Buried alive: Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment team inches closer to standard avy dog training
February 24, 2017
Everything was dark. His breath echoed in the pit, one of several strewn across the steep and frosty slope, but all else was silent. Eerily so. And then he heard the telltale sniffing and snorting.
From Feb. 22-23, roughly 30 ski patrollers and a dozen avalanche rescue dogs from nine Colorado resorts came to Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area for mid-season training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment team (aka CRAD), the state's certification program for avy rescue animals and their handlers. Both days at both ski areas featured a slew of drills and scenarios, and just about every volunteer victim will vividly remember the most nerve-wracking of them all: live burials.
Here's how it works. On Thursday morning — the second day of CRAD's two-day training and testing event — volunteers skied to pre-dug pits in Dave's Ditch, an unmarked area of steeps between Lift 1 and Lift 6. They then crawled into the snowy echo chamber, marked only by a red bamboo stick, and covered the entrance to simulate a complete burial. Everything was dark.
And then they waited. Within minutes, most volunteers heard the first faint sounds of commotion on the sunny and seemingly far-away slope. The commotion got closer and their hearts beat faster, and seconds later they were greeted by an avalanche dog and its handler. The dogs dug, dug, dug until the volunteers were safely out of the hole, just as they were trained to do, and then excitedly waited for the next game of hide-and-seek to start.
"Once the dog finds the scent, you want that dog to do nothing more than find where the scent is coming from," said Tanner Franti, a Loveland ski patroller and CRAD avy dog tester. "They were excited to have the dog's furry, wet noses poking them in the snow."
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This February's mid-winter CRAD training is part of a year-round program that's just now getting off the ground. Last year, CRAD officials decided to schedule a slate of training and testing events across the state, beginning with a formal mid-winter training and followed by a more informal dry-land training in October. Avy dog teams from across the state are invited, and with good reason: Since 2007, a total of 275 backcountry travelers have died in Colorado avalanches — the highest of any state in the nation — at a rate of seven or eight per season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. That includes 27 backcountry travelers and three ski patrollers.
This past week's training was low-key — officials plan to host full-scale trainings every other ski season, with refresher-style courses during the between seasons — but it still attracted teams from Winter Park and Telluride that aren't as familiar with CRAD techniques as their peers in Summit and Eagle counties.
"When we get together we push each other, and the more we train together, the more we see what other areas are doing," Franti said. "It raises the bar for everyone. We're really fortunate here to have a good, core group of handlers at every area that are dedicated to the training."
These regular trainings are all part of CRAD's revised mission: to standardize search-and-rescue training across the state and, after a few years, become a nationally recognized resource for avy dog handlers. CRAD started as (and still is) a branch of Flight For Life Colorado — dogs and handlers get regular helicopter and deployment training throughout the season — but it's slowly grown to cover everything a rescue team encounters, from small-scale slides near the resorts to complex, multi-victim incidents deep in the backcountry.
"When we're deployed in the field, we hope that people are wearing (avalanche) beacons," said Matt Norfleet, assistant ski patrol director at A-Basin and a CRAD member. "If not, that's why we have the dog, and that's where it's all about communication between the dog, the handler and the tech. That's how we train in Summit County."
For now, the majority of CRAD handlers are based in Summit and Eagle counties. But that's slowly changing. Winter Park and Telluride sent two teams each to the training for a total of four dogs, four handlers and four snow techs. The teams observed drills on Wednesday, and then had the chance to practice their skills with buried volunteers on Thursday. It made for an intense two days, and that's exactly what testers like Franti want.
"We want to see the dog physically able to work for a sustained amount of time," Franti said of the skills he looks for when certifying avy dog teams. "It's easy for a dog to look excited and work for five to eight minutes, but a sustained search takes a special dog with high drive and high stamina. Realistically, if you're searching in an avalanche debris field, truth is you'll be out there much longer."
While the dogs built staying power, their handlers worked on communication and "reading" their animals. Avy dogs are often smarter than their handlers, Franti said, meaning they learn bad habits when handlers aren't focused and critical. Sometimes, dogs will learn to dig just long enough for their handler to appear, and then they lose interest in finishing the job.
"A lot of times when we're training, we, the handlers, will stand back and let the dogs work," Franti said. "They're trained to get their reward from the victim, whether that's a toy or whatever. The game is to get all the way to the person."
It might be a game for the dogs, but it's a serious regimen for their handlers. With time, CRAD officials hope their program will be on par with peers like Wasatch Backcountry Rescue of Utah and CARDA, the Canadian Avalanche Dog Rescue Association.
"In a realistic deployment, where we're going into a large-scale avalanche, it's realistic that we'll be working together," Franti said. "One of the most challenging things with backcountry and avalanche rescue is figuring out communication with people you don't work with every day. By doing this — by working with CRAD — it helps get us streamlined and on the same page for the time it really happens."
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