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'I just want him back': Colorado avalanche survivor determined to find beloved dog, missing since slide

Authorities said that tracks indicate the pet walked away from the avalanche debris.
search for ullr dog after rapid creek avalanche.jpg
Posted at 8:33 PM, Mar 28, 2023

As he recovers from being pummeled by an avalanche that killed his friend, a Colorado man is relentlessly searching for his adventure companion, a sweet but very tough dog fittingly named Ullr who appears to have survived the slide.

On the morning of March 17, Jacob Dalbey and two friends headed out with the goal of scouting out a place in the Rapid Creek drainage southwest of Marble, for future adventures in Colorado.

All three had avalanche safety equipment, and two of them — including Dalbey — had avalanche airbag backpacks, according to a report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The trio was very experienced, with varying levels of advanced recreational or professional avalanche training.

As usual, Dalbey brought his dog Ullr with him. Ullr, a 7-year-old border collie mix, also part-wolf, came into Dalbey's life as a puppy in March 2016. He grew into a 60 to 70-pound furry adventure companion.

His name is a nod to the Norse God associated with snow and skiing — fitting for a dog perfectly at home in the snowy mountains.

Jacob Dalbey_Ullr

"He goes everywhere with me," Dalbey said. "He's spent more time in the backcountry in the wintertime than probably any other dog in the world. Very apt. Super good dog, super strong. Yeah, has been on a lot of really insane skis with me and fishes with me, mountain bikes with me. Goes to work with me. Pretty much everything."

The trio — plus pup — had ventured into the Rapid Creek area together plenty of times before. The men were familiar with the drainage and previous nearby avalanches.

March 17 2023 avalanche rapid creek_Colorado Avalanche Information Center

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The group skied uphill toward the summit of an unnamed peak near Chair Mountain. Two were set to ski down and the other would snowboard on his splitboard. About 10 to 20 feet below the main ridgeline, the whole slope fractured.

As the ground shifted under them, Dalbey reached for Ullr but they both were swept away and lost contact. Looking back now, Dalbey said he wasn't sure it would have turned out OK if he had reached the dog.

"It's hard to say what would have happened if I did get a hold of him, because I was taken for a rather nasty ride," he said. "When the avalanche stopped and everything settled, you know, I immediately got my face cleared. I immediately called out, but I was below a bench (a strip of flat ground below and above steep slopes) and couldn't see up there and had no idea where he was and my immediate thought was that he was buried. And so I just focused on what I needed to do to get out."

The avalanche broke four to six feet deep, 400 feet wide and ran 2,500 vertical feet over three cliffs.

March 17 2023 avalanche rapid creek_Colorado Avalanche Information Center
This Google Earth image shows the avalanche outlined in red. The black circle at the top is the approximate location of the group when the avalanche released. The rider left the avalanche debris at the point indicated by a 1. The 2 and 3 marks indicate where the two skiers were buried. The skier marked by 3 dug himself out.

According to the CAIC report, Dalbey's right hand was the only appendage that was free from the avalanche's grasp. Parts of that hand were broken, and he slowly clawed himself out of the snow and ice with two fingers over the course of three hours to free his other arm. He endured severe frostbite on most of his fingers, but added that extreme physical effort likely helped him survive by keeping him warm in his severe hypothermic state.

The CAIC report noted that after some time, Dalbey spotted his snowboarder friend higher on the slope. That man later told CAIC his head was injured in the slide and he does not remember what happened, but recalls walking in the snow at sunset and the sound of a helicopter. He eventually ended up at a friend's home down the road around 3 a.m. and was transported to a hospital.

Once Dalbey freed himself on the slope, he triggered the SOS on his InReach device at 5:55 p.m. and started to search for his other friend and Ullr. But he didn't see anybody.

rapid creek avalanche _CAIC
This shows where the skier was buried after he freed himself from the avalanche.

The sun was setting back up on the slope, the temperature was dropping and Dalbey was in pain, exhausted and hypothermic. He decided to leave and seek help.

