In this photo released by Natasha Baydakova on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2011 showing a Welsh corgi dog named Ole that showed up at a Cooke City motel four days after the dog and its owner were swept up in an avalanche. The dog’s owner died. The dog returned to this motel where they had been staying before going backcountry skiing. (AP Photo/Natasha Baydakova)
By BRETT FRENCH Billings Gazette | Posted: Friday, January 6, 2012 6:00 am
BILLINGS - Assumed to have died in an avalanche that killed one of his owners on Saturday, an exhausted and hungry Welsh corgi lay down Wednesday by the door of the Cooke City motel room that the family had occupied four days earlier.
"The family is super excited," said Mark Staples of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, which investigated the incident. "It's one bright spot for them."
Robert Weinstein, owner of the Alpine Motel at Cooke City, spotted the dog around noon Wednesday.
"I just saw it outside sitting by the room, which is pretty amazing," he said.
He fed it and began calling around to make sure that the dog was the one he thought it was.
"I wasn't 100 percent sure because I'd only seen it once or twice," he said.
The dog, named Ole, was with Dave Gaillard, 44, of Bozeman, who was buried by an avalanche while skiing with his wife, Kerry, on Saturday. They were skiing along Hayden Creek, southeast of town, at an elevation of about 9,200 feet and just below Index Peak.
When the avalanche broke high atop the mountain, most of the slide was funneled into the narrow creek drainage where Gaillard was skiing, filling it 12 to 14 feet deep with tightly packed snow. Kerry Gaillard was on the edge of the avalanche, hanging onto a tree to avoid being swept away.
She told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that her husband's last thoughts were for her safety.
"His last words to me were, ‘Retreat to the trees.' I think he saw what was coming from above, that I did not see. That reflects Dave's amazing quality - thinking of others," she said.
Search and rescue personnel saw no sign of Ole at the site, and it was thought he had been buried in the slide. But if Ole was buried, he managed to dig his way out and then walk four miles on stubby legs back to Cooke City in temperatures that dipped into the teens at night.
Cooke City businessman Bill Whittle, who volunteered to drive the dog back to his family on Wednesday, said Ole appeared to be in good condition despite his ordeal.
"It's a miracle," Whittle said.
When he first approached, Whittle said, Ole was nervous and scared. But when he called the dog's name, Ole came right over.
"He was real hungry and thirsty," Whittle said. "We fed him twice."
Whittle is a member of the search and rescue crew that helped retrieve Gaillard's body. He called the area a "bad spot" in difficult terrain.
Ole's survival and return are all the more amazing because Corgis are not large dogs. They were bred short to avoid being kicked as they herded livestock. On average, males stand a foot and a half tall and weigh about 27 pounds.
"How in the world he made it, I don't know," said Kay Whittle, Bill's wife. "If he could just talk - who knows what he did from the day of the avalanche until today?"
Sidney resident Jody Ray Verhasselt, 46, also died Saturday in an avalanche in the Cooke City area. Verhasselt was snowmobiling on a northeast-facing slope in Fisher Creek north of Cooke.
Kay Whittle said the two New Year's Eve avalanche deaths took a toll on the small mountain community. Many residents respond in emergencies such as avalanches.
"It's been real rough," she said.
"We needed this," Bill Whittle said of Ole's survival. "It kind of cheered everyone up."