Norm and Vince

Norm and Vince

for EXPLORE magazine, June 2002

patrick hendry / unsplash

The first thing I noticed about Norm Winter, the mountain guide I’d hired to help a group of us reach the summit of Mt. Baker in the U.S. Cascades, was his strange calm. Norm was a B.C. boy, lanky as a cowboy, with a little billy-goat tuft of hair—a soul-patch, a flavour-saver—beneath his lower lip that drew your eye there, away from his bemused smile. He walked as if he were making an instructional video on how to walk so you are never off balance. In his commitment to restrained and deliberate speech and movement, he was almost Confucian.

The first thing I noticed about his dog Vince, a four-year-old mongrel with some Spitz, some husky and lord knows what else in him, was his…strange calm. (No, the first thing was his crazy curled tail; the second thing was his strange calm.) Initially it seemed odd that Norm had brought Vince along. What was he going to do with the dog while we climbed? The question was soon answered. By the time we’d geared up and mustered at the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead, Vince was already ahead of us, way up the path. No car camping for Vince. He was coming with us. And he aimed, it appeared, to beat us to the top.

This was not ordinary. But then, as I would soon learn, Vince was no ordinary dog.

Vince came into Norm’s life one summer’s day in 1995. Norm was walking along Commercial Drive in Vancouver, out with another dog that belonged to an out-of-town friend, and he was literally thinking Man, I have no room in my life for a dog right now, when a woman walked past, with Vince. The dogs stopped to sniff each other. So their people chatted, too. It turned out that Vince’s owner was living on the street and couldn’t keep him. “She was actually at that moment on the way to the pound with him,” Norm recalls. Norm looked at Vince. Vince looked at Norm. Norm thought that, as dogs go, this one was really pretty beautiful. “I told her, ‘Look, I’ll take your dog for a couple of weeks until you find a home for him,’’ Norm remembers. “And I never gave him back.”

Vince had a quirky personality—a bit standoffish, not all over you like so many pups. He could be aggressive with other dogs but he was timid with people. “He had big emotions, but he didn’t dole them out to just anyone. He chose individuals and did things for them.”

As a domestic dog, Vince was raw clay. Before Norm started taking him into the mountains, there’d have to be basic training.

Someone had obviously thrown Vince from a truck when he was a pup because he wouldn’t go near one. This posed a problem for Norm. They weren’t going to the mountains—or anywhere— until Vince could be trained to get in into Norm’s own pickup. “I worked on it for seven years—very, very systematically,” he says. A walk together around the truck. Open the tailgate and walk around it again. One paw on the bumper. “There were at least 20 steps in the process.” Eventually Vince learned to trust that this man with the soul-patch was a different species from the asshole who had tried to dispatch him. He committed to Norm, and the two became a buddy movie.

Vince was plainly an outside dog. In a Squamish downpour, he’d go sleep on the lawn for seven hours. He was also a natural climber. That much became clear once Norm started bringing Vince on his treks—in the Coast Mountains, in the Rockies, in the Cascades.

“We’d get to approaches where it’d be fifth-class climbing.” That’s the point where you have to start using your hands. “So what he’d do was back way up and take a run at it, and hit the wall as fast as he could and just start pumping his feet. One time he just got his paws over the lip and was hanging there, with a long drop beneath him.” Norm reached Vince just as the dog was gassing out, and pulled him the rest of the way up.

If the climbing got too technical, Vince would find another way, a less obvious way. While Norm was guiding on Polar Circus—a long ice climb in Banff National Park—Vince made it halfway up before he ran into ice walls. And then he was gone. Norm kept climbing. “All of a sudden Vince popped his head up and was looking down at us.”

In the really hairy spots, Norm would rig a harness out of a prusik and a piece of webbing and heave Vince up. Vince didn’t like that one bit—but he’d let Norm attach it if he figured it was the only way their day together was going to continue.

“I thought I’d lost him once in [Utah’s] Zion National Park,” Norm says. “We’d spent a day climbing and were camped at the end of the canyon, up in the dry ranchlands. Vince disappeared there chasing rabbits. It was a bad place. He was just gone.” Norm finally gave up waiting and started back down the canyon. “And then I could hear him howling. He’d backed out onto a outcrop and was cornered there, 30 feet up.” Norm brought out the harness. Vince did not object. “He actually took a wide stance to make it easier for me.”

Vince summitted Mt. Athabasca. He summitted tk.

Now, it’s not unknown for dogs to climb serious mountains. In 1979, famed Iditarod racers Joe Redington and Susan Butcher got together their best dogs and mushed them to the top of Denali. (The dogs made it no problem. The only issue was that sled dogs are trained to keep going, and so these four grew confused when, at the peak, they ran out of real estate.) But it’s rare. In those cases where a dog does become a regular companion of a mountaineer, the bond between dog and owner can be legendary.

