Locals rescue stranded cow from snow on Schuylkill Ridge
Written by Seth Mensing   
Wednesday, 16 January 2013

“We owed it to the animals to not just say ‘screw it’”

Beyond the point along Schuylkill Ridge where the skin track usually stops, longtime local Billy Laird and three friends were looking for airy, virgin, backcountry powder when they arrived at a tough decision.


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“We popped out on a bump on the ridge and look over and there’s two cows sitting there next to two brown spots in the snow,” Laird recalls. The animals had packed down an area in the snow to stand on, and made a few meandering trails that didn’t go anywhere. Otherwise their fate was sealed.
“We were just thinking, ‘That sucks, but what can we do?” Laird says. A powder run later, he was still shaken by the sight of the cows that were seemingly lost hopelessly in the snow, and he called his wife. She called some friends to see if she could locate the rancher who grazes cattle in that area, and a short time later Laird’s phone rang.
“I skied the run and got down to the lap track and my phone rang with a 641 number,” Laird says. “It was Curtis Allen.” Allen, a Gunnison Valley rancher, told Laird that a few cows, all young, had been lost the previous fall and he was relieved to hear they’d been found.
 Laird, curious about how Allen would want to proceed, was happy to hear the rancher say he’d try whatever he could to get the cows down to the valley floor safely.
“He was really positive and I liked his vibe. He said he was a steward of the animals and he didn’t just want them to die. He wanted to know, ‘Can I get a horse up there? Can we get there on snowshoes?’ But he didn’t really know Schuylkill Ridge in the wintertime with powder,” Laird says. “It’s a gnarly skinner for experienced backcountry skiers. It’s called Heart Attack Ridge for a reason.”
The ridge sits 2,500 vertical feet above the valley floor and the pitch in between is 40 degrees and steeper. But for the skiers on the rescue it’s a daytrip, so Laird, along with Josh Shifferly, Pat O’Neill and Jon Brown, volunteered their time and expertise in the backcountry to help however they could.
“Curtis gave us some pointers about how to wrangle these cows, so we committed to go for it and skinned up,” he says. “We just forgot about powder skiing for the rest of the day and committed to get these cows.”
When they got there, they saw that the two brown spots were cows almost completely buried in the snow. Naturally, they assumed the two in the snow were already dead. Then one of the buried cows twitched an ear.
O’Neill started digging the cow out with his shovel while Laird, Shifferly and Brown began trying to wrangle the other two, who were intent on staying where the snow was packed down. And despite O’Neill’s effort to free the third, Laird said it moved a little, “but was pretty much a lost cause.”
“The two that were alive weren’t into doing anything but staying there,” Laird said. “We tried for probably an hour to get them going toward the skin track, but as soon as they’d go into the deep powder they’d kind of freak out. So we aborted, did a couple more laps and then got down.”
That evening Laird called Allen to tell him about the thwarted effort, still intent on trying to do something for the stranded cows, even if it meant euthanasia, to save them the suffering of freezing to death. “We felt like we owed it to the animals to not just be like ‘screw it’. We were concerned and felt bad,” Laird says, “so we kind of started rounding up the troops.”
With the word out on Facebook and a few phone calls, a crew started to take shape for a renewed rescue effort to start at 7 Monday morning. O’Neill made a few calls and enlisted Jimmy Faust and John Barney, who is a backcountry skier and a big game hunter, Laird said, capable of butchering the animal in the field if it became necessary.
“[Barney] was a great resource,” Laird says. “But we were still thinking it would be amazing if we could save them.”
The next morning, with temperatures dipping to 20 below zero, the crew of would be rescuers—Laird, Jimmy Faust, Geo Bullock, Paul Merck, Jon Brown, John Barney, and Josh Shifferly, along with Eric “Turbo” Ervin on his souped-up sled and ranchers Curtis and Craig Allen—set out to get the cows. The plan would develop as they went.
The seven skiers headed up Schuylkill Ridge with Turbo and the Allens going up Slate River Road toward Pittsburg on snowmobile.
