be for the pair to summit Denali, an adventure she’s potentially targeting within the next two years.
“I’ll keep coming up with things for us to do, as long as he’s willing to climb with me,” Briggs says.
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