On a cold, gray afternoon, a man reaches a mountaintop and dissolves in jubilation, as if a boy, not 55, those bright, blue eyes twinkling on a hard-lined face. He’s giggling and congratulating his canine companion: “That’s my girl! That’s my girl, Chaela!”
The black lab’s tail wags, and her pink tongue hangs as “Cap” Dashwood gives her a kiss. “That’s a lot of work, sweetie. That’s a lot of work.”
March 30 marked the duo reaching a summit every day for 365 days, as detailed in a tattered notebook. Dashwood has dates, peak names and elevations going back to Aug. 4, 2004, the day he brought Chaeni Mae home. He also journals, though a curious gap stretches from Dec. 10, 2016, to June 13, 2017.
He couldn’t bring himself to write after Chaeni Mae died.
After another long day on the road, they had returned to their Woodland Park cabin, where she clambered onto the love seat and stayed. Chaeni Mae just laid there. After 12 years of climbing, jumping into strangers’ cars, crashing picnics, loving everyone, Chaeni Mae’s time had come, Dashwood knew . He spoke sweet mountain memories into the lab’s ear until her last breath.
Then he entered a deep depression. “I truly thought he was not going to survive,” says his partner, Janette McClain. “It was really, really, really awful.”
But 23 days later, he met a puppy and brought her home. He introduced Chaela to the mountains, carrying her through these around the Royal Gorge until she built the strength to climb on her own. Dashwood opened his journal again:
“... at the age of 7 months and 3 days, Chaeni Mae’s puppy, Chaela Kohana Meré, climbed her first mountain, Grizzly Peak, 13,427 feet. We climbed Grizzly to honor Chaeni Mae. On June 18, 2016, she courageously summited 3 peaks before heat exhaustion caused us to call off the pursuit of Grizzly. On Saturday despite ferocious winds, Chaela and I summited Grizzly for you, Chaeni Mae. Every mountain we climb will be in honor of you.”
As is this summit of Fremont Peak, where upon a tall cairn, Dashwood places Chaeni Mae’s old collar. He thought he had lost it a while back on Greenhorn Mountain near Pueblo, before Scott Carlson called the number on the tag. Dashwood was with Chaela on New Mexico’s Sun Mountain when he answered. He cried.
He and Carlson have remained friends. “I appreciate you being here, I really do,” Dashwood tells him atop Fremont Peak, embracing him.
Along with the yearlong record, Dashwood maintains that this marks Chaela’s 1,500th summit.
“I’m just amazed,” Carlson says. “I’m amazed at the consistency. I’ll ask, ‘How many mountains did you climb today?’ ‘Oh, four.’ And a lot of what he does is after work. He goes and works all day, then he goes and climbs.
“It’s an unusual story.”
It’s an unusual story about an unusual man, odd in the way that mountain man stories generally are, different in the way that this man loves his dog.
The way Dashwood loves makes him different, “very different,” McClain says. She was drawn to him for that compassion.
He appreciates creation, so he won’t walk on flora and fauna and won’t leave poop in the woods. He’s a vegetarian, sickened by the meat market. And “if he sees you swatting a fly, you’ve just gone down the ladder a couple of rungs for him,” McClain says.
People enjoy taking their dogs on trails. Dashwood can’t go without.
Technically he can. He has. After Chaeni Mae’s heat exhaustion on Grizzly Peak, he climbed several times alone, leaving her back with McClain at the trailhead.
There was Mount Sopris. “She of course didn’t understand,” McClain says. “And he was very emotional about having to climb without his lifelong partner.”
There was a longer day tagging Atlantic and Pacific peaks, a pair of thirteeners in the Tenmile Range. He returned to his human and canine companions pained by exertion and guilt. He sat on the ground, holding Chaeni Mae.
Like Chaeni Mae, like Dashwood, “Chaela, if she’s not climbing, she gets anxious,” McClain says. And that’s part of why Dashwood can’t leave her behind. Her excitement is “pure sweetness,” he has written.
He also has written of the mountains providing “wonderful gifts” that “are magnified because Chaela is next to me. I am all too aware that a dog’s time here on earth is painfully short. If I can help give my little girl a purpose and a legacy by climbing mountains then maybe I will have had a purpose myself.”
The names are intertwined in that legacy. Chaeni Mae derives from Dashwood’s first black labs, Hanna and Heidi, combined with an acronym, “mountains are eternal.” Chaela derives from Chaeni Mae, with the “la” meaning “Labrador angel.”
“Put a little thought into the names, and maybe no one else has them,” Dashwood says with a grin.
As for his name, “Cap” is just an alias. He grew up David Scott Dashwood. He grew up in Minnesota, but he doesn’t want to talk about that.
“Nah, let’s forget about that. I left for a reason.”
He came to Colorado in 1991 with Hanna and Heidi. “Hanna lived to be 14 and three quarters. Heidi was 13 and a quarter,” he says. “I never spent more than four hours apart from them their entire lives.”
Hours apart were even fewer for Chaeni Mae, and now fewer still for Chaela, who is 2 years and three quarters. She lays her 57 pounds across his lap while he drives for Labrador Retrievers Courier Co., his business delivering important packages and documents for contractors up and down the Front Range.
They’ll finish the day somewhere and climb the nearest mountains. They often don’t get back to the Woodland Park cabin, instead sleeping in the Jeep. On weekends, they’ll go to the Western Slope and beyond.
The lifestyle comes with sacrifices. On Nov. 19, he was on the job on Interstate 270 when a semi rear-ended him, leaving Chaela shaking but unharmed, thank goodness, never mind his concussion. He says he still battles the symptoms. “The doc says it’s not gonna get better until you slow down. Well, I’m not gonna slow down.” (They got two Golden-area summits Nov. 19, his logbook reads.)
Dashwood also has a lingering 7-millimeter kidney stone. “On a few occasions, on San Luis Peak and on Belford and Oxford, that sucker dropped. Man, those were some painful moments. But we fought through, and Chaela stood on the mountaintop.”
He’s made personal sacrifices, too. No time for kids, a family. He never wanted that anyway.
He pats Chaela. “I’ve got what’s most important to me right here.”
Dashwood prefers to see life through the eyes of his dogs. “Dogs live in the moment,” he says.
They’re not worried. Not about bills, schedules, how things could be or should be. They’re not thinking about the past, and Dashwood tries not to either.
He left home at 16. “Bad family life,” he says. Learned to trust people less. And he leaves it at that.
“Sometimes,” McClain says, “when you’re disappointed by people, you turn to something else. You know?”
Now on Fremont Peak, he turns to look at a happy Chaela and turns to look at the camera, the two posing with celebratory posters.
“What’s next?” asks his buddy Carlson. And Dashwood says they’ll keep going, off to the Sangre de Cristos to climb and sleep under the stars. But not before he sits with his journal on this summit.
He writes his thanks for the day. And he’s sniffling, and his smile is quivering, and there might be tears behind his sunglasses as he closes with a usual line: “I love you, Chaeni Mae and Chaela.”