6,000 Miles in the Company of Canines: Meet Whitney "Allgood" LaRuffa

by Kristie Perry
Over the past 20 years, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa has logged more than 6,000 trail miles in the company of canines. 

LaRuffa’s journey to becoming an expert on backpacking with dogs started with a chance encounter while thru-hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 1996. 

He and a buddy had been on the trail for about a month when in mid-March they reached the Bald Mountains, an 841-square-mile sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They made camp atop 5,516-foot Big Bald Mountain, which offered them a 360-degree panorama of the North Carolina–Tennessee border and a fierce wind.

“We’d been getting beat down by the wind all night long,” LaRuffa recounts. “Our tents were hitting us in the face. We hadn’t gotten any sleep. It was cold. There was snow on the trail.”

By 3 a.m., LaRuffa and his hiking buddy had had enough. They packed up their gear and headed down the mountain, collecting three more friends who perhaps more wisely had opted to stay in a lower-elevation shelter. 

They all trudged into the sprawling little town of Erwin, Tennessee. At that time, Erwin was a one-motel burg notorious for being the site of an elephant hanging in 1916.

“When I finally got to my motel, I was greeted at the front porch by this little mutt,” LaRuffa says. “I just sat down and played with him.”

Saved from the pound
For many weeks that little mutt had been following thru-hikers in and out of the Smokey Mountains. When LaRuffa and his friends were ready to hit the trail again, they decided to take the mutt with them.

Photo: Jeremiah “Sasquatch” Wright. One of the highlights 
of the Appalachian Trail is hiking through the Grayson Highlands 
of Mt. Rodgers State Park in Virginia. Wild shetland ponies are 
year-round residents in the park and are very accustomed to 
the numerous hikers. Photo: Kelley “Marmot” Douglas.

“The motel owner was threatening to take him to the pound,” LaRuffa says. We went to the store across the street and bought him a two-dollar collar and a bag of Gravy Train. We didn’t want to leave him in a town famous for hanging an elephant. We figured we’d keep him if he stuck with us.”
Officially dubbed Erwin, the dog stuck with LaRuffa and his friends all the way to the Maine border.
Along the way, he was repeatedly skunked; hailed by hikers who’d encountered him elsewhere on the trail; and equipped with a pack and ID tag by Damascus Dave of Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia. He faked an injury in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to get out of wearing his pack. He was examined by a veterinarian in Troutville, Virginia, who pronounced Erwin bulletproof. 

Throwing up liverwurst
LaRuffa’s parents collected Erwin when the pair arrived at the New Hampshire-Maine border so LaRuffa could continue on to Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which prohibits dogs.

Above, from left: LaRuffa and his current canine 
companion, Karluk, summited Mt. Adams in 
July 2012. Karluk ran alongside LaRuffa’s 
glissade path on the way down. 

“After spending the better part of three and a half months with Erwin, parting with him was one of the toughest parts of my AT thru-hike,” LaRuffa says. He and his hiking buddies ... cried. “There were many days when we wished Erwin was with us as it was the first sustained stretch of good weather on the entire trip and I could envision him enjoying the romp through the Bigelow Mountains.”

After LaRuffa and his friends returned to the trail, LaRuffa’s parents discovered Erwin wasn’t so bullet proof, after all.

“My parents like to tell the story of bringing my ‘feral dog’ home,” LaRuffa says. He speculates that Erwin had been tossed from a car and abandoned at some point in his life, causing him to tend toward carsickness. “I told my father to give Erwin Dramamine and showed him how to pry open Erwin’s jaw and shove a pill down his throat. My father was too nervous to do that so he bought some liverwurst and put the pills in it. To quote my father, ‘there’s nothing like going down I-95 and having a dog throw up liverwurst in the back of the car on a 95 degree day’.” 

LaRuffa pounded out the miles, finishing up his AT adventure about three weeks later. When he returned home to New York, Erwin, naturally, was overjoyed, and greeted LaRuffa in a quintessentially canine way: “I remember lying on the floor of my parents’ kitchen with my pack still on my back, just loving on him.”

Disarming hikers

LaRuffa and Erwin spent the following two summers patrolling a 75-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania as Ridgerunners. 

Ridgerunners provide an important service on the Appalachian Trail, acting as ambassadors, educating people about Leave No Trace Principles, doing light trail maintenance, administering first aid, and discouraging bad behavior. “The program is designed to keep a pulse on what’s going on out there in the woods,” LaRuffa says. “It was a great gig in the summer for a college guy who liked hiking.”

And it was a great opportunity for LaRuffa to hone his backpacking-with-dog skills. Erwin almost always wore a pack on the trail. “And that was back in the day before doggie backpacks were popular,” LaRuffa says. “That always disarmed people and encouraged them to ask questions. It also raised a lot of spirits. It can be really lonely out there for thru-hikers.”

The dog comes first
LaRuffa and Erwin went on to log many more trail miles throughout the United States, including within the South Dakota Badlands and the Cascade Range. Erwin accompanied LaRuffa on his first trip to the top of Mount St. Helens. 

For that outing, Erwin got a special jacket—fleece with a waterproof shell.

LaRuffa had no nervousness about that climb because he had already walked 5,000 miles with Erwin. “Having a dog with me at times can help calm my nerves,” LaRuffa says. 

Still, climbing or backpacking with your dog is a lot of work, LaRuffa acknowledges. “If you’re going to do those things, you need to understand that it really becomes your dog’s outing.”

 “You have to take care of your dog before you take care of you. If your dog is having a bad time, you’ve got to leave.”

