SALIDA, Colo. — This is a story about a man, a mountain, a dog and the storm of the season.
When the ‘bomb cyclone’ moved into Colorado about two weeks ago, conditions went from bad to life-threatening in a matter of seconds.
Hans Pope and his corgi mix, Suzy, were on a mountain road near Salida they had been down dozens of times before.
“A million times in 11 years," Pope said. "I was going to my favorite place in the whole world."
The Ute Trail above Salida offers stunning views of the Collegiate Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo range.
"It's breathtaking," Pope said. "That's where I find my peace."
But the day the ‘bomb cyclone’ hit wasn't like most days.
"It went from two inches of snow to a foot of snow," said Salida resident Donald Sanchez.
"I don't even make it six inches," Pope said of trying to muscle his truck out of quickly drifting snow.
His Ram 2500 turbo diesel was stuck on Ute Trail.
"It's pretty dangerous up there," Sanchez said.
"This is what a north country boy travels with,” Pope said as he showed us the shovel he carries in his truck all the time.
Even though Pope had the tools to dig out, the storm was too much.
"My shirt's wet, my sweatshirt's wet, I'm wearing a Carhartt vest that's sopping wet," Pope said.
It was raging blizzard and after digging himself out not once, but twice, Pope knew he was on borrowed time.
"I'd blown the radiator cap right off my truck,” Pope said. “All my anti-freeze went flying into the wind."
So, Pope called Sanchez for help.
"I'm sitting at home ready to go to bed,” Sanchez said. “It's 10 o'clock at night."
Pope just happened to be in a place with cell service.
"The locals up there call it the 'phone booth' because it's where you get cell service," Pope said.
That's when Sanchez got in his truck and was on his way to try to rescue Pope and his dog, Suzy.
"I had a message into my wife saying, ‘If I'm not back in the morning, I'm up County Road 175,’" Sanchez said.
Meantime, Pope had set out to find shelter, only making it a few feet.
"And this cattle guard was solid ice,” Pope said. “My feet went up in the air, and I landed on these bars. Right on my back. And I had wicked pain in my back. I said, 'My God, I've finally broken the thing in half.'"
After briefly blacking out, Pope woke up with Suzy right by his side. Both were covered in snow. At that point, Pope started crawling through the driving snow.
"I was shaking like a leaf,” Pope said. “I was in a stage of hypothermia. And I was covered in snow. Like three inches on me. It had just blown right over me."
Suzy never left his side during the long, slow crawl through the howling blizzard.
"She was right there next to me," Pope said. “I couldn't move my left leg."
Then, he came upon a cabin he had seen before.
"That place saved me," Pope said pointing to the cabin. “And I pushed the door open. It was unlocked. I made it because of my dog."
All the while, Sanchez and a friend were barreling through the driving snow and finally made it to Pope’s truck.
"We start flashing lights, honking the horn and there's no sign of him," Sanchez said.
Pope was long gone and after searching the area for a bit, Sanchez and his friend turned back thinking Pope somehow found another ride.
As if his story of survival weren't crazy enough, Pope happened to have a plastic survival pouch in his pocket that he carries all the time.
"A book of matches, a brand new lighter, not one you find, and a ball of cotton that size right there,” Pope said. “Ever since I was ten. The Boy Scouts teach you a lot. You don't just get merit badges for nothing."
There happened to be a huge wood burning stove in the cabin.
"It was the biggest wood burning stove I had ever seen,” Pope said. “I just scooped up a bunch of dust and deer hair and the first match strike to the cotton — poof! Flame. Survival. Heat."
Pope knew at that point he and Suzy had a chance.
"I said, ‘I gotta save this dog. She's my best friend in the whole world,'" Pope said.
They stayed in the cabin through the night and then the next morning, hope arrived.
"I was plowing the road to get out and I came upon his truck and couldn't get past it," said Charlie Bearden, who lives about five miles past the cabin in the other direction.
"And I yell at the top of my lungs, 'Help!'” Pope said. “And I heard the truck stop."
Bearden happened to have the window down on his plow truck because the mirror was broken, and he was holding it up with his hand.
"And I'm like, 'What the hell? There's no one supposed to be up here,'" Bearden said.
Bearden almost didn’t plow that morning.
“I was just going to let it melt a little,” Bearden said.
“One word: Grateful," Pope said.
"I don't think he'd have made it through another day," Bearden said.
"It's real up there,” Sanchez said. “For sure. There ain't no doubt."
It's a survival story that took a village.
"You can call somebody up in this neck of the woods and leave a message that you need help, and an instant army will be formed," Pope said.
Sanchez immediately reached out to local authorities who initialized a search and rescue operation.
"That little cow dog that we adopted five years ago saved my life," Pope said.