The Ultimate Himalayan
Julie Foster Van Camp Lopez Island, Washington
She crawled into camp alone the first night of my three-week Himalayan trek in mountainous northwestern Bhutan, a tiny, isolated Buddhist kingdom bordered by India and Tibet. Sickly and shivering, I noticed yellowish-brown discharge oozing from her eyes and her unbobbed tail was infested with burs. After I shared my water, rice and bread, she curled up under my tent flap and fell asleep.
Overnight this little red and white Pembroke Welsh Corgi appeared to regain her strength. She nibbled the scrambled eggs and toast I had strategically dropped outside our meal tent after breakfast and, as I rolled up my sleeping bag, I noticed her chunky, bunny-like bottom bouncing across the meadow, heading for the trail. Pema Tenzin, our cook, called her Puppy, but she had no identification tags. I suspect she had traveled from India with the soldiers stationed at the remote military outpost nearby.
Tourists (and maybe that included Corgis) were allowed entry into this remote country in 1974, after sixteen centuries of self-imposed isolation. Most of Bhutan's one million people live without electricity, telephones, plumbing, roads, bank currency or mail service. Our group of eleven trekkers from the United States met Puppy shortly after we arrived from Bangkok on one of two weekly flights into Paro, the only valley wide enough for a small airstrip. I assumed Puppy would return home - wherever that might be - after a morning frolic up the lush, green Paro River valley.
However, when I took a lunch break on a log along the narrow, boulder-clogged trail, she crawled out from underneath the dense brush. She wouldn't eat out of my hand, but eyed my bread and cheese from a short distance. Judith, my first Corgi convert, noticed Puppy's swollen eyes and offered to apply her antibiotic optical salve. I cradled Puppy's squirming head in my lap while she squeezed the salve into her eyes. Pema Tenzin was certain Puppy belonged to the men whose horses hauled our tents and duffel bags, and said they would take her back home after we reached Chomolhari camp at 13,628 feet. At this location, lumbering, furry black Yaks would replace the horses who, like chickens and dogs and many humans, cannot survive at higher, oxygen-deprived elevations.
Now that we knew Puppy would be with us for at least three more days, Judith started brushing out the tail burs with her boot brush, and we continued to apply eye salve twice a day. Puppy settled into our trekking routine. Bounding up the trail on her four short legs, she often challenged us breathless, two-legged trekkers to match he performance.
Puppy nibbling Rip's breakfast
with Chomolhari in the background.
Cleverly, she bedded down under a different tent flap each evening, calculating that if she showed no favorites, her chance of receiving tantalizing meal handouts increased greatly. We took turns offering her tent-flap room service (the staff refused to allow her in the meal tent), which included tidbits of egg or rice or canned chicken and even chili peppers, the Bhutanese mainstay, carefully wrapped in paper napkins and accompanied by a bowl of fresh water She tipped us with daily demonstrations of tenacity, loyalty and humor.
Slowly we climbed through steep, fertile farming valleys, deep river gorges and dense Chir pine, fir and alder forests before reaching the treeless tundra at the base of 24,136-foot Chomolhari, Bhutan's most sacred mountain. Our self-appointed, four legged guide spent her days confidently circling around from her lead position back to herding those like me near the rear.
Chomolhari was the point of no return. Puppy would go back down the trail to Paro with the horses the next morning, while the rest of us headed higher, over rough trails, through sparse nomadic herding villages and toward barren, windswept mountain passes, before we returned through the forest and intersected with a road near the town of Thimphu to catch a tourist bus back to the Paro airstrip.
Parting from Puppy hurt, like saying farewell to a faithful friend you know you'll never see again. But I had no other choice. Jompso, one of our guides, told me she would die from lack of oxygen if she went any further. When I awoke the next morning, the pack horses were gone and so was Puppy. I felt empty, but assured that all was right and Puppy was safe.
Safe, that is, until I bit into my French toast and watched her trot into camp, expecting her usual share of my breakfast. I don't know where she was when the horses departed, but I chased her down the trail after them. She barked at this amusing game, circled and ran back to camp, and stretched out for a nap in the morning sun.
As I packed my gear, I feared for Puppy's precarious future. Judith and I vowed to trade off carrying her in our day packs, and to mix a small amount of diamox, an altitude sickness medication, in her rice if she became groggy or lethargic. The horsemen never returned for her.
Puppy was undaunted as we climbed higher into the Himalayan mountain range. Frigid, blustery passes and swift, un-navigable rivers separated small nomadic villages. Through this rugged, yet peaceful and quiet terrain, Puppy trotted confidently, as if she understood that Buddhists value all living things, including frisky Corgis. She chased brown, furry marmots, who whistled warnings and sought safety under large boulders when she approached. Showing off her superior stamina and lung capacity, she attempted to herd flocks of large, wild Blue Sheep grazing along distant 15,000-foot ridges. But no amount of brave, aggressive barking budged them. Unimpressed by this little Corgi, the sheep grazed on. And Puppy sauntered back to her lead position, hoping no one had noticed her dismal performance.
One afternoon, as gusty winds blew me backwards, I focused on the steep pass ahead and noticed her soft red and white shape silhouetted against the white glacier-covered mountain range. I wanted to believe she was looking back to see if I was okay. Puppy made me look pretty wimpy as I moved at a snail's pace up the switchback trail, struggling for breath. I thought I had adopted her, but the reverse was true: she had adopted me. Maybe medical evidence reveals that dogs die at high altitudes, but this little Corgi reached 16,645-foot Singhe La, our fourth pass, high above the village of Laya, ready to romp with the plodding yaks, who also ignored her herding maneuvers, while I collapsed, breathless and exhausted.
