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Abandoned dog becomes mountain guide

By jim Published: October 12, 2009

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. (AP) — The dog found her.

Then together they found the mountains.

It was about 3 a.m. one fall night when Amy McCarthy first heard the whining. She was in graduate school in Logan, Utah, trying to sleep.

The next day she went to get her laundry, leaving her door open a crack. When she came back, on the couch was a small black puppy. The plan was to keep him overnight. Surely someone was missing him. She called the local shelters. A classic case of abandonment, they said.

She couldn't keep him. Her apartment too small, her life too busy maybe for just one more night.

Twelve years later, McCarthy and Wister set out toward Pinedale, an inseparable duo, ready to tackle another adventure in the Wind River Mountains.

Dogs as companions in the mountains is nothing new. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, famously brought along his dog Seaman on the group's cross-country exploration. More recently, climber Joe Kelsey is known for the golden retriever companions who have accompanied him on hundreds of expeditions in the Winds.

But since 2001, Wister has been known as a canine guide for Exum Mountain Guides.

Forrest McCarthy, an Exum guide, asked his clients if Wister could come along on a trip in the Wind River Range.

The clients loved him, said Susan Read, a co-owner of Exum. On snow-covered trips, Wister broke trail. He'd scurry ahead, finding the best way up a peak and lead the way down through boulder fields, navigating the most efficient ways out.

"It is kind of like having an extra guide along," Read said.

While Wister couldn't go along on trips that involved more technical climbing, he successfully tackled class III difficulty level, or scrambling. He finished a Fremont Peak trip in a day. He climbed Mount Mitchell by moonlight. And he's been on top of Gannett Peak, Wyoming's highest summit at 13,804 feet, six times.

Wister's popularity grew. In the Exum office, Read heard about the adventures.

Clients loved the idea of a dog summiting Gannett with them. Eventually Wister got his own plug on the Exum Web site, where he was called the "Uber-Mountain-Mutt and Exum canine guide." People were encouraged to book a trip with the famous mountain dog by calling the Exum office.

Twelve years ago, when McCarthy realized the puppy was hers for good, she needed a name. She wanted to call him something from the Tetons, the mountain range she had fallen in love with when she moved to Jackson from New York in 1994. Middle or South were poor names.

McCarthy recently had climbed Mount Wister, named for Owen Wister, author of The Virginian. The climb of the 11,490-foot mountain was still fresh in her mind, and she liked the name.

McCarthy didn't know what her puppy would be like. Not all dogs grow up to ski or hike. She knew she'd love him anyway.

But it was Wister who made her love and appreciate the outdoors even more.

Wister knows the clothing and gear that signify a trip into the backcountry. He eats more before a trip and hydrates by drinking more water.

Ski clothes send him into a frenzy of barking and hopping. If McCarthy is going on a trip Wister can't attend, she has to get ready in the garage, in hopes he won't notice her attire.

Wister travels regularly with the McCarthys. Their honeymoon was a cross-county car adventure so Wister could come along.

One time, on a trip in Utah's slot canyons, they had to rig a system to lower him out. He was confused, and it was hard to get him to step off the ledge, but he stayed calm until he was on the ground.

Finding Wister was the serendipitous event in Amy McCarthy's life in part because of their bond, but also because Wister introduced her to mountains away from the Tetons.

When McCarthy first moved to Jackson, her every moment was spent in the Tetons. With dogs not allowed in the park, she and Wister discovered the Wind River Mountains. The expansive range, with good and easily accessible water, became their favorite place to go. Wister is comfortable on the winding trails and with zigzagging around boulders. He negotiates talus and moves easily on loose scree and slabs of granite. His paws act as built-in crampons on snow.

Wister is part black Labrador, collie and greyhound, MCarthy said. He gets the loyalty from the Lab, brains from the collie and his athleticism from the greyhound. Once, several years ago, the McCarthys clocked Wister running about 30 mph.

In his years by Amy McCarthy's side, the canine climber has sat atop more than 30 peaks in the Winds. Hiking in the range involves a lot of scrambling. Wister is sure-footed on steep terrain. It is the large boulder fields, like those on Mount Hooker, that are hardest for him.

This summer, Forrest McCarthy took time away from guiding to work on other projects. So Wister had the summer off. But with Amy McCarthy, Wister still spent much of his summer in the mountains.

As he has gotten older, she lifts him more often over steeper terrain that in earlier years he might have bounded up.

Wister used to reluctantly carry his own food, but once on the way out from a trip, when Forrest McCarthy put in some of his gear to replace the food Wister had eaten, Wister found a way to dump the pack. It was as though he was saying he would carry his own food, but not their gear, Amy McCarthy said. Now she carries his food instead.

On multi-day trips, Wister takes a special dog painkiller to ease swelling and inflammation in his joints. Sometimes, the day after a trip, she gives him another if it seems he's limping.

But age has not dampened Wister's enthusiasm for adventures in the Wind River Mountains, nor skiing deep powder on Teton Pass.

He is patient if he has to wait, finding a spot in the shade, always within view and quickly digging a small bed to rest.

But when the wait gets too long, he barks, excited to get his party moving, rushing back to herd and cheer on stragglers. He doesn't like to stop for water, unless he is sure the whole group is stopping.

He is never ready to leave the mountains, even when promised his own burger from Stockman's Restaurant and Lounge in Pinedale.

The day after a trip, he'll mope. Amy McCarthy once had to drag him from the car when they got home. But his spirits eventually pick up, as he anticipates his next adventure.

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