It was a quiet afternoon, the kind of quiet that is only possible in the forest in winter. Red firs were blanketed in snow, the ground was 10 feet deep in snow, the sky was clearing and calm. And David Blais was alone in the snow, he was lost, and he was very scared. A solo snowboard run down the backside of Mammoth Mountain in the Hemlock Ridge area had turned into a fight for his life when a sudden white-out obscured the route, and Blais took a wrong turn.
It had snowed every day of that February of 1998, and a five-hour swim through the three feet to six feet of powder had gotten him perhaps two to three miles -- though where it had gotten him, he did not know. It was winter, night was falling, and the 28-year-old Southern California man was cold, exhausted, and wet to the skin. Hours of frantic yelling, climbing, and searching were wearing on him, and the fact that no one would know he was missing for another week was more killing to hope than his current wet, miserable, frightened, exhausted situation. Though visibility was now good, he had seen nothing for hours but trees and mountains he didn't recognize. To all appearances, he was deep in the wilderness. He wasn't sure he could last through the night, and, worse, he was becoming too tired to care.
"I had pretty much given up," he said. "I was freaking out. I hit one more really flat spot, and it's almost impossible to get through the flat stuff with a board. I didn't think I could go any further. I was thinking, should I or shouldn't I build a snow cave -- then I would think, what does it matter, I'm gonna die anyway, I'm done, this is it.
"Then, all of a sudden, I saw these ears perk up over the snow. I thought it was a wolf, then I saw it was a black lab. I was tripping, I thought it was an angel."
The "angel" turned out to be Chief, a mixed-breed pound mutt, adopted with his litter mate Dakota from the Southern Mono County Animal Shelter by Red's Meadow caretaker and local self-designated hermit Bob Sollima some three years earlier. Sollima has lived alone down in the Red's Meadow cabin for 17 years, spending his winters there with his dogs, his summers working.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (SPCA/LA) traveled to Mammoth Lakes recently to bestow its highest animal honor to a local black lab/shepherd/malamute mix named 'Chief. Chief, purchased from the Mono County Animal Shelter by Mammoth resident Bob Sollima, was honored in a ceremony at the Mammoth Lakes fire station. Pictured are (back row, L-R) Mono County Search and Rescue President Dave Harvey, MCSAR coordinator Boe Turner, Police Chief Mike Donnelly; (front row, L-R) Pedigree Food for Dogs Marketing Director Alice Nathanson, Chief, SPCA/LA President Madeline Bernstein, rescued snowboarder Dave Blais, Dakota (Chief's pound mate), and Bob Sollima.
On Sept. 15, 1999, Chief was awarded the highest honor given to an animal, the Hero Dog Award, by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Los Angeles (SPCA/LA). Chief was the 17th dog in California to receive such an honor, which is given to one dog annually.
The special ceremony was held at the Mammoth Lakes Fire Station, after Sollima was adamant that he would not take his dog to Los Angeles for the ceremony. "I haven't," he said, "even seen 395 in seven years. There is no way I am going to L.A. with my dogs."
Chief, Dakota (the two dogs are inseparable, usually), Blais, Sollima, members of the search and rescue team, along with SPCA members, attended the emotionally-charged ceremony. Blais' testimony kept the audience riveted.
"I came up here on a Greyhound bus a couple days before all this happened," Blais said. "It was slow at work, and I had some time free. I didn't tell anyone where I was going, or when I'd be back really, just checked into a motel for a couple days, and went boarding.
"On the fourth day, Feb. 28, 1998, I got up the Mountain. There were no storms forecast at all. I decided to do the Hemlock Bowl. I got some snacks and headed out. At the top of the lift, I could see the run exactly. By the time I put on my board, the whole mountain was in whiteout -- you couldn't see three feet in front of yourself.
"I guess, looking back, that I ended up going way to the left of the run, but, as I was dropping down, I still thought I was OK. I must have gone right in between the Snow Cat trail signs.
"I kept thinking, though, how did I find so much untouched powder -- this is great!
"When I stopped after a couple thousand feet descent, I thought I was at the bottom of Hemlock Bowl, but there were no lifts around. It was clear now, but all I could see were mountains and trees. 'Man, where am I?' I was wondering. It would have taken me hours to climb back up, and I still thought I could find a lift.
"So I started pulling myself through shoulder-high powder with my board. It was actually easier to climb -- going flat was the worst, because you just had to swim.
"I wasn't finding a lift, after hours of this, and I knew I was really in trouble. I'd been yelling all the time, and I was soaked from sweating. I did have some good Gore-tex clothes on, but I had no food and no water, and it was by now barely light.
"There were high clouds, and I couldn't really see the sun -- there were nothing but big trees, and so much snow. I kept thinking, 'Man, this is white death out here.' When I crossed my own tracks after an hour of effort, I was really getting scared.
"I had never seen the backside of the Mountain in the snow -- I was really lost."
