Since they are rarely needed for in-bounds rescues, many ski-resort dogs are also made available for the far more common avalanche rescue missions or lost-person searches in the backcountry, outside ski-resort boundaries. Around Salt Lake City, where there are 11 major resorts close to one another, most patrols are members of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a nonprofit organization with more than 30 dog and 100 human volunteers operating under the direction of the search-and-rescue teams of five counties’ sheriffs departments. Dispatchers receive a daily list of the dogs and patrollers active at each resort, and if there is a backcountry incident like a lost skier or a snowmobile-triggered avalanche, they will divert a helicopter to the closest resort and pick up the human and canine patrollers. Wasatch Backcountry Rescue also certifies training, with A-level dogs suitable for the backcountry and B-level dogs only for resort use, and they operate an acclaimed training program that attracts emergency dog-handler teams from around the world. The Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment agency (CRAD) is a similar cooperative program.
“That’s how we actually save people, with the helicopter, because we work hard to keep the snow in-bounds as safe as possible, and most of what we do is out in the backcountry,” says Redden. “We land a helicopter right here, next to the patrol hut, and we go. There are five ski areas around here, and they all have dogs, so the helicopter will go to whichever one is ready and closest to the slide.” Redden’s partner, Blu, is certified for CRAD missions. “We have an average of five backcountry deployments each season, and these dogs have to go through a rigorous training process. One of the tougher tests is to find two different people buried in a slide, because most dogs are so happy to find the first that they won’t keep looking.” Blu can find two or more easily. Blu is highly trained and good at what she does.
It was Blu who rescued me.
Training for rescue dogs begins when they are just puppies. Patrollers start by having the pups locate items with a human smell — often a ski glove — buried in a field of snow. Searching for human scents in the snow is the primary focus of the first year of training, and learning the search command is turned into a game with a reward. Also during the first season, puppies are socialized to get them used to ignoring the many on-mountain distractions and to familiarize them with the fast-moving ski crowds, riding chair lifts, riding on snowmobiles — something dogs typically don’t like — and running alongside skiing patrollers. At some point though, usually around the second winter season, the only way to train an avalanche rescue dog to really find a buried human being is to, well, bury a human being. For this reason, volunteers are regularly buried at ski resorts around the country. And this is what Redden suggests I do in order to get a better appreciation of how the dogs function. To facilitate the exercise, Redden spends more than an hour digging the hole in which I’ll be buried alive. It consists of a vertical shaft that leads to a horizontal chamber parallel to the surface of the snow, three to four feet down. To maneuver my way into the hole, I drop in feet first, wearing my ski boots and clothing, then worm into the crawl space, which is shaped like — well, as ski patrol director Steve Graff of Utah’s Deer Valley Resort says, “a snow coffin.”