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Swapping A-frames for mountains

As part of his final exams, Jonathan Watts, his agility dog and four of his classmates embarked on an expedition (4-14 May 2005) to the wilderness area of the West Highlands of Scotland. This article shows how Kyte, a dog brought up in a central heated house and so on coped with the adverse weather conditions, terrain, and high physical demands faced through the execution of the expedition.

I am in the final few weeks of completing my degree in outdoor education, which for most students involves multiple academic examinations. This degree, due to the physical nature of the outdoors, sometimes allows for a more practical assessment process.

For my final year, we were set the task of planning, designing and executing an expedition of our choice in addition to exams, a dissertation and countless essays. There are only 14 people studying on my course, which was split into three separate groups. I was a member of a group of five people set to hike, climb and camp through the mountains of North West Scotland, in the Knoydart area. (Shown as the red square on the map.)

I have previously been unable to take my dog Kyte on any of the extended trips I have been on through my University, following the wishes of many of the tutors. This time round the tutors had no involvement in the trip, so the first decision made took no consideration, Kyte was coming, whether the old gits at Uni liked it or not.

It quickly became obvious that in order to get Kyte safely through the expedition, I was going to require the ability to deal with any injuries or other issues that arise myself. We would be travelling in is almost completely inhabited area where mobile phones have no signal, and a trip to the vets would involve up to a two day walk off the mountains and probable hitch hiking on scarcely used roads - not an ideal option.

As a group we were, of course carrying a first aid kit with us, although Kyte’s medical assistance would require her own kit to be carried. Thank you to me sister Sam for providing my with almost all the contents of this first aid pack, including pain killers, allergy tablet, syringes, dehydration solutions, nail clippers, dressings, vetrap and much more!

Now satisfied that I could reasonably deal with any minor injuries Kyte may pick up, and having identified routes off mountains in order to get Kyte to a vet, I now had to consider how I would keep Kyte warm and dry at night, especially when looking at the forecast, which threatened some very tough weather ahead. I had to find the right balance between taking enough extra equipment for Kyte but also not overloading my bag to the extent I couldn’t carry it (remembering I would be carrying nine days worth of food for myself). I ended up packing two very small light weight expedition towels, a fleece rug, a thin water proof dog coat, four small ‘boots’ and my favourite bit of Kyte’s equipment, her very own sleeping bag!

The sleeping bag is officially for a baby, but it fitted Kyte perfectly,. We had a little disagreement about getting in her in the thing, and Kyte had a little trouble understanding why she couldn’t stand up when she was zipped up in it, but she quickly got used to it. After speaking to my vet, he advised that Kyte’s pads may quickly become sore due to the change in terrain when climbing, so I used the boots shown, all day at first, and then slowly phase them out to help her pads adjust. This seemed to work really well.

Finally it was decided that an extra ‘tag’ for her collar was needed, as if she did get lost, there’s not a lot could be done by the person who found her ringing my Uni house! A tag with just mobile numbers and so on was made up

Then Kyte was ready to go. There was a point when I looked at her with all her ‘kit’ on and did feel like I was turning into a poodle owner with lots of accessories (complaints on a postcard to...!)

Day 1
In order to get to Knoydart we needed to catch a train into London, catch the underground into Euston and then the sleeper overnight train to Fort William. With carrying all our bags and equipment this became a bit of a nightmare getting Kyte around, although she spent most of her time trying to say hello to people in suits who were literally climbing up the walls to stay away from ‘A DOG’. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people can be scared of dogs.

The underground was quite busy, although the large bags helped us to clear a nice wide path on the platforms; people tend to move when faced with being hit in the face with a 75 litre rucksack!

All was going well until the escalators! We had a problem! Kyte quite understandable point blank refused to step on the moving steps, so she had to be carried. What happened next is a pretty good reflection of the complete ignorance people have when ‘rushing’ to save five minutes getting home.

