The Rescue of Belle and Sundance

One Town's Incredible Race to Save Two Abandoned Horses


By Birgit Stutz

By Lawrence Scanlan

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In December 2008, snowmobilers spot two abandoned horses high in the Canadian Rockies. Starving and frostbitten, the horses have trampled the ten-foot-deep snow into a narrow white prison. Those who reach them bring hay but also a gun, in case the horses are too far gone. A glint of life in the horses’ eyes earns them the hay.

The harrowing yet inspiring story of their near impossible rescue — involving the volunteer efforts of an entire village, first the excavation of a trench six feet deep and over 3280 feet long, and then a nearly 20 mile descent at negative 40 degrees — is sure to be read in one breathless sitting.


For my grandmother, Hedwig Greutmann,
who passed on to me her love for animals.
And for Belle and Sundance.

"I hope you will fall into good hands; but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us . . ."
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, 1877,
a wise mare's advice to her foal
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
—Mahatma Gandhi, 1869–1948

Chapter 1
High on the cold, stark mountain, the two horses waited patiently, as horses do.
That fall, the sprawling meadows above the treeline had been resplendent with colour from wildflowers—the red of Indian paintbrush, the yellow of monkey flowers, the deep purple of tall gentians. Rushing creeks would have offered the horses bracing drafts of pure water, and the grass in the alpine meadows, though short, would have been rich and plentiful.
But when the temperatures began to plummet with winter's approach, the grass was soon buried in white, buried beyond the horses' pawing, which turned frantic and then ceased altogether. The two horses, a young mare called Belle and a bigger, older gelding called Sundance, each a different shade of brown, stood amid six feet of powdery white snow. The conifers nearby all sagged under the great weight of accumulated snow and ice. Vainly seeking warmth from the other's bony carcass, the two gaunt creatures arranged themselves nose to tail, though little remained of their tails—a sure sign they were starving. Each horse had gnawed away at the other's tail, desperately looking for a source of protein.
The alpine below Mount Renshaw, where Belle and Sundance were spotted by local snowmobilers.
The view from this mountaintop is one of unparalleled beauty, and it may be that horses, like humans, appreciate such grandeur. But not when the eyes stare blankly, the belly is long empty, the ribs and hip bones are plain to see.
A great many blizzards had already whipped through this section of the Rocky Mountains, and a cruel blanket of snow and ice lay on the horses' backs. They were shivering and waiting for the inevitable.
The story of Belle and Sundance features a cast of many characters—some of whom played crucial roles in what happened next. For various reasons, I became one of the voices of the story that unfolded just before Christmas of 2008.
I was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1971. I spent the first two years of my life in Thalwil, a town near Zurich, but grew up in a village called Richterswil, on Lake Zurich. I have always loved animals and, at age thirteen, began taking riding lessons. I bought my first horse, Machlon, a somewhat crazed Russian–Arabian who had been abused and whom I still have, when I was in my early twenties. After high school, I studied English literature, English linguistics, journalism and North American history, but I always harboured what I called "a cowboy dream"—to own a ranch and live in the mountains of Western Canada.
I am now living that dream with my husband, Marc Lavigne. At our eighty-acre Falling Star Ranch near McBride in the Robson Valley of British Columbia, I train and breed horses—mostly part-bred Arabians—and teach riders.
What put me up on Mount Renshaw was simple. I cannot stand to see animals suffering, and it seems I am not alone.
