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Snow dogs allowed: Furry friends keep us safe on the ski hill
SUMMIT COUNTY • Tane has a lot of jobs at Arapahoe Basin. Public relations. Ski patrol companionship. Disposal of excess bacon from the ski area’s famous Bloody Marys.
But his most important task involves his nose — not the ability to sniff out pork products, but people.
The golden retriever is one of dozens of dogs at Colorado ski areas trained to rescue skiers lost in the snow or buried in an avalanche. They are lovable ambassadors who spend more time posing for photos than following scents, but for those who get in trouble playing in the snow, there’s no better nose to be on the case.
“He’s really into it,” said ski patroller and Tane’s owner, Rebecca “Becs” Hodgetts, while her dog rolled around on his back gleefully in the snow. “He’s not a hot-weather dog at all.”
There’s nothing new about using dogs to find people in the snow, a practice that dates to the 1700s and iconic Saint Bernards in the Alps, barrels of brandy around their necks.
Colorado leads the nation in avalanche deaths, and as ski areas have expanded into steeper, off-piste terrain, the threat of in-bounds slides has risen. Patrollers monitor snow conditions and set off slides to lessen the risk, but accidents occur. Two people died in avalanches at Colorado ski areas last season, in Vail and Winter Park.
While you still can find Saint Bernards at ski areas, most dogs are swifter and more agile — and they don’t carry brandy. John Snook, avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and a former ski patroller, said black Labs, golden retrievers and border collies often make the best snow rescue dogs, though he has seen plenty of mutts.
“As long as they’re able to deal with the cold and they’re obedient and they have a good nose, they can do really well,” he said. “And they can cover a lot more ground in a quicker time than a human can.”
And time is crucial when it comes to rescuing avalanche victims. When a slide occurs, a skier is hurtled down the mountain by unbearable force. Limbs can break, heads can pound against rocks. And when the slide stops, the victim is buried under cement-like snow, unable to move. Their breath forms an icy mask around their face, and many victims asphyxiate within 15 minutes. After an hour, only 10 percent of victims survive.
Without an avalanche beacon, which few skiers at resorts wear, it can take hours to search even a small slide by probing under the snow. But a dog can canvass the same area in minutes and smell a person several feet under the snow.
Not that it’s easy to get them to that point. Tane’s training started when he was a puppy and took three years. The first year involves teaching the dog it is work, not play, to find a victim. They get used to riding on snowmobiles and helicopters. Trainers make rescue projects, finding human clothing under the snow, gradually harder.
To graduate as certified rescue dogs, they need to find three “victims” in a 100-square-meter area within 20 minutes.
Said Hodgetts: “It’s pretty amazing when that happens.”
Though Tane has been at A-Basin for nine years, he has only been on a couple of missions and never had to find a victim.
“He’s PR,” Hodgetts said. “We do a lot of stuff with the kid ski school. People love the dogs, so it’s such a great icebreaker for bringing up everything else that has to be done.”
It’s the same at most ski areas. At Aspen/Snowmass, resort employees hand out trading cards of each dog, with snow-safety tips on the back. Adults love them too; Tane has plenty of skiers who come back each year to feed him bacon.
But an incident last month at Crystal Mountain, a ski resort in Washington, showed how vital the dogs can be in an emergency. A skier not wearing a beacon was buried in an avalanche after the area received 40 inches of snow. Her friends called for help, and within 15 minutes, aided by avalanche dogs, she was pulled from the snow.
Most avalanche dog missions occur outside of resorts, and they are usually body retrievals, said Snook, the avalanche forecaster.
At A-Basin, with several younger dogs at the area, Tane’s tenure will soon be over. For Hodgetts, that means not working with her partner of nine years.
But it’s OK. Tane is also her house pet.
“We’re so lucky we get to bring our dogs from puppyhood because they have such a trust in you,” she said. “You can take them anywhere and they give you that look and say, ‘Fine, I’ll go.’
“One of the most satisfying things I’ve done is train him.”