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Going to great depths to rescue a malamute

Brief by Central Staff

Mountain rescue – March 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

We often read of dogs rescuing people, but sometimes it works the other way — and in this case, the dog was 110 feet underground at the bottom of an old mine shaft above Leadville.

The story started on Jan. 18, when Joseph Thompson, a 26-year-old Leadville resident, went cross-country skiing on Ball Mountain. He had some company: his 4-year-old malamute named Tungka Moo.

Thompson told the Herald Democrat that he was looking for a good route to ski down when he noticed his dog was missing. “I skinned up to where I’d lost him, and I followed his track into some mine debris.”

He called for his dog, but got no response. Then “I looked down and saw a small hole in the snow and thought ‘He couldn’t have fallen in there, it’s too small.'” But he eventually heard a whimper from the hole.

Time to call 911, right? That put him in touch with Lake County Sheriff Ed Holte, who called search-and-rescue, then called back. “He told me I was on my own,” Thompson said.

Thompson found his roommate, Derrick Lenahan, and returned to the mine site with some climbing ropes. But by then it was late in the day, and hypothermia looked probable. They called it a day.

Back in town, he gathered materials and formed a plan: stretch a heavy-duty ladder across the shaft collar, then drop two ropes from the rungs for rappelling and dog-hoisting.

This did not meet with universal approval. Don Seppi, a local adviser, told Thompson it was “sheer lunacy.” But with helpers standing by, Thompson descended the shaft the next morning. At the bottom, he found Tungka Moo and fit him into a mushing harness and attached it to the second rope. He returned to the surface, and three of them pulled the dog up — and the dog, although thirsty, was otherwise in fine condition.

Seppi cautioned that the outcome could have been a lot worse. “Skiing off established trails in the mining district is very risky,” since there are hundreds of old shafts. “We had no idea that shaft was there.”

(Note: for all those who love to hike and ski cross-country, please remember that wide open shafts to the infernal regions are often invisible in winter. And we’d also like to note that Reid Armstrong’s much longer story about this in the Jan. 24 edition of the Herald-Democrat was a fine piece of work, so if you can find it, read it.)