McBride is a small town in the wide, flat valley near Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C. Just a century ago, most men in the valley made their living as trappers and loggers, and their families lived in log cabins. Sawmills sprouted up to meet the demands of the new railroad that came through in 1912. Timber was needed not only for the Grand Trunk Pacific's rail ties but also for sidewalks, fences, houses and stores in the villages that would dot the rail line. Tête Jaune Cache. Valemount. Dunster. Dome Creek. Crescent Spur. Croydon. Lamming Mills. And the biggest, McBride, named after a British Columbia premier of the early twentieth century and today home to seven hundred souls. All of these towns' names are rooted in the rich pioneer history of the Robson Valley. Tête Jaune, meaning Yellow Head, remembers the long blond hair of a local Métis guide who crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1819 in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. Mount Renshaw is named for a trapper who worked out of McBride in the early 1900s.
The valley sits on the edge of an interior cedar–hemlock rainforest, the world's only inland temperate rainforest—one that thrives thanks to the west winds that bring ample rain in summer and snow in winter to fuel forest growth. Some of the trees around McBride are more than a thousand years old. The forest, with the help of sturdy horses, has long offered a living here—though never an easy one. Loggers felled the giant Douglas firs and cedars and hemlocks in winter, horses hauled the logs to the mills, millworkers cut them into lumber, and the trains took it all away. For a century, that's what made the valley tick.
But the mills' day had come and, just recently, all but gone. Decisions made in capitals and corporate boardrooms far to the east, limp demand for building material in the wake of a real estate crash to the south, bank failures there and pinched pockets everywhere have all rocked the valley. Jobs in the forests around McBride have become scarce. Tourism, for better or for worse, has taken over. Hikers and horseback riders, hunters and fishers, kayakers and whitewater rafters, mountain bikers and birdwatchers find a haven here in summer. In winter, heli-skiers, cross-country skiers and recreational snowmobilers find the area irresistible. The air is pure, the waters pristine, the sense of space and freedom keenly felt.
"We live in beauty," a friend of mine once told me, and there are takers in every season, winter most of all.
Logan Jeck and Leif Gunster were born and bred in these mountains and have been friends all their lives. They cherish snowmobiling and the outdoor life, and with work so scarce, they joke darkly about having more time than money. But for all the changes inflicted on the valley, one constant is the instinct to assist those in distress. Up here, "Help thy neighbour" is a commandment bred in the bone. We wouldn't survive otherwise. Leif calls it "the McBride mentality." He has worked in northern Alberta in the fast-cash, oil-fuelled economy, but while the money is good, the life is not. He couldn't wait to get back home to the Robson Valley, where people actually look out for one another.
Leif knows, and loves, the territory. A skilled sledder, he drives an Arctic Cat 800, a powerful snow machine that generates 150 horsepower and hits a top speed of 140 kilometres an hour. When it's available, Leif finds work as a logger in the McBride area and, in the fall, as a hunting guide on horseback in the Yukon. A compactly built and strong young man with light brown hair, blue eyes and chiselled features, Leif is like so many around here: comfortable with horsepower in all its forms.
As for Logan, the name Jeck is a recognizable one in the community. Logan's great-grandfather came to the area in 1924 from New Sarepta in central Alberta, a fact remembered in Jeck Road, which runs off the highway outside McBride. In December 2008, Logan was, by all accounts, a well-mannered, soft-spoken young man. Blond and tall with an athletic build, he worked in the forest as a faller and had done some heli-logging, but like Leif, he went to where the work was. Although Logan had grown up in a family of horse people, he had never really taken to horses. He preferred his horsepower in a machine.
