Skis, Snowmobiles, and A Dog Named Thor

Originally written for my column Tales From The Trail, published in The Estes Park News in 2005.

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Barb & Joe crawled gratefully into their flimsy tent brushing snow from their cross-country ski boots at the entry. It was 9:30 p.m., they had covered about 8 miles that afternoon and were exhausted.

The couple had left the parking lot at Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat Springs that afternoon around 12:20 p.m., along with their leader Sam, and his 150 lb Newfoundland dog Thor. The plan was to ski the fifteen miles up Rabbit Ears Pass to the intersection of Buffalo Pass and then ski back down Buffalo Pass eight more miles to a shuttle vehicle they had dropped off that morning. It was Good Friday 1994, and they planned on being home by Saturday evening in time to spend Easter with family.

All afternoon the sun had shone down on the snow-packed road, and the group had to put climbing skins on their skis in order to make any uphill progress. Snowmobiles had been traveling up and down the road, and the ruts they caused had made it difficult to get up any kind of rhythm or speed and the skiers silently cursed them.

After about seven miles, Barb & Joe stopped to tend to the huge blisters that had developed on Barb’s heels. They were ready to quit, but Sam and Thor had taken off and left them behind, and the couple had to catch up with him first. As they tended Barb’s wounds, two snowmobiles stopped to offer them a ride. The drivers had seen Sam and Thor about a mile ahead, waiting for them at Fish Hook Lake. Barb gratefully climbed onto the back of one sled, and Joe was pulled by the other. He had whooped and hollered as he was pulled over bumps at high speed, landing precariously on one ski on the other side. The high-speed ride had been exhilarating for both of them and the highlight of the day.

Shortly after regrouping, they had set up camp, digging and stomping snow to make a flat area for the tents. Barb was mad at Sam for leaving them behind and would not talk to him. The icicles on the trees were not the only icicles in the camp that night.

The next day they set off around 7:00 a.m., hoping to cover the last leg to Buffalo Pass in good time and were looking forward to the eight miles back downhill.

The same snowmobiles stopped again and explained that they had been watching the tents for a while, making sure that the group was okay and had not frozen to death in the night. When the snowmobile drivers learned the group was planning on going down Buffalo Pass, they told them that no one went that way, and did not recommend it. Barb had heard this several times before, but Sam was the leader and he wanted to go on. So they did.

As the day wore on, Barb’s blisters got worse, and the weather rapidly disintegrated. It began to snow heavily and the wind picked up. Once at Buffalo Pass, the group wasted about two hours trying to find the road. They had expected to be able to see a clear cut through the trees and just follow it. But each time they started down a clearing that appeared to be a road, it would turn out to be a dead end, and they would have to backtrack again. They were getting very frustrated and concerned as time passed. In addition, Thor was having a hard time. The snow was about four feet deep here and had not been packed down. Poor Thor was doing a good imitation of a scuba diver in snow. Eventually, Thor grew so tired that he simply laid down and refused to take another step. It was evident they had no choice but to return the way they had come.

What would have been a twenty-three-mile round trip, had now become thirty miles. The group was exhausted, cold and hungry. They were almost out of drinking water, Sam’s and Thor’s having frozen solid. Tears of exhaustion froze on Barb’s cheeks. As it grew dark again, and they still had about ten miles to go, they knew they would have to face an unplanned night in the cold.

Fortunately, they had all brought enough food for two nights, just in case something went wrong, and were thankful they had carried the extra weight. They cooked noodles and melted snow for drinking water. Fear prevented restful sleep as they remembered hearing that a weather front was expected to move in on Sunday. That night as the snow began to fall heavily, and the wind blew, a deep chill settled in the camper’s bones, as they realized they may not be able to get out the next day before collapsing of exhaustion or suffering hypothermia.