For the Mount St. Helens climb, “The hardest thing was teaching Erwin to hike behind me so I wouldn’t step on him with a crampon. The main femoral artery in a dog is right through their leg. If they get cut there, they’ll bleed to death.”

Erwin has also been up through Mt. Hood’s Pearly Gates.
After 13 years of hiking together, LaRuffa said goodbye to Erwin when he could no longer walk. “Thanks to Erwin, I developed a deep love for hiking with dogs that continues on.”

Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa is a Leave No Trace Master Educator. Over the last twenty years he has shared his tips with countless people who want to backpack with their dogs and has helped spread the gospel of how Leave No Trace principles can be applied to dogs in the backcountry. He shares his home in North Portland with Suzy, his wife of 12 years, and Karluk, a black lab mix adopted from the Oregon Humane Society in 2008. LaRuffa is a brand ambassador for Ruffwear Dog Gear, TurboPup, Barker Bags, Gossamer Gear, Mont-bell, Sawyer, Toaks, Purple Rain Adventure Skirts, Salazon Chocolate, UGO Bars, and Point 6 Socks. To learn more about Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa and his tips for traveling in the backcountry with dogs, visit his website at www.allgoodsk9adventures.com.


Thank You: Insert Name Here

by Preston Corless

Clockwise, from left: Mark Luscher and Rick Posekany. 
Photo: Preston Corless. 
This May during the long, slow, cathartic, soul-cleansing slog up one of our local volcanoes, I began reflecting on some of the experiences I’ve had in the past 15 years of climbing. My thoughts moved to the people who have expanded my horizons, pushed me to overcome bigger challenges, and taught me the craft of climbing. I thought about people like Rick Posekany. Within a month, I was shocked and saddened to learn that Rick had passed away.

In 2003 I was a young, headstrong climber at the start of my career. I signed up for Posey’s climb of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America. I was in over my head, even more than I realized at the time. 

Soon after arriving at Plaza de Argentina base camp (just under 14,000 feet), I started feeling lousy. Really lousy. Rick took me to see the camp doctor, who confirmed what Rick suspected—I had acute mountain sickness. They put this little contraption on my finger, which recorded the oxygen saturation of the hemoglobin in my blood. While at sea level this would read around 99 percent, but at that time it was in the low 80s, which somewhat explained why I felt about half as good as normal. Imagine a bad hangover with a dose of heavy lethargy. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally wrecked. I was 20 years younger than the other guys, and yet I was the one who wasn’t going to make it anywhere near the summit. I had a deep, sinking feeling about all the time and effort that I had committed to this trip–for naught.

They started me on Diamox and told me to rest. In his gruff, terse, gentle way, Rick kept tabs on me and told me not to give up hope. The next day Rick, Mark Luscher, and John Peters carried loads to camp 1 while I rested. The following day the pulse oximeter read 88 percent. I was feeling better and cleared to keep ascending. We moved on to camp 1, then camp 2. I moved a little slower, humbled by my own frailty. We got pinned down by a bad storm at camp 2 for six days, testing our patience, supplies and determination. We had carried a load to another camp called Piedras Blancas, at about the same elevation but closer to the ascent route. Nearing the end of our allotment of time and supplies, the weather began to clear. We scrapped our plan to move; instead Rick and Mark retrieved our cache of gear from Piedras Blancas. It was a short, flat traverse, but the wind was such that they had to break trail through the snow both ways. 

(Willy’s wagon) is on the approach along the
Rio Vacas.  Photo: Preston Corless. 
The skies opened and camp 2 turned into a bustle of activity as nearly everyone mobilized for the summit. After so much bad weather and luck, I could hardly believe we were actually headed out. It was an incredible day—dark, blue, cloudless skies and no wind—and hard to believe after the weeks we’d spent there. On Aconcagua the wind is a nearly constant challenge. It blows tents away. You can hear gusts coming, like an airplane. It is visible in the form of lenticular clouds–the viento blanco. I was getting used to the cold, the wind, not eating enough, and hanging out in those stinking tents reading Atlas Shrugged

Rick was exhausted from breaking trail to get our boots and supplies from Piedras Blancas. The trail out of camp 2 was deep with snow. The day seemed long as the sun cut through the high, thin air. 

The final approach is a dusty slog. We labored slowly up the slope, fighting the thin air. Rick was unselfishly carrying a lot of group gear–first aid, extra food, extra gloves and so on. He was falling off the pace. I waited for him; we fell behind the pack. After many, many rest stops I finally convinced him to switch backpacks with me. There was no way I was going to the summit without Rick. After all the extra work he had done for the team, I would not have made it without him; I would not have earned it.

Our pace picked up a bit with the weight redistributed. As we climbed higher, the views opened to the northwest, west, and southwest. We reached the summit around 7 p.m. and spent all of 15 or 20 minutes on top, after two weeks of hard effort. Coming down the sunset was pretty amazing. Rick and I didn’t make it back to camp until after midnight. It took us 19 hours to climb 4,000 feet. 
I had never felt so physically and emotionally exhausted. I can’t say I was elated that I summited, although I know I would have been disappointed to come all that way, put forth all that effort and expenditure, and never make it past Piedras Blancas. More than anything I felt a great sense of relief about not going home empty handed.

Rick and Preston on the summit. Photo: Rick Posekany.
Together we made it to the summit. That climb taught me a powerful lesson–that climbing is a team sport. Life is a team sport.

