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Pre-season training preps avalanche dogs from Colorado and far beyond for search and rescue

“The saves are going to start happening because of this program and we are going to get people out of the worst situation possible alive.”

Jackson Hole Ski Patrol Assistant Director Scott Stolte lets go of his rescue dog Luna during training Oct. 7, 2019, in Summit County. There were 32 dog teams that attended the four-day training hosted by the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment organization. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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DILLON — Luna yelps as she streaks through the lodgepole pines in a blur. 

“She wants it so bad. She loves to play,” says her handler, Scott Stolte, the assistant director of ski patrol at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. 

Luna, the youngest member of the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, takes mere seconds to find her quarry: another ski patroller tucked behind a tree, who rewards the lithe black Lab with screeching, howling tugs on her favorite toy. 

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“If the person rewarding your dog doesn’t feel ridiculous, they are probably not doing it right. You have to sound like a dying rabbit,” says Hunter Mortenson, an avalanche forecaster with the Breckenridge ski patrol who heads the resort’s avalanche dog program and serves on the board for the 70-member Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, or C-RAD. 

There are more than 30 avalanche rescue dogs like Luna on the banks of Dillon Reservoir, dusting off their summer break with an intensive training program that has drawn dog handlers and avalanche technicians from 15 ski resorts and several search-and-rescue groups across six states. 

Grand County Search and Rescue member Jane Mather keeps her dog Aero from seeing where rescue subjects are hiding during training Oct. 7, 2019, in Summit County. Mather has been working with rescue dogs for 20 years. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The October C-RAD training program is in its sixth year of preparing avalanche technicians and dog handlers with a bit of pre-season training before the snow flies. And this year, as avalanche safety technology improves and the rapid-response program grows, there’s hope that the traditional role of avalanche dogs finding long-buried bodies may evolve into actual rescues. 

Beneath massive new slide paths carved below Peak 1 and Peak 2 during last March’s historic avalanche cycle, the Windy Point Campground resonates with howls and yips as dogs are riled into a rescue-ready frenzy. Handlers cajole their hounds into finding multiple targets and reward rescues with noisy praise and play. The dogs clamber aboard Flight for Life’s AS350 B3e helicopter for short rides to acclimate them to the roar of flight. Their handlers train for certification that allows them to ride in the Flight for Life helicopter to a remote scene with an avalanche technician and without a flight paramedic. Those technicians are at the training too, honing skills they need to safely shepherd a search dog and its handler through avalanche terrain they accessed via helicopter.

It’s not common to blend the two training disciplines. But that’s how it’s been in Colorado since 1987, when the need for a coordinated response was highlighted by an avalanche on Peak 7, just outside the Breckenridge ski area boundary, that killed four skiers. 

Taos Ski Valley rescue dog Izzy begins a search during training Oct. 7, 2019, in Summit County. The Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment organization hosted four days of training to prepare for the upcoming season. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Flight For Life, the Denver-based air ambulance, had a helicopter in the area that February day and was able to ferry a dog team from Copper Mountain to Peak 7, where hundreds of searchers were slowly probing the debris field in a search for survivors that took three days. 

The Peak 7 avalanche marked a pivotal point in Colorado’s avalanche safety programs and seeded the roots of the nonprofit C-RAD. Flight For Life started stationing a helicopter in Silverthorne a few years later and the company became part of a coordinated plan to deploy avalanche dogs and technicians to debris fields within minutes of an accident. 

Today, ski resorts with avalanche dogs call Flight For Life every morning of the winter to let the company know if it has a team that can be scrambled on short notice. When a report of an avalanche burying people comes in, Flight For Life is able to pick up a team from a resort and respond to a slope in Summit, Eagle, Clear Creek or Grand counties in as little as 15 minutes. 

Mark Hall, a dog trainer with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment organization, works with his dog Glory on the agility course Oct. 7, 2019, during a four-day training in Summit County. Hall has been training rescue dogs for 30 years. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That gives hope that avalanche dogs may grow beyond helping to recover the bodies of slide victims and may soon be rescuing people. 

Last December, an avalanche dog located a 12-year-old skier who only was slightly injured after he was buried for more than 40 minutes in an avalanche just outside the La Plagne ski area in the French Alps. This year a team of doctors in Utah suggested a certain type of avalanche airbag — inflatable backpacks that are typically deployed to keep a slide-caught skier from getting buried in debris — could create an air pocket for a trapped skier to breathe for as long as 60 minutes as it deflates under the surface of the snow. 

Big Sky Resort ski patroller Anna Kendall does obedience training with her dog Hank on Oct. 7, 2019, in Summit County. The four-day training was hosted by the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment organization. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“If we can be there in 15 minutes, especially with the air pockets created by airbags these days, that means it can happen,” Mortensen said. “The saves are going to start happening because of this program and we are going to get people out of the worst situation possible alive. So we are pretty psyched.”

Dogs, handlers, technicians coming together for the same goal

Storms in late February and early March buried Colorado’s high country and triggered a once-in-a-lifetime avalanche cycle, including the largest slides ever recorded, some in areas with no previous history of avalanches. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center last winter fielded reports of about 4,300 avalanches that buried roads and destroyed homes. At least 46 people were caught in slides. Seven skiers and a man who was shoveling a roof were killed.  

Colorado’s avalanche cycle made international news and the trumpet blasts of high-danger seemed to resonate with backcountry travelers. There weren’t an extraordinary number of incidents during the first few weeks of the month, when danger reached extreme levels that pretty much guaranteed devastating slides.

John Reller worries about the weeks when avalanche danger maybe isn’t so high but remains considerable or moderate, which means human-triggered avalanches are “likely” or “possible.” Especially if there hasn’t been a lot of new snow and skiers are pushing deeper to find that fresh turn on slopes with weak layers buried deep in the snowpack. 

“More often than not, we are called to the smaller slides,” says Reller, an Arapahoe Basin ski patroller and veteran dog handler now training his sixth avalanche rescue dog. 

Rescuers, from left, Scott Stolte, Tanner Franti and Hunter Mortensen work with Franti’s dog Zuma during training in Summit County. In the background is a slide path from a massive avalanche triggered March 7 on Peak 1. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Reller, who was a Copper Mountain ski patroller when the Copper dog team was called to the the 1987 avalanche at Breckenridge, is one of the C-RAD dog trainers working with handlers at Dillon Reservoir this week. He is galloping alongside Zoot, an Airedale terrier from Aspen Mountain. A gaggle of handlers follow, leaving their hounds back at the picnic table, all of them braying over their exclusion from the game. After Zoot finds his quarry, the handlers discuss wind direction and the challenges of keeping the dogs on point in a multiple-victim scenario. 

“It’s amazing to see all these people coming together for the same goal of sharing information,” Reller says later. “And it’s all about helping people who really need our help. It’s great to see how over the years the level of professionalism and the level of knowledge has really skyrocketed and we are so much better at sharing all this information. We are all in this together and it’s really great to see.”

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