As we entered the nomadic village of Laya, she barked at the women in identical black and orange striped yak wool skirts and cone-shaped bamboo hats, beating piles of buckwheat with long snake-like whips, and watched men stagger through muddy pastures, methodically leading the yak teams weighed down with heavy wooden plows. Curious, giggling children with babies strapped to their small backs flocked around her. That evening, as we set up our tents in a pasture nearby, Puppy found an appealing pile of warm yak dung. She rolled back and forth, as if immersed in a hot tub, and looked confused when everyone zipped up their tent flaps. She slept alone that night.
Puppy never needed Judith's diamox or a ride over a mountain pass in my day pack. However, rivers without bridges or with swinging suspension walks turned our fearless Joan of Arc into a court jester.
Once, as the sun set behind the surrounding snowcapped peaks, Puppy raced frantically up and down the bank of a swirling river, searching for the usual wooden-planked bridge. There wasn't one.
As I rolled up my pants and removed my boots, I looked down at her curled up beside me with "SOS" echoing from in her frantic eyes, suggesting that swimming was not an option. If I carried her across the knee-high rushing water, balanced by my hiking stick, with two boots flaying around my shoulders, I knew we would end up washed downstream by the strong current. Moments later, with one tense, wobbly Corgi securely tucked under his arm, my husband, Rip, stepped onto the first of numerous large boulders on the river bottom and reached the far side without even getting Puppy's paws wet.
We encountered a similar, but less precarious, water dilemma the next morning. Rip and I arrived after five trekkers, relaxing on nearby rocks, had crossed a wide, sprawling stream. Puppy greeted us with a look that said, "I'm waiting for my ride." Rip scooped her up and boulder-hopped across without falling, and couldn't comprehend why the other trekkers were laughing. "Rip, she scrambled across twice by herself without help," Denise announced.
But swinging suspension bridges were no joke to her. After twelve days in the high mountains, we returned through a lush forest with numerous deep ravines of tumbling water. Wooden planks, edged with wire mesh fencing, were strung across on rusted cables that rippled up and down like undulating waves. Puppy stopped abruptly at the edge, and didn't budge when we called to her from the far side. Suddenly, she yelped, then crouched down on her tummy and inched across, crawling with her hind legs propping up her wobbling rear end.
Suspension bridge in Nepal
When she reached the other side, she gave everyone high-five licks on their hands and danced in circles barking, "See, I made it across." Surmounting her fear of swinging suspension bridges was short-lived, however. At the edge of the second bridge, she ran in short, swift circles before again inching along the wooden planks on her stomach. But she slowly stopped a quarter of the way across, turned and high-tailed it back. Brave, tireless Puppy had met her match, but Dana, another Corgi convert, strolled back and gave her a secure lift across.
By noon, Puppy's traditional tenacity and courage returned. During our lunch stop she was resting beside my day pack when a rambunctious yak charged our relaxed group. She jumped up and chased this huge, ox-like beast, nipping at his heels, and saved us from bodily injury. As if it were all in a day's work, she nonchalantly returned to her resting place and went back to sleep.
Puppy didn't sleep so casually one stormy night when we lost her. Jomp-so and I trudged back up the trail, our heads bent against the driving wind and pounding rain, wondering if she was wedged inside a marmot's hiding place. Or had she slipped on the rocky river's edge? Yelling "Puppy" produced no response. Finally, in a gentle, reassuring voice, Jomp-so said, "She's probably gone home."
But that was impossible. We were 130 rugged, mountainous miles away from the Paro valley where she had joined us. Then he said, "If she does come back, what are you going to do with her at the end of trek?" I couldn't face that question, especially when I feared something horrible had just happened to her.
Puppy never lost faith in me when I struggled against this challenging Himalayan terrain. Now I had to repay that faith. Anticipating her return, I filled my dinner napkin with leftover rice and bread, and tucked it under my chair. With rain pelting the meal tent during dinner, we shared tales of Puppy's endurance and independence and humor.
As I bit into my creamed apples, a drenched, forlorn Corgi crept slowly through the entrance flap. I leaped up and wrapped her shivering body in my jacket. The tent was off limits, but the staff didn't complain that night. She devoured the rest of my creamed apples, and garnered several other helpings offered around the table before she collapsed in a corner of the warm, dry tent.
She slept with the staff for the first time. Over the long, arduous trek, they were intrigued and confused by our devotion to this little dog, who had enthusiastically led us over the high Himalayan mountain passes and survived altitudes they predicted would kill her. Buddhists may value all living things, but that did not appear to include turning stray dogs into pets.
Puppy leaving on the bus with Pema Tenzin
When we reached the road junction near Punakha, we hugged the staff as they boarded a bus for Thimphu and reunions with families before their next trekking assignment. Pema Tenzin lifted Puppy up the bus steps to begin her journey home to his wife and two young daughters. The cook who named her answered the troubling question about her future.
And I returned to Lopez Island, Washington, and purchased a sable and white Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy. Her name is Karma Laya, but sometimes I forget and call her Puppy.
The Corgi Quarterly, Summer 1995