The things I learned on that climb helped form the foundation of my climbing experience. We talk about climbing in terms of mountains, cliffs, routes, grades, ratings, buttresses, glaciers, faces and couloirs. New climbers quickly accumulate the latest, most-improved gear, mileage, summits, and routes. With maturity we begin to appreciate more and more the importance of partners and community to the climbing experience. To quote Gaston Rebuffat: “The choice of companion is as important as the choice of the climb.” As specific climbs fade in memory and significance, the bonds forged between partners only become more meaningful—and transcend the climbing experience. 

Very soon two of my other mentors will be heading out on an epic adventure. They have motivated and inspired me to be a better climber and a better person. Our mentors are not always older or more experienced.

Wherever you are in your journey of life, stop and take a moment to reflect on who your mentors have been, and how they’ve influenced your life. Thank them, and pass it on.


Ecology & Conservation: The Cascade Red Fox

by Jocelyn Akins, Ph.D. Candidate, Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Laboratory, University of California, Davis and Project Coordinator, Cascades Carnivore Project

The fox padded lightly through six inches of new snow in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, her nose leading the way to a cocktail of smells at the base of a mountain hemlock. She was so intent on the scented mixture of skunk, castor, and muskrat musk with undertones of chicken from the bait that she did not even hear the click of the camera that caught her image. 

Later, on a dark winter afternoon in front of my computer, I sat flipping through thousands of photos that revealed the elusive residents of the Mt. Adams Wilderness: a nervous snowshoe hare, a stealthy bobcat, a gamboling trio of Pacific martens. But then I saw a critter I knew nothing about: a Cascade red fox, a rare mountain subspecies of red fox. This photo shifted the focus of my newly formed conservation initiative targeting wolverines in southern Washington—the Cascades Carnivore Project—to one that focused on the population status, community interactions, and ecological role of this rare and little-known forest carnivore. 

Wildlife managers have only recently begun to appreciate the unique contributions the Cascade red fox makes to the fauna of the high Cascades. It is not, however, a simple story.

The Global Red Fox

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) has had a bum rap for as long as our civilization has been telling stories. Due to its omnivorous diet and innate curiosity, this small carnivore has been considered a trickster in folklore, and persecuted as a pesky chicken killer and a sly and devious predator. It is one of the most widespread carnivores on Earth and is considered an invasive pest in many areas. The species evolved in Africa or Eurasia from a now-extinct fox and is currently distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere from deserts to temperate rainforests to tundra. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the red fox as a Species of Least Concern globally, i.e., one that is widespread and abundant. Before the advent of modern genetic techniques, subspecies divisions of red fox were based solely on geography and morphology, but the distinguishing features among all red fox are a white tipped tail, black tipped ears, and black stockinged feet. Coat color is highly variable. Although this historical subspecies classification scheme does not mesh perfectly with the genetic characteristics of these populations, there are three mountain and 11 lowland red fox subspecies, including a subspecies first described in 2010 that inhabits the Sacramento River valley. These 14 subspecies occupy a variety of habitats and coat colors from deep red to black and silver. Some of this biodiversity has been threatened recently by a lack of conservation concern for these unique red foxes, which are distinct in many important ways from their abundant nonnative cousins inhabiting the lowlands. In North America this has resulted in conservationists largely ignoring potential population declines in this rare and little-studied mountain fox, and making little attempt to understand how their populations, which occur in an archipelago of high-elevation habitat “islands,” could be impacted by human activities, encroachment by potential competitors, and climate change. This begs the question: What factors could impact this animal, which is so far removed from people, and derived from a larger species considered well distributed and common?

Going Back to the Pleistocene Ice Ages (or Getting to know the Mountain Foxes)
Red foxes have a unique evolutionary history in North America that was elucidated by United States Forest Service (USFS) biologist Dr. Keith Aubry and his colleagues in recent decades. The colonization of North America by red foxes was shaped by two waves of migration from Eurasia. Half a million years ago, during the Illinoian Ice Age, red foxes first colonized North America from Asia over the Bering LandBridge, which became established due to the lowering of sea level by the formation of continental glaciers. When the glaciers melted and the Bering Strait was reestablished, red foxes became isolated on separate continents. These foxes swept south and east across the boreal forest. Then, during our most recent glaciation (the Wisconsin Ice Age), the Bering LandBridge formed again and a second wave of red foxes migrated to North America from Asia, which resulted in limited genetic exchange between the Eurasian and North American red foxes. During this last glaciation, the earlier fox migrants were pushed by the ice sheets into the vast, windswept plains and relatively low-elevation forests of the western and central United States, south of the ice. Here they presumably adapted to the colder, glacial climate, which lasted for the next 100,000 years. Once the ice sheets had receded, these foxes moved up into the mountains of the West where habitat conditions were similar to those they occupied during glacial times, leaving the thawing plains of the American Midwest devoid of red foxes. This long separation from their ancestors in the Old World allowed time for their DNA, shaped by chance and environment, to diverge. North American red foxes have now been separated from Eurasian populations for 300,000–600,000 years, and are genetically different from other red foxes. University of California at Davis molecular ecologist Mark Statham and his colleagues recently suggested that all North American red foxes be reclassified as a distinct species, Vulpes fulva—the North American red fox.

