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.
After nearly an hour, I had made it to the basin, and I saw Merle standing on a large rock outcropping. Relief washed over me. “Merle, come here, buddy. Good dog. I’m so sorry,” I called. But he ran away. I didn’t blame him. I’d taken him on a selfish pursuit to a selfish place. I’d pushed him too far.
I followed Merle up the basin. Soon, I was close enough to see that he looked oddly swollen; he was covered with lacerations, and his gait was hobbled and stiff. When I got within a few feet of him, he dived into a crack at the edge of a field of rocks. I grabbed his back legs for a moment, but he squirmed away, deep into a subterranean pocket within the boulders. I moved rocks and snow away from the crack’s entrance until two backyard grill–size boulders slid together, clamping my ring finger between them. I yanked out my hand and saw the nail was smashed and spurting blood. I threw on a glove from my pack to contain the flow, then kept digging. A few minutes later, I’d cleared enough snow to stick my head in the crack. I peered down into the darkness. I could hear the jingle of Merle’s collar, but I couldn’t see him.
I yelled, alternating between angry and nearly hysterical and calm and coaxing. No response. I decided to give him space. Maybe he was OK and my panic was freaking him out. I opened the can of sardines and left them as a lure at the mouth of the cave. While I waited, I went to the scene of the fall. Above, I saw the path Merle had taken: He’d slid some 700 feet down the upper snowfield, fallen off a 40-foot cliff, then rolled down another 100-foot cliff to the lower snowfield where I now stood. “How did he walk away from this?” I thought.
I returned to the crack, leaned in, and called his name again. Inside, it smelled wet. After a decade of archery hunting, I knew the scent—it smelled like death. I spent another hour crouched outside the cave, until the jingle of the collar and Merle’s deep breathing stopped.
It was late afternoon, and I worried about losing daylight. I was on the wrong side of a big mountain, many miles from home, and not prepared to spend the night outside. I packed up, traversed the basin, descended a slushy snowfield, then found my way to the base of the chute I’d come down. I climbed the melting snowpack as quickly as I could, reusing my kicked steps from the descent. When I got reception, I phoned Susan.
“I’m OK, Sus, but I’m walking down alone.”
“Is he dead?”
Then I ran away, back down the trail. I didn’t know that Lily and Axel had heard me through our car’s Bluetooth system. After I hung up, they burst into tears.
Daniel MilchevEric Wagenknecht and Merle on a Gore Range trail near where Merle went missing
I’ve always owned dogs. They accompanied me into the mountains, where, bounding off-leash, they seemed protected by an invincible athleticism. Merle was bred for the trail. I had assumed the rugged Aussie would take to the high alpine trail intuitively. But the reality is that almost no one thinks about training their dogs for the mountains.
In potentially deadly terrain, it’s critical that humans help dogs understand their limits, says Amber Quann, who runs Summit Dog Training in Fort Collins, Colorado. She helps owners and dogs prepare for outdoor adventures through relationship building and body-conditioning classes. Dogs can’t talk to us, but they have other ways of communicating that we need to pay attention to. It’s up to us to learn their idiosyncrasies. Of course, it’s difficult to tune into a dog’s subtle behavior changes when you’re listening to a podcast or chatting with your climbing partner. “It’s as simple as putting your phone down and being present in the moment,” Quann says. (These are the 30 things your dog wishes you knew.)
That communication leads to trust, which is the other part of taking a dog into the mountains. “You have to trust your dog to make good decisions by giving her a safe amount of freedom and not always interrupting her natural behaviors,” Quann says. “We want owners to help their dogs but not micromanage them.” The bottom line, she notes, is if a trip will be more stressful with your dog, leave him or her at home.
I knew Susan questioned whether I’d done enough to keep Merle safe. My possible carelessness gnawed at me, too, so I called our longtime vet and friend, Charlie Meynier, owner of Vail Valley Animal Hospital, to try to get some closure. He assured me I had done everything I could to save Merle. “He crawled into that cave to secure shelter, which is typical for a dog in distress who is on the verge of dying—they hide and hunker down,” he said.
Three weeks later, on July 8, a real estate agent named Dana Dennis Gumber was preparing a listing in East Vail, less than a mile from the Deluge Lake trailhead where Merle and my journey had started off. She noticed a ragged-looking dog near the property’s deck and assumed he belonged to the landscapers working on the complex. But when she returned to the house two hours later, the crew had left and the dog was curled by the front door. Gumber had noticed him limping earlier, and now she saw that he was filthy, weak, and skeletally thin. She ushered the dog into her car, then took him to her Eagle-Vail home for food and water.
Miraculously, Gumber found that the dog still had a collar. That afternoon, she left a voicemail on my cell: “I have Merle. Please call me.”
I’d left town a few days earlier for a work trip to Austria. I got the call and FaceTimed Susan back home immediately, where it wasn’t yet dawn. Neither of us knew what the message meant. Susan assumed it was a sick prank, but she agreed to call the woman back that morning. A few hours later, we had an answer: Merle was alive, Susan said. “I’m getting him this afternoon.” When she got to Gumber’s house, she collapsed to the floor as soon as she saw Merle, gently stroking his battered body. He seemed to recognize her, though his wandering eyes made her think he’d suffered some brain damage.
Susan drove him to the Vail Valley Animal Hospital, where emergency veterinarian Rebecca Hall found that Merle had two detached retinas, a punctured lung, facial lacerations, and sores on his hind legs. He had lost about 12 pounds—almost a third of his weight. His stool showed that he’d survived on pine needles and berries. He was tattered, but, remarkably, he didn’t need stitches and none of his bones were broken. Dr. Hall was amazed that Merle had walked away from falling so far. He had hunkered down in a cave, likely gone into a coma, then woken up and, seriously injured, covered 20 miles in 20 days to return home. “You don’t hear a lot of stories about dogs surviving in the wilderness,” Quann says. “But herding breeds are driven and tough. His return was most likely testament to his positive association with home. These dogs are incredibly bonded to their owners.”
Quann says Merle probably followed human smells on the trail to get back to civilization. “We can’t wrap our brains around how easy it is for a dog to follow a scent or hear traffic miles away,” she says. Plus, after a week in the wilderness, Merle’s senses had likely sharpened. “I’d guess it was this combination, plus intuition and some luck, that got him home,” she says.
Over the next week, while I was still away, Merle recovered beautifully. His wandering eyes straightened, he gained weight, and his gait returned to normal. Axel and Lily, who now fully believe in miracles, spent every moment with their best friend. When I got home just after midnight one day later that month, I walked through the front door, anxious to see Merle. Would he run from me again? I entered our living room, then kneeled down and called him to me. He gave a quick bark before lowering his ears, tucking in his tail, and wiggling onto my lap. He clawed my chest like he wanted to climb on top of my shoulders and kissed my face. Next, read up on these 27 amazing real-life miracles that will make you believe.