But Logan knew, and Leif knew, that a mountain can be a treacherous place any time of the year, doubly so in winter. Blizzards strike without warning and the terrain is dangerously steep in places. There is a knack to driving a snow machine in the mountains, and even seasoned snowmobilers get into trouble on the Renshaw, as some locals call it. The uninitiated might think that a machine built to run over snow couldn't possibly get stuck in the stuff, but many sledders have discovered the hard way that in several feet of fresh powder, sleds may float, or sink, according to the skill, luck and circumstances of the driver.
Mount Renshaw boasts the largest maintained sledding area in North America. In early December of 2008, the mountain was doing its usual job of accommodating thousands of snowmobilers without anyone feeling crowded or pinched. The views, as always, were spellbinding and even the risks of the mountain, it seemed, possessed a certain allure. The local search and rescue team had spent three successive nights rescuing sledders in the backcountry; when snowstorms lashed the mountain yet again, the men were too spent to go out. They called on Logan and Leif, then twenty and twenty-one respectively, who generously agreed to relieve them. Visitors from Alberta had gotten their snowmobiles mired in deep snow and had walked to a warming cabin nearby. The search and rescue crew had gotten the sledders out, but the tasks of locating and towing their machines off the mountain still remained.
In a typical winter on Mount Renshaw, ten metres of snow will fall, and the base will settle in at more than three metres deep. That December 15, with the temperature hovering around minus thirty degrees Celsius, a light flurry had added to the lovely pile. Logan and Leif were searching below Mount Renshaw, two kilometres from the warming cabin. They had pushed past a high ridge called "the saddle," which overlooks a massively wide expanse called "the bowl," much favoured by sledders. Just before noon on that bitterly cold morning, Logan and Leif were down in the bowl scouting for the lost snow machines. Noticing what they took to be moose in a gully near the warming cabin just above the treeline, they stopped. There was something odd about the sighting. The moose, if moose they were, stood frightfully still and their heads hung low. Curious, Leif and Logan advanced.
When the two men grew close, they realized they had come upon two grossly emaciated horses. Logan knows his way around a horse and had worked for outfitters; his father, uncle and sister are all horse people. His gut response to the stricken animals was revulsion. In a starving horse, the bones are so prominent that the skeleton appears to be that of a larger horse. The tail is quiet, the head is low, the ears still, the eyes dull. These two horses had ceased to interact with their environment; gone were hope and expectation. Breathing was a chore. Their sad and low-hanging heads spoke of their despair.
The two horses had packed down the snow and made a claustrophobic enclosure, maybe twelve feet square, with six-foot-high snow walls all around. They were trapped near the summit of a 2,400-metre-high mountain in the dead of winter. The horses were alive, though barely. Logan took a cheese stick from his pocket and gave it to the mare, who accepted it feebly.
By Leif's estimation, the horses hadn't eaten in a month. Ribs and hipbones prominent, backbones in sharp relief, they looked more like skinny cows than horses. Leif took no notice of their height or colour or markings, only their sad, drawn faces that seemed to beg for mercy. The two men felt helpless and angry. Leif wished he'd been carrying a pistol or a rifle. He would have shot the horses then and there to end their suffering.
The men well knew how easy it is to lose a horse in the bush (a lightning flash or the scent of a cougar can cause a horse to panic and flee, and some horses take off out of mischief), but still, the sight of two horses so high up the mountain confounded them. Logan and Leif had also heard about heartless outfitters who simply released unwanted mounts into the wilderness and forgot about them. The question of how these two horses had become stranded on a mountaintop in winter would remain unanswered for the moment.
The larger question, the one that demanded an immediate answer, was this: What were they going to do about these starving horses?

