A few years ago, in a burst of perhaps misplaced enthusiasm, the Firm for which I work decided that its goal was a “zero fatality organization.” In my opinion it is sweetly naive to hope for this, given the kinds of work we do*, but I sat through the eight-hour “Safety Journey” with my other trapped co-workers. In this Journey, we were given “tools” for evaluating and perhaps refusing risk, one of them a Safety Card. This card apparently gave us the power to abort a mission if we felt uncomfortable (although try this at 2,000 feet over a foggy ocean in a floatplane when the rest of your crew feels just fine).
Okay, so give them credit for trying, but nobody is going to have the same level of comfort with everything. My friend the Freak of Nature is an amazingly strong and capable woman, but gets easily frightened by the possibility of lightning. I personally will do anything to avoid driving in a snowstorm. Other people spooked at bears, surf, and fire. One person is always going to be the lowest common denominator, and it’s hard to accomplish anything if you turn back all the time.
However, one good thing did come out of the whole Safety Card business and that is the Safety Dog. Safety Dog came about in the canyons of the Escalante, as my husband and I attempted to drop into a beguiling slot we saw from above. It was so close! We just had to traverse a steep pitch, drop down some levels, and we would be there! We wanted to be there. We needed to be there!
But then we looked at our dogs. Granted, the dogs often did better than we did, by virtue of their four wheel drive. This would be challenging for them, though. I visualized white fur flying, four paws in the air as one slipped and fell many feet below. “I’m pulling the Safety Dog card,” my husband announced. “If it isn’t safe for the dogs, it isn’t safe for us.”
Since then we’ve used the Safety Dog in other situations: Deep snow, torrential downpours, sketchy climbs. At times, our enthusiasm (okay, mine) often exceeds my abilities, so having the dogs along probably prevents me from disaster. I could have used the Safety Dog on other occasions in my life: sliding down Grape Nut shaped talus, perched on mountainsides looking for where I had lost the trail.
Sometimes I want to keep going even in the face of a Safety Dog situation. There are times when there’s not enough water for the dogs, or the snow isn’t the right consistency, or they are just too hot. Selfishly I wanted to forge on, but I know the dogs will go until they drop, like the time Sierra hurt her pads uncomplainingly on a scorching 12 mile day in Hells Canyon. Safety Dog is for their own good too, not just ours.
The truth is, Safety Dog keeps us checking in. We assess the situation not just for the dogs, but for ourselves, in a way we might not if the dogs weren’t with us. It’s easy to keep pushing on, to ignore red flags, but not so much if a furry companion is trotting along with you. In the end, if we have to pull a Safety Dog, I’ve learned to accept it with equanimity. No tantrums about not going higher, no frustration about quitting earlier. It’s all about the dogs, and that’s all right.
*Just my opinion. Please don’t fire me.