Bobby White and Josh Trujillo were backcountry skiing the popular Berthoud Pass area in Colorado when they saw a cloud of snow erupt — a sign of an avalanche occurring — at least a thousand feet away.
While White rushed to put his splitboard back together, Trujillo was able to immediately ski over to the avalanche debris where he encountered another group, the two students at Colorado School of Mines told ABC News in a phone interview.
Trujillo and White heard every person was accounted for, but a dog had been caught and buried in a debris field Trujillo described as 300 yards long and 50 yards wide.
According to a preliminary report of the Dec. 26 events written by Scott Shepherd and sent to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Shepherd’s group and his dog had accidentally veered off-course and stopped just above steeper terrain susceptible to avalanches. The dog, a 2-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever named Apollo, ran away from the owner above a steep, rocky slope, triggered the avalanche and was swept over the cliff and through several trees before disappearing into the sea of snow.
“He started moving, and he just looked confused like, ‘Why am I sliding down the hill?’ And then he was just gone,” Shepherd told ABC News.
Shepherd skied to the edge of the ridge Apollo was carried over but couldn’t see where he went. He climbed down the chute and into the path of the slide to begin the search, which is when he saw Trujillo.
Told by the owner it was only the dog caught in the slide, Trujillo and White took out their avalanche beacons anyway and scanned the area in case an unseen skier had been caught.
Once they realized there were no buried humans, their search for the dog began. Using probe poles, which are typically around 8-feet-long, they poked through the snow hoping to strike the buried dog.
“Needle in a haystack,” White is heard exclaiming in his helmet video recording the frantic search, which was filmed with a GoPro he said he bought the day before.
“Where did you see him last?” White yelled to Shepherd, who was searching higher up in the field.
“Way at the top,” he responded.
Trujillo, White and Shepherd continued the searched for 20 minutes. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, 93% of human avalanche victims can be recovered alive if they are dug out within 15 minutes.
“But then the numbers drop catastrophically,” its website says, going down to only 20-30% after 45 minutes.
Trujillo and White had decided that morning to avoid avalanche-prone slopes due to the “high” danger rating of the snowpack that day determined by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. But the search placed them right below a threatening ridge.
“I think we need to get out of here,” White tells Trujillo in the helmet video. “That dog is dead. This is why I don’t like dogs in avalanche terrain to begin with. We’re all like probing underneath the worst avalanche terrain in Berthoud right now.”
But just two minutes later, as Trujillo is retrieving his ski poles to pack up, he spots a nose sticking out of the snow and yells out.
“I found him! I found him, I found him, I found him!” he shouts. “I can see him. He’s still alive.”
Trujillo yells up to Shepherd, and the two begin vigorously digging. A third passerby appears, having heard the commotion, and starts digging, too.
“We’re coming, buddy,” White says to Apollo between exhausted breaths.
After about a minute of digging, the dog wiggles free and leaps out of the snow with no signs of trauma other than a limp.
“You OK, buddy? A little scared?” White says to the dog as it runs off under his own power towards Shepherd, who is heard exclaiming off-camera.
“There’s no way I would have found him in time to get him out there because I was still way up the slope, making my way around,” Shepherd told ABC News. “I think they saved his life, and I can never be grateful enough for that.”
Once in his car in the parking lot, Shepherd said he called his wife and told her what happened, who was “understandably upset, but relieved.”
After a couple days of rest and calls with a veterinarian, Apollo is back to normal with no signs of injury.
“A lot of tears and hugs, and he got a lot of love for the next couple of days,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd took responsibility for the incident, saying he regrets getting off-course and allowing his dog near avalanche-prone slopes.
“I feel like I got kind of got away with something that has such a huge lesson without huge consequences,” Shepherd said. “Like, he could have been lost forever. I thought the best case was that he was seriously injured, but nothing happened at all. It just still blows my mind.”
“Everybody knows that [backcountry skiing] is dangerous and everybody takes precautions. But just realizing how one stupid little mistake could have drastic consequences, it kind of drives it home.” he continued. “It doesn’t take much to steer off the course from safety to disaster.”
The 42-year-old father of three says he wants to go skiing in the backcountry with Apollo again but must discuss it with his wife first.
“I think there’s still another family conversation or two to be had about that,” he said.
Trujillo told ABC News he and White plan to continue to educate themselves on avalanche safety. They plan to “avoid dangerous spots on crowded days because we were very smart about our day and still got put in danger due to circumstances beyond our control.”
“Also, no dogs in the backcountry,” Trujillo said.
In a phone interview with ABC News, White and Trujillo wished to thank the anonymous Good Samaritan who helped them dig Apollo out.