When we arrived in Rescue Three, lights still flashing, the crowd of Chaffee County rescuers and Sheriff’s Office personnel standing in clusters on the dirt road looked up expectantly. No one had gone into the field yet. I understood immediately—we were the avalanche experts coming in, the team with all the dogs and equipment and experience, from the county with one of the two highest avalanche rates in the country. They had waited for us. I would have to hide the fact that I was fairly new with my team and this was my first avalanche call.
Jaye and I jumped out of the back of the truck, Rudy bounding joyfully behind Jaye. A woman approached us immediately, before we could even get a briefing from the Sheriff. She was smiling and spoke cheerfully.
“I have his jacket, and it has his cologne on it,” she told us. “Would that help the dog?”
Jaye patted Rudy’s head and explained to the woman, “He alerts to any human scent, so we really don’t need that. But thank you.”
“It’s my husband up there,” the woman continued. I was startled. I’d assumed she was a rescuer, given her cheery countenance. The man had already been buried for three hours.
“He’s an experienced mountaineer, I can’t believe he got himself into this. I’m sure he’ll find a way out. We’re from the Indian Himalayas.”
Jaye and I nodded awkwardly. She was in denial. “We’ll do our best,” Jaye said.
“Oh, and our dog was with him too,” the woman added before we walked away. “A Burmese mountain dog, named Tigi. I really hope you find him too.”
Jaye was hustled off toward waiting snowmobiles with Rudy, and I stood uncertainly, wondering if I was to go in. There were only four of us: John Agnew, our mission coordinator; John Reller, another dog handler; and Jaye and me. I was the only one without a clear purpose.
John Agnew finished unloading our two snowmobiles next to Chaffee County’s machines. It looked like John Reller was going to be towed in on skis, and Jaye and Rudy were riding on the back of a Chaffee County sled.
“Can you drive one of these?” Agnew asked me. I froze, momentarily. I’d been pestering the mission coordinators to let me drive the snowmobiles since I joined the team last year, but now my confidence faltered. I didn’t know the terrain, and apparently I was to tow another rescuer on skis.
“It’s been a while,” I admitted.
John put a finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he said. “Get on.”
The terrain turned out to be on the rough side. I held my own, nervously. There were several rocky spots with no snow, and I watched the first time to see what John Agnew, towing John Reller ahead of me, would do. He stopped and unhooked the tow rope and let his skier meet him on the other side. I did the same, turning to tell my nameless towee, “Let me know if I’m going too fast. It’s my first time towing a skier.” He looked surprised. After all, I was from Summit County, where we know everything.
After a twenty-minute ride along a narrow trail, we came to a clearing where the slide was visible. It was huge. I unhooked my skier and turned the sled around on a precarious side slope. John Agnew gave me a thumbs-up, approving of my handling skills. Looking around to make sure no one saw me first, I pointed silently to a red button on the machine’s handlebars. John nodded; yes, that was the shut-off button.
Jaye, Rudy, John Reller, and Tracker were already up on the slide debris. Other sleds pulled up with Chaffee County rescuers, and we put on our snowshoes and headed for the toe of the slide. It had come from high above us, and through a narrow chute into the meadow we now stood in. The top of the slide rounded a rock outcropping and we couldn’t quite see it. It would be a very long search if the dogs didn’t turn up the body.
“Do you guys need a shoveler?” I called up to John Reller and Jaye. John shouted back, inviting me up. When I reached them they gave me a small area to dig in, where the dogs had showed interest. Then they moved on, up toward the top of the slide.
I shoveled for a while, then called to the other rescuers, “Let’s set up a probe line here!” Some of them had been milling around aimlessly. A good fifteen people or so came up on the debris and we spread ourselves across it for a coarse probe. A Chaffee County member faced us to call out the probe commands. Every time he gave an order, he looked at me for approval. I nodded at him, pretending confidence.
Probably an hour passed, and John Reller gave us another area to probe. I’d always heard that probe lines were boring and somewhat strenuous. Now I knew it to be true. The snow was like cement, and sometimes the rescuer next to me had to reach over and help me force my probe to the bottom. The debris was deep, sometimes beyond the length of our probes.
It began to get dark, and I listened to radio traffic telling Jaye to wrap it up in five minutes. Jaye and John had become separated, and Jaye was way up near the top of the slide with Rudy. Command said we would call off the search until morning.
“Rudy just took off, but I’m not sure I feel comfortable following him,” I heard Jaye radio to Command. I looked up at the top of the slide.
“Are we comfortable with her being up there by herself?” I asked John Agnew. Someone else had already commented on the hangfire.
“Let’s get Jaye down here,” Agnew called up to Reller. I heard Command on the radio, telling her the same thing.
“Dog Team One,” the MC said, “please report back to Base.”
Jaye’s voice was breathless. “Copy that, I’ll be down in five minutes. Rudy is digging.”
I missed whatever radio traffic came next, but suddenly, Agnew and Reller were grinning at each other.
“Rudy found him!” John Reller said.
“Aw, that’s great!” Agnew said, with an almost paternal pride. It was Rudy’s first avalanche find; a great moment for the team as well as for Jaye. We also knew the find saved us from coming back in the morning, a thought we hadn’t relished.
The two Johns and I took off our packs and settled down on the snow. We would have a long wait now. Two Chaffee County members were sent up with a body bag to help in the evacuation, and the others stood about, trying to keep warm. It was dark now, and we pulled bivy sacks out of our packs to sit on. Nonetheless, I felt the cold seeping through my skin from the avalanche debris. Shivering, I accepted an offer of an extra fleece from Reller. We sat separate from the Chaffee group, and I had the cozy feeling that we were like family, the four of us. Despite not knowing any of my fellow teammates very well, being on another county’s rescue made me feel closer to them.
It was about 11:00 when the body finally came down. Jaye had a ride and Reller skied out, so Agnew and I were driving the snowmobiles again.
“Should we wait and see if someone else needs a ride?” I asked him.
Agnew shook his head. “We came in and found the body for them,” he said. “Now we’re out of here.”
Back at Base Command, it began to snow heavily. There were many more vehicles parked in the road than when we’d left to go into the field, and some had to be moved before we could leave. I wandered around while Agnew went to get a path cleared.
Jaye told me, “The guy didn’t have a chance. He was taco’d backwards around a tree.”
“Did you get the dog’s body too?” I asked her. For some reason, it was the dog I felt bad about, not the man. The man had made his own choices.
Jaye shook her head. “Rudy started digging pretty frantically next to the body at one point,” she said, “but we didn’t really have time. I feel bad about that.”
I wandered over to the Chaffee County Sheriff. He had two dogs on a leash.
“This one’s a Burmese mountain dog,” he said. “Same kind of dog the guy had. The wife keeps hugging him, crying.” I wished we had found the dog’s body too. It would have been some comfort for the widow.
“Where is she?” I asked him.
“She’s over in that vehicle there. She was pretty tough until you guys found her husband’s body, and then she broke down.”
A week later, I lay on my living room couch, watching a movie. My boyfriend Ben handed me the phone; it was John Reller.
“Did you hear the news about the dog?” he asked excitedly. I hadn’t.
“They found him! The CAIC went up to the slide to investigate, and relatives had asked them to look for the dog’s body. They searched but couldn’t find it. Then on their way out, they found the dog sitting on the road, alive and well. No one knows where he’s been for the last six days.”
I hung up feeling better than I’d felt all week.