These days Howard, 22, lives in her own apartment in Denver and hopes to become a veterinary technician after graduating this year from Bel-Rea. She and Kuusk, 30, who is continuing to work toward her degree in veterinary technology, remain friends, as do Willie and Hannah. Hannah is 4 and headed for kindergarten, old enough to cautiously let the parrot perch on her finger. “He’s into her,” says Kuusk. “She’s a little scared of him.”
Velvet, extreme mountaineer
Presidents’ Day weekend 2007 offered up a perfect blue-sky day, warm enough for T-shirts. Matty Bryant, a special education teacher, and seven of his friends from the Portland, Ore., area set out to scale 11,239-foot Mount Hood, camp out for the night, then head back home. Experienced climbers, they packed carefully, and Bryant, then 34, took Velvet, a black Lab-shepherd mix he’d found a few years earlier wandering in the Nevada desert. Once they’d made it more than halfway up the mountain, the climbers dug snow caves and settled in to sleep.
The weather changed dramatically overnight, and the group awoke to a total whiteout and high winds. Abandoning the climb, they quickly focused instead on how to get back down the mountain. Everyone roped up, with Bryant, Kate Hanlon, Christina Redl, and Velvet clipped together.
The descent was steep, Bryant recalls. With him in the lead, the group tried to make it to a nearby ski area, thinking it would be easier to walk down those slopes. But they overshot the target, and Bryant misstepped at about 8,200 feet and fell over the edge of a cliff, pulling his dog and friends with him in a 600-foot slide into the White River Canyon. Bryant was unhurt, but Redl was knocked unconscious for a couple of minutes, and Hanlon twisted her ankle. Velvet ended up with a bleeding paw.
Their companions called 911 and the sheriff’s office at the base of Mount Hood was alerted; meanwhile, the threesome began sending signals to the office with the Mountain Locator Unit they had rented. In search of a sheltered spot to wait out the storm, they trudged along for about 45 minutes until they reached a boulder. After spreading their foam pads on the snow for insulation, they climbed under their sleeping bags and their tarp and pulled Velvet inside with them. The bad weather turned worse.
Later, they learned that the winds had reached 70 mph, and the temperature, with wind chill, hit about 20 degrees below zero.
To keep their blood circulating, they performed isometric exercises every half hour. Velvet, without prompting, stretched out across each of them again and again in turn, warming them with her body heat. “Twenty-four hours after we lay down,” says Bryant, “we looked up to see three or four guys—angels—there to rescue us. Another day and we might not have made it.”
The group made one critical mistake, Bryant says. They didn’t heed the weather report that predicted severe snowstorms. But because they did everything else right and had Velvet with them, Bryant was the only one who suffered from any extremity issues. His temporary frostnip might well have turned to frostbite and permanent damage, he says, had Velvet not eventually draped herself over his feet and settled there. “That we made it off of that mountain, alive and not permanently injured, is truly a miracle,” he says.
Bryant has since married (and he and his wife, Amanda, took his mother’s maiden name, McDermott). At the wedding, on cue, Velvet charged down the aisle bearing the rings.