The great, eccentric Victorian-era American climber and mountain-historian William Coolidge summitted some 66 big peaks in the Alps—including the Jungfrau and Mont Blanc—with his tiny brown beagle-mix, Tschingal. (Tschingal, when she died, was awarded honorary membership in the British Alpine Club.) Coolidge wrote about how that dog would trot across precarious snow bridges, “and on at least one occasion helped to find the way home when the guide had lost it.”

When we climbed Mt. Baker, we gingerly picked our way up the Coleman Glacier, with crevasses on both sides. Though we were roped up, I still felt vulnerable. It seemed like no place for a dog. But maybe it was the perfect place for a dog. As it turns out, a dog can sniff its way through an icefield. “Its super-sensitive nose can scent the old air that comes up through the crevasses from the depths of the glacier,” Coolidge wrote. In some ways dogs are more naturally suited to this pursuit than people are—so long as they have the courage to climb.

It would be revisionist history to say that Norm and Vince recognized each other from the beginning as kindred spirits. They didn’t. But they were.

Norm was every bit as complicated as Vince—as I would grow to discover over the course of three climbs in the Cascades.

Norm could discourse on the history of mountain gear, from the hobnail boot to the 12-point crampon. In the next breath he’d be parroting whole scenes of dialogue from The Eiger Sanction. He described his hometown of Flin Flon, Manitoba, as “the only town in North America named after a literary character.” (Flitabbatey Flonatin, the adventurous grocer from Muccock’s The Sunless City.) Then for long stretches he’d fall silent.

When the weather turned on us as we were climbing Mt. Rainier, Norm made the call to abort, and his face clouded with regret. “I’ll be back here,” he said. “I want this one, too. We will climb this mountain.” He rolled up his sleeve to expose his forearm, and he began hitting that forearm with two fingers of the other hand, trying to raise a vein. He had the mountaineering jones bad.

It struck me that Norm was himself a little bit feral. His father was a hard German man, a veteran of the German cavalry in World War II who had escaped from at least one POW camp and admitted, in later life, that he slept, still, sometimes, with a gun. Norm himself learned to be self-reliant early. He could shoot a rifle and drive stick by age six.

The city made Norm tense. Only after we were out of the car and partway up the trail did he noticeably relax.

I once called him on what I thought was his land-line around dinnertime. I could hear the faint roar of a butane stove in the background and the image that came to mind—of a guy camping out in his own apartment, maybe sleeping in a tent in the living room, because wild is the only mode he knows—seemed perfectly apt. In fact, I had reached Norm on his cellphone, in the mountains of Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, cooking dinner for another group of clients.

Together, Norm and Vince were like an old couple that can count the moments, over their long deep marriage, where things looked grim. “We were very attached,” Norm says. “But it wasn’t all roses.”

They would get into arguments. Norm had his agenda; Vince had his. “And he’d be defiant. I’d be on a time schedule, with another climb to do. I’d say: ‘Vince, we have to go. I have to go.’ ” Vince would hunker down, just out of reach. So Norm would leave.

Two or three days later, he’d return to that spot—to find Vince waiting for him.

One summer Norm, then based in Golden, B.C., went to work in Europe—guiding in the Swiss Alps out of Zermatt. The folks at Chatter Creek Heli-Skiing said they’d take Vince for the summer. “They figured he’d keep the pine martens out of the lodge.” But Vince sensed that his master wasn’t coming back any time soon. So he set out to find him. Two weeks later he showed up in Golden—having navigated 100 kilometres of some of the densest bush in the world. “He knew I’d eventually show up.” If Norm left home for a few days or weeks, Vince would often set off on his own peregrinations, then return to Norm’s doorstep at almost the exact moment Norm arrived back in town. It couldn’t have been coincidence. Could it?

“The thing Vince wanted most was to be with me,” Norm says. “To have that sense of place in the pack. He was happiest when we were in the wilderness. His Nirvana was us running together, out there, and coming across a field filled with deer. And me not restraining him.”

My initial climb with Norm happened more than a decade ago. In the last few years, I’d lost his signal. A couple of months ago I called him up again. He’s a mountain guide still, running a successful operation called Revelstoke Alpine Adventures. He’s married with a little son named Leif: life reordered. All is good. But what had become of Vince?

The call was spookily timed. He beloved mutt, whom he had given a governor’s pardon to all those years ago, and then built a life with, had just died.

“He got old,” Norm says. “He got sick. “He had cancer and he was not feeling so well.” A tumour had shown up on Vince’s flank, and Norm had it removed; then the cancer spread inside. So one day Norm put Vince in the back seat of the truck. They set out on the long car ride to the vet’s. On the way they had a conversation. This time it was one-sided. Norm talked, watching the road. “I let him know how much I had learned from him, and how much I respected him,” Norm said. “Really, he taught me a lot about patience. I realized after I got angry at him that it was never about him. It was about me.

“I thanked him.”

Norm drove in to the parking lot of the vet’s. Then he turned around. Vince had once again found another way, the less obvious way. He had died back there, the voice of his human playing him off the air.

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