A pair of search dogs named Schwar and Pepper led searchers late Monday afternoon to the body of a missing Louisiana bowhunter in the rugged mountains 35 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
Routt County Search and Rescue personnel needed another 12 hours to bring the body of Kristopher Carrol Key, 36, out of the backcountry near Shield Mountain. The area is about 10 miles north of Steamboat Lake, and some 4 miles west of Routt County Road 129.
Key was from Benton, La. He had been missing for about 3 1/2 days when his body was found near the bottom of a more than 200-foot cliff, according to Routt County Sheriff John Warner.
When the search was over, human handlers of the two search dogs wept in a mixture of sadness and relief.
"We had a huge effort by volunteers who made it work," said Jim Vail, owner of Pepper Tuesday afternoon. "It was sad. Even though you're crying, at the same time, it's a good feeling. It's a big relief. It's a weight off your shoulders."
Vail has been a member of search and rescue for nine years. Pepper is a 6-year-old female border collie who has been trained for search missions for about five years. Vail said this is the first time he and Pepper have played a major role in a successful, although sad, search operation. He hastened to say that the real credit goes to Schwar, a German shepherd mix, and his handler, Sandy Phillips.
"We've trained so hard," Vail said. "And we made the difference."
Vail said the two dogs were given a piece of Key's clothing to sniff. Typically, when the dogs pick up the scent, they become agitated, a sign that they're on the trail, Vail said.
Vail and Pepper had put in more than 20 hours of searching in four shifts when Schwar caught Key's scent about 3 p.m. Monday.
Vail said Schwar was about 100 yards from the body when he caught the scent, but couldn't clamber up a 10-foot cliff at the end, to reach Key. When Phillips called for Vail's help, he and Pepper scrambled along an abandoned game trail to enter the steep drainage from above, and the side. That's when Pepper found Key's body.
It was a grim discovery for the searchers, who had hoped through the long holiday weekend to find Key alive. There had been optimism at the outset that Key was uninjured and merely lost he was briefly in touch with hunting companions by radio after becoming lost. But that hope faded after the hunter failed to respond further on his hand-held radio.
Warner explained that Thursday evening, Key called his companions on his radio and asked them to "fire up their four-wheelers" so he could follow the headlights back to camp. Key verbally confirmed he could see the lights, Warner said, but that was the last anyone heard from him.
Warner declined to speculate about the cause of Key's death, except to say his office had ruled out any foul play. Routt County Coroner Doug Allen was investigating the cause of death Tuesday, and the body was sent to the Jefferson County medical examiner's office.
Warner said search and rescue personnel had to rig climbing ropes to get to the body, then lower it down the small cliff in a basket. They had to hand carry it 3 1/2 miles through downed timber before they could reach all-terrain vehicles and drive out of Routt National Forest. The last of the search crews didn't wind up their work until almost 4 a.m. Tuesday, Warner added.
"I can't say enough about the 50 to 60 volunteers who gave up their entire Labor Day weekend for the search," Warner said. "They're all asleep in bed and won't answer unless I page them. And I'm not going to do that."
In all, more than 50 people, including sheriff's deputies, search and rescue volunteers and people from nearby ranches, were involved in the search for Key. There also were personnel from Grand, Mesa, Larimer and Moffat counties called in on the search. Four different aircraft, with up to three in the air at one time, were brought in to assist in the search. They included a fixed-wing aircraft from the local Civil Air Patrol, a National Guard helicopter from Cheyenne, Wyo., a helicopter belonging to the Department of Energy and a private chopper from Denver Helicopter were all involved in the search.
The aerial search for Key was not helped by the fact that like virtually all bowhunters, the missing man was clad in full camouflage clothing.
The weather shifted from the six-week monsoon pattern of afternoon rain storms to one of cool days and clear nights below freezing during the search for Key. Warner declined to discuss how well prepared Key was for an emergency in the mountains. He did say Key was wearing a belt equipped with pouches. Allen was making an inventory of their contents Tuesday morning.
Warner had not estimated the cost of the search for Key. Because he was a hunter, Key's license will allow local agencies to apply for funds from a state pool funded by hunting, fishing and hiking licenses to offset the cost of such searches.
A reporter with The Times in Shreveport, La., said Key was an employee of Jack Cooper Transport in Shreveport. He leaves a wife, Tammy, and two daughters, Kasey, 11, and McKenzie, 8.