The descendants of those early Illinoian Ice Age migrants comprise the three mountain subspecies (V. v. cascadensis, necator, and macroura) that now inhabit the Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Rocky Mountains, respectively (with the exception that red foxes in the Cascade Range of Oregon are now believed to belong to the Sierra Nevada subspecies). The valley bottoms are generally assumed to be inhabited by invader foxes that originated on the East Coast and were brought west for fur farming and hound hunting. The mountain foxes live at high elevations year-round in relatively open forests and subalpine parkland. Mountain foxes are typically smaller in size and exhibit a greater variation in their coat colors than lowland red foxes. These are not just the red-coated foxes of fairytales and wildlife calendars; mountain foxes occur in coat colors ranging from straw yellow to red to black and silver. There is also a relatively common “cross” variant whose name is derived from the cross formed by a thin black stripe that extends over the shoulders and crosses one along the backbone. More importantly, the mountain foxes are ecologically unique, feeding exclusively on alpine and subalpine prey such as snowshoe hares, white-tailed jackrabbit, pocket gophers, voles, winter-killed mountain goats, ground-nesting birds, and high-elevation plants. Molded by two ice ages, they have become well adapted to the cold. They rarely occur in the western hemlock and silver fir forests that cover lower elevations of the Cascade Range. They do not leave their snowy abode during the harshest blizzards of winter nor interbreed with red foxes in the valleys. They are finely tuned for life at altitude. 

A Fox By Any Other Name

Throughout the year, the Cascade red fox relies heavily upon high-elevation meadows and tree copses to forage for small mammal and lagomorph prey. The eastern slope of the Cascade Range contains relatively dry and open mountain hemlock, subalpine fir, and whitebark pine forests and krummholz copses, as well as ragged pinnacles of rock that support mountain goats, whose carcasses are an important source of food. Like most furbearers, the Cascade red fox has suffered significant declines in abundance and distribution as a result of trapping and poisoning over the last century. Despite the absence of these activities for many decades, Cascade red foxes appear to have experienced range losses recently, perhaps due to the shrinking of high-elevation parklands and meadows from climate change, the loss of subalpine conifers to drought, fire, and disease, or the expansion of coyotes (Canis latrans) into the high-elevation habitats that Cascade foxes rely on. Historical patterns of land use during the past 100 years, including timber harvest, recreational use, and road building, continue to influence habitat conditions at various spatial scales and affect the ability of native wildlife to survive and reproduce.

What’s in a Ph.D.?

In founding the Cascades Carnivore Project, I am following in the footsteps of two inspiring scientists. Dr. Keith Aubry, an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, began the first field study of mountain foxes in 1978 (the year I was born) in Mt. Rainier National Park and the Crystal Mountain area in Washington. This study provided important baseline information about the evolutionary and distributional history of both mountain and lowland red foxes, as well as seminal findings on the ecological relations of the Cascade red fox. Dr. Ben Sacks, Director of the Mammalian Diversity and Conservation Lab and my supervising professor at the University of California at Davis, where I am a graduate student, is an expert in wild dog genetics and conservation. The groundbreaking work of these scientists and their collaborators on the evolutionary history of the red fox in North America showed not only how unique mountain foxes are among the red foxes, but also that the Cascade red fox is the most genetically distinct of the mountain foxes, and occurs only in Washington state. 

My research aims to develop a better understanding of how environmental changes in the western mountains impact the conservation of this rare mountain carnivore. I have been working with volunteer wildlife biologists and citizen scientists to conduct non-invasive surveys throughout the year at high elevations within the National Forest and National Park systems in the Cascades. We have deployed hundreds of remotely triggered wildlife cameras and walked, snowshoed, and skied endless miles collecting hair, scat, and urine from which DNA can be extracted to determine where Cascade red foxes live and where they don’t. I am concerned that the distribution of the Cascade red fox may be largely restricted to a few isolated, high-elevation areas of the Cascades. By examining if and how well fox populations are connected, and how this connectivity is predicted to change with climate change, we can begin to understand the long-term prospects for this unique carnivore. I am investigating whether the low number and fragmented distribution of the Cascade red fox is sufficient for them to successfully reproduce and maintain adequate levels of genetic diversity. For conservationists, genetic diversity is important for predicting how likely a species is to persist over the long term. With a diverse complement of genes, a population is more likely to include at least some individuals that can survive future environmental changes, such as the introduction of new diseases or parasites or rising global temperatures. The process by which such initially exceptional individuals survive and contribute their genetic characteristics to the next generation is known as natural selection, and results in the continuing evolution of species to their changing environment. 

The farther one travels to find a mate, the more likely that mate will be genetically distinct from oneself, resulting in more diverse offspring contributed to the population’s gene pool. Cascade red foxes may be scattered across a vast mountain landscape with huge distances and major barriers between them. My work suggests their strongholds are Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, and the Goat Rocks Wilderness. They seem to have been gone from Mount St. Helens since the 1980 eruption. There have been some foxes detected in the William O. Douglas and Norse Peak Wildernesses. They may occur in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and their presence in the North Cascades is largely unknown. 
For the conservation of the Cascade red fox, its unique genetic makeup may be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we hypothesize that its unique genetic history confers adaptations that have allowed the fox to thrive where others could not. On the other hand, such specialized adaptations can make it more difficult for the fox to adapt to changing habitats and climates. Consequently, our goal should be to preserve as much genetic diversity within the mountain red foxes as possible. Part of the solution will be to identify the best corridors to ensure movement of individuals among islands of suitable habitat. 

A Warming World

How does climate change affect the Cascade red fox? The reality is we do not know yet. But there are some strong hypotheses worth testing. Impacts of climate change in the alpine environment have been well documented. Two key measures of climate change are temperature and precipitation patterns. In the mountains, changes manifest as rising temperatures and precipitation falling increasingly as rain, rather than snow, resulting in shorter, warmer, wetter, and less snowy winters. 

