On Snowy, Uphill Trails With a Four-Legged
Over the past several winters, many a hiker in the high peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains has been startled by the sight of what looked like a small bear ambling down the trail.
But that was no sleepwalking bruin they saw. It was “Brutus,” a 160-pound Newfoundland who has become a canine legend on the winter trails. Accompanied by his owner, 57 year-old Kevin Rooney of Williamstown, VT, and a merry band of hikers, Brutus (or “Mr. B,” as he is sometimes affectionately called) has climbed all forty-eight 4000-foot peaks of New Hampshire in winter. Not once, but twice.
In January 2004 Brutus completed his first round of the “winter 48.” In this game, under rules established by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the summits must be climbed during calendar winter, typically December 22 to March 20. Only about 300 human hikers have achieved this challenging milestone (out of nearly 8,000 who have climbed the 4000-footers in the warmer months), and Brutus was the first dog to go the distance in winter.
This season he upped the ante by climbing all of the peaks in a single winter, finishing with Cannon Mountain on March 6. This especially difficult feat has been accomplished by only a dozen or so trampers of the two-legged variety.
The challenges of the high summits in winter - snow, cold, ice, wind and wildly changeable weather - keep most hikers, and their dogs, in a dormant state for the duration of the season. But, according to Rooney, this is the time of year that Brutus, with his luxuriant coat of black fur, thrives out on the trail.
“Winter is Mr. B’s season,” says Rooney, a genial hiker who has taught numerous winter hiking workshops for the AMC. “He loves the snow, and it’s a lot more comfortable for him than hiking in the heat of summer.”
Brutus, who turned four last December, boasts a noble lineage. Both his parents were Canadian dog show champions, and his full registered name is “Brutus the Mighty King.” He began hiking soon after Rooney and his wife acquired him, ascending Camel’s Hump (Vermont) in October 2001.
A week later Brutus and Rooney hiked the loop over Mts. Lincoln and Lafayette in Franconia Notch. Though Mr. B struggled a bit that day, Rooney says, “I could tell he was very strong, and cold, windy, snowy conditions with rime ice didn’t faze him at all.”
Within a year Brutus had polished off his “all-season” list of the New Hampshire 4000-footers, and had begun his pursuit of the winter list. On a trek to Wildcat Mountain that January, Brutus delighted his human companions several times by sliding down the Polecat ski trail on his side.
The following spring he and Rooney attended the annual awards dinner held in Stratham, NH by the AMC’s Four Thousand Footer Committee. (By AMC tradition dating back to the early 1960s, canine climbers receive recognition for their accomplishments.) Brutus was a clear favorite among the 200 or so assembled peakbaggers as he paraded down the aisle for his patch and congratulatory pawshake.
As Brutus rambled through his list of peaks during the winter of 2003-04, Rooney posted reports of their trips on the “Trail Conditions” section of the popular hikers’ website, www.viewsfromthetop.com. A small cadre of devoted winter hikers accompanied the pair on most of their treks, and Rooney began signing his trip reports, “Kevin, Brutus and Friends.” Others followed Brutus’ exploits on the web, forming a virtual fan club for the gentle giant of a dog.
On January 18, 2004, Brutus tagged winter summit #48 atop Mt. Pierce in the Southern Presidentials. Instead of the traditional champagne, he was rewarded with a special treat of steak tips, carried to the summit by fellow peakbagger Cathy Goodwin of Thornton, NH. In the following days messages of congratulation poured onto the viewsfromthetop.com bulletin board. Three months later Mr. B made an encore appearance at the 4000-footer awards event, where he received a whooping round of applause.
Over the summer Rooney mulled over the possibility of he and Brutus climbing all of the peaks in a single calendar winter. This had first been done by Goodwin, Cindy DiSanto and Steven Martin in the winter of 1994-95, and had been replicated only a handful of times since.
After the turn of the winter solstice last December, the adventures of Kevin, Brutus & Friends appeared on the web several times each week. Early in the season a series of thaws and freezes encased the trails in ice, creating some hazardous conditions.
