The day cattle skied Schuykill Ridge
Backcountry skiers make heroic efforts to save bovines stranded at 11,400 feet
Originally published 2013-01-17
It’s part “City Slickers” and part Jon Krakauer book.
In one story, there’s a group of urban dwellers (starring Billy Crystal) who find inspiration and happiness by a calf named Norman that they save while on a trumped up cattle drive. Then there are the real-life stories of extreme outdoor adventure, including one about an ill-fated Mount Everest expedition, that made the author famous.
Except neither Hollywood, Krakauer — or Walt Disney, for that matter — could make up what transpired in the mountains above Crested Butte this past Sunday and Monday.
Imagine the surprise of a group of four avid backcountry skiers when, on Sunday, they crested a knoll to find cattle atop a ridge at about 11,400 feet, stranded amidst a sea of snowy peaks.
One was a heifer, they were later told.
“I guess that’s a younger cow,” said one of the four, Jon Brown of Gunnison, laughing at the group’s lack of agricultural terminology.
Upon inspection, the group — which also included longtime Crested Butte adventurers Billy Laird, Pat O’Neill and Josh Shifferly — discovered two other bovines. One was obviously dead. The other was down, nearly covered in snow, but breathing.
Cattle grazing in the Gunnison Basin high country are typical in the summer months, but most get herded back to their home ranches come fall. Sometimes, however, strays don’t make it. Last year, for example, at least 11 cattle belonging to Bill Trampe went missing and weren’t found until the dead of winter, most of them frozen inside a dilapidated cabin near Conundrum Hot Springs, high in the Elk Mountains between Crested Butte and Aspen.
Back at the high point of what is known locally as Schuykill Ridge, Laird was able to get cell reception. He called his wife, Julie, to see if she could locate the cattle’s owner. The group then skied down their intended run, a steep, avalanche-prone, expert-only, backcountry chute.
By the time they reached the valley bottom, along the Slate River north of Crested Butte, Laird had received a call from lifelong Gunnison Basin rancher Curtis Allen. The cattle were his.
“I said, ‘Do you want us to try to get them down?,’” Laird recalled. “He said, ‘That’d be awesome.’”
So back up the mountainside, all 2,500 vertical feet of it, they went, using a common backcountry technique where “skins” are applied to the bottom of skis to give them traction for climbing uphill.
“We just wanted to save a couple of cows and help a local rancher,” O’Neill explained in an e-mail to the Times.
Except, the skiers couldn’t exactly herd the livestock off the mountain. The cattle had been camped out in a small area along the ridge where the snow had been packed down hard.
“We could push on them and get them moving,” Laird said. “But as soon as they’d get off that tracked out area, they’d sink up to their belly into the snow.”
The mission was aborted after about an hour, but the thought of rescue lingered.
That night, Laird remained in communication with Allen, who reportedly was making plans to head up into the alpine on snowshoes the next day.
“When Curtis said ‘I’m a steward of these animals, I won’t just leave them for dead,’ that’s what I wanted to hear,” Laird explained. “It motivated us.”
So a posse was rounded up, and by 7 a.m. the next morning, with the temperature hovering at its persistently below-zero chill, a posse of seven skiers and one snowmobiler made their way back to the Slate River trailhead. They didn’t exactly have a search and rescue manual for how to evacuate cattle caught in this situation, but they did have some ideas.
They also had nearly 50-pound backpacks filled with ropes, sleds, tarps, straps — plus their own provisions to survive a day out in the backcountry.
The two cattle that were standing on Sunday were still alive. The one that the skiers had unburied the day before was not.
Then the real work began. They decided on a plan to wrap each living animal up in a tarp and try to toboggan it down the mountain.
“We grabbed one, flipped it on its side like Curtis had told us how, hog-tied its legs, bunched it in a tight package in the middle of the tarp and strapped it up,” Laird explained. “We repeated that with the other.”
With some in front, others in back, ropes tied off every which way, the group guided their bovine burritos down the slope, which in some aspects exceeded 45 degrees in steepness.
Allen, his son Craig, and a snowmobiler affectionately known as “Turbo” were waiting on the valley floor.
Then, one by one, they drug each animal behind the snowmobile a few miles out to the trailhead and the Allens’ waiting truck and trailer.
The heifer made it. The yearling bull did not, but instead of being dumped into a bone yard, it was agreed that the skiers — some of whom were hunters and had experience processing animals — would fill their freezers instead.
“She should be producing babies for years,” Laird said of the sole survivor. “And we got every piece of meat off of the other one.”
Laird’s explanation for why the group went to such extraordinary lengths to try to free some stranded cattle was a mix between doing the right thing and rallying for yet another epic backcountry adventure.
“It took every last one of us,” he said, acknowledging the others in the group — Brown, Turbo, Shifferly, John Barney, Jimmy Faust, Geo Bullock and Paul Merck. “We were working hard, sweating, wrangling probably 1,000 pounds of animal, between the two of them, off the mountain where you knew if you left them they were just going to die.”
(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com)