So what is the relationship between these climatic changes and Cascade red fox conservation? The Cascade red fox is strongly associated with high-elevation mountain habitats and is well adapted for life in snowy conditions. Compared to lowland red foxes, mountain foxes have much more fur lining the soles of their feet, which helps them function as snowshoes, and a smaller body size, which allows them to move with greater ease in deep, powdery snow. The Cascade red fox may use the mountain biome to escape predation from the coyote, which is a lowland-adapted species. Coyote abundance has been on the rise since the extirpation of the gray wolf in Washington in the 1920s and state and federal restrictions on lethal predator control. In addition, Cascade red foxes rely upon the subnivium for preying on winter-active small mammals. Unpredictable changes to the space that forms between the ground and deep snowpacks could have significant consequences for the Cascade red fox. Warming conditions can alter the insulating qualities of snow due to decreased depth and increased density, which is predicted to lower the temperature of this stable environment and reduce the abundance of small mammal prey. In addition, these foxes prey on small mammals in winter by pouncing through the snow to catch them as they move within this protected habitat. However, once the first winter rains fall on the loosely compacted snow, the snow pack hardens and may prevent foxes from accessing the subnivium for periods of time. This pattern is expected to become more prevalent as rain becomes increasingly common in the mountains. Hardening of the snowpack may also have the adverse effect of encouraging new predators and competitors to invade alpine and subalpine areas from which they would normally be excluded due to their reduced ability to travel in soft, deep snow. This encroachment may be the single greatest proximate threat to the Cascade red fox as it could result in competition during winter scarcity as well as increased mortality rates at the paws of predators such as the coyote.

There are two primary environmental alterations associated with a warming climate that could potentially impact the Cascade red fox. The first is the encroachment of meadows by shrub and tree species. Climate change is causing tree line to shift upward in elevation, reducing the extent of the alpine meadows upon which the fox relies. The invasion of shrubs and conifer saplings into subalpine meadows has been well documented on Mt. Adams in photographs of particular locations taken 50 years apart. Subalpine meadows and their small mammal communities provide the primary foraging grounds for Cascade foxes throughout most of the year. The second is the increased spread of plant diseases and pests. Fungal and beetle infestations are decimating the subalpine forest. The loss of whitebark pines from warming temperatures and increases in disease are becoming more and more prevalent on the dry eastern slopes of the Cascade Range where mountain foxes are most likely to live. The Cascade red fox relies upon copses of these high-elevation pines and firs to hunt for snowshoe hares and white-tailed jackrabbits during the winter months, and for cover to use as daybeds and rest sites during the harshest winter blizzards. Finally, recent wildfires have severely affected some of the subalpine parklands and upper elevation forests that the Cascade red fox calls home on Mt. Adams and throughout the Cascades. This year, wildfires in the Cascades were the largest and most destructive on record. Wildfires are a natural part of ecological cycles but modern blazes burn so intensely due to the huge fuel loads that were created by 100 years of forest fire suppression and drought.

An Unpredictable Future

What can we do to ensure that Cascade red fox populations will remain viable? A primary goal should be to continue systematic surveys over the long term and in the North Cascades to establish baseline conditions and monitor changes in their abundance and genetic diversity. Increasingly, occurrence records obtained by citizens are becoming an essential part of this process. Such records enable scientists to identify new areas of current presence and may encourage the establishment of new ecological studies, which will be essential for the effective conservation of this unique and intrepid little fox. Research investigating habitat selection at multiple spatial scales, movement patterns, predator-prey relationships, and home-range ecology is desperately needed to fill many key knowledge gaps about the conservation needs of this species. In addition, we should protect denning sites. This is especially important in preventing unnecessary pup mortalities when they emerge from their dens. The next phase of the Cascades Carnivore Project aims to investigate microhabitats most important to the Cascade red fox and determine how the essential components of their habitats will be affected by future changes to the composition and climate of the landscapes they occupy in their mountain home. Ultimately the fate of all alpine species lies within our ability, or inability, to care for our unique alpine landscape, and to address the potential threats to their persistence. The Cascade red fox has been evolving its unique character for hundreds of thousands of years in North America. With a little more attention from scientists, resource managers, and the public, I am hopeful that we will find a way to help our mountaineering friend persist well into the future.
Report your mountain red fox sightings to cascadescarnivore@gmail.com

This research on the Cascade red fox is generously funded by the Mazamas, the Mammalian Diversity and Conservation Laboratory (University of California, Davis), Gifford Pinchot, Mt. Hood, and Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forests, Mt. Rainier National Park, the Mountaineers, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, Oregon Zoo Foundation, The Wildlife Society Washington, WDFW Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account, Washington Foundation for the Environment, Washington’s National Park Fund, and the tireless efforts of many citizen scientists, wildlife biologists, and laboratory genetics interns at the University of California, Davis.


Mt. Cruiser Climb: A Rare Sighting

by John Rettig

It’s not on every Mazama climb that you get to summit a mountain AND encounter a rarely observed animal. 

But that’s exactly what happened on June 20, 2015, when seven Mazamas stumbled up Mt. Cruiser in the Olympics’ Sawtooth Range with me. 

It was a good reminder that while summit views are almost always spectacular, the things that happen on the way to the summit can be just as spectacular, if not more so.

Mt. Cruiser Needle.
Photo: Glenn Widener
Our group had just stopped for a break, when a little critter suddenly popped out to have a look at us. We were sitting in a rocky area above the tree line between The Needle and Mt. Cruiser. (The exact location is being withheld, in agreement with the US Forest Service (USFS) and National Park Service (NPS) scientists, to protect the individual marten). At first, I dismissed the animal as just another marmot or pika. But after a second, more careful, look, I recognized the narrow-set binocular eyes and very slender build that characterizes members of the weasel family. That the animal was extremely curious about us and our activities, and generally was not particularly wary of our presence, was another indicator that this critter belonged to the Mustelidae family.

