Category Archives: Avalanche Rescue Dogs

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

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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.

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Weekly High Five Report: Avalanche Rescue Dogs

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Photo by Dane+Dane Studios

If you were caught in an avalanche, and you heard the scratching of a rescue dog coming to find you, you’d probably feel the same way I do. You’d love avalanche rescue dogs. At Crystal Mountain, avi dogs are part of the patrol. We currently have seven dogs wearing the cross, including four fully certified dogs, two operational dogs ready to take their certification tests and one avalanche puppy in training. They’re just as much part of the crew as anyone else. And they work for scraps. Well, some of them work for leather gloves and others work for knobby pull toys. But they all love to search.

Avalanche rescue dogs are trained to find people buried in avalanches. Monks living high in the Alps were the first to utilize dogs for their rescue capabilities, and at Crystal we’ve had dogs for over 25 years. Whenever an unwitnessed avalanche happens anywhere at Crystal,

Newman finds a victim

whether a small slough below Rock Face (word to the wise: NOT a good place to stop and take a photo) or a bigger slide in the backcountry, we bring the dogs. Most often the dogs are used to “rule out” the possibility of a human burial. If a fully certified dog, such as Cirrus or Kala, says no one’s buried in there, then we trust them. They’re that good.

We’ve also used the dogs in bigger avalanches, even taking the dogs to the site of deadly slides in Mt. Rainier National Park, the Alpental backcountry and Mt. Baker, as well as one in a closed area at Crystal several years ago. With the BARK Backountry Avalanche Rescue K-9 program now in place, all avi dogs in Washington State follow the same training and certification program, allowing dogs and handlers to travel beyond their ski area boundaries and search wherever needed.

As I’ve mentioned before, when traveling in avalanche terrain, you should always wear a transceiver and ski/ride with a partner that can find you and dig you out. If you’re in a remote location, even the best avi dog still has to get to the scene of the slide to start his or her search. After ten minutes of burial the odds of survival are pretty slim. Of course, if you happen to have an avalanche rescue dog with you, the dog will most likely beat the human searcher.

The incomperable Kala

Sadly, dogs are also used for body recovery. By the time a dog can reach a buried victim, it’s often too late. The value in training dogs lies in their ability to search avalanche debris in a fraction of the time it would take humans to carefully probe the scene. What could take hours, or even days, for a probe line, a dog could search in a matter of minutes. The faster the dogs and searchers get off the scene, the fewer the chances are of another slide coming down and burying the rescue team. Dogs are an essential tool in this way.

Cirrus at the ready

Avalanche dogs search for human scent percolating up from the snow. I’ve heard skiers joke about carrying sausage in their pocket, “just in case.” But food would most likely distract a dog, who has been trained to ignore non-human scents and focus only on those coming up from the snow. If you’re worried about getting caught in an avalanche, you should wear a transceiver and ski with a partner.

But if you’re looking for an excuse not to bathe or wash your stinky poly-pro more often, you could always try the, “I’m increasing my odds of being found by a dog,” excuse and take the high road.

The late, great Rocket

Training an avalanche dog takes years of diligence and patience. People always ask me how their dogs can get on the patrol, to which I always tell them they must first get on the ski patrol themselves. At Crystal, we only train dogs that belong to one of us. We start training at a very young age, getting puppies used to the life, smells and machines of a ski area. These dogs quickly master the art of the on/off switch. When they’re needed, they must be fully “on,” but most of the day these dogs spend in a kennel in the patrol shack. There’s no whining in avalanche dog work.

Dog handlers manage to squeeze in training in between all their other patrol duties. Often handlers come in to train their dogs on their days off, knowing that the privilege of bringing their dog to work with them is a labor of love. Not only are these dogs masters of obedience (my late dog,

A few of the best, photo by Dane+Dane Studios

Rocket, used to salute me every time I whispered his name), they can also load a chairlift with ease, shake hands and wag tails with curious kids, and find a victim buried several feet below the surface in a matter of minutes. And if you play your cards right, they can even do your taxes and write the Great American Novel.

