This episode started one morning in late April when an avid Telemark skier, Jason Koster, had climbed up Green Butte Ridge and then dropped down into Powder Bowl at 9,280 feet, high on the south flank of 14,162-foot Mount Shasta. Koster's partner was his beloved pal, P.J., a wonderful Heinz-57 mutt.
On the way skiing down Powder Bowl, Koster had cut four or five turns when he triggered the avalanche from loose material cracking free atop hard- pack. After being cartwheeled by an initial blast of snow, Koster was able to balance on his skis and escape to the side. But when he looked back, his dog was gone.
Using his cell phone, Koster contacted the Avalanche Center. Rescue specialists Hill, Dan Towner and Steve Webber responded, along with their two dogs, Kenai, an Australian shepherd, and Cider, a golden retriever. Towner was able to retrieve one of P.J.'s sleeping blankets from home, which the rescue dogs used to get a scent.
It took two hours for the rescue team to climb to the avalanche zone, their steps post-holing deep into the loose snow.
"We all recognized there was another snow area that had not released with the avalanche," Hill said. "Heck yes, I was worried."
Koster pointed where his dog had disappeared, and eventually, the rescue team reached the area.
Just 10 minutes into the search, Cider, the golden retriever, started digging in the snow. Everybody rushed to the spot. Hill then poked through the snow with a 10-foot metal tube called an Avalanche Probe, hoping to sense resistance.
"About 3 feet down, I probed and felt this spongy, soft resistance," Hill said. "I was thinking, 'That's P.J.' And then, 'How could the dog still possibly be alive?' "
Suddenly, a patch of black and brown hair was uncovered. It was a 4-inch section of one of the dog's legs. A moment later, the leg moved. Tears started flowing -- a miracle seemed at hand. Could P.J. still be alive?
In the next five minutes, the rescue party uncovered the rest of the dog, and Koster himself, digging with his hands, uncovered P.J.'s head. The dog was hypothermic and shaking -- but alive.
P.J. was wrapped in her blanket, and Webber, with the dog in his arms, snowboarded 4 miles, 2,000 feet vertical, to reach a vehicle -- and the dog was rushed to an animal hospital for treatment.
Today, the dog is fully recovered, again out chasing her favorite ball, ready for more adventures.
"Most anything can't live outside of 15 minutes of being buried," Hill said. "The likelihood of anything surviving 2 1/2 (hours) is close to nil."
Yet it happened.
For a safe adventure in the snow-country wilderness, go to http://www.shastaavalanche.org
/ -- a must-see before climbing.