Search for lost skis on Buffalo Pass leads to chance encounter |

Search for lost skis on Buffalo Pass leads to chance encounter

Horseman Ray Knell is traveling from Lake George

— Steamboat Powdercats manager Kent Vertrees might not have found what he was looking for on June 19 when he spent the day on Buff Pass searching for lost skis from the snowcat season. But he did find a new lifelong friend.

While looking for guests’ skis, Vertrees happened upon horseman Ray Knell and his three mules — Toby, Top Gun and Magic — and a horse named Mustang Sally, which he is delivering 1,000 miles from Lake George, Colorado, to Bozeman, Montana.

The former Green Beret and Afghanistan War veteran is making the 90-day trip to trail-train the animals and donate them, as well as their saddles and tack, to Bozeman’s nonprofit Heroes for Horses program, which arranges high-mountain pack trips for combat vets adjusting to new lives.

“It was weird,” Vertrees said. “I went up there looking for skis and found Ray in the middle of his trip. He asked me if the area near Strawberry Park Hot Springs had any grass for his horses.”

Ever the good Samaritan, Vertrees did better than that. He called his friend Kurt Casey, who was on vacation in Europe but lives on a ranch in Strawberry Park, and asked if Knell could pasture his horses there for a couple of days.

In typical Steamboat fashion, Casey said “yes” and next thing you know, after being solo on the trail for days on end, Knell found pasture for his equines and himself wide-eyed at Steamboat’s opening free summer concert series.

“Kent randomly brought me into his home and found a place for my horses, and then the next minute, I’m at a neighbor’s barbecue and then at a community concert,” Knell said. “It was amazing. I was surrounded by genuine kind and thoughtful people, which seems rare in this time and age.”

Knell, 33, a Bronze Star recipient and former engineering sergeant and mountaineering instructor with Fort Carson’s 10th Special Forces who served repeated deployments to Afghanistan, said his main purpose for the trip is to help his fellow combat veterans.

“One goal is to bring Heroes and Horses four well-trained and seasoned equines with all the tack to go with them,” he said. “Another is to call attention to their organization. There are alternative ways to help heal and challenge yourself, and human-equine relationships are a great way to do so.

“H&H uses that relationship along with the challenges of the backcountry to help combat veterans not just cope but live greater lives,” Knell explained. “But the animals have to be well trained.”

Knell was invited 18 months ago to participate on a series of trips with the group by his friend, fellow contractor and former Navy SEAL Micah Fink, Heroes and Horses executive director. The group was founded by Mark and Jean White in 2010. Those trips gave Knell a renewed sense of purpose coaching fellow veterans in mountain survival, and this trip gives him the chance to return the favor and support the nonprofit that, this year, expects to serve 38 combat veterans.

Preparing for the excursion with outings to Arizona and Montana before departing Lake George’s M Lazy C Ranch May 31, Knell raised all the money for the equines and tack himself and is covering the costs of his own food and supplies. And it’s all in an effort to help other veterans find purpose from his ponies.

Of course, as much fun as he’s had in Steamboat, first, he has to get out of Routt County. After his quick, impromptu visit to town, he’s been stuck up in Elk Park for three days, waiting for Mad Creek to get low enough to cross safely.

“Steamboat was a very enriching experience,” Knell said. “Now, I just have to get across this river.”

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