Most dog-lovers were fascinated, moved, and enraged by the story of Missy, the dog that was left up on Mt. Bierstadt in Colorado by a hiker one year ago. The hiker was with another, younger hiker, and when weather set in, he made the decision to leave Missy because she became unable to walk, and they could not carry her down themselves. Days later, hikers spotted her, and could not get her off the mountain themselves, so put out a 911 to a hiking group in the area, who took up her rescue. This is the very compelling, emotional first-hand account of Missy’s rescue that I received via email this morning from my old Sunbear Squad board of directors. I am posting it here in its entirety because it serves as a heartfelt reminder of how resilient these wonderful dogs are when they are given the faith and commitment they crave from us. She was eventually adopted by one of her rescuers, and owner never was able to explain why he did not organize his own rescue mission to save his dog. Missy is now known as “Lucky”…
“This is the story written by Stefan for us at the request of John Steed on the Rescue of the German Shepherd Dog “Missy” from Mount Bierstadt . We were standing by waiting and hoping as this wonderful group of rescuers risked all to save Missy who had been left to fend for herself at 14,000 feet. Without them she would most certainly have died . John has since adopted Missy so this story has 2 happy endings. Thank you Stefan for the great account of this rescue.”
The Brothers of Lucky Rescue
By Stefan Kleinschuster
I had just arrived on Sunday afternoon at my studio in Loveland, Co, when I saw John Steed’s truck. I have known John almost thirty years now, and was with him when he took in his first shepherd from the pound twenty years ago. So, when he told me that a dog needed to be rescued on Bierstadt, and he gave me that look, I knew it had to happen now. I spent the rest of that night thinking of her, and even though had never seen a picture of her, I still managed to talk to her (through me, really), to tell her to hang on, just one more day. I know myself in at least one way. In looking for her, I would never give up. We would find her, dead or alive, no matter what.
Two-thirty the next morning John picked me up, and we shot down to Denver in the pre-dawn darkness, heading west towards Grand Junction, leaving the lights of the high plains behind. We passed through a sleeping Georgetown, and started up the winding road up to Guanella Pass. We arrived, and opened the doors. It was cold. Too cold for an August morning, even at 11+thousand ft. John looked at his shorts in dismay.
We had no idea how many people were going to meet us up there, if any, besides Scott Washburn. We were first greeted by Christoph, then Scott showed up, then Chris. We had never met each other, and didn’t really even get to see each other for the first few hours. Ralph showed just before five, and we all went mechanically into our preparations. Like most of us, I’d been in the alpine a good deal, and knew that a light and fast operation needed more than a light pack, and few clothes. You need trust in your best self which keeps closest to your heart the knowledge that anything is possible; feats of endurance, the strength to carry the dead body of a beloved dog, the spirit that doesn’t break. That would ward off the demons in this case; the storm that would give you frostbite, the lightning that would give your corpse a permanent Don King look, the fall that would break your leg twenty miles from nowhere.
We got ready, and set off. A bad sign; the bridges that crossed the marshes were frosted over. It had been a cold night, and she had been up there in the darkness, again. Even though I knew that she had to be up there, I still could not believe it. We hiked straight in, for nearly half a mile before we started to climb. Steep switchbacks, getting us up on the gentle east ridge. The whole hike had been above timberline, and we were easily dwarfed by the huge open spaces. The trail got steadily more rocky and difficult as dawn broke. No sun. Also a bad sign. The wind was from the South, so that when we crested the east ridge, it gave us the most brisk welcome to the morning. The only sound was the wind and the barking squeaks of the pikas. We summited, stumbling (that’s me) across the loose pile of the summit mound, moving down to where Scott, Ralph and Christoph had stopped, looking down the West Face. That was also the face we, if we found her, would have to carry her back up… I had heard that the back face was steep, but I also knew people sometimes lose perspective when they are up there and strung out with alpine hysteria. They did not exaggerate.
So, we re-grouped, packed our mouths, was visited by the White Sentinel of the mountain goat, who was not in the least afraid of us. I asked Scott again where she was, and I was ‘slightly dismayed’ by the fact that she was, theoretically, at the virtual base of the slope. I followed Scott’s finger, pointing down from the main gendarme of Sawtooth Ridge. A literal sea of granite boulders. We started down the slope, splitting lines so that we didn’t kill each other with rockfall, picking our way down the loose talus. I just learned that the word ‘talus’, referring to the scree of broken granite, comes from the Latin term for ‘ankle’. Apt reference, because that’s usually the first thing that gets ‘dinged’.
