Category Archives: Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog


Crested Butte recently released this awesome video about the life of Moose, an avalanche dog. His handler, Dustin, talks about Moose’s job, his love of the mountains and how he lives to find people buried in the snow.

Avalanche dogs use their noses to find buried avalanche victims. Dogs also make the best ski patrollers–they’re enthusiastic about hard work, love to dig in the snow, and know how to party after a job well done.

Moose the avalanche dog

Big Avalanche Results and More About Treewell Safety


Paul Baugher, the Ski Patrol Director at Crystal Mountain, is concerned about treewell safety. Treewells are the airy voids around trees draped heavily with snow. If you fall into one headfirst you might not be able to get out. Check out this video with Crystal’s Paul Baugher and patroller Christina Von Mertens that offers tips about how to avoid getting stuck in one.

Tree Wells & SIS Safety: What To Do If You Go Down from SIS Safety Videos on Vimeo.

The snow is still draped heavily on the trees here in the Cascades, and the forecast is calling for one last storm tonight. Then it looks like things will mellow out. We might even get some warm high pressure later in the week. In the mean time, the dangers still lurk. We set off some big explosives yesterday in Southback, both from the helicopter and on foot. I was on the hand route, and we worked mainly in Avalanche Basin. We got some big results below Appliances Chutes that wrapped around to lower starting zones. The debris ripped out trees in Damn Fine Forest and ran all the way to Elizabeth Lake. In my 25 years at Crystal I’ve never seen these slide paths run this far.

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these


This Avalanche Rescue Canine Gets to Work


kala_on_the_runLet me introduce Kala. She’s one of the avalanche rescue dogs at Crystal. Not just any dog can be an avalanche rescue dog; it takes a special kind to do this work. Any breed will do, even mixed breed dogs have been part of our patrol. Yet they must be keen to work (aka “play” to a dog), strong and a little bit obsessive. That’s Kala.

If I ever get caught in an avalanche, I want Kala coming for me. Notice how she keeps digging and trying to get to the victim. Instead of waiting for her handler to do the work, she just keeps going. I love that persistence. Keep it up Kala.

Why We Have Seasons


Soon the snow will melt

I suppose the purpose of Spring is to make the loss of Winter seem okay. Daffodils are sprouting and cherry trees are blossoming like snowfall caught in their branches.

Winter is almost over, and it is bittersweet.

I enjoy spring skiing–when the snow changes to isothermal pellets frozen harder each night and softer each warm day–but so far we haven’t had much. Instead the snow has kept on, relentlessly prolonging winter. In the past 30 days, we’ve had 13 feet of snow at Crystal. The windows in my house are now completely buried under 10 feet of snow. I tried to dig them out the other day, just to get a sliver of light into my bedroom, but it was futile. The drip line of the roof has created an impenetrable line of frozen snow that bent my shovel.

I love these days

It’s too bad that the days are getting warmer and longer. My favorite chutes are filled in now. All the roughest parts of the mountain are smooth; the snow has covered over all the grooves and crevices and erased the cliffs. But soon the sun–if we do see it this weekend as predicted–will shrink the snow away from the rocks. Soon Winter will lose its grip and Summer will prevail.

I had my hair cut yesterday in anticipation of soon being seen without a hat on.

John balances on the slackline

This is supposed to happen, of course. Life changes. We grow older. Relationships end. New ones begin. Snow melts. Flowers sprout. For most city dwellers, the arrival of Spring must be grand. But for a skier, it’s bittersweet.

Sure, I love sun. I long to feel its rays warm the part in my hair and soften my cold bones. I look forward to walking barefoot in warm grass and dipping my legs in cool water. I can’t wait to trade my ski boots for flipflops.

I just wish the snow could stick around too. I want it all–warm days in the valleys and cold smoke in the mountains. I want to play one day on my slackline and paddle across a smooth lake on my board, then ski powder the next. I want to gather the best moments of my life and live them all at once. Life is too short to space out our joy this way.

Leah battles the wind on Niagras

But then I notice a patch of daffodils and can’t help but look forward to the smell of dirt and leaves warmed by the sun. I’m curious about the wildflowers this season. Will they arrive earlier this summer? Will they be glorious? Will the lake warm up by June? Will the Spring snow stay on the volcanoes long enough to be climbed and skied in stable weather?

We’ve had such a good winter, I hate to see it go. But then again it has been a tough winter. Every snowfall has come with wind. The upper mountain was closed far too often. Many parts of the country had dismal snowfall. Perhaps I should welcome the change.

Not before I ski a few more days however. Crystal will remain open on weekends as long as the snow lasts, so it isn’t over. Soon my windows will let in light again as the snow retreats.

That’s the way it should be I suppose.

