Tag Archives: Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Weekly High-Five Report: Ari the Certified Avalanche Dog

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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.

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Weekly High-Five Report: Hope on the Slopes

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“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.

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!

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.

Luna the Avalanche Rescue Puppy

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Meet the newest member of Crystal Mountain’s Ski Patrol.  Luna (owned by Eric Gullickson and Anna deArrieta) is an eight-week old Belgian Malamois, and yesterday was her first day on the patrol.

Training an avalanche rescue dog is a long, intense job.  This season Anna and Eric will work on socializing Luna–getting her used to riding the chairlift, running alongside them as they ski, and training her on basic commands.  The key this year will be to have Luna understand the “game” of avalanche rescue: if she finds a human-scented object under the snow, she will get to play. 

Avalanche rescue dogs are used to find victims buried in the snow.  They “alert” on a scent, showing the handler where to probe and shovel.  Dogs don’t necessarily dig the victim out of the snow, since avalanche debris is the consistency of hard boulders.  Instead, avalanche dogs show the handlers where to dig. 

Once a dog gets the basic game, dog handlers increase the distractions and bury the object (whether a person or an article of clothing) deeper in the snow, making it ever more realistic.   

One day Luna will become a certified avalanche rescue dog, like Cirrus.  For now, she’s a candidate.  But she’s already one of us.  Plus, she’s adorable.

Avalanche Rescue Dogs

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Like any ski patroller, Crystal Mountain’s Avalanche Dogs love their job.  Trained to find avalanche victims buried in the snow, dogs like Kayla and Dee (shown right) have spent their lives learning to follow human scent under the snow.  It isn’t easy, but don’t tell Kayla and Dee–they love it.  To them, it’s just a big game.  After each search practice the dogs get to play with a special toy reserved only as a reward for finding a buried victim.  And Dee loves gloves. 

Here, she’s got a hold of mine, and enjoys keeping it away from Kayla.

Training an avalanche dog is difficult business.  My dog, Rocket, rest his soul, spent his life alongside me on the hill.  In the mornings, we went to work together.  And at night, he slept beside me.  I like to think we understood each other.

When Rocket found his first real victim, I had hoped he would be a hero.  I had wanted him to save someone’s life.  After all, that’s why we trained so hard.  I had spent years digging snow caves, getting buried in avalanche debris to simulate the real thing, and opting to do “dog work” instead of free ski.  Rocket and I were committed.

But sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan.  Rocket did find a victim, but it was no use.  The guy had died instantly.  That day he didn’t want to play with his special toy, either.  Rocket knew it wasn’t a game.

Today, as I watch Dee and Kayla steal my glove, romp in the snow, and rub their backs in the powder, trying to scratch beneath their patrol vests, I miss my own dog.  I wish he had lived a few more years.  Rocket was the best dog a girl could have.

But our best canine friends never do live long enough.  Perhaps that’s what makes them so special in our hearts.