The size of the animal suggested it was a marten or fisher, and after some group discussion, we realized we were probably looking at something quite rare. I knew that sightings in the Pacific Northwest have been very rare for any of the Martes genus, as they are known to live at a very low population density, even within their normal range. But this marten was living at the extreme of its documented range. So the sighting was doubly significant. Fortunately, one member of our team, Shem Harding, had his camera ready and was able to take several photographs. We also took note of the marten’s behavior, which included a breathtakingly exposed four-foot jump. We marked the GPS waypoint, then carried on with our climb. When we returned to Portland, I quickly submitted a report and pictures to the USFS, not knowing if there would be any follow-through.

How rare was this sighting? On the Tuesday following the climb, within a half hour of the report reaching the NPS and USFS wildlife scientists, my email inbox ignited with descriptions of how meaningful our sighting was, along with kind words of thanks for documenting and reporting it.
According to Dr. Patricia Happe, Wildlife Branch Chief at Olympic National Park, “Neither I nor any of my crew is likely to go near [Mt. Cruiser]—we are all hikers, but no one is a climber—maybe that is why we have not been finding any marten after all these years of looking …The last verified sighting of a marten in our region was in 2008 near Mt. Rose … [And then] the fisher study JUST (June 3, 2015) picked up a marten in the upper Hoh Valley. Your sighting [on top of this one] near Mt. Cruiser, in a completely different area, is really exciting.”

Betsy Howell, Wildlife Biologist with the Olympic National Forest wrote, “We have been trying for many years to get information on where marten are residing in the park and forest and haven’t had much luck … Olympic National Park and National Forest, along with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Geological Survey, are planning more marten surveys this winter and we’ll be having a meeting soon to discuss. We’ll definitely be talking about your sighting.”

The lesson that our marten sighting drives home for me is just how extremely important it is that we all act as responsible stewards for the alpine areas that we love. This encounter is an example of yet another way we can manifest that stewardship. Buried in the email clamor in my inbox was the suggestion that future studies might be able to take advantage of the Mazamas frequent access to the rocky summit areas above tree line. We’ve since prevailed upon other climbs headed into the area to be on the lookout and to observe and record. 

Learning how to observe and photograph animals in the wilderness, especially for gender identification, and recording GPS coordinates and gathering scat samples for DNA and other studies will help scientists evaluate the diversity, diet, and health of a given population. Reporting any marten or fisher sightings on the Olympic Peninsula will further this important work. You may submit information about a sighting or request a training by sending an email to conservation@mazamas.org.

Pacific Marten: The Facts

The Pacific marten, Martes Caurina, is a rarely seen mammal in Washington’s Olympic National Forest. It is a carnivore from the Mustelidae family, which includes wolverines, badgers, otters, skunks, minks, martens, fishers, weasels, and ferrets. Because it was heavily trapped from the 1890s through the 1940s, it was nearly extirpated. In spite of formal winter studies conducted from 2001 onward, there have been only four verified sightings in 27 years. In 1988, one was seen alive and photographed near The Brothers Wilderness; a spotted owl study found two in a live trap in 1990 in the Buckhorn Wilderness (they were released); in 2008 a deceased juvenile Pacific marten was found by hikers near Mt. Rose; and in 2015 one was photographed in the Hoh Valley with an automated wildlife camera, as part of a fisher study. Our discovery—during a Mazama climb up Mt. Cruiser in June 2015—now brings the number to five verified sightings, and the first one in 25 years to be seen alive in person. 

In spite of significant efforts to locate and document the Pacific marten (the 2013-14 winter study involved 15 volunteers working 12 different days, which equates to 78 working days) the studies did not yield any martens (although they did result in documenting a rich and diverse wildlife population of cougars, bobcats, coyote, deer, elk, and yes—humans and domestic dogs). We have, in fact, encountered wolves in Oregon more times than we have martens in the Olympics—and we know there are only 77 wolves in nine packs in Oregon, as of the end of 2014. The contrast is quite stark!


Meeting Myself at the Summit

by Craig Karls

For as long as I can remember, the outdoors have been my friend. Growing up in the St. Johns neighborhood of North Portland in the 70s and 80s, I spent much of my time roaming the woods and meadows of Smith and Bybee Lakes, Hayden Island, and Forest Park—collecting plant specimens and immersing myself in nature. The outdoors provided a welcome respite and temporary sanctuary from a home life that was dysfunctional and sometimes violent. 
The author on the summit of Mount St. Helens on
Mother's Day 2015.

One of the most memorable events of my childhood occurred on a Sunday morning--May 18th, 1980, to be exact. From my front yard, I saw Mount St. Helens erupt in all its glory, burning an indelible mark on my soul. As a young adult, I attended Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and had the privilege of exploring the backcountry of the Blue and Wallowa Mountains during archaeological surveys and geological field trips, as well as on my own.

Fast forward to Summer 2014. I was hiking McNeil Point on Mt. Hood with some friends. We continued past the shelter and up the path that runs along the ridgeline. It was a lovely clear day, we were at about 7,100 feet, and we were looking at the top of Mt. Hood. I turned to my friend, Eric Crowley, and said, “You know, I would love to climb to the top of that someday.” 

He smiled slyly and replied, “I have,” and proceeded to mesmerize me with his stories of climbing Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan.

BCEP team enjoying a fire after a day
at Horsethief Butte. Photo: Kathleen Sciestl
Eric must have remembered our conversation from that summer because I received a text message from him the following New Year’s Eve that read, “Howdy—wanted to see if you are at all interested in taking a basic mountaineering course. I am going to sign up for the Mazama basic course.” I began to barrage him with questions and he gave me the link to the Mazama Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP). I read everything on that link and began exploring everything else on the Mazama website. Saying that I was interested would be an understatement. Eric advised me to go to the BCEP Information Night to learn more.

