Two ill-equipped hikers from Seattle spent a wet, frightening night on a treeless plateau in the Beartooth Mountains last weekend.
After they were pounded by hail and endured thunder, lightning and high winds Saturday night, their salvation came Sunday afternoon in the form of a search dog named Lila, an 8-year-old Belgian Tervuren.
Lila and her handler, Crystal Arnold of the Absaroka Search Dogs group, spent four fruitless hours searching for the hikers Sunday. They were heading back to the Hellroaring Plateau trailhead about 1:30 p.m. when Lila suddenly bolted off in the opposite direction.
Arnold said Lila went to the top of a mound of rocks — where the hikers had been a bit earlier, as it turned out — and was seen off in the distance by the hikers, who started shouting.
Arnold joined Lila on the rocks and hollered back to the hikers below.
"I said, 'Are you Cindy and Crystal?' And you could just see them crying," Arnold said.
The hikers were Crystal Ng and Cindy Huang, both 27, from Seattle. They were driving back home Wednesday and were reached by The Gazette, but Ng said neither of them was willing to be interviewed.
Arnold provided details of their ordeal. She said the two women, dressed in running shorts, tank tops and tennis shoes, went on a day hike Saturday on the Hellroaring Plateau trail in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness area, setting out about noon.
They were accompanied by a brother of one of the women and another male friend, but when the two men started up a snowfield, the women stayed behind. The men then went over a rise to fish in Sliderock Lake.
When they came back from fishing, Arnold said, "the girls were nowhere to be seen."
The two men looked for the women and alerted at least a dozen other anglers and hikers, who assisted in the search. Carbon County Search and Rescue and Red Lodge Fire Rescue were notified of the missing hikers about 9 p.m. Saturday, according to Asano Otsu, volunteer coordinator for Red Lodge Fire Rescue.
Otsu said Carbon County Search and Rescue sent a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the trailhead that evening, where it parked with its lights flashing until late in the night, hoping the women would see it.
Otsu said Carbon County Search and Rescue and Red Lodge Fire Rescue had 14 people involved in the effort, mostly in coordinating EMT assistance and providing support and planning. It also arranged for a helicopter flyover.
A call for help went out to Absaroka Search Dogs about 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Arnold said she and three other members of the group happened to be in the West Rosebud drainage Saturday as part of a weeklong training exercise when they got the call.
They hiked out in the morning, reaching the Red Lodge fire station about 5:30 a.m. and worked on their plan of attack with the Red Lodge searchers, Arnold said. She and the other three handlers and their dogs reached the trailhead at the end of a steep, rocky road off Highway 212 nine miles south of Red Lodge at about 9:40 a.m.
Their best tip came from another hiker who had been planning to spend Saturday night at Sliderock Lake but walked out because the weather was turning bad. He told the searchers he saw the women at the bottom of the snowfield and that he saw them walking away from the trail, which he thought was odd.
The searchers and dogs concentrated their efforts in the area identified by the other hiker, on the treeless plateau at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.
Arnold said the other hiker estimated that winds on the plateau reached speeds of 70 to 80 mph Saturday night, and a "nasty storm" rolled in, with hail, thunder and lightning.
There was no shelter on the plateau and the women told Arnold they were severely pelted by the hail. All they had when they were found was a grocery bag with a bottle of water and half an energy bar.
The plateau provides no cover, Arnold said, but it was probably best that the hikers stayed there, out in the open where they could be found. It would have been much more difficult to find them if they had hiked down the plateau into thick timber.
"One decision would have just changed everything," Arnold said.