Cloud-cover complete now. No chance for sun when the pattern sets in here. The amphitheater grew around us, making our sporadic calls for her; a whistle, a clicking horse-call, a voice, echo around us in the silence. Ralph branched off to the left of me, and he made kissing noises to the abyss. Since she (Lucky Missy) hadn’t even made a sound, not moved a muscle as Scott and Amanda had passed within a few feet of her the day before, the thought that we would have to search all this space, her responding to nothing, was difficult. But, still we called out to her, privately and to the mountain. I spoke before of my disbelief in spotting her, right away. It was so strange because it felt so dreamy, like a vision that you can’t quite believe, but the grounded consciousness felt like this was the only option, or more accurately, that she was meant to be found. She stood out, to me, like a locus of contentment, ears angled off from her sweet head, in the middle of what would have otherwise made for a million headstones.
I called out that I’d found her, not recognizing my voice, and everyone shouted in disbelief. I stumbled forward on the treacherous terrain, still about a football field away from her. She growled as I approached her, and then we waited for John, who was known for his ability to comfort dogs in distress. He crouched down and put out his hand, and she touched it with her cracked nose. She was almost immediately our buddy, and before long I had my face right next to her, only in danger of getting only the best kind of licking. We assessed her wounds, tried to get her to walk. There’s a picture that shows my expression after watching her try. Of course her expression was happy. I suggested we get her to a flatter plain, because she was lying on a perch singularly uncomfortable for anyone with nerve-endings. She did not move more that five feet from where Scott and Amanda left her.
We gently eased her forward onto a hammock John had brought, thought about what it would be like to carry her that way, and quickly opted for the backpack choice. Now, how to get her in….
Ten hands: four sliding the opened bag behind her, six hands petting her, rubbing her chest. A back foot, then another went in. Her rump. Then, we all picked her up and in she slid. No fight from her. We tucked her front paws in, and drew up the drawstring around her neck. I held her from behind as we comforted her and gave her snacks. The first droplets fell. We did not have much time. So, who was to go first? Ralph volunteered, and he groaned as he stood up. We underestimated her weight by twenty pounds. He took a few shaky steps. One, two, three. Pause, get balance. Another, another. So slow. I looked up the slope. Forty to forty-five degrees for a thousand vertical feet. The first snowflakes landed around us. It was going to be a long walk…
It was snowing hard now, the rocks gradually losing dry-spots. She was in the pack. We were not even a hundred feet higher, and had already gone through two carriers. We had only one option for our retreat; to go back up Bierstadt. It was eight miles of this terrain to go down to the south, passed Abyss Lake, around Bierstadt and then to the pass. No way. the rest of the directions were impossible. Up, west, is the only way out.
As I mentioned before, Ralph went first, then Scott. Those of us who were not presently carrying her stabilized her as she bobbed and weaved with every off-balance step. That’s one thing about not having done this with each other before, and, for most of us, this being our first rescue of any kind. We had to make up what to do, had none of the “proper” gear, and chose our roles as we became aware of what needed to be done. I am, for better or worse, exceedingly sensitive to gesture and sound and texture, so I assigned myself the role of standing behind, taking a few pounds off here and there and in touchy spots, and watching closely the feet of the main carrier, looking for the foot placement and body position which would lead to a fall. Most of us had not been rock climbers, who place utter and total attention to using every angle or tiny incut in rock to find purchase, so there were many a sketchy moment.
Lucky for Lucky, and Lucky for us, we had long forgotten anything related to who we were in our previous lives. We were nothing but action moved by tenderness. The Now was here. She alone, and our task, sat in our manifold awareness. I have not spoken of this strange state before, as I would in a longer context, but suffice to say we were firmly and fixedly enchanted by her; grateful puppets bearing her divine patience. I think that’s where it came to me that we were ‘brothers’ to her.
So, on and on we went, a step at a time. The rock grew slippery and dark. Watch for lichen patches; they get slick first. Here’s a foothold. A lurch leans over a fall, but is stopped. Someone barks out that that rock is loose. A lot of panting. It was hard to keep switching carriers out, not only because it was taking up our time as the storm grew, but because every time the exhausted carrier would go to sit down, there was always a heightened danger of a fall. That is, until Chase got his turn. Surefooted, strong as a mountain goat, and with a few human rescues to his credit, Chase gave a new confidence to our progress, and made fantastic time against the storm.
And this is how it went; between the formidable and prohibitive landscape that offered nothing but toil and struggle, and checking on her, which softened and lightened the load. We made jokes, still in the afterglow of finding her alive. Everyone spent at least every other minute petting her, talking to her, giving her a bit of something. She rode without struggle, even above a place that would make her whistle gently in nervousness, and would frequently bend her neck backwards so she could kiss whomever was around her, especially during the bad spots.