So I did. I was enthralled by the people I saw climbing the rock walls in the auditorium. I had never been rock climbing, never been in a harness, and knew next to nothing about the sport. Yet, something about the spectacle I witnessed called to me. I heard a quiet voice inside me, saying “do this, now is the time, you will grow and discover things about yourself that hitherto were unknown.” I listened to the presentation and watched the slides, becoming more certain that BCEP was the right choice for me. I went straight home and signed up online. I knew that there was no guarantee of being admitted into the program. I was told that demand for BCEP often exceeds the spots available--a fact that was reflected by the standing-room-only crowd at Information Night.
The team prepping to climb at Horsethief Butte.
Photo: Kathleen Sciestl

I received an email in early February informing me that I had been accepted. I was delighted, but also a little apprehensive. After all, other than hiking, I’d never done any “mountaineering” sports. Also, I tend to have a lot of social anxiety when meeting new people, especially in large groups. Fortunately, my friend Eric was accepted, too, and we were placed on the same BCEP team: Team 21, led by Amy Graham and Patrice Cook. Patrice organized an introductory potluck at her house before the first class, allowing us to get to know one another.

There we each received about six feet of climbing rope with which we could begin to learn our knots. Some of the knots were easy to master; others, not so much. We were being “shown the ropes,” so to speak. It was both gratifying and humbling to learn a new skill. A properly tied and dressed knot is a thing of beauty! At home later that evening, my knot-tying practice seemed to take on a meditative quality—a Zen and The Art of Knot Tying, if you will.

At the first BCEP class, I learned that we were going to be rock climbing at the Mazama Mountaineering Center (MMC) that very weekend. I was as excited as a freshman on the first day of high school. Later that week, I dutifully went to the Mountain Shop in Northeast Portland to buy all the gear I would need to try rock climbing for the first time. Fortunately, there were BCEP assistants at the shop to help me get what I needed and ease me into the world of rock climbing.

When our MMC rock session came, I had a beast of a time getting my two prusik slings the correct lengths. Patience and determination came through, though. When it was my turn to climb the wall, I felt an exhilaration like none other. Getting to the top of the wall, I thought to myself, “Hmm, I think I may have found my sport.” Strangely, I didn’t have much fear of falling. Also, I discovered that climbing has a meditative quality. My chattering mind became silent and focused on the task at hand. There was something paradoxically relaxing about it. The biggest fear I had that day was belaying my classmates. I wanted to make certain I was doing everything correct, lest they fall.

Our camping and outdoor rock session weekend at Horsethief Butte was the last weekend of March. The weather was excellent and the experience magical, confirming that I had indeed found my sport after 45 years on this beautiful planet. I eagerly went from station to station, climbing again and again. I also discovered another activity I adore—rappelling! And I discovered that while indoor rock climbing is fun, outdoor rock climbing is a blast.

We had our snow weekend in mid April, learning about avalanches, self-arrest, crampon use, roped teams, and pickets. Mountaineering is the perfect team sport because the only one you are competing against is yourself and the climb team is only as strong as its weakest member. Thus it behooves you to help your teammates succeed in any way possible.

When it came time for the final exam, I was amazed at how much knowledge and activity had been packed into such a short timeframe. I am now comfortable with the skills that were taught and my BCEP experience has ignited in me a passion to learn as much as I can about mountaineering. I have already taken the Crevasse Rescue Skillbuilder and intend to take additional skillbuilder classes. I see Intermediate Climbing School in my future, as well. 

I learned a whole lot more from BCEP than just mountaineering skills. I learned more about who I am. I’ve learned to trust others more—life is one big climb and everyone you meet is belaying you in some way. I’ve learned the wisdom of the fool—that is, having a beginner’s mind in learning a new skill can bring so much wonder and joy into my life. I’ve learned patience—what really matters is the process, not the product. Sometimes you will be able to summit a mountain, sometimes not. 

Mazama membership requires reaching the summit of a glaciated peak. I summited my first glaciated peak by climbing Mount St. Helens on Mother’s Day. I’ve seen pictures of the summit many times, but nothing compares to being there. The gods of the ancients always lived on a mountaintop; perhaps they were onto something. It is a spiritual experience to be on a summit. I applied for Mazama membership after the Mount St. Helens climb and received my acceptance letter dated May 18, 2015—35 years to the day when I saw it erupt. What strikes me as astonishing is that I didn’t take up this sport much sooner.

I would like to thank my BCEP teachers—Amy Graham and Patrice Cook—and all the assistants from the bottom of my heart for having the patience, enthusiasm, knowledge, and judgment needed to get this kid-goat started in mountaineering. 

To you, I say, “Climb on!” I guarantee you will find yourself at the summit.


Emotional Atrophy Amid the Revelations

The Revelation Mountains are a small, rugged subrange of the Alaska Range located about 140 miles northwest of Anchorage and about 130 miles southwest of Denali. The principal peaks are granite spires that rise out of relatively low-elevation glacial valleys. The high vertical relief of the Revelations creates a dramatic backdrop for some very challenging climbing conditions. They remain mostly unexplored because the weather is notoriously heinous and the flight to get there is long and expensive.

None of this has deterred alpinist Clint Helander, who made his eighth trip to the Revelations with help of a $1,000 grant from the Mazama Expedition Committee. 