He rested in a small shelter he built under a tree before hearing a helicopter at 12:40 a.m. After several sweeps around the drainage, the Flight for Life located him, and he was rescued just after 1 a.m., according to the CAIC report.

He was brought to a hospital, where staff said his core body temperature had dropped to 85 degrees, the report reads.

At the hospital, Dalbey's roommate, who works in search and rescue, said there was a glimmer of hope: dog tracks were seen exiting the slide path above where Dalbey had dug himself out. The tracks traveled down to the trio's skin tracks and followed them along the drainage to Highway 3 in Marble. The snow was packed at the end, and difficult to spot the tracks, but to Dalbey, it made sense.

"I know, with everything in me, that if he made it that far, he made it all the way out," he said.

Jacob Dalbey_ullr dog.jpg

He said he never loses sight of Ullr when they are in the back country. If they were all in an avalanche and Ullr escaped and didn't see anybody, the dog likely thought the group had already started down the drainage, Dalbey said. He probably headed that way, thinking he had to catch up.

It gave him hope — Ullr had a collar on and was microchipped.

The day after the avalanche, March 18, the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office and West Elk Mountain Rescue continued its rescue and recovery efforts for the missing man. His body was found under about three feet of debris.

"I've been so focused on trying to find my dog, I haven't fully been able to start working through the rest of this experience," Dalbey said about losing his friend.

He described the man as a good friend and a "very remarkable, loving and caring person" to have "beautiful times out in the mountains" alongside.

Dalbey said by the time he was able to free himself on the slope, he knew the chances of finding his friend alive were slim.

"But I had to do it. I had to try," he said. "And I knew it could potentially jeopardize my life even more, but it's something I had to do."

Dalbey was released from the hospital on March 19, two days after the slide. He had rhabdomyolysis, or rhabdo, a condition caused by overexertion in which muscles essentially start to eat themselves, and his frostbitten fingers are making progress toward a recovery. He had hand surgery on Friday.

While he was ready to return to the avalanche site that day to search for Ullr, his doctors were "very adamant" about him resting instead. He said his friends went up instead, and were able to grab some items Dalbey had left behind when he was airlifted and fly a drone over the area.

But Dalbey, now 11 days away from that day, feels confident that Ullr did not return to the drainage and is somewhere in the Marble area.

Jacob Dalbey_with ullr

"He's very familiar with that area," Dalbey said. "We travel there — he's probably been there hundreds of times, on that road. And maybe he was trying to make his way back."

He has put flyers up around the area and is taking any tips or leads people may have. He also left Ullr's bed, some clothes and food around where the group had parked on the morning of March 17. They set up trail cameras in the woods.

"I think in this instance, he's probably hiding from people, you know, and just looking for me, wondering where I am," Dalbey said. "But he's super friendly. He's a big dog and he looks mean and he's not. He's so cuddly and such a lovey, very sensitive dog."

As of Tuesday morning, there had been no confirmed sightings of Ullr.

But late Monday, a woman reached out and said she had seen dog tracks that looked very obviously like it was dragging something. Dalbey said Ullr wears an orange backpack when touring with him, and it could have been unhinged in the slide.

"And so we're very hopeful that that's him and his backpack had come loose or something and it's just leaving a trail behind him," Dalbey said.

He spoke to Denver7 en route to where the tracks were seen.

ullr in mountains_Jacob Dalbey

Ullr is no stranger to the forest and Dalbey said he knows his dog won't give up and is just "a little turned around."

"I know that he could probably survive the rest of his life out there without me," he said. "But our bond is very remarkable... I just love him so much. He's been my pretty much everything for the last seven years that I've had him. I got him when he was a puppy. And he's been through a lot with me. And we've had a lot of really incredible adventures. And I know that he's still alive... I just want him back."

Anybody who sees Ullr, took him in, or knows of his whereabouts should contact the Gunnison County Sheriff's Office (970-641-1113), Pitkin County Sheriff's Office (970-920-5300) or Garfield County Sheriff's Office (970-945-0453).

This story was originally published by Scripps News Denver in Colorado.