The cold slipped in with the stillness. In the tiny space of the snow cave, silence became solid, weighing me down as frigid tendrils curled up from underneath, each side and above. Even the light was cold, casting a white and blue glow, filtered down through several feet of snow.
My breath came steady, through effort. Curled up on my side, I wiggled my slowly numbing toes, thinking back to just more than an hour ago, when I’d been warm and above the snow, sitting at a table at The Outpost, chatting with the Keystone Ski Patrol about the logistics of getting buried as part of an avalanche rescue dog training drill.
Ski patrol is not in the habit of burying people — quite the opposite, in fact. But in order to get personnel (both two-legged and four-legged) certified for rescue operations, as well as keep sharp through training, nothing beats a live body under the snow.
So I signed the waiver, hopped on the back of a snowmobile and headed out to my burial site — the Erickson Bowl, which is known to occasionally experience snow slides.
Training to save lives
The Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) program certifies dogs and dog handlers used for search and rescue missions.
Dogs start training at a young age and, in Summit County, are owned by their handlers, meaning the dogs spend nearly all their time with the same person in both work and play.
“By living with the dog and having it be yours, and a dog you work extremely closely with, you develop a bond and you learn to read each other. The dog learns to read your emotions, and you learn the dog’s body language,” said John Reller, an avalanche dog handler for Copper Mountain Resort and CRAD coordinator. “The bond is incredibly important in how you and that dog work.”
Not just any dog can be an avalanche rescue dog, however. They have to be the right size — no more than around 100 pounds, preferably smaller. Bigger dogs will have trouble going through the snowpack, and handlers need to be able to pick up their dogs in case terrain becomes too treacherous.
Trainers also consider personality when picking out a rescue dog, Reller said.
“Just like people, dogs have different personalities and you want the right personality dog,” he said. “We want the dog that wants to work, or that has the drive to do something when we give it the command.”
There are several levels of certification, each with an increasingly more difficult testing process. In general, the first level starts out as a timed test of a search in a 100-by-100 foot area. The team has 20 minutes to locate one to three buried people, as well as two to four buried articles, such as a backpack or jacket.
It can take several years to fully train an avalanche rescue dog, and then recertification happens every two years. Training occurs even more frequently, with once-a-month practice loading and unloading from Flight for Life helicopters, plus continual training runs. The tests are anything but easy, with the goal of recreating real-life situations as much as possible.
“We don’t train them into a pattern, so they get used to every drill being: one person buried, it’s going to take me five minutes, and then we’re done,” Reller said. Sometimes, for example, two people will be buried directly on top of each other or snowmobiles will be placed upwind to give the dog’s nose a challenge.
Although the search command is “Are you ready to work?” the dogs don’t think of it as work in the same terms as humans do, Reller said.
“To them, it’s a fun game. To them, going to work is a lot of fun — that’s what they get trained to do and what they get rewarded to do.”
It was hard to keep track of time under the snow. After the footsteps of the ski patroller who had buried me faded away, my world shrunk to the few inches of space in front of my face. A handheld radio and an avalanche beacon, my only links to the outside world, leaned against the snow, silent.
In an actual avalanche emergency, time becomes incredibly important, and the clock starts ticking the second the snow stops moving.
“Your best bet is companion rescue — everyone having the right equipment, knowing how to use it and being there with the right people,” Reller said.
After an avalanche, a call usually goes in to 911. The sheriff’s office is then notified and requests Search and Rescue and Avalanche Deployment, consisting of avalanche technicians as well as CRAD dogs and handlers.
In 1992, Flight for Life teamed up with the sheriff’s department, ski patrol and Search and Rescue to create the Rapid Avalanche Deployment team (RAD). The collaboration allows for the swiftest response to an emergency, pairing Flight for Life helicopters with an avalanche rescue team consisting of one dog, one handler and one avalanche technician.
In an emergency situation, the nearest available helicopter is sent to pick up the nearest available RAD team and fly them to the site of the accident.
Under the snow, my ears picked up a dull chopping sound as the helicopter flew overhead, seeking a safe place to land. After a few minutes, the sound faded away. Later, I learned that conditions were too difficult for the helicopter to land on-site. The team had to land further away and take snowmobiles in to the site before beginning the search.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, about nine out of 10 people survive burial after 15 minutes. Once the time hits 30 minutes, however, only 50 percent of people are likely to survive.
A dog’s nose is at least 1,000 times stronger than a human’s, and some scientists argue the number is much higher. The reason is that dogs have around 300 million smell receptors, compared to a mere 5 million for humans, according to Vanessa Koehler, a veterinarian at the Frisco Animal Hospital.
To illustrate what this actually means, she offered this comparison:
“You and I can smell a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee, whereas a dog can smell a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools.”
If sense of smell translated to sight: “What you would see at a third of a mile clearly, a dog would see that exact same thing 3,000 miles away, just as clearly,” she said.
This incredible sense of smell is what makes dogs so crucial to the avalanche rescue process. When a person is buried under the snow, their scent eventually makes its way to the surface, where the dogs are able to pick it up and indicate to their handlers.
“The dogs are able to distinguish between the scents on the surface and the scent of the person underneath the snow,” said Patti Burnett, who worked as a ski patroller at Copper for more than 20 years and owned Summit County’s first avalanche rescue dog.
The dogs work through the scents of their handlers, the other rescuers, plus any nearby machines such as snowmobilers and helicopters, to find the buried people.
“The dogs are so smart that they’re able to figure out the difference and hone in on the scent that they need to find,” Burnett said.
A faint scratching sound started above my head. It increased in intensity as small showers of snow sifted down. A few seconds later, I saw what must be one of the most beautiful sights in the world to someone trapped in an avalanche — a delicate snout poking down, snuffling through snow-packed whiskers.
I had been found by Loki, a cattle dog/Lab/pit mix, and her handler, Breckenridge Ski Patroller Bob Northnagle. Loki wiggled with excitement on hearing my voice. As volunteers took over digging me out, she bounded back out over the snow, in search of other potential victims, quickly pouncing on the scent of the second buried volunteer.
“I was super pleased with how she did,” said Northnagle after the exercise. “She did great.”
Ready in time of need
“I describe it as one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed,” said Scott Brockmeier, who has spent the past several years photographing Summit County’s avalanche dogs in action. “It’s amazing to watch them.”
When people are considering potentially dangerous backcountry activities, Burnett advises them to think of others.
“When a person gets buried in an avalanche, it’s not just them at risk, it’s suddenly a lot of other people putting their lives at risk to try and get that person out alive,” she said. “That’s the whole reason we do skier safety and avalanche education. You want people to have fun in the backcountry, but you want them to do it with the right equipment, the right knowledge and the right experience, so they’re not placing other people at risk.”
When the call for action does come, however, the team will be ready.
“To me, it’s amazing what they can do,” Reller said. “They’re a heck of an asset and a wonderful tool, definitely, to save a life.”