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In September 2008 Frank Mackay, a sixty-three year old Edmonton lawyer and inexperienced mountaineer, attempted to cross a remote Canadian mountain region known as Mount Renshaw on horseback to bring supplies to a friend who was hiking in the mountains In addition to his riding horse, he had two packhorses who carried the supplies; these horses were Belle and Sundance. Mackay's attempted journey was thwarted by his inexperience and the unforgiving terrain; unable to continue as planned, Mackay, abandoned his two packhorses, (and much of his gear), and went home on his riding horse. When Mackay decided to leave the horses, the weather was warm and the grass plentiful. He let the local authorities know the horses were up there and, it seems, assumed they would come down when they were ready. They did not. Mackay made two attempts to retrieve the horses. Both failed.
By early December, the weather was bitterly cold and the horses were struggling to find food and stay warm; by mid-December, the horses were walled in by six feet of snow on all sides and in grave danger of either freezing or starving. Low temperatures and high snowfall now made reaching them nearly impossible. Snowmobiles represented the only possible access to the remote location where the horses were trapped; but even if reached, it remained unclear how, or even if, the horses could be helped. Word of the endangered horses spread quickly through the small-town network and within days, a four-person team from the nearby town of McBride assembled and headed into the mountains via snowmobile to investigate the status of the two horses. The team went equipped with some hay (in case the horses could be helped) and a shotgun (in case they could not). They decided to feed them the hay.
The challenge then became deciding what to do next because, although the team did believe the horses could be saved, they assessed the rescue prospects to be "at worst, impossible, and, at best, a monumental challenge." Working together with the help of other concerned locals, a plan was devised. The plan, which would require the coordinated efforts of many people, combined with the dedication of various resources and which would extend over the course of many days, was as follows: volunteers would make a rough and dangerous journey each day on snowmobile to reach the horses whom they would provide with food and water. They would then have to work together for long hours to dig through the deep snow and, in this way, expand the enclosure in which the horses were trapped and forge a narrow path through the deep snow that would travel more than 3000 feet down the mountain and via which the rescuers hoped to, ultimately, lead the horses to safety.
The rescue was perilous on many levels, but became more so thanks to temperatures so low that all involved risk frostbite every time they ventured out. Also, because of the remote location of the horses the entire mission was in constant danger of being thwarted by any number of potential disasters (including small or large scale avalanches and even potential attacks on the horses by wild animals).
The attempt to carry out this improbable rescue mission is recounted in great detail by Birgit Stutz (a local horsewoman and journalist who was directly involved in the rescue mission) and Lawrence Scanlan (a professional writer). The writing is practical and straightforward; the main focus is on the actual planning and carrying out of the multi-tiered rescue effort staged by an assortment of townsfolk, each of whom drop what they are doing in order to help with the perilous effort. In addition to an in-depth recounting of the complex and dangerous undertaking, some interesting ethical questions are raised, including, why so many busy people were willing to volunteer their time and efforts toward the dangerous and unpleasant work needed to try and rescue these horses, and how they responded to those who suggested their efforts were misguided. The main questions explored in the book, therefore, are how and why. The "how" is answered in great detail. The "why" is more straightforward, and I suspect the matter-of-fact explanation of "why" given by Stutz will resonate with most readers, "What put me up on Mount Renshaw was simple. I cannot stand to see animals suffering, and it seems I am not alone." (Birgit Stutz, page 4).
© 2012 Kimberly Poppiti
Dr. Kimberly Poppiti, Associate Professor of Dramatic Arts & Dance; Dowling College
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