As I head down into the hole, Redden hands me a radio; unfortunately, it’s not until I’m already in and he’s filling the entry shaft, first with igloo-like blocks of snow and then loose powder, that he uses it to mention that, in order for it to be a fair test for Blu (who is in the patrol hut with my wife and other patrollers), I will have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the surface smell to dissipate. For the record, I wouldn’t recommend this exercise for the claustrophobic. Nothing makes 15 minutes go by slower than being buried alive in a cold, cramped, dark space that you couldn’t get out of if you tried. As my wife tells me later, up above, after 15 minutes have passed, Redden returns to the patrol hut, takes Blu outside and then gives the order to search, at which point Blu takes off like a bolt of lightning, working the slope in a grid pattern, her nose to the surface. Directly above me she stops, sniffs and starts digging. A few moments later, I take immense pleasure in seeing the light and her snout breaking into my tomb, at which point Redden calls her off and digs me out with a shovel. In all, it took her less than a minute to locate and rescue me.
Even without the backcountry side of the equation, there is a good reason for all of this training because, despite their rarity, in-bound slides can and do happen. When Drew Dunlap was caught in a 1992 slide at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, he became the first skier in U.S. history to be rescued by a dog within a ski resort’s boundary while he wasn’t wearing an avalanche transceiver. Slides often occur with no victims, but when an avalanche happens, there’s no way for patrollers to know whether anyone was trapped. “At Deer Valley, as opposed to a resort like Alta or Snowbird, where more of the skiers are avalanche savvy, we have a very low percentage of our skiers using avalanche beacons or locators, so the dogs are a huge peace of mind,” explains Graff. “If an avalanche happens, we mobilize the dogs, and since I am ultimately the one responsible for calling off a search, it’s a lot easier to do that after teams of dogs have searched the site and found nothing.”
Deer Valley has four dogs on its patrol, three of which were rescued from shelters, and most of the time they do outreach rather than rescues. “Ski-school classes of kids come into patrol headquarters, and we show them the dogs and use it as a catalyst to talk about ski safety — what to do if they get separated from their group, stuff like that,” says Graff. At Snowbasin Resort, also in Utah, patrollers carry baseball-type cards depicting the resort’s four patrol dogs. Anytime a child sees a patroller, he can recite a rule from the Skier Responsibility Code and receive a card, with the goal being to collect all four. And in Vail, in addition to Henry, Mookie (a black Lab) and Rocky (a golden retriever) also receive their own baseball cards that kids covet — and printed on the back is the Skier Responsibility Code.
The dogs’ eagerness to search and the fun they look like they are having can belie their heroics, and few dogs I know would calmly ride a chair lift a hundred feet off the ground or ride on the back of a snowmobile. But these dogs love their jobs, and they do it for as long as they can, as indicated by Lila, a 12-year-old black Lab at Deer Valley. Or Wookie, a famous rescue dog and the longtime companion of Jake Hutchinson, former patrol director at the Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah. A German shepherd, Wookie, now deceased, lost a leg to cancer yet continued to requalify annually for four years at the highest level of certification. In Colorado, the Snowmass team has erected a shrine to its past heroes, called the Ski Patrol Avalanche Dog Memorial, in the East Chutes area. It’s closed to the public, and only patrollers can visit to honor the animals.
Under such circumstances, it’s hard to begrudge Henry naps knowing that every day he is ready and willing to save someone.