Blais climbed a small hill, reaching the top at dusk. He could see no signs of life from the hill, and, deaf in one ear from a preexisting condition, he could hear very little. He continued yelling, then decided to go down the hill. It was at the bottom of this hill that he was confronted with what was close to the last straw -- a long expense of flat meadow, full of five-foot deep powder. He literally stopped in his tracks, too tired and disheartened to go on.
It was then that he saw Chief's ears, soon to be followed by a wriggling, black lab body.
"We embraced," Blais said. "I thought he was an angel. Then I asked him, 'Where did you come from?' I kept yelling, but no one came. I asked the dog where to go, and he wanted me to go uphill. I said no way -- I was too tired. So after I waited for an hour, I started going down -- I was going, 'Man, I'm gonna die with you' -- I just couldn't figure out why no one was with the dog."
While Blais went through his own private hell, Sollima was wondering where his dog had disappeared to.
Disobedience Saves a Life
"I had used the break in the snow storms to shovel out the cabin," Sollima said. "I heard some noise, and the dogs did, too, but I thought it was coyotes, and I don't want my dogs chasing coyotes in the winter, because then they go out and get stuck in some of those creek ravines, and I have to go and dig them out.
"Chief and Dakota both wanted to go, but I told them to stay. After about an hour, I noticed that Chief had snuck out -- Dakota was more obedient, but she was really wanting to go, too. After Chief didn't come back for a while, I grabbed a shovel and skis, and headed out after his tracks.
"About three-quarters of a mile away, I came to a clearing, and there I saw this guy hanging on to my dog for dear life.
"Now, I always see this stuff -- there are always people going out of bounds back there, and they usually make the same mistake and go down the same ravine [as Blais did]. I've been with search and rescue for a long time. When I hear that someone is missing, I turn on the floodlights, yell and scream, blow a whistle. The dogs also find people. What I didn't realize, till much later, was that this guy didn't have anyone who knew he was missing, so there wouldn't have been any search and rescue. Most people disappear, and, within a few hours, we are out there after them. So his situation would have been pretty grim if Chief hadn't found him, what with night falling and all."
Sollima made some calls to search and rescue, but it was too late to get a helicopter in, and the snow was too deep to get a snowmobile to him (Sollima uses cross-country skies to get to Mammoth in the winter, going over Mammoth Pass for fresh groceries and sundries). Sollima got Blais and the dogs into an old nearby snowshed, and skied back to the cabin, to get him some food, hot cocoa, and dry clothes.
Then he literally pulled Blais (on his snowboard) to his cabin, Blais being too exhausted to swim through the snow.
"I felt pretty stupid," Blais said. "I didn't want the whole search and rescue coming in after me -- I wanted to get out myself. I kept telling them to tell me the way, but I knew that I couldn't get all the way out on my board. By that time, it was totally dark, and search and rescue asked Bob to keep me there that night. We got to Bob's house and he fixed me a steak dinner -- it was incredible -- better than any restaurant I ever ate at."
The next morning, Blais, along with a few members of search and rescue, snowshoed up over Mammoth Pass, down the backside of Dragon's Back, and back to his life.
"I learned a lot from that," he said. "I have snowshoes now that I carry in a day pack, and I take survival stuff. You know, I don't know what to say -- I don't go to church, but I think God was with me the whole way -- there was so much luck with me. After that, I believe in God for sure."
A Sociable Hermit
Sollima, who said that he is a hermit who "is a sociable guy -- you appreciate people more when you don't see them often" -- said that he's had a string of "lab shepherd husky mixes" from the shelter over his years with Red's Meadow. A stone mason by trade, Sollima now works for the resort in the summer, and helps on search and rescues in his area in the winter. He has lived in the Mammoth area for 30 years.
He said that his dogs are his family. "They know exactly what I'm saying to them. Even trained rescue dogs aren't near as sharp as these dogs are in their own territory. They are half-wild, though they love people, and are so tuned to the world around them. They are generally really good, but Chief especially can be a bit bull-headed. It's a good thing he was, too.
"No one's died here in the winter since we [all past and present dogs and Sollima] have been here. I guess I'm paying my dues."
Madeline Bernstein, president of the Los Angeles SPCA, said that after coming all the way to Mammoth to give an award, she has decided that, from now on, the award should be open to dogs nation-wide.
Bernstien also said that what is unique about Blais and Chief was that this was the first time that an award has ever been given to a dog that rescued a person not from the dog's immediate family.
"You know, most of the time it's the owner, because the dog thinks the owner is a pack member. But in this case, it seems Chief thought all humans are his pack."
Bernstien said that only dogs that get a lot of personal attention turn out to become hero dogs.
"The more interaction, the more they identify with you. I know some of the most amazing stories, like the time that we gave an award to a dog which brought a phone to his master while the man was in the middle of a heart attack. You just never know what an ordinary dog is capable of -- far more than most of us can ever imagine." MT
For more about Bob Sollima read An Escape from the '90s - Year-round Red's resident is in a class by himself.