“I got up as far as I could with the sled and turned around. The avy danger was pretty critical, so I just started making runs back and forth to the creek and then packed out a trail from the river to the road,” Turbo says. Then he tried to make sure the Allens were in the right spot.
“Turbo busted out a nice track right to the base of the run. Curtis snowshoed partway up, but stayed low and out of the run in the trees but close enough that he could help when we got them down,” Laird says. “Curtis gave us a couple pointers on how to wrangle and hog-tie cows.”
After finding the two living cows still stranded in their patch of packed snow, the group got to work.
“We’re all hardcore backcountry skiers and we’ve all been around a while, so we pinned the cows down and put stuff sacks, like for sleeping bags, over their heads and cut slits in them to breathe through to try to keep them calm … and hog-tied them down,” Laird says. Then they wrapped each cow in a tarp and cinched their packages down with ratchet straps.
There hadn’t been a script guiding the operation up to that point and as the group started to descend toward the valley floor the questions grew ominous. Laird was asking himself, “With major avy danger, how would this be if we all get wiped out trying to save two cows?” Should they be on skis, skis with skins, skis without skins? How do you get two incapacitated cows down 2,500 vertical feet in deep snow?
The skiers had wives and children at home, waiting, while they started down the steep and gnarled side of Schuylkill Ridge. “Instead of being pigs of the planet, killing, slaughtering, doing whatever we want to, we felt a little obligation to help these guys out,” Laird says.
The cows started to slide. The two groups began their descent with one skier on the downhill side of the cow, followed by two guys holding the cow with ropes, making sure it didn’t pick up too much speed. Merck watched the slope for signs of instability. Progress was slow while they periodically stopped to check to see that the cows were still breathing. Everything was good.
“Then a technique unfolded halfway down,” Laird says. Someone took the lead rope on a cow and pointed his skis down the mountain, taking off with the cow in tow. Laird took the reins of the second cow and followed suit.
“There were two good steep pitches where we had to get the cows right up to the spot to send it and let them go,” Laird says. “It was open and there were no trees or anything for them to hit, but it was like letting your kid go down the hill. Then the slope would flatten out and we could ski up to them. They were alive and breathing while we’re maneuvering them down and not really freaking out at all. I was kind of surprised.”
After more than two hours of trying to maneuver the cows down the slope, they made it to the valley floor where they had to haul the cows, weighing about 300 and 400 pounds, respectively, to the snowmobile track where Turbo was waiting.
“Geo and Jimmy Faust came down with the first calf, which was the female that I called Willameena, I guess because she had the will to survive,” Turbo says. Then the other group made it with the young bull. Turbo and Craig Allen rewrapped the cow in its tarpaulin burrito, but it was weak and barely breathing, Turbo recalls.
Turbo and Craig took the ride to the trailhead slowly, stopping when they could to make sure the cow was breathing and clear the snow away from its muzzle. But by the time they arrived at the trailer, the young bull had stopped breathing.
The second cow fared better, eventually standing and after Turbo put hay next to her nose, she started to eat in the Allen’s trailer.
As of Wednesday, January 16, the young cow was recovering at the Allen’s ranch in Gunnison, eating hay and drinking warm water next to a heat lamp.
“The other one, Curtis asked if we wanted it,” Laird says. So he, Barney and Faust butchered the dead cow, taking enough meat to split between everyone who helped in the rescue.
“I would say it was pretty successful. It took all day and ten of us and everyone of us had to commit to make it work,” Laird says. “I was pretty impressed that so many people—backcountry skiers, ranchers and Turbo on his sled—stepped up. And there was a lot of fresh powder we passed by on the way out there, but everybody was all about helping out.”
Turbo agreed, saying he took time away for the cows because of “My love for animals,” he says. “Being in this community, you do that kind of stuff without question. Somebody gets stuck out in the high country and if you get called to lend a helping hand you do it. No questions asked. I didn’t know Billy Laird before this, never met Curtis Allen, but it doesn’t matter. They had some cows out there that needed help.”