5:00am was early, and he didn't come down until 30 minutes later. His eyes brightened and lost that What-did-you-wake-me-up-for? look as he remembered all the packing before finally going to bed after midnight. The packs and boots were piled up next to the skis and poles in the corner. He paced and grumbled as we ate breakfast and drank coffee standing at the counter. Anticipation started to take up space in the air between us as we loaded the car in the crisp end-of-night air.
I can still picture the hurt and disappointment across his face as I gently pushed him back inside and locked the door: I was going skiing without him.
I met Greg and Amy in Placerville, and piled into their car to drive up to Lovers Leap. The snow is mostly gone at 6120 feet, dirty piles left behind and shielded by the long limbs of pine trees. We strapped skis onto our packs and hiked up Pyramid Canyon, following the creek for a short while until leaving it to piece together a track up a buttress of granite slabs, manzanita, and the occasional lone pine. We put our skis and started skinning at 6650 feet, and gained the ridge proper at 7000 feet. Only 2983 more feet to climb.
I first met Montana 5 years ago, when he was living with the girl I had just started dating. A 55-pound Aussie Shepherd mix, his bright eyes hinted at the intelligence behind an expressive face. "Escapes for Freedom" proved it when he realized he was being left at home and missing out on something. Volumes were spoken with crooked ears and raised eyebrows, grumbles of dissatisfaction and barks of excitement. As my relationship with his owner grew, I eventually moved in with them and suddenly I had a partner ready to run and ski whenever I needed to get out. He knows what it means when we pull out skis, backpacks, or running shoes.
As we climbed the ridge, other ski tracks emerged from the surrounding woods. It reminded me of the photos I've seen in National Geographic magazine of animal tracks converging on an oasis. I looked down and saw a paw print, the track reached the edges of my palm. Some one big was ahead of us.
I had to stop taking Montana powder skiing after I watched him struggle to get down a slope I had just skied in early winter. Getting home required climbing back up the ridge behind us and skiing the other side back to the car, and I was worried that he wouldn't make it, that I'd have to carry him on my shoulders. The following spring I had to stop the long trail runs after he simply refused to keep running, and we finished the route at a walking pace. Now we go out for 30 minute run/walks, and afterwards I help him climb into the car. He spends the next day following the sun light as it warms the wood floor, avoiding the stairs as much as possible.
The trees were well spaced and increasingly larger glades gave us views in the the Desolation Wilderness to the north and the peaks of Carson Pass to the south. The climbing was low angle and fast, and we're made incredibly good time. I finally met the owner of those paw prints at 8800 feet. His owner was a bit remote and didn't want to tell me his name, but he was a handsome German Shepherd, big with a just a little bit of grey coloring his chin.
Now 12 years-old, the white has spread across Montana's face. He can't jump as high, sprint as far, run as long as he used to. He takes rest days now - he stayed mellow for days after going spring skiing with us at Carson Pass.
We passed the dog and his two human companions and continued up the South Ridge to Pyramid Peak's 9983 foot-tall summit. As I looked back down the ridge I can see him climbing up behind us, following the tails of the skis in front of him. I'm struck with a shot of jealousy, followed with a chaser of guilt. What is Montana doing at this moment? Sleeping in the sun on the back deck? Asking for a snack? Reminiscing on an old trip?
It was windy on the ridge and summit, and after a few moments to take photos and scout the descent we're off. The east and south facing slopes had softened up nicely, so we followed those down toward Horsetail Falls, and decided to take a chance and try to continue down slopes we weren't familiar with. We ran the risk of getting cliffed out, rather than following the more certain but less exciting option of simply following our tracks back to the car. Steep short shots and a memorable chute led to the lower basin and Pyramid Creek again.
When I finally get home that evening, Montana is there at the door. He's been sleeping there for most of the day, she tells me. As if he's waiting to hear about the snow conditions and the climbing, the ski descent and the route finding. I looked for signs that he's upset with being left behind, but his ears were up, his tail was waving, his mouth pulled back in a grin as I said hi. Then he walked back to his pillow in the middle of the living room and sat down to watch me unpack.
Statistics: Pyramid Peak 9983 feet, Southeast Slopes. 6:21 car-car, 3:54 up, 2:27 down. 6 miles roundtrip, 3860 feet climbed and descended with Greg B. & Amy G.
Postscript, 28 April: Montana went to the vet last Friday because he couldn't weight his left front paw. He's been diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, and won't be able to go out on big skis or runs in the future.