Miracle on a mountain

Picture of bearded young Zach Hackett crouched beside a river, a black and white dog lying beside him.

Zach Hackett pauses to rest with Riley on May 14, before carrying him across Colorado's Blue River. Hackett found the dog near the top of a mountain. Picture: Zach Hackett

Published Jun 24, 2023


Cathy Free

Zach Hackett was up 3 650m hiking on a mountain in Colorado when he thought he heard a faint yip from a dog.

As he walked through a clearing, he saw him: a black and white Shetland sheepdog, visibly shivering behind some fallen pine trees.

“I was a little startled, because dogs shouldn’t be up there so high,” said Hackett, 33, who had been hiking all day and was about 6km from his apartment in Breckenridge.

“Hey buddy,” he called out, then whistled. “Hey, come here ‒ do you want a treat? You want a cookie? Come here, buddy.

“Are you shivering cold, buddy?” Hackett added. “Can you come with me? Can you follow me?”

As he drew closer that day, May 14, Hackett said he realised the dog was too weak to move. It was about 7ºC, though the temperature dipped below freezing at night, and the dog looked like it was near death.

“I believe what I’d heard was his last cry for help, and that if I hadn’t come along, he would have died there,” Hackett said. “I knew I was going to have to carry him down the mountain.”

About five weeks earlier, on April 8, 1.5km from where Hackett lives, Mike Krugman had let his dog Riley out for a predinner walk on his 14.5ha property.

“I got his Kibble ready, and when he didn’t come back, I didn’t worry at first,” Krugman said. “Sometimes Riley likes to go down to the barn and bark at the horses.”

When Krugman went to the barn and couldn’t find the dog, he became concerned and drove around the property on his ATV. The 1.5m fence that surrounds his property was buried in snow, leaving Krugman to wonder whether Riley climbed on the snow and walked over the top of the fence.

There was another possibility Krugman was worried about.

Pam Krugman at her Colorado home with another of her dogs, Stitch, several weeks before her January 2023 death. Picture: Mike Krugman

“I thought, ‘Maybe Riley has gone looking for Pam’,” said Krugman, 74.

His wife, Pam Krugman, had died of a heart condition in January, and she and Riley were close, he explained.

“Riley would sleep on her pillow every night,” Krugman said, noting that the king-size bed also had room for most of their other five dogs, “depending on who got there first”.

At 9 years old, Riley was the smallest dog in the house, but he was the alpha male, Krugman said.

“Then when Pam passed away, he hid behind the bed for several days,” Krugman said. “You could tell he really missed her.”

The morning after Riley went missing, Krugman said he looked for the dog’s tracks in the snow and couldn’t find any. So he asked Summit Lost Pet Rescue to help him search for the dog.

Karen Payne, a pet rescue volunteer, put up “missing” posters and scoured the area for Riley. Weeks passed.

“We targeted places where we thought he might have gone walking before with (Pam),” said Payne, 59. “We never give up hope, but it became concerning as the days went by and nobody had picked up any sign of him.”

Krugman said he also couldn’t give up hope.

“I left his food bowl out for him,” he said.

Krugman also left out one of his wife’s housecoats, thinking her scent might bring Riley back.

Hackett had lived in Breckenridge for only a few months when he decided to go hiking last month, he said, noting that he moved to the ski town to rent an apartment with his girlfriend, Aubrie Wasilewski.

He said he hadn’t heard about the missing dog when he set out that day.

“I thought I’d go exploring and see what was in my new backyard,” Hackett said. “I packed some snacks and an extra layer of clothes and headed out to see how far up I could go.”

Hackett made it to the top of the mountain known as Peak 4 and was on his way down when he spotted the ailing lost dog. Realising he’d have to carry the dog, he wrapped Riley in the extra windbreaker he’d brought along and scooped him up. He cradled him like a baby.

“It’s such a mystery how he survived ‒ he was in really poor shape,” he said. “All the way down, I held him to my chest and told him, ‘We’re almost there, buddy ‒ we’re going to get you home tonight. You’re not going to die on this mountain’.”

Hackett carefully picked his way down the slope over rough terrain for two hours and carried Riley through the knee-deep Blue River.

“The current was strong, but I felt I had to cross the river instead of walk around it, or it would have taken too long, and Riley needed to be warmed up,” he said.

When he reached the apartment, he and his girlfriend ran a warm bath for Riley and turned on a heater in the bathroom.

“We gave him small amounts of water, and I made him some scrambled eggs, but he didn’t want them,” he said.

The local animal shelter, Summit County Animal Shelter, was closed for the evening, so Hackett and Wasilewski cared for Riley through the night, then drove him there.

“People at the shelter were shocked when they checked the Summit Lost Pet Rescue records and learned Riley had been gone for five weeks and one day,” he said.

Hackett said in that moment he realised why Riley was so weak when he found him.

“I started bawling when they told me that,” Hackett said.

Riley weighed 11.5kg when he went missing, but had lost half of his body weight, Hackett noted.

“He weighed only 5.5kg and had survived out there for five weeks? That was pretty stunning and emotional to me,” he said.

Mike Krugman is reunited with Riley at a vet’s surgery on May 15. Picture: Mike Krugman

Krugman said he felt the same way.

“I got this call from the shelter, and they said a good Samaritan had brought Riley in,” he recalled. “Of course, I cried. I’m not a real spiritual person, but somebody had to have been looking out for that dog, maybe my wife.”

Krugman picked up Riley and drove him directly to a vet to be treated for dehydration. Three days later, Krugman was able to meet the man who rescued Riley when Hackett stopped by his house to see how Riley was doing.

“I’m just so thankful for what he did and for the efforts of all the people who searched for Riley,” Krugman said, adding that his dog now has a hearty appetite and is gaining weight.

“He is also now the proud owner of a GPS tracking collar,” he noted.

Hackett said it was a no-brainer to carry Riley down the mountain that day, which was Mother’s Day.

“Riley went looking for his mom, and I can relate,” he said. “I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was 7, and I know what it’s like to feel alone.”

He said he’d been searching for direction in his professional life, and rescuing Riley gave him new inspiration. This month, Hackett started a pet-sitting business called Riley’s Retreat to give other dogs happier adventures in Breckenridge.

But he’ll stick to low trails if he takes any dogs hiking, he said.

“I’m really glad that I could do this for Riley, but he was lucky he lasted up there for that long,” Hackett said. - The Washington Post

The Independent on Saturday

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