Compassion, persistence lead to improbable rescue of one tough pooch on Colorado mountain

When Chloe, a 14-year-old chocolate lab-pit bull mix, didn’t come bounding home for dinner one evening in August, owners Larry Osborne and Anouk Patel launched a search operation befitting a cherished family member around their home near tree line in the high-altitude town of Alma.

From mid-August, they took to social media, plastered posters throughout the area, spread the word at the South Park Saloon — the bar and restaurant they own — and took shifts scouring the area around nearby Mount Bross, the 14,172-foot peak that rises above the town, for the sweet, 90-pound dog they had raised since before they were married.

“She was like our first baby, to be honest with you,” says Osborne, 34.

But when summer began to give way to early snow, hail, cold rain and hints of winter winds, they faced what seemed a heartbreaking reality. They took down the flyers. They told friends that if, perchance, they came across Chloe’s remains, “leave her where she lies” and just return her collar.

They had a hard conversation, and a harder cry, as they told their 7-year-old son, Shail,  that Chloe was gone forever. They hiked out to one of her favorite spots, stacked a pile of rocks in memorial and said goodbye.

“I accepted what I thought was fate,” Osborne says, “and thought no way could anything survive that — malnourished, cold, lost.”

But they would soon learn, to their amazement, that they had underestimated Chloe. And in the process, they would be reminded of the irrepressibly compassionate side of human nature.

* * *

Trinity Smith, 28, calls herself a “total animal person.” She has a dog, Gypsy, and two cats — all of which she rescued from dire circumstances. One of the cats had to be extricated from a chimney, the other from a hoarder who had kept five of them locked in a raccoon trap. Gypsy had been left to starve in the Florida swamp — all skin and bones, sores and burn marks — when Smith found her.

All of them came with her to Colorado three years ago from Panama City Beach, Fla., along with her longtime boyfriend, Sean Nichols, also 28. In Breckenridge, they cobbled together several jobs to make ends meet and last year moved into a house in Alma, about 17 miles down the road.

An avid hiker, Smith recently decided to test herself on some of the state’s fourteeners. When she summited Quandary Peak in July, she was addicted. So far, Smith has climbed seven, including the popular four-pack of Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross in what some call the Decalibron Loop.

She joined in discussions on the website and on Sept. 20 found her interest immediately piqued by a posting at the top of the list.

“Someone had finished Decalibron and heard a dog barking,” she recalls.

Responses to the posting were mixed — some lamenting the possibility that a dog might be stranded or stuck, others insisting that the bark must have come from a coyote. Smith had no idea, but the possibility simply would not let go of her: What if it’s actually a dog?

The next day, after work at her job with a property management company, she hiked to the spot where the online poster had heard the bark. At first, when her calls met only silence, she figured maybe the coyote theory was right. She started down the mountain. And that’s when she heard the barking.

Smith scrambled up a scree field as far as she could, but darkness was falling and she quickly realized that if she didn’t head back, she might require a rescue of her own. When she reached her car, she plugged in her dying cellphone and went online to report that she had confirmed the barking, but it emanated from some tricky terrain and she’d need help.

Within minutes, a man from Breckenridge showed up with ropes. They took another stab at a search, but by then it was pitch black and they decided it would be too dangerous to continue.

Smith couldn’t sleep that night for worry. Although she and Nichols had planned a weekend trip to Telluride, they put that on hold and the next morning headed up Mount Bross. For more than three hours, they heard little more than their own voices.

Sensing futility, Smith sat down and cried.

“I didn’t know if I was crazy or, if I gave up, we would be leaving a dog up there,” she says. “I was crying in hopes the dog would let out one more bark.”

They had started slowly back down the mountain when it happened. From somewhere in one of the chutes carved into the rock, they heard the sound they had been hoping for. Both of them felt a surge of adrenaline.

“It was a desperate bark,” recalls Nichols. “Like she was saving them, like she’s only got a few barks left.”

While Smith waited below, Nichols scrambled up the scree field on the north face of the peak, navigating boulders and searching a succession of chutes for some sign of a dog. Finally, he saw a head pop up above some rock and crawled on his hands and knees farther up the chute.

“When we saw each other, I was like, ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe you’re here,’” Nichols says. “She had the same look on her face.”

He sized up the dog’s predicament: She had somehow gotten stuck on a rock face with no escape short of a substantial drop-off that clearly frightened her. When Nichols reached up to grab the dog, her collar slipped right off.

Then he coaxed her into his arms. As she jumped from her perch and he wrapped his arms around her, his foothold gave way and the two of them slid slowly down the scree and made it safely to the trail.

Smith had brought food and water, which they gave to the dog sparingly. After a 30-minute hike back to their truck, they headed into town and stopped at the grocery store. A woman working there immediately recognized Chloe.

She got on the phone with Osborne and told him somebody had his dog. Within a minute, he arrived from his saloon, expecting to find that one of his other dogs had gotten loose. When he laid eyes on Chloe, he says now, it was as if he were looking at a ghost. He broke down with emotion.

Patel, who was cooking up orders, also rushed outside and left the food on the stove. She, too, broke down.

“We burned some stuff,” Osborne laughs, “so we gave some meals to customers for free.”

As he took Chloe onto his lap, Osborne says, the dog tried to wag her tail. Her nose was white from dehydration, skin was stuck to bone. She licked Osborne’s face once and settled into his arms.

They took Chloe to the vet immediately and found that she had lost 60 to 70 pounds. But amazingly, she was otherwise in good shape. In more than a week since the rescue, Osborne says, she has regained about 20 pounds.

As it turns out, Smith and Nichols live about three houses away from Osborne but because they spend much of their time up the road in Breckenridge, they had no idea the whole town had been searching for Chloe. They got to know lots of their neighbors better that night, when the South Park Saloon was in a celebratory mood.

“Pretty much the whole town showed up,” Smith says. “Everyone was in tears, giving us hugs. No one could believe it. They’re still offering us free dinner or drinks all the time.”

Still, Smith adds, rescuing animals has always been something she “wouldn’t think twice about doing.” Nichols notes that Smith was the “backbone and anchor of this rescue,” and without her heart and persistence, the warm reunion never would have happened.

Osborne couldn’t agree more.

“At that moment in time, she was a stranger to me and that dog,” Osborne says. “Human compassion took over. I’m grateful. But words can’t sum up something like that.”