Craig Armstrong has been rock climbing for about five years, and lately he's been climbing with a very special partner: a 2-year-old black cat named Millie.
"People take their dogs to the crag all the time. I always knew when I was settled enough to have a pet I would bring mine too, but it would be a cat," he said.
He found Millie at a Park City, Utah, animal shelter. When the 8-week-old kitten climbed onto his shoulder, Armstrong knew he'd found his new partner and took her home that day.
When Millie got a little older, he started taking her on short driving trips to get her used to his truck, and then to a small Salt Lake City island where she could get accustomed to being outside in a safe environment.
Last autumn, Armstrong took Millie on her first big outdoor excursion to Joe's Valley, a large concentration of boulders in Utah.
Like all kittens, Millie was curious, but unlike most kittens, she was given an opportunity to explore the outdoors, climb rocks and leap from boulder to boulder.
After that, Millie participated in more climbing trips, exploring farther and climbing higher, but Armstrong says her safety is always a priority.
She wears a harness that's doubled up with extra cordage, and Armstrong attaches her to his own harness. He also fastens LEDs to her harness in case they get caught in the dark, and he always brings Millie her own water bottle, food and treats.
"When on a specific route I will free solo, which means I'm not on a rope or anything, but I will wear my harness and attach her to it. I only do easy climbs well within my ability so falling is not a real threat."
The tallest climb he and Millie have done in that fashion was "1,000' of Fun" in the San Rafael Swell, which is 1,000 feet at the summit.
"Millie clearly has zero fear of heights," he said. "She's walked precariously on cliff edges and jumped gaps from one boulder to another. Her balance is amazing, and she never seizes up in fear."
However, he admits there has been one close call.
While rappelling down off 1,000' of Fun, Millie's tail got caught in the rappel device for a second. She screeched and dug her claws into Armstrong, but other than losing a little bit of fur, Millie was fine.
When they're at camp, Armstrong lets his fearless feline wander around while he cooks dinner, but he's careful to keep an eye on her. He says if they're in the desert, it's easier to see her and she stays closer to camp, but when they're in the woods, she tends to wander into the trees.
"I'm always sure to give her ample time around camp to do what she wants and just follow her around. Climbs or slots are my objectives not hers, so she can get stressed and I want to be sure to give her time to decompress."
In fact, putting his human agenda aside and letting Millie wander freely is something he calls "catting," and it's an important part of their outdoor excursions.
"Your job is to follow, protect, keep safe from harmful places and predators," Armstrong explains on his website. "Your reward is experiencing nature at a slower pace, from a different perspective, in a new light."
Armstrong says there are disadvantages to rock climbing with a cat because you're responsible for your pet's safety, and the animal's presence is another element you have to account for while climbing. However, the pros outweigh the cons.
"The best part? The simple joy, the laughs, the childish fun, getting my little buddy out in amazing places, the memories. My friend Zac accompanies us on many adventures with his cat, Kenneth. If you come across two dudes climbing a long route with cats attached to their harness, it's a ridiculous scene from the outside looking in. From the inside, though, it's just fun."
Want to climb with your cat?
Armstrong advises that cat owners ease their feline friends into enjoying the great outdoors and be prepared to sit in one spot for a while as your cat observes and explores.
He says it's also a good idea to get your cat used to riding on your shoulders from a young age.
Not every cat will take to rock climbing like Millie has, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy nature together.
"A lot of people say to me, 'I wish my cat would do that. I wish my cat was an adventure cat.' My thought on that is every cat is an adventure cat. Get them out there, keep them safe — they're going to have fun."
See more photos of Millie and Kenneth the climbing cats below, and follow Armstrong on Instagram for more.
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