When we were halfway up, Chase had to sit down. The rest of us, at least to my understanding, seemed to be saving their strength for the summit, for the wind that was blasting the snow and clouds against the west ridge, the ridge where we were to make our final descent. Over Sawtooth, we watched the clouds roll into the back cirque. On again, Chase stood up. Minutes later we came to a headwall of sorts; sketchy movements through the steepest part of the face. A crux poised above a bad fall. It was the only option. To the right of us was too steep, and to the left of us was too muddy and loose. Straight up was the only option. Chris had taken a few photos where we were all in more or less single-file in this crux. We paused as Chase picked his line. I watched Chase raise his old tennis-shoed foot (real climbers rarely wear appropriate footwear on a ‘hike’) up to a solid foothold, a dangerous high-step which, when pressed against, would result in a dangerously backwards flop of the pack. At that point I thought we might be in trouble, but three or four hands reached out and we stabilized him as he stood into a stance. I repeated his movement, looked at the ground far below between my legs, almost slipped, but instead dug in and leaned forward, standing up in the tight space behind Chase. A few more of those tough, thoughtful movements, and we were above the main crux.
An hour later we were close to the summit, and we could feel the first taste of the wet wind. It was still snowing when we reached the top, the temperature instantly dropping twenty degrees with the wind. I realized that most of us had no covering for our faces. Anything that was exposed was wet, and became burning cold. Chase had to stop at the top. He set Lucky Missy down, but the urgency to get off the summit was strong. Alex took a short but brutal turn across the summit, but his hands had gone numb because of her great weight on the shoulder straps, and relinquished her to Scott, who pushed, with the rest of us, into the thirty mile per hour frozen wind, off the west edge of the summit. The storm almost seemed like it wanted us to stay, to keep her here. As we tripped and slid off the summit mound, (the other few climbers scattering), we could see the parking lot in the distance through the clouds that enveloped us, three miles away, and three thousand feet down. It wasn’t over yet….
The clouds, shot through with turbulence, showed us what had become home to all of us for the day; the flat plane of asphalt that defined the parameters of the parking lot. Any of you who have been up and down in the alpine since the wee hours knows how difficult the last miles can be. A good friend of mine once handed his pack off to a willing carrier in order to run the last few miles of the dirt road descending the east flank of the Crestone Needle, because to take one more walking step in the slog out would have been unendurable.
Lucky Missy, as we pushed against the dregs of the wind, was also becoming restless. Everyone was soaked to the bone, including her in her now sloppy pack. After the knee-breaking steeps off the summit mound, the terrain leveled and became less rocky, and green patches began to gently support the steps of those who still walked astride the main carrier, helping him by stabilizing her. Every step, down now, was actually more jarring and disruptive than the delicate steps up the other side. She started to flop hard to one side, and a few times she struggled strongly, so we brought her paws out of the pack. This, in a nice way, was how we all got to hold hands with her for the last mile that we carried her. With every step she pressed into whomever was near, folding her paws at the wrist over our forearms. It was a sweet sight, but very awkward for both carriers. Jokes were tossed around now as the storm abated, or rather, as we slipped underneath it. Green, lush alpine grass now surrounded us, and the rolling hills that had been a dark treadmill at ten to twenty degrees on the way up, became emblems, at least for me, of endless bounty on the way down. I began to notice where we had been, how far away it was, and just how much of a difference fifteen hundred feet of altitude can make. We were still at 12500 ft , but it felt like the beach to us.
Our role as her carrier, her protector, was dispatched at once with a lurch from her, which told me she needed to get out. I guided Alex to a rock, he sat down, slipped out of the shoulder-straps and turned around. She put her paws down, and stepped gingerly out of the pack. Now, I may have a touch of Doubting Thomas in me, so I was happy to have been shown what we now saw. What in a dog three hours ago showed itself as a crippled resignation, now came forward with strong steps and a full-body shake. Something, I admitted to myself, in her had healed. She was still wobbly in her hips and ginger with her feet, but there was something else there. I would love to think that it was we who gave her not only more time on this planet, but what could be called her life, back to her. That could have been the true gift, the divine transfer.. We all stood around while John set down a can of cat food in a Tupperware. It vanished in under three seconds. He gave her a diced chicken breast. Same results. I’d never seen a dog eat so fast in my life. Then, she checked each one of us, and limped strongly down the trail, turning to us as if to say “What’s keeping you guys? Let’s go already.”
So, for a long mile and a half, Lucky Missy trotted carefully and joyfully down the trail, Scott holding the leash, her eight companions, her eight brothers walking her as though it were any other walk. It would be forever before she was taken to the vet, to the shelter, and then to her new home. Then, she was just a happy dog, and we, happy beings in her wake. She romped in the stream of the tree-less meadow. We took a picture in the parking lot, one of the Search and Rescue people holding the camera. They had just shown up. We smiled for the photo, me most of all. I would like to think we saved her, but I knew that she, in her smiling way, had saved us as well, at least from going through another day without helping a creature in need, or just another day we treat the eternal spirits in the bodies of humans, animals and plants like ordinary passers-by. And to her I say thank you, Missy. Thank you for more than you’ll ever care to know.