Whilst half way up the escalator I was quite literally knocked out the way by a man pushing past us. Even though we were stood to one side, our bags filled the width of the stairs, but he managed to push past. By doing this, Kyte was crushed against the non-moving barrier and it audibly hurt her.

If I couldn’t rely on people’s common sense to stop Kyte being crushed, then I decided I would make them wait behind us. The next guy who came steaming up the escalator was met square in the face with my rucksack, much to his disapproval. He tried to push my bag aside, so I stepped back into him and told him to wait (The language may have been a little stronger!)

This tactic seemed to work, and in no time we were safely on the sleeper train on our way up to Fort William. The staff on the sleeper were really good with Kyte, bringing her biscuits and treats every time a new conductor came through. Kyte spent the night in our cabin, with rationed water due to the fact that train journey would take 12 hours with no stops! Kyte was pleased to find grass in the morning. The night was spent in the train bar, in preparation for the non-alcoholic days ahead!

 Day 2
We arrived in Fort William, meeting up with a guy called Shaun, a friend of Alan, the older student in the photos. We took a minibus for around an hours drive towards the mountain, opting to pay for this rather than spend two days walking on roads, and not actually away from civilisation.

By 1.30pm we were dropped off and begun our accent towards the first mountain to be climbed. As the minibus drove away, it suddenly hit home as to just how far away from anything or anyone we now were, no roads, no houses, and no cars - I must admit to being a little nervous!

Within half an hour the skies opened and it began to rain. It was torrential pouring rain, with a blistering wind that cut into you regardless of the amount of clothing you wore. This was to be a sign of what was in store for us in the next few days.

We found a decent place to camp that night and set up for the first time. Kyte was drenched, partly by the rain and partly by the discovery of the nine mile long swimming pool/glen we were following. 

The night was actually very warm in the tent, as the wind had dropped to a comfortable level. However I am not sure that anything could have prepared us for the events of the next day…

 Day 3
We woke to more rain. The ground was bogged down badly. It took us a while to get going but by 10.00am we were on the move again.

We ascended a mountain around six miles east of a little town called Inverie. About half way up a very slow climb, littered with deep bog, falling rock and very slippery ground, the hail begun. We found shelter behind some rocks in order to cover our bags and ensure all our kit was waterproofed.

It took us three hours to reach the top, and I think this has got to be the longest few hours of my life. Kyte, however, loved it. She was running from the front to the back of us, clearly finding it easy to climb, much easier than we were. We stopped about 20 yards from the summit. My spine felt as if it was literally ripping through my back, my legs were shaking and breathing was becoming increasing difficult.

A few minutes passed and we were up and going over the top. As I stepped onto the summit of the mountain, it was like running head first into a brick wall. I have never felt wind so strong. It completely took your breath away. The temp was dropping rapidly and storms were erupting in the distance.

We had planned to camp near the summit; this was no longer an option. Inverie was now around four miles away, down hill all the way. The decision was made to keep moving and get off the mountain heading for Inverie.

It took us four hours to descend of the mountain. Paths were flooded and the ground was breaking away underneath us. Much of the trip down the mountain was a blur. You just walked with your head down looking at the floor, as you couldn’t look forward for the rain and hail coming in. Kyte had resigned to walking right behind me, maybe picking up on the mood amongst the humans.

We made it to Inverie and set up our tents on a patch of grass right next to a small beach area. The temp continued to drop and for the first time in the trip I became worried about Kyte. She was shaking violently as the two towels I had were drenched and I had no practical way to dry her. We were only carrying one set of clothes which yes, it did mean we were beginning to smell quite bad!

I wrapped Kyte up in my t-shirt and fleece and then tucked her into her sleeping bag. I then placed her into my sleeping bag which seemed to do the trick. I was shivering most of the night as the dog had most of my clothes, but Kyte was nice and warm. I thought to check for ‘mug’ on my forehead in the morning.