Chapter 2
Belle and Sundance were pack horses, and to begin to understand how they came to be marooned in winter near the top of a snowbound mountain, it's important to know something about horses in general and pack horses in particular.
Every horse herd is also a hierarchy, and whether there are two or twenty horses in that herd, each knows precisely where he or she fits. By tests of courage or small signs (a pinning of ears, a kick—or the threat of one), dominance is determined, and the bold and the timid and those in between neatly arrange themselves. If, in a paddock, horse number two, say, were to drink or dine before horse number one had done so, the latter might have something to say about that. If horse number twenty pulled rank in that fashion, there would be hell to pay.
One of the many things I love about horse society is that horses know their place, and once that place is established, they tend toward peaceful coexistence and even mutual aid. Two horse chums in a field will align themselves head to tail on a hot summer day so they can swat flies on each other's face with their tails or gently groom each other along the flanks with their teeth. Horses buddy up and form allegiances, and sometimes these connections are intense. Typically, high-ranking horses pair up with each other, and low-ranking horses do the same. Belle and Sundance were both dominant horses. In a cruel twist, the tight bond between them would contribute to the grim circumstance in which they found themselves on Mount Renshaw.
Another kind of hierarchy exists among horses, according to task—though this ranking is by human, not equine, design. At the top of the heap are the sport horses, the ones that may command millions of dollars when they are bought and sold: sleek thoroughbreds of the racetrack, powerful warm-blooded show jumpers, graceful dressage horses, cutting and reining horses that rule western horse shows. On this scale, school horses—the ones used to help teach novices how to ride—are well down the line.
But at the very bottom of that ranking are pack horses. They need not possess speed or agility or understand any of the subtle forms of communication that pass between rider and horse. A pack horse needs just a few credentials: a strong back, a willingness to follow the one ahead, a calm and gentle disposition and, finally, a sure-footedness in rugged and steep terrain.
The pack horse line is ancient. Humans began to ride horses at least six thousand years ago, but evidence suggests horses were penned or tethered as early as thirty thousand years ago. It's a good bet that the first horses encountered by humans were hunted for meat and that long before that first human got on the back of that first horse, horses and mules, donkeys and ponies were carrying loads. Where roads were poor or non-existent, the pack horse conveyed goods to market. In the Old West, pack horse trains were sometimes a hundred horses long. Even today, forest and park rangers, surveyors, miners, ranchers and outfitters all over North America use them. And pack horses continue to work throughout the developing world. In the Rockies, they power hunting expeditions, camping trips and geological forays. The pack horse, in short, has never fallen out of favour.
The pack horse's treatment depends largely on circumstance and the conscience and means of its owner. Pity the horse whose owners are poor—poor in sympathy for horses, poor in their ability to fathom the ways of horses, poor in the ordinary sense of that word. If a family routinely goes hungry, their horse likely suffers the same fate. Even a horse of high breeding can come to know neglect, but pack horses such as Belle and Sundance—widely viewed as the cheapest and most expendable of their kind—are the most vulnerable.
Taking pack horses into the Rocky Mountains of northeastern British Columbia—especially the rugged western slope where I live—is not for the faint of heart. Without years of experience, anyone planning such an expedition would do well to either hire a good guide, travel with someone experienced or, at the very least, read up on the subject.
Most outfitters in the Robson Valley have read what they call "the packer's bible." Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails, written by Joe Back in 1959, is a remarkable little 117-page book—remarkable not least for its detailed and often wry illustrations, its homespun wisdom and for the fact that its advice is still followed almost to the letter by outfitters more than fifty years later. If horses are sometimes dangerous, mountains are more so, and the combination of the two can be deadly. "The lack of two or three cave men tools and a few simple precautions," wrote Back, "can sometimes bring modern men to disaster and even death."
Leading pack horses in the mountains requires experience and a complicated set of skills. A simple omission, like forgetting to bring an axe to make a fire if need be, may prove fatal. You have to know your knots—the diamond hitch (single and double), the basket hitch, the half-hitched diamond. You have to know about saddles—the Decker, the sawbuck, the Spanish. You have to know about panniers (baskets slung on either side of the pack horse), slings and much else.
And even if you were to pack a horse perfectly, with a keen eye for balance and weight, the job doesn't end there. The breast collar has to be just so, so the load won't shift backward when the horse goes uphill. As the horse loses weight from all this labour, the cinch loosens. Working also makes him thirsty, and when he fills up on water at every creek he passes (sometimes just so he can take a break), his belly expands, tightening the cinch again. Supreme vigilance and careful horsemanship are a must. "A horse gets to eat in his spare time, if any," observed Back, "and if you push him beyond reason you walk home, and that poor devil ends up in a coyote or a can."
Belle and Sundance's journey up Mount Renshaw began on September 12, 2008. Frank Mackay, a lawyer in Edmonton, some four hundred kilometres to the east as the crow flies, was bringing supplies to a friend who was hiking the Great Divide, which aligns pretty well with the B.C.–Alberta border. It seemed like a simple enough task for a man who had owned horses for a decade and who likely saw himself as a horseman. But things went wrong, very wrong, on that trip.
The vast alpine area of Mount Renshaw.
The sixty-three-year-old was riding his saddle horse, and leading Belle and Sundance, who dutifully carried their loads. Sundance was a fourteen-year-old gelding, a sorrel (a horse with a reddish brown coat and a mane and tail the same colour or flaxen); Belle was a three-year-old mare, a bay (dark brown in colour with black points—mane, tail, lower legs). This was Mackay's first solo mountain expedition, and he quickly discovered the many challenges: on the way to Beaver Dam Pass, he got lost, veering east when he should have gone west. The weather, as it often does in the Canadian Rockies, turned foul and cold. And a brewing mutiny by his two pack horses finally erupted.


On Sale
Mar 6, 2012
Page Count
240 pages
Da Capo Press

Birgit Stutz

About the Author

Birgit Stutz is a journalist, horse trainer, and riding instructor. She lives on a ranch in the Canadian Rockies.

Lawrence Scanlan, author of The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World’s Greatest Racehorse, lives in Kingston, Ontario.

Learn more about this author