High-five Avalanche Rescue Dogs. And high-five avi dog handlers. Not only are you the best looking thing in a ski patrol uniform, you also perform a worthy service.

Crystal Mountain Avi Dogs even have their own Facebook page. They’re so very 2011. Check it out!

Weekly High-Five Report: Animal Joy

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Sometimes nature just blows me away. I’ve watched dolphins surf on the bow wave of a boat and whales breach high out of the water. I’m convinced that animals experience joy. My avalanche dog used to sled down steep slopes on his back, get to the bottom, shake himself off and smile. We aren’t the only animals in the kingdom that understand the importance of play. This video is a case in point. High-five to these starlings. Dance on!

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Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

How to Be There When it Dumps

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Powder Day!

You’ve all been there. It’s still 30 minutes before first chair and the line is already snaking back to the ticket kiosks. Thin snowflakes drift lazily from the sky. The big dump happened yesterday, while you sat at your office desk obsessively checking and re-checking the resort’s website, watching the snow pile up. The day started with 3 inches of new–not enough to call in sick. By the time you checked from your desk, another 2 inches had fallen. You briefly wondered if it was too late to make it up there. Unfortunately, you just rode the elevator with your boss and never mentioned the growing nausea a quick dash from the office would require. Read the rest of this entry

The Greatness of Dogs

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Rocket Circa 2003

My good friend Lisa asked me to dog-sit this week. Of course I jumped at the chance. Her dog, Ari, is the spitting image of the late, great Rocket, my ski patrolling partner and companion that passed away five years ago. They are both small black labs, with jet-black noses and big hearts.

While hiking with Ari yesterday at Crystal, I was reminded why I miss my dog so much. I loved the way he would run ahead a few yards and look back at me, his pink tongue glistening against his teeth. Being an avalanche rescue dog just like Rocket, Ari doesn’t stray too far from the trail either.

They are alike in other ways. Just like Rock, Ari has an on/off switch. Enthusiastic one minute, he knows how to listen and sit and stay when necessary. When he finds a patch of snow, he rubs his nose against it, rolls on his back and slides down like a skier. He walks so close to me that I mistake him for my shadow. And when he looks at me and cocks his head, shakes his tail back and forth in a long, slow wag, it almost breaks my heart.

Ari hiking near Crystal Mountain, August 2011

I’m not ready for another dog. Rocket ruined me. Not once in his 8 years did he ever do anything wrong. Well, there was that one time when he jumped on the counter and devoured an entire loaf of bread. I was dumbfounded when I got home. How could he do such a thing? The dog hardly breathed without permission. It was just a few months before he died, and I realized later that this erratic behavior was the build-up to the inevitable.

Besides that, he was the perfect avalanche dog. (I even sang to him and for those of you following along, “Who’s the best dog in the United States? It’s you Rocket-dog. It’s you.”)

But I digress.

When training him, I often expected that he would someday be a hero. He would find a person buried in the snow, bark and dig in just the right spot so I knew where to search. The victim would emerge whole and alive.

But that’s not how it happened in real life.

When Rocket did find his victim, the man was already dead. He’d been swept through trees at a tremendous speed. As the group of patrollers that collected around the body waited for the toboggan, not one of us looked at him. We avoided eye contact and focused on our ski boots, gathered emergency gear and disconnected the probes and shovels.

But not Rocket.

He stared at the body. I couldn’t divert his attention. I brought out the toy used only when he found a victim, something he loved more than anything else in the world, and he looked at me with a pitiable look. He seemed to say, “This is serious. This is not play time.”

He watched the body until the toboggan arrived, and I did too. It seemed the right thing to do.

The best lessons I’ve ever learned I got from my dog. He loved snow more than anything else, he said hello with enthusiasm and hardly acknowledged goodbyes, and most importantly, he knew when to play and when to be serious.

Having Ari here is a little blessing—a reminder about the greatness of dogs.

Part of this post is excerpted from my forthcoming memoir The Next 15 Minutes.