Weekly High-Five Report: Ari the Certified Avalanche Dog



Ari and Anna DeArrieta find their quarry

The Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol gained a fully certified avalanche rescue dog when Ari and Dylan (his human handler) passed their certification test this weekend. Crystal uses the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association validation protocol for certifying rescue dogs. A validated team–one that can be used and trusted in rescues–must be able to find two buried human victims and buried two articles of clothing or gear in 40 minutes. Ari and Dylan found them all in just over 20 minutes.

Ari is a 5-year-old Black Labrador Retriever. He is owned by Lisa Poncelet and Steve Vaughn. As a puppy, Ari was trained to be a “Seeing Eye” dog, and learned very well how to stay close to his humans and not stray. But Ari wanted to be a mountain dog, and when he met Lisa, it was love at first sight. During Ari’s first year as a ski patrol dog Lisa helped him flip his “city life” to a “mountain life” in which Ari learned to heal without a leash, to love hiking trails and snow, how to load a chairlift, and the importance of staying away from skiers and snowboarders with sharp edges.

Ari with handler Dylan Cembalski

Anna DeArrieta and Ari teamed up two seasons ago, and Anna is credited with helping Ari become an “Operational” rescue dog. Ari’s instincts to stay close to his humans hampered his progress while searching, when its important for the dogs to range across large areas in order to follow the human scent coming from the snow. In some ways, Ari was almost too obedient, looking at his handler for directions and waiting to be told what to do.

Both Ari and his humans wanted him to be a Fully Certified Avalanche Dog, one that could be used in a real avalanche and one his human team could trust. When Anna adopted her own dog, Luna, it was time for patroller Dylan Cembalski to step in as Ari’s human handler.

Most avalanche dogs have one or maybe two handlers in their patrol lifetimes. Ari has had three. But it hasn’t seemed to alter his personality–he’s as friendly and loving to Lisa and Anna as he is with Dylan. Ari is definitely not a “one-person” dog, and will trust any patroller in a red coat.

Ari’s breakthrough came this year when he and Dylan attended the Swiss Avalanche Dog School at Stevens Pass. Unlike most North American dog programs, the Swiss handlers often use food as a reward. The “victim” gets buried in a hole with a piece of sausage. Instead of working to find the victim and play with their toy, Swiss handlers use the reward that dogs (and most humans) find pretty darn motivating–good old fashioned dried meat.

Ari, Certified Avalanche Rescue Dog

Once Ari realized that there was sausage buried under the surface of the snow, he changed. His searching became more keen and his search times decreased. After several years of training and numerous humans that have loved Ari and helped his move along towards his goal, he’s finally become a legitimate Fully Certified Avalanche Rescue Dog.

Congratulations Ari, and high-five Dylan, Anna and Lisa. Your hard work and dedication has paid off. Now let’s just hope we never have to use Ari’s skills for anything but practice.

Weekly High-Five Report: Hope on the Slopes


“Hope on the Slopes” is a ski and snowboarding event benefiting the American Cancer Society. This past weekend at Crystal Mountain participants and donors raised over $55,000.00 to fight cancer. I had the honor of participating in HOTS this year and felt the great vibes from survivors, loved ones and volunteers. I was honored to be a part of it.

Participants worked in teams and alone to raise funds and ski vertical. Prizes were awarded for most money raised, most vertical, and best costume to name a few.

If I get buried in an avalanche, I want Newman Baugher and his human, Lynn, to come looking for me

The day was packed with activities, including an Avalanche Dog Demonstration. Newman Baugher, a certified Avalanche Rescue Dog at Crystal Mountain, showed the crowd how he finds victims buried in the snow. Even working into the wind, Newman found his buried query in record time. This is a dog that LOVES to search.

Also, thanks to Warm 106.9 for all your support and especially to Jonathan West for emceeing the awards banquet.

Here’s a big high-five to all those that made this event happen this year. Bravo HOTS participants. Let’s kick some cancer butt.

Paul Melby, Rest in Peace


A Tribute to Paul

It has been a year since Paul Melby disappeared at Crystal. As I spoke to his mother this weekend at a memorial party held in Melby’s honor at the patrol shack on Campbell after sweep, I realized how elusive life can be sometimes.

Too often I’ve held my breath lately, trying to stave off that ominous feeling that’s becoming all too common. Oh no not again. Last year, when Paul went missing, when we couldn’t find him and knew he must be here, right here, I could feel it right under my breast bone. It starts as a tickle and grows into a heavy anvil resting on my chest.

On Saturday, as a large group of Paul’s friends, family, ski patrollers and those that searched for him celebrated his life, that heavy feeling in my chest subsided. I think Paul would have been surprised by how he touched so many others. He was always a bit of a loner, humble and okay with whatever label others found for him.

When Paul was on the ski patrol, he must have found the Brittany Spears stickers that adorned his locker by happenstance. He covered his locker with them (or perhaps someone else did it). But when we teased him about it, he just smiled and shrugged. It was no big deal one way or the other if we thought he adored the teen idol. As his locker neighbor, I was convinced he loved the young Brittany.