The objective for his eighth trip? The tallest unnamed peak in the range, known simply as “9,304.” 
“Words cannot describe the beauty of this peak,” Helander said in his grant application. Helander planned to climb the Southwest Buttress of Peak 9304, a 3,500-foot route, in a single push of 24 hours. 

What follows is his account of the ascent.

by Clint Helander (all photos are courtesy of the author)

There would be no sleeping on this night. Last evening’s -25 degrees Fahrenheit freeze had given way to warmer temperatures, blown in with a ferocious storm. I knew my climbing partner, Tad McCrea, was also awake, but we said nothing. We just laid there in silent fear and listened. The wind moaned a slow, agonizing cry among the summits and lenticular clouds. Then, like an army of charging demons, it screamed down the valley, gaining momentum and strength as the surrounding walls tightened. 

Like counting the growing waves on a shoreline, we began to determine when the biggest of the gusts would hit. Despite our snow walls, they seemed to blow right through us. Our four-season tent would flatten, the fabric stretching and poles creaking. “We’re not going to make it through the night,” I thought. Like a captain talking to his battered ship amidst a tempest, I begged the tent to survive. “Hold strong,” I quietly pleaded.

This wasn’t what Tad and I had planned on when we landed under perfect skies the previous day. But now, in the northern heart of Alaska’s Revelation Mountains, we felt alone and adrift. I braced my side of the tent through the most terrifying of the gusts and began stuffing all of my loose belongings in bags. “Should I put my boots on,” I wondered? “She’s going to break at any moment.”

March’s early morning twilight began to eek through the sagging tent walls. So far, she had weathered the storm. The winds began to ebb, now gusting to perhaps only 80 miles per hour. Our snow walls were gone, the glacier scoured into a shadowy white and gray wasteland. I emerged from the vestibule in full war regalia. We dug all day, excavating a snow cave under the flat glacier. We couldn’t survive another night of wind like that without it.

The brunt of the storm passed, but ceaseless wind followed for another five days. We resigned ourselves to passing the hours in our tent and snow cave, emerging now and then to snatch a few glimpses of our distant prize: the unclimbed monolith labeled “Peak 9,304” on our Lime Hills USGS topographic maps.

Tad was running out of time--the pilot would be there to pick him up in less than 24 hours--and the wind had yet to subside. We called for a weather update. It would be calm the next day. We awoke at 4 a.m., but the incessant wind persisted. We rolled over and tried to sleep, but the sound of our enemy outside refused to let us kill more hours in slumber.

At 11 a.m. the wind finally blew away. We skied out of camp in rapid procession. The south face of Peak 9,304, a mountain I had long referred to as “the Obelisk,” held its triangular form as we approached.

A snow-filled chimney held my picks, but threatened to spit me out. My protection far below felt suspect. Sixty meters above, a grainy crack offered a decent spot to anchor in. Tad led a long block of simul-climbing to the base of an ice-streaked headwall. A prow reared out past vertical and the hanging daggers looked almost impossible to climb. The summit was many thousands of feet above us still. We retreated.

Tad reluctantly flew out the next day, and in his place John Giraldo arrived, fresh and unbeaten by the storms. We quickly reached our highpoint on the Obelisk. I searched for courage as I confronted the looming ice above. A bad screw penetrated snow and aerated ice, then a few feet higher a good, small cam. “Watch me, John. This is really hard and scary,” I muttered. My tool shuddered and reverberated as it penetrated nominal ice and struck the granite slab underneath. A deep breath and I trusted myself to it. Another swing and a wide stem and I was still moving upward. I swung again, only this time the tool broke through the ice and into air. A two inch crack! Hanging there, teetering on my loose pick, I excavated the crack and placed a dreamy cam. The crack continued for another fifteen feet of salvation. Seventy meters of difficult climbing continued and I searched for an anchor as the rope came tight. Small cams shifted in odd-shaped cracks, and pins bottomed out in seems. John followed and I studied the anchor while I thought about him on the crux moves.

We continued upward for hours in long blocks of simul-climbing. The absent wind seemed strange on our sunburned faces. We approached the summit in the afternoon, high above most of the surrounding Revelation peaks. At the top, I thought back to the stress of the previous week of fighting the endless winds. I pushed the pain of a failing relationship from my mind. Two words came silently to the front of my mind: emotional atrophy.

On the summit though, it was a brief moment of long desired tranquility.

Clint Helander started climbing in 2003 and has climbed a variety of alpine routes in Alaska, including an integral ascent of the Moonflower on Mt. Hunter and the third ascent of Mt. Huntington’s Phantom Wall. Yet, he returns to the less explored Revelations every year to seek solitude and adventure. It is those experiences in the true wild that mean the most to him.

Over the years, Helander’s trips have culminated in six first ascents and two first ascent routes on mountains that had only seen one prior ascent:
  • 2008: First ascent of Exodus Peak (8,380 feet)
  • 2009: First ascent of Ice Pyramid (9,250 feet)
  • 2011: First ascent of Mt. Mausolus via Mausoleum (4,400 feet, WI5)
  • 2012: First ascent of Golgotha (8,940 feet)
  • 2012: First ascent on the South Ridge of the Angel (9,265 feet)
  • 2013: First ascent of Apocalypse via 4,200-foot West Face (WI5 M5)
  • 2014: First ascent of West Face of Titanic (3,800 feet, M6 5.8)
  • 2015: First ascent of the Obelisk (Peak 9,304’) via Emotional Atrophy (Grade 4 M6 WI5 A0 3,280’) on the South Face. Clint Helander and John Giraldo, March 22, 2015.
This article was initially published in the 2015 Mazama Annual. All rights reserved.