Search for Missing Skier Will Resume at Crystal

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The snowpack at Crystal is starting to melt. Total snow in Green Valley is 122 inches as of this morning, which means that the search for Paul Melby will resume soon. Paul disappeared on March 1st at Crystal Mountain while skiing alone. He was last seen at 2:30pm skiing Rabbit Ears underneath Chair 6. There was 100 inches of snow on the ground. It is presumed he fell into a tree well. I’ve written more about this here and here.

Search Details

Sat. & Sun. June 25 & 26: Main thrust of search, when volunteers are needed. We are expecting to reach target snow melt by June 25th and will be looking for volunteers to help with the search.

Those willing to help must be:

  • expert level skiers or snowboarders able to handle expert terrain as second nature, so attention can be paid to thorough searching, not on maneuvering/surviving on skis.
  • have and be able to use skins, snowshoes or other means of ascending, and “expert level” traversing definitely WILL be required.
  • able to stay outside–possibly all day–with ample opportunities for rest. Food, drink, bathrooms and sunscreen may not be easily accessible so come prepared–but travel light; “10 essentials” type packs may hinder progress through tight trees.
  • each team of 2 should have a cell-phone. Verizon service preferred, AT&T OK, others may need to rely on text messaging. Radio’s may be available for those without phones, but we may want the ability to converse privately, too.

This is an official Missing Person search conducted with the approval of the Sheriff’s Office, not an opportunity for free skiing. Searchers will be assigned areas to search, and will be required to report back with details of the location of terrain searched and density of tracks in the area.

Lifts will be used and searching will be done in areas not open to searcher’s friends/family or the general public.

Those of you willing to search can leave a comment here, email me personally or call Patrol Dispatch at 360-663-3060. Let’s find Melby and bring him home to his family.

The Silence of Avalanches

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In the opening pages of the novel The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce, Jake and Zoe are caught in an avalanche in the fictional town of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut. They’ve come to the Pyrenees resort to ski, finding themselves at the top of the pistes alone; they’ve beaten the holiday crowds. The two head down into the powder. They are halfway down when the avalanche hits them. The scene is horrifying. As Zoe fights the panic rising in her body, continually telling herself to calm down, calm down, she methodically begins moving every muscle in her body, trying to find air pockets and scratching at the snow above her head. The loosened snow doesn’t fall onto her head, because, she imagines, there isn’t enough room for it to fall. Then it hits her. The snow isn’t falling because she’s upside down. Her head is buried six feet under.

She hyperventilates for a while, battling between the two sides of herself–one that wants to give in to the panic, the other that realizes her only chance of survival is to conserve the small amount of oxygen left. Eventually she succumbs.

For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to get buried in an avalanche, read this book and find out. It’s horrible.

I’ve been caught in a few avalanches, and I’ve willingly jumped into a tiny snow cave and been fully buried in order for my avalanche dog to find me. I agree with Zoe about the panic. Once it starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. First the avalanche tumbles and swallows its victim. One must swim and fight hard to stay on top of the snow. Then, once the snow solidifies, the trick is to calm down and conserve oxygen.

According to NWAC, four victims were buried and killed in avalanches in Washington State this year. These fatalities all occurred in the backcountry, outside of ski area boundaries. At Crystal, we experienced the most severe avalanche cycle seen in decades. According to Ty Anderson, who started patrolling at Crystal in the early years, it was the worst he’d ever seen.

With more backcountry users than ever, I fear that avalanche fatalities will rise unless we arm ourselves with proper equipment and, most importantly, knowledge. For those that venture into avalanche terrain repeatedly, it is easy to assume that the slopes won’t slide. When snow sparkles, swallowing all sound and reflecting a purity found only in the mountains, it’s almost impossible to consider the worst–that the whole thing could turn dark and ugly and horrific.

So I suppose I’m heartened to read about an avalanche burial in a novel with a review in the New York Times. Perhaps that means this particular danger is entering the collective mind of our culture, that it is finally registering. Or maybe I’m reaching too far here.

Skiing powder has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I recommend it highly. But I also know the risks. To pretend that I, too, would never find myself upside in a snow tomb like Zoe is just hubris. Instead, I think about it constantly, even obsess over it at times, perhaps hoping that by being prepared for the splitting slab, I will somehow forestall that particular outcome.