So when I talked to Paul’s mom, Bonnie, on Saturday I mentioned Brittany Spears and his apparent devotion to her. Bonnie set me straight. Paul’s computer had tens of thousands of songs on it, and she had recently given it to a friend of Paul’s. Bonnie had gone through the list of music.

There wasn’t one Brittany Spears song in the bunch.

I have to admit; I was a little relieved. Not that a devotion to the young Brittany wasn’t endearing, but the more recent Brittany is a pretty tarnished idol. Paul had probably just found a packet of stickers and covered his locker with them on a lark.

When Paul would answer the radio as a ski patroller, he would always respond, “Go for Melby”, as if he was a third party relaying the message. Even when we told him to just respond as himself, he continued to “go” for Melby. Sometimes when I’m out skiing I imagine myself “going” a few turns for him, and this makes me feel better.

This tree marks Paul's final resting place and the new official run at Crystal: Melby's

Paul Melby will always be a bit of an enigma to me. He was a man so loved and who touched so many lives, but he never seemed to fully realize that. Paul did not seek accolades; he didn’t even seem concerned if he was fully understood.

Paul sought the freedom of skiing. He loved the mountains and was devoted to Crystal. I recall our last conversation together. We stood at the top of the Gondola, and he dropped his skis on the snow. He told me his new job was keeping him from skiing as much as he liked. We discussed the upcoming forecast and the hope for fresh snow. We admitted that the conditions that day were “just okay” but “better than nothing”. He said he’d rather be skiing any day than not skiing, regardless of conditions. When he left, I smiled. It was a good reminder to be grateful.

Paul had a connection with animals, and he especially loved the Avalanche Rescue Dogs. His family has generously donated The Paul Melby Memorial Fund to Crystal Mountain’s Avalanche Dog Program. That money will be used for education and further training for the dogs and their handlers and is greatly appreciated.

Paul is deeply missed. He was one of us–a patroller, a ski bum, a Crystal local. He taught me a thing or two about gratitude and not sweating the small stuff. Rest in Peace my friend.

There will now be a new run at Crystal called “Melby’s” and will be printed on the new trail maps we just ordered. Melby’s is named for Paul’s final resting place, between Upper Bull and Middle Ferk’s.

Weekly High-Five Report: The love of a good dog


Rocket and Kim at Work

A good dog will ruin you. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows this. Even bad dogs can be ruinous. They bury into that tender spot just beneath our heart and stay there, like a chigger or a tick. Each time we leave them at home, their noses slashing smudges on the window beside the front door, that small place under our heart breaks open. A new and larger scab forms over that spot, and each subsequent leave-taking grows more painful.

Dogs know this. They know how to make us love them beyond anything rational. We constantly try to remind ourselves, “he’s just a dog. At least he has a warm house to sleep in while I’m away.” But it doesn’t matter. We know that the dog has vowed to be part of our pack, to find his place in our lives, to fit around our daily tasks like a pool of still-warm jello until it finally hardens and he becomes part of us.

Rocket was the dog that ruined me. When he died a few years back, I wasn’t sure I could love another dog, and so far I haven’t been able to. We called him Rocket Dog, Rocket Ship, Rock Star or, at the end, just Rock. We made up songs about him to the tune of Elton John’s “Rocket Man“. He was an avalanche rescue dog, and I took him to work with me every day. He would sleep below the bench in the patrol room quietly, but the moment I would ask him to “go to work,” he’d pop out, his nose wet, his tail wagging.

Hoot in her element

My mom’s dog, Annie, passed away yesterday. She was a golden retriever. A little bit spazzy and she breathed too heavily on me when I visited, Annie was the most loving dog I’ve ever met. She had many nicknames; we rarely called her Annie until she got sick. Instead we called her Spaz Dog or Hootenanny or, most often, just Hoot. She only wanted to please her people, and would usually run out onto the street to say hello to a passing human.

She also loved the elk that patrolled around my parents’ cabin, and would often try to blend in with them. On several occasions she narrowly escaped a vicious kick from an elk; but like any golden retriever, she wasn’t deterred from negative feedback. She just couldn’t believe that another living thing didn’t love her. She just wouldn’t buy it.

The love of a good dog is a blessing like few others in this world. It is untainted, unbiased and completely unconditional. It is a gift.

But there’s a catch. Dogs don’t live long enough. They leave us just when that scab has grown too large, just when their jello has hardened around the routine of our lives; without them we feel loosened and off-kilter. Old leashes gather dust in the garage of our heart, but we can’t bring ourselves to throw them out. Perhaps the fact that dogs die too early is a lesson reminding us that nothing in this world is perfect. Even the perfect love of a dog is not permanent. This would be a helpful lesson if I was a Buddhist. But I’m not. I’m just another ruined dog owner.

Goodbye Hootenanny. Your love made the world a little brighter. Bravo girl.