Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dogged rescuers save man?s best friend

Skiers find dog alive after being beneath 4 feet of snow for an hour

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center This photograph, taken from Warm Springs Road near Ketchum, shows the tumbled remains of a large avalanche that broke off the sun-warmed slopes just below the high ridgeline in the distance. The slide covered the road with 4 to 5 feet of debris around noon on Sunday.

Forget the cat—here's a dog that apparently has a few lives to spare.

While traversing a gully on the west-facing backside of Titus Ridge northeast of Ketchum on Sunday morning, a party of three local backcountry skiers and one dog witnessed one of their members disappear beneath a large avalanche. Only, unlike the rest of crew, this four-legged member wasn't wearing an avalanche safety beacon.

Caught in the fast-moving torrent of snow was the last member of the party, a female adult husky who had waited patiently as the rest of the group traversed one at a time across the avalanche-prone slope in the northeastern Smoky Mountains. The group had already safely skied down a nearby 800-foot slope and was on their way out to a rendezvous with their parked car at the Galena Summit overlook.

All members of the group have avalanche safety training and were carrying the necessary avalanche rescue gear at the time of the incident, Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center forecaster Chris Lundy said. Lundy declined to name the members of the group, who called the center voluntarily to report the avalanche.

He said the party was following standard protocol for negotiating dangerous avalanche terrain when they crossed the steep gully one-by-one.

"They recognized it was avalanche terrain," he said.

Lundy said the group had also dug a test pit at the top of the slope before they skied down it.

"The snowpack looked fairly stable," he said.

Based on the report given to Lundy at the avalanche center, the final skier in the group was apparently crossing the gully when the situation went from just another day out in the mountains to dangerous.

"An avalanche had actually released when he crossed it," he said.

Lagging behind, the dog was caught by the avalanche and quickly disappeared, Lundy said.

As quickly as they could, the members of the party sprang into action.

"They set up a probe line," he said.

But precious seconds became minutes and soon the dog had been buried for about an hour, an amount of time that typically means a very slim chance of survival for victims buried beneath avalanches, Lundy said.

But whether by luck or something else no one will likely ever know for sure, the female husky had somehow hung on. From under the rubble the skiers heard a telling sound.

"They heard the dog whimpering," Lundy said.

Dropping avalanche probes for snow shovels, the skiers started digging.

"They dug out the dog and found it at 4 feet," he said.

Though a little cold, the dog was alive. Lundy said the group warmed the dog for about 45 minutes before setting out for the safety of their car.

Seemingly none the worse for wear, the husky needed no help getting out.

"It walked out under its own power," Lundy said.

Describing the husky as extremely lucky, Lundy said the group deserves to be commended for never giving up.

"They stuck with it and they ended up saving the dog," he said.

Lundy said the saving of the husky in the Smoky Mountains wasn't the only heart-warming dog-and-avalanche story to come out of the Rocky Mountain region on Sunday. He said another dog had apparently been given up for dead in an avalanche near Mount Blackmore, near Bozeman, Mont., on Sunday, Jan. 27.

According to the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center's daily avalanche advisory on Tuesday, the dog walked onto a cornice that broke and triggered an avalanche. The advisory says the owner looked for the dog, but to no avail.

"Well, on Super Bowl Sunday, seven days later, the dog, Lizzie, walked out to Hyalite Reservoir. Someone picked her up, called her owners, and other than a few cuts and a ravenous appetite, she's OK," the advisory states.

Lundy said Sunday was a particularly active day for avalanches in the Wood River Valley region, both in the backcountry and, once again, close to town. He said one large avalanche in particular blocked a 50-foot length of Warm Springs Road just west of Ketchum near Penny Lake around noon.

Lundy said the avalanche broke high up on the south-facing aspect of Warm Springs Ridge and slid all the way down to the road, which it temporarily buried under 4 to 5 feet of snow. He said the slide broke after skies cleared.

"It was almost certainly warming-related," he said.

Lundy said the solar warming also led to a number of other natural avalanches on Sunday.

Nearby in Ketchum's Warm Springs neighborhood, continuing avalanche danger in the area has caused city officials to leave a closure in place for Sage Road and Hillside and Huffman drives. The closure restricts access to these streets to local residents only.

Though forecasters with the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center estimated the overall avalanche danger in the region to be considerable on Tuesday, Lundy said they're most nervous about south-facing slopes.

"Southerly aspects throughout our forecast area have a very dangerous crust layer buried approximately two feet deep," said forecaster Matt Lutz in his daily avalanche advisory Tuesday. "Any daytime heating or direct sunshine today will increase the danger on solar aspects."

Going into more detail, he said the south and central portions of the Wood River Valley have a generally thin and weak snowpack with numerous problematic layers on all aspects. He said the north valley and Sawtooth Mountains have a generally deeper snowpack and offer better stability.

Lutz said the winter storm forecast to arrive in Idaho's central mountains yesterday evening could drop up to 10 inches of snow. He said yet another storm is expected to arrive late Wednesday night and into Thursday.

For the most up-to-date avalanche forecast, go to or call 622-8027.

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