In the morning Barb dressed her dollar size blisters and painfully and stiffly crawled out of the half-buried tent. Dismay filled her soul when she saw the huge snow drifts, they looked like smooth mounds of white icing on a cake. Thick gray clouds lingered low over the mountain and troubled her senses. Barb passed out the three water bottles she had kept in her sleeping bag, and they each took a sip. Faces screwed up at the taste, and they all laughed when they realized they had been too tired the night before to bother washing the pan after cooking. As they made the water, it had taken on the taste of garlic, broccoli and cheese noodles.

Wearily the foursome struggled back down the road they had now spent two days on. The fresh snow was soft and deep and impossible to ski in, and the weather was getting worse by the minute. The snow fell harder and the wind formed snow devils which swirled around them as though dancing a pirouette. Gusty whiteouts stung their faces and blinded them. Progress was slow as they limped or walked on the skis. Each step was painful, and their energy was drained. Once again Sam and Thor had gone ahead on their own.

At around 1:00 p.m., it was beginning to look as though they would have to camp yet another night. They still had a great distance to cover, and the weather was not improving. The couple were exhausted, and their muscles were screaming for a rest, but each time they stopped it became harder to get feeling back into their outer extremities. Barb’s blisters were now causing serious pain, and she could feel ooze seeping from the wounds. So when they heard snowmobiles again, hope rose in her heart and she decided to flag them down for help. Quickly she cut across to the road from the small trail they were on and planted herself firmly in view to ensure the drivers stopped and did not miss them. Five or six sleds came to a halt inches from her.

Joe explained their situation, and the drivers agreed to help. They divided the packs and bodies amongst the engines and turned around. Soon they caught up with Sam. The drivers agreed to give Sam a ride too, however, upon seeing Thor the comment was, “This thing cost me $8,500 ain’t no dog getting on my sled”.

Finally one of the drivers agreed to take Thor. After several tries, he managed to get Thor to sit in front of him on the snowmobile. All went well until they started to hit some big bumps, and Thor’s paw hit the kill switch. The instant the engine stopped, Thor took off and sank into the deep snow with a “whoomf”, and all that could be seen of him was a pair of pointy ears.

Several men wrestled Thor out of the snow, and with some difficulty finally persuaded him back onto the sled. The poor driver was beginning to regret his offer as he wiped the dog slobber from his mask and the control panel of his beautiful new machine. Wiping his hands on his coat, only acquired more slobber rather than disposing of it.

Finally, the ordeal was over. At around 2:30 p.m., Thor was free to bound around in the muddy parking lot at Rabbit Ears Pass, shaking mud and drool over the weary skiers and their rescuers.

Barb tried to offer their rescuers some money, but they refused it, accepting only a length of rope to replace the one they had cut up in order to tie the packs onto the sleds, and a promise that they would never say anything bad about snowmobiles or their drivers again. The promise was made and a rift was closed. The drivers had admired the nerves of the skiers and were amazed by the weight of Barb’s pack, wondering how she had managed to ski with it on. In return, three very grateful skiers (and a dog) had reached out for help and received it without question.

Barb, Joe, and Sam have kept their promise to their rescuers, and never say anything bad about snowmobiles or their owners. All three have serious doubts whether they would have made it back to their vehicle safely without the help they received, despite the extra food and the availability of camping gear. Barb and Joe, who shared this story also recommend, that if someone ever tells you not to go a certain way, find out why.

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By Roxy Whalley ~ Writer, Poet, Blogger, Photographer, Nomad and DeClutterer/Organizer

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4 responses to “Skis, Snowmobiles, and A Dog Named Thor

  1. Y’all were VERY fortunate! I had a Newfoundland and they are about one of the BEST dogs for a outting such as that. My dog was “Little” Jack, he had actually fallen through thin ice on a frozen pond and by the time he got out was starting to freeze solid, which didn’t bother him a bit! Those dogs have waterproof fur, (13 layers) and do NOT shed. They were breed for rescue, in climates that would kill other dogs! You could have snuggled around him and he would have actually probably made you hot. Sidenote: there are videos out how to make pine bough snow shoes that are GREAT for the snow that’s not right for skiing, and ones on winter survival that would’ve helped you IMMENSELY!

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