Mountain Rescue: Pet rescue
February 11, 2018
After dark last Saturday night, we received a call from the sheriff to consider mounting a rescue for a stranded dog on Berthoud Pass. The dog had become stranded in a cliff band when it got separated from its owner earlier in the day.
At the time, Grand County Search and Rescue members were assisting Routt County with the rescue of an injured snowmobiler near Rabbit Ears Pass. The weather was horrible, with low-visibility blizzard conditions.
Based on the time, location description, blizzard conditions and avalanche danger, the mission was declined.
Early Sunday morning, we met with the owner, Brandon Fox, at Berthoud and evaluated the situation. Yoshi was still stranded in a bad spot above an 80-foot cliff. Above the cliff band was a 35- to 40-degree, east facing slope that had been accumulating drifting snow from the westerly winds.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) rated the avalanche danger "Moderate", which means there are heightened avalanche conditions on specific terrain features. Human triggered avalanches are possible.
Excerpts from Sunday's CAIC forecast:
• You could trigger large and dangerous avalanches that break deep in the snowpack.
• Resulting avalanche will be large and destructive.
• Trigger zones include areas where the snowpack is shallow and rocky and along the edges of deeply drifted areas.
• You can also trigger avalanches in layers of wind-drifted snow at the top of the snowpack.
• You will find the drifted snow below ridgelines, along gully walls, or around other terrain features.
As the Incident Commander, it was my job to determine the feasibility and safety of the rescue. With every mission we determine if we can achieve the mission with the assets we have available. We also do a risk-benefit analysis. These thought processes are not formalized, but are the result of training, experience and judgement. The result is a go/no-go decision.
The avalanche danger and risk to rescuers versus the benefit of rescuing a stranded animal made the decision quick and easy for me. Unless the situation changed, it was a no-go. We did discuss various rescue plans, and had several options under consideration, but the risk was just too high, especially with the number of "human triggers" skiing the terrain above the cliff band.
We all hoped that Yoshi would self-rescue, sooner or later. Or maybe move to a safer location. We were relieved when two local climbers were able to climb up and rescue Yoshi in a risky, but successful, effort.
Recently, there have been many highly publicized pet rescues in Colorado, including the rescue of a dog that had been stranded on Mount Bross for six weeks. GCSAR has received more than a few requests to evacuate, rescue or even search for missing pets. We have even retrieved deceased pets. As a public service, we consider each case, and make a go/no go decision. One factor that we consider is whether the owner will do something reckless if we do not act, and weigh that against rescuer safety. Risk/benefit again.
GCSAR volunteers are not in the animal rescue business. Anytime we provide a public service by helping an owner when their pet is in trouble it's just that – public service. Our primary focus is "humanitarian" mountain rescue.
Please do call us if in need, our volunteers may be able to help, or know someone who can.
We tend to agree with Yoshi's owner. "Before you bring your pet with you, you might want to think twice."
Especially when the terrain and weather are not pet friendly.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 38 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com.