When Seattle-based mountain guide Don Wargowsky was leading an expedition to Mera Peak and Baruntse in Nepal's Himalayas last November, he picked up an extra member on his team. A stray dog noticed the climbers somewhere around 17,500 feet and decided to stick around with the group.
The climbers had just summited Mera Peak, and when they were coming down around Mera La pass, they saw the pup going up.
"What struck me was to get to that pass, there were a few hundred feet of fixed rope which means the terrain was so difficult that most climbers need rope to help themselves up," Wargowsky tells MNN. "To see a dog up there just running by all these climbers in their $2,000 down suits and crampons was very unusual. When she came up to me, I gave her a bit of beef jerky and she didn't leave for 3 1/2 weeks."
The team dubbed their newest four-legged member "Mera" and she tagged along on the way back down the mountain. Wargowsky realized he had seen her in the town of Kare a few days earlier, but she had made no effort then to get close. He thinks that's because street dogs aren't treated very well in Nepal due to the fear of rabies.
"Dogs are shooed away pretty aggressively," he says. "So, she was naturally pretty shy."
A new climbing partner
But once Mera decided to join the expedition, she gradually lowered her guard. The first night, Wargowsky tried to encourage her to sleep in his tent, but she wouldn't come inside. The next morning, he found her curled up outside the flaps covered in a layer of snow. After that, he was able to coax her inside. He gave her one of his sleeping pads and a coat to keep her warm.
Wargowsky was in a difficult position with his uninvited guest. The elements were unforgiving, and he was worried about the dog who had no protection for her paws or her body in conditions that likely reached minus 20 or minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit at times. But he had no luck getting her to leave ... and where would she go?
"Obviously my responsibility was to the group, but I was super happy to have her with us. I didn't encourage her to come along, but I wasn't going to have her starve, so I would feed her," he says. "I really tried to persuade her to stay at camp as we got into steeper and more dangerous terrain. Where we were was a more remote part of Nepal. If we didn't feed her, she was going to starve."
Mera stuck with the expedition the entire time, never venturing far from Wargowsky's side. Or technically, his knee.
"She would walk with her nose almost in the back of my knee when we would walk," he says. "But she wanted to be up front. If I would drop back to hang out with a slower client, she would go up and walk with whoever was up front. She didn't get out of sight pretty much the entire time we were there."
'No clue what her motivation was'
There was only one time when Mera was gone for several days.
While Wargowsky was working on training with some members of the expedition, showing them how to climb the ice with rope, Mera followed the team's sherpas instead. They were working to set up ropes to "camp one" at around 20,000 feet. She scrambled up the steep terrain but seemed afraid to go back down and wouldn't return with them to base camp.
"She ended up spending two nights alone on a glacier at 20,000 feet. I really thought she was going to freeze to death," Wargowsky says. The sherpas went up to continue working and she was there. But instead of going back down right away, she followed them to 22,000 feet as they continued working before going back to base camp.
The next day when the entire team went to make the climb, Wargowsky tried to keep her at base camp because he didn't want her to make the steep climb again. He tied her up but she got out of her rope and quickly caught up with them. Wargowsky couldn't leave his human clients to take her back, so Mera was allowed to stay with the group.
"I have no clue what her motivation was," he says. "We were feeding her at base camp, so it wasn't the food. It's not like there was anything up there for her, but it was amazing to see."
Tackling the ice and snow
Early on, Mera started to slide and Wargowsky was able to catch her and save her from what could've been a dangerous fall. When the team moved to camp two at around 21,000 feet, they were sidelined there for four days because of bad weather. Mera stayed with Wargowsky, who shared his tent and his food with the pup.
"I split all my meals with her 50/50 so we both lost weight," he says. He guesses the scruffy brown-and-tan stray weighed probably 45 pounds to start with but lost maybe five or 10 pounds during the trip. Wargowsky says Mera looked like a combination of a Tibetan mastiff and a Nepali sheepdog.
Wargowsky was impressed with how well Mera navigated the snow and ice and handled the cold.
"She did very very well like 98 percent of the time. There were certain slopes very early in the morning or late at night when the snow was very crusty and icy when it was very slippery and you could see her kind of struggle with it," he says. "Her paws got beat up and it was hard to see her paws bleeding a little. But everything healed up that evening and it was all superficial."
He says it was also hard to believe she didn't go snow-blind. The humans were all wearing expensive glacier goggles while she trotted along with no protection.
The highest a dog has ever climbed
There was only one part of the descent where she was assisted by a rope. Somehow, she had climbed the vertical 15-foot-tall section without incident but when it was time to go back down, she didn't want to do it. The humans were rappelling, so to coax the dog down safely, they tied a rope harness to her so she could half-run, half tumble. You can see it in the photo above, but Wargowsky points out that the truly harrowing part of the mountain isn't even visible in the shot.
In the end, when the team — along with their canine mascot — had come down from their completed 23,389-foot climb of Baruntse, Mera was hailed as a bit of a hero. Word had spread about her alleged feat and Wargowsky had to show off photos from his phone to prove she had been with them.
"She was the first dog to ever have climbed that mountain," he says. "We can't find anything that says a dog has ever been that high. I believe that is the highest that a dog has ever climbed ever at any point in the world."
"I am not aware of a dog actually summiting an expedition peak in Nepal," Billi Bierling of the Himalayan Database, an organization that documents climbing expeditions in Nepal, told Outside. "I just hope that she won't get into trouble for having climbed Baruntse without a permit." Bierling told Outside that there have been a few reported cases of dogs at Everest Base Camp (17,600 feet) and some who've trailed teams through the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp II (21,300 feet) on Mount Everest, but Mera's adventure is perhaps the highest-recorded elevation by a dog anywhere in the world.
'This dog wants to climb mountains'
After all that climbing and bonding, Wargowsky was tempted to bring his new friend home with him to the U.S.
"I really would've loved to adopt her. But I live in a 700-square-foot unit in Seattle and this dog wants to climb mountains. I gave it a lot of consideration. I didn't care what it cost. Despite how much I loved this dog, I thought it would've been a very selfish thing to do to bring her to such a small space."
But he didn't want to leave what he calls "this hero of a dog" out on the streets. Fortunately, the expedition's base camp manager was also smitten with the adventurous dog. Because dogs can't fly, NirKaji Tamang paid someone $100 to walk three days to pick her up until they could get her on a bus and get her to his home in Kathmandu.
After what she had accomplished on Baruntse, Tamang changed the athletic dog's name to Baru. He took her to the vet to make sure she was healthy. Her injuries quickly healed, and she gained weight.
Wargowsky, who told his remarkable Mera story online, was thrilled recently to receive photos of her. He will be back in Nepal several times this year for expeditions, and he plans on visiting his canine climbing partner.
"With what we had available, I don't know what more I could've done to prevent her from climbing. She was definitely there of her own free will," he says. "I truly loved that dog."