McBRIDE, British Columbia - Two frostbitten, emaciated horses were recovering inside a warm barn yesterday thanks to volunteers who spent the week before Christmas digging the animals out of snow in the mountains of northeastern British Columbia.

Birgit Stutz said yesterday that the rescuers cheered when they finished digging a half-mile escape route through the snow for the animals. The horses had been abandoned by a hunter and faced almost certain death.

Stutz said the horses eagerly accepted being bridled and seemed to know they were safe as volunteers led them on a seven-hour hike down the mountain in freezing temperatures on Tuesday.

Stutz said that about 40 or 50 people took part in the rescue over the course of a week. "It was a big effort," Stutz said in a telephone interview.

Stutz said the horses were discovered on Dec. 15 by two local residents. They were above the tree line and had no shelter at first.

Logan Jeck and a friend stumbled across the horses while out looking for some snowmobiles left behind by tourists who had gotten stuck during a trip to the back country on the side of Mount Renshaw - about 750 miles northeast of Vancouver.

At first, the young men thought the most humane thing to do would be to shoot the emaciated horses to put them out of their misery.

"They went up to assess the situation and to decide whether they were going to shoot them or give them hay. They decided they had enough life in them so that's when it all started," Stutz said.

Over the course of a week, a growing number of residents trudged up the mountain with shovels in hand to dig out an escape pathway through 6-foot-deep snow. Stutz said the volunteers had to dig a trench just over a half a mile long through the brush along the mountainside.

On Dec. 19, the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals sent up a couple of officers along with a veterinarian to consider whether the animals could be lifted out by helicopter.

Shawn Eccles, an animal-protection officer, said on a scale of 1 to 9, the horses' health rated about a 2.

The horses are now under a veterinarian's care and are being carefully fed and watered.

"They're doing well," Stutz said.