 Day 4
We woke up with unexpected sunshine. The bad weather had gone as quickly as it had come in. For the first time on the trip we were able to see the landscapes and beauty of the area without mist, fog and cloud cover. As you can see from the pictures, the setting was amazing.

We were in Inverie a day earlier than expected. The plan was to use the area as a base camp, ascending the surrounding mountains one at a time each day for three days, then taking three days to walk back through a different route to the pick up point on the final day. For the rest of the trip we were blessed with glorious sunshine, and the views on the mountains were spectacular.

Days 5 & 6
The two full days spent in the Inverie area went quickly. We ascended the mountains and returned each evening. Kyte was in her element with all the human attention and unlimited sticks to play with. She found her own way up most of the climbs, needing little to no assistance from me. Here is a selection of the photos from these two days.

 Day 7
We left Inverie and crossed the river by boat to a village called Tarbet. We know had 48 hours to make our way through the glens and back to the pick up point. We are unable to get over the mountain here, which forced us to traverse along the side of the mountain. This was very hard work, and involved a number of difficult situations.

At about 4.00pm that day, we were climbing round the edge of a cliff face with around a 15ft sheer drop below us. The ledge we were walking on was around 5in. wide. Kyte was walking right in front of me. I had become accustomed to insisting on this when the path became this dangerous.

I don’t know what spooked her, but Kyte suddenly tried to jump up the rock and managed to get her front paws onto another ledge. She dangled there for a moment in what seemed slow motion and then fell. I was able to grab onto her and pull her back into me, but this, together with the weight of my bag, threw me off balance.

I remember a number of years ago when Gwyn Roberts was explaining something to me that he believed that if its not your time to go, events will occur to prevent you from being fatally injured. Gwen and many others will know which serious incident he was talking of.

At the time I didn’t really appreciate the idea of ‘being kept safe’ but at that moment I understood. As I lost my balance my rucksack became wedged against a tree, undoubtedly preventing both Kyte and me from falling. As I stepped back on the ledge and looked back, I noticed that on an area of around ten yards on which this ledge followed, there was only one tree along the whole section. If I had been anywhere else along that ledge a fall would have been almost definite. I am told that I turned back and quietly said to the others; 'flipping hell, that was flipping close, flip me.' (Note. This quote has been censored slightly!)

Days 8 & 9
The following days passed with thankfully no further dangerous situations. We made our way back to the pick up point and got on the sleeper on the Friday night. We arrived home at about 9.30am Saturday morning, with everyone going straight to bed, apart from me that is.

I left for Luton, were I had an afternoon judging appointment at BATS. I think I just crossed the agility obsession line! Kyte absolutely loved the whole trip, spent most of her time swimming in the glens around the mountains, and proved undoubtedly that when it comes to climbing mountains, four legs are better than two!

Looking back...
Kyte has always been a very trusting dog, never questioning what I have asked of her in terms of agility training. This became invaluable on the expedition. There would have been no way I could have taken a badly behaved or particularly nervous dog safely across those mountains. There were numerous times when I was required to have Kyte in a strict heal position when trying to avoid potentially dangerous Highland cattle and so on.

In terms of fitness, Kyte surprised me by her ability to cope with the conditions. She never seemed to tire, continuously from the front to the back of the group. She showed us, without any particular special training, how search and rescue dogs are so effective, with constant 'rounding up' of the humans! Whenever we stopped for a break, she never laid down until all members of the group had caught up, showing a consistent awareness of the everybody's whereabouts.

I will definately be taking Kyte on this sort of trip again, and I'll just have to wait and see how her new, improved shoulder muscles fair on the agility courses!

Finally, I would like to thank Premier Show Jumps for their support.

 About the author...
Jonathan Watts
has been in agility for 11 years now - over half his life - first competing in Junior competitions. He has competed in every major UK final including the World Championships with his current dog Kyte.

Jonathan runs his own dog agility training club Watts Agility, based near Bicester in Oxfordshire. For more information visit www.wattsagility.com

More photos