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It’s been over two years since Chaela Choani-Meré and her climbing partner Cap Dashwood took a day off from climbing. Nothing has stopped them from strapping on their gear and ascending the sky-scraping summits found throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region. In fact, Chaela doesn’t need much motivation to hit the trail, maybe just a peanut-butter sandwich and a nice tummy rub. You see Chaela is a 57-pound black Labrador Retriever and Dashwood is her human companion.
At only three-and-a-half years old, Chaela’s accomplishments would make most residents of the Centennial State envious. She has ascended all of the states’ fourteeners, many more than once, plus a myriad of others. At the end of March, she ticked off her 4,500th summit, and on April 28, she hit 5,000. Now, the pair is attempting a new feat: to climb for 1,000 straight days, which takes them to December 24, 2020. Through it all Dashwood diligently documents each and every summit in his tattered notebook and on his camera.
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Their story is one of heartbreak and love. When Dashwood first laid eyes on Chaela he knew the pup was destined to be in his life. She had been born exactly one day after his last climbing Labrador, Chaeni Mae, collapsed from heat exhaustion while climbing Grizzly Peak, a 13,000-foot peak located in the Sawatch Range. Only a few months later she would pass away. The two had been inseparable for 12 years, and Dashwood was heartbroken. Less than a month later he met Chaela.
“We bonded instantly, and I knew that things would be OK, that I would survive,” says Dashwood.
One of the first things he did upon after bringing Chaela home was to put her onto his shoulders atop his pack and take her out into the mountains he loves so much. For five months, the two of them headed into Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near his home in Woodland Park every day to train. She quickly took to the trail and was soon learning how to safely climb. With its wide array of terrain, it was the perfect place for Dashwood to teach her the commands and skills she would need to be safe when they ventured into the high country.
Originally from Minnesota, Dashwood instantly fell in love with life above tree line when he moved to Colorado in 1991 with his two labs, Heidi and Hanna. He started climbing the peaks he would see out his car windows as he crisscrossed the state delivering packages, documents, and such for his company Labrador Retrievers Courier Co. As his skills grew so did his climbing habit. Often his dogs would come along when he tossed on his gear. While all his previous dogs accompanied him on climbs, nothing compares to what he and Chaela have undertaken.
“When we went for our first summit, Grizzly Peak in honor of Chaeni Mae, I was so happy to be back up top again,” he says. “She loved it, so I decided to go right back out the next day, and the next, and the next.”
It’s hard to miss Dashwood and Chaela on the trail. While Dashwood’s smile, well-worn gear, and faded Tigger dog toy hanging off his pack might catch someone’s eye, its Chaela in her orange harness with an ever-present stick in her mouth that catches most people’s attention. “She has to have a stick and loves any and all to throw it for her,” he says. “She is such a ham.”
Hitting the trail every day for over two years requires a special focus and an ability to overcome a wide variety of obstacles. They have climbed in all types of weather and temperatures. When Dashwood’s vehicle was rammed from behind over a year ago, the two of them still hit the trail, even though he was dealing with a concussion that would haunt him for months. To ensure that his pup is safe, he straps booties to her feet when the trail gets rough and has a full climbing harness for her if needed.
“All she wants to do is climb, it’s what makes her happy,” he says. “Often, I have to pick her up and put her in the Jeep when we get back down, she wants to turn around and start back up again. I figure that since a dog’s life on earth is short, who am I to deny her something she loves so much? So, I promise her we will be back on the trail again tomorrow.”
Even COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them, although it has slowed down their daily total. Instead of wandering the state, they are focusing on trails near some land that Dashwood owns near the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Nothing, it seems, can stop this prolific duo from reaching a milestone that very few climbers—on two feet or four—will ever top.