Rooney was prepared for nearly every eventuality, however. For the descent off Mt. Whiteface on the steep slabs of the Blueberry Ledge Trail, he brought along a harness and rope to lower Brutus over the trickiest spots.
“While he wasn’t crazy about it at first, by the end of the third pitch he had it figured out and the fourth went rather smoothly,” wrote Rooney in his trip report. “He was rather full of himself the rest of the way down.”
Perhaps the most memorable hike of Brutus’ second winter round was a 23-mile traverse of Zealand Mountain and the Bond Range. While crossing the open ridge between Mt. Bond and Bondcliff, the group battled 50 mph winds, with gusts into the 70s.
“The winds were knocking us around, including Brutus,” recalls Rooney. “I needed to steady him by holding his collar and huddling behind boulders during the worst gusts. Fortunately, everyone made it safely, but we were all bruised a bit from getting knocked down multiple times by the winds. In retrospect, we would never have attempted the hike if we’d known how strong the winds were.”
According to Rooney, Brutus was visibly relieved when that difficult section was over and they were back in the safety of the trees.
“Brutus’ emotional reactions to tough situations are much like ours,” he says. “You can see the relief he experiences after it’s all over – he frisks around a bit immediately afterward.”
Over the course of many miles, Rooney says, he and Brutus have developed a strong rapport on the trail that has helped them through dicey spots like the windy Bondcliff traverse. When the going gets tough, Brutus trusts his owner to see him through.
“Brutus and I have hiked so much together that he just gives me a certain type of quick look when he wants some help,” says Rooney. “In a tricky area above treeline, I’ll tap my hiking pole on rocks to point the way I think will be easiest for him. You can see the wheels churning when I do that. Sometimes he takes that route and sometimes he chooses his own. But it’s a lot of fun to know when you’re communicating with someone at that level.”
This writer had the good fortune to accompany Kevin, Brutus and friends on two hikes as they neared the end of their “all-48-in-one-winter” quest. A trek with this group is a mellow-paced outing, with leisurely conversation and plenty of rest stops. When Brutus halts for one of his occasional sprawls in the snow, the entire line of hikers takes a break.
“Brutus is the most energy-efficient hiker I know,” says Al Dwyer, a veteran of many treks with Mr. B. “He never wastes any effort.”
On a late February trip to Mt. Osceola off the Kancamagus Highway, I watched in admiration as Brutus made short work of the steep, grueling pitch up towards the mountain’s East Peak. Even the exposed slide near the top, where I had to turn back due to work commitments, did not perturb this plucky pooch. He padded up determinedly after his owner and soon disappeared into the woods beyond. Later on that trip, Rooney reported, the group rigged up a rope belay to help Brutus over a nasty spot between the Osceola peaks known as the “chimney.”
A few days later my wife Carol and I joined the “Brutus Brigade” for an ascent of Mt. Tecumseh in Waterville Valley. Before hitting the trail, we watched as a WMUR-TV reporter interviewed Rooney for a 6 o’clock news piece. Brutus struck a majestic pose for the camera, clearly comfortable with his celebrity.
Our group of ten made a slow and jovial climb to the summit, #46 on Brutus’ all-in-one-winter round. One hiker fed Mr. B some hard-boiled eggs, which he washed down with powder snow – his preferred hydration method in winter. Supersize dog biscuits were also on the menu. On the way back, it was a delight to snowshoe down the trail behind the bounding, playful Newfy.
We were not able to accompany Brutus up Cannon, his 48th and final summit for the winter of 2004-05, on March 6. But about 40 other hikers did, and there was a grand celebration on top, with a banner, a suitably decorated cake, filet mignon for the honoree, and the unveiling of the official “Brutus Brigade” t-shirt.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Brutus was seen out with his owner climbing several more peaks during the last weeks of winter. Sadly, they will be moving to California in the spring. As one friend of Rooney’s was heard to quip, by this time next year there will probably be a western chapter of the “Brutus Brigade” tramping around the Sierra Nevada. You just can’t keep a good dog down.