When avid traveler and rock climber Craig Armstrong settled down with his girlfriend, Julianne, last year, the couple adopted a kitten. They went to Furburbia, the adoption center for Friends of Animals Utah, and immediately fell in love with a little black fuzzball named Millie.
"We took Millie into a little room to be alone together," Armstrong says. "She climbed up on my shoulders right away, and there was no question she was going home with us."
Little did Armstrong know he had just adopted his new climbing partner. By taking Millie with him on his adventures, Armstrong quickly learned that his cat was a natural.
"The first time I took her to a climbing spot (Joe’s Valley), she got on top all kind of boulders," Armstrong says. "The first time I took her to a climbing wall, she tried to get as high as she could. She just naturally loves climbing things."
Armstrong and his friend Zac, who also goes climbing with his rescue kitty, Kenneth, started planning cat-specific trips. This had the unintended consequence of changing the way they climbed for the better.
"The goal wasn’t as much to climb as much as we can for ourselves, to get stronger and do harder routes; the goal was to get the kitties out in nature," Armstrong says. "We had to put our human agenda away. We had to slow down, experience nature at a different pace, see nature from a different perspective. So ultimately having Millie has helped me slow my pace and opened my eyes to new ways of experiencing and seeing the world around me."
Of course, taking Millie on climbs also means Armstrong is responsible for keeping her safe. On big routes, Armstrong attaches Mille to his harness, keeping her on belay. Wide-open desert spaces make Millie nervous, so she naturally walks alongside Armstrong without a leash. In the mountains and woods, however, Armstrong keeps her on a leash, since there is a lot that can pique her curiosity and prompt her to run off.
"I can’t just not pay attention to her in the wild like people do with dogs," Armstrong says. "I have to be vigilant and watch her at all times. She’s too curious; she’ll naturally just wander off and might get nabbed, so I have to protect."
Millie’s penchant for riding on Armstrong’s shoulders has also served her well while climbing. The kitty perches atop her human whenever she is tired or feels threatened.
"From the time she was a tiny kitten, I’d call her to climb up me and get on my shoulders," Armstrong says. "It’s now her safe place. If dogs or strangers or other animals come around, she’ll seek my shoulders for safety. If she’s too tired hiking somewhere, she’ll want to climb up. I give her as much off-leash, off-shoulder time as she wants, but it’s there if she needs it."
Mille has climbed alongside Armstrong on routes everywhere from Ferguson Canyon to the West Slabs of Mt. Olympus, both in Utah. When Armstrong encounters other climbers, many seem surprised to see a man in the woods with his cat ÔÇô- but nearly everyone is excited to see Millie, who Armstrong says is a playful, tenacious risk-taker when it comes to climbing.
"I’ve received a lot of ‘never seen that before’ when in remote places with Millie," Armstrong says. "Had pictures taken more than once. People are generally positive and happy to see a kitty in nature."
To anyone who would like to try hiking or climbing with their kitty, Armstrong recommends a slow introduction to the outdoors. The first place he took her was a small island in a pond in Liberty Park, where he guarded the bridge exit so she couldn’t run off. Wide-open spaces are also good for beginners; locally, Armstrong recommends Stansbury Island.
"It’s wide open, and there’s no thick growth or shrubbery really," Armstrong says. "So if you just start hiking up one of the hills, your kitty will probably follow you. And if they don’t follow and want to do their own thing, cool; it’s so wide open, so they can’t run away — just follow them. Every trip I’m on, even if in deep woods when Millie’s on-leash almost all the time, I make sure and give her plenty of off-leash time to do her own thing where I just follow her."
Most importantly, Armstrong stresses that while taking your cat into nature is a fun and exciting experience for everyone involved, it is up to you, as the human, to keep your kitty safe.
"I feel if you’re taking your cat into nature that is awesome amazing and fun, but it’s up to you to protect them and keep them safe," Armstrong says. "So find ways to start slow."
To see where Millie goes next (and for more great pictures), follow Armstrong on Instagram: @pechanga.
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.