By Megan Hill
It’s every skier’s worst nightmare. You’re flying down the slopes, spraying powder, snow-studded evergreens and mountain ridges blurring together in your periphery. Maybe you notice a distant rumble or a trickle of debris beneath your feet, but before you have time to react, you’re tumbling through a massive cloud of white. Your boots rip from their bindings, your limbs flail, vertigo sets in. After being hurled down the mountain in a giant river of snow, you come to rest – and find you’re buried.
Even the most experienced backcountry skiers can fall victim to avalanches, which are the result of unstable snowpack – the layers of accumulated snow on a mountain. The snowpack is disturbed by any number of factors, like new precipitation, quick warming, wind, ice or rock fall. Often, in ski areas, fellow skiers or snowboarders are to blame. In fact, 90 percent of avalanche fatalities are triggered by another person on the mountain, reports the Utah Avalanche Center. A skier above you might loosen the snowpack, causing it to tumble down the mountain.
Avalanches cause around 150 fatalities each year through asphyxia, suffocation, or trauma, according to the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. Those who are buried alive must be rescued quickly – your chances of survival drop to 40 percent after 15 minutes of burial, and are just 25 percent after 30 minutes.
It’s not all gloom and doom: successful rescues do happen. They are often the result of coordinated efforts by highly trained experts – whose names are Josie, Maple, Scout, Cava, and Stanley.
These avalanche rescue dogs are trained to sniff out buried victims, alert responders, and dig furiously, says Kevin Huggett, training coordinator for the Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K9s (BARK) at The Summit at Snoqualmie’s Alpental ski area. Each ski area has its own set of avalanche rescue dogs.
Huggett says dogs are used to rescue skiers who aren’t able to be located by a partner with an avalanche transceiver, a two-way device that sends and receives signals of buried skiers.
“If you don’t have a transceiver – what’s going to help your buddies find you right off the get-go – you’re looking at a big needle in a haystack,” Huggett says. “The dog’s going to be the next best thing because they have that good nose. They catch the scent of the person through the snow and they’re able to hone in on that, locate them and dig them up.”
Huggett says he’s heard reports of dogs rescuing skiers buried 15 feet or more in the snow, but that their effectiveness depends largely on the makeup of the avalanche.
“It all depends on snow pack. Big clunky stuff, it’s easier. A lot more air comes out. Wet, heavy stuff sets up like concrete and it’s going to be different,” he says.
Fun and Games
Avalanches are grim events, as Huggett well knows. But for the dogs, it’s all fun and games.
“It’s a big game of hide-and-seek for them,” Huggett says. “It’s a big game. It’s always fun. It’s always enjoyable.”
Training involves gradually getting the dogs used to going inside deeper and deeper snow caves and trenches. Huggett says a handler will hide in a hole, and the dog is tasked with finding him. The dogs are then rewarded with treats or food inside the hole. They then associate the process with rewards.
“We try to make it so they always win,” Huggett says.
Each dog is assigned a handler, an avalanche expert who develops a close relationship with his or her dog, often training it from puppyhood and working together for a decade. They get to know each other’s habits and personalities, and they begin to work as one highly efficient unit. Though the call for an avalanche rescue might come only once a season, the teams are constantly poised for a speedy response.
The avalanche rescue teams are made up of hunting and working breeds like Border Collies, Labradors, Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers. “These are double-coated dogs that have insulation and basically are already used to having a job,” Huggett says.
The cutest animal you hope you never have to see.
At the Scene
Before any dogs are called to an avalanche, a first-response unit called the “hasty team” arrives at the scene. This team is typically made up of two people, and their job is to quickly get to the avalanche scene and confirm the location. If they’re in the wrong spot, they can quickly move to another part of the mountain, says Chris Hunter, ski patrol supervisor in charge of accident investigation and avalanche dog team leader at Stevens Pass. Once ski patrol observes the avalanche scene to determine where skiers might lie.
“We have to assess the terrain, assess safe routes in, and also assess the debris path in helping determine likely burial sites. There are clues in the terrain and the way that the debris flows and settles that give you clues as to what are likely burial spots and catchment zones that could be high priority for the rescuers probing before the dog gets there as well as inform the dog search strategy,” Hunter says.
The hasty team leader becomes the accident site commander, and he determines whether the dogs are needed – maybe skiers didn’t have transceivers or ski patrol is unsure how many victims are in the field. Sometimes, the hasty team and dog team will search the field concurrently, with the humans using transceivers and probes to locate buried skiers. Other times, they’ll clear the field and let the dog work alone.
Though avalanches are associated with out-of-bounds skiing, there are occasional slides in-bounds, too. Sometimes the controlled avalanches, which ski patrol initiates with dynamite, don’t eliminate every potential slide hazard. These in-bounds slides are often started by skiers, though they’re usually smaller and less dangerous.
Hunter says he’s seen very few avalanches in his career at Stevens. He’s only responded to four avalanches in the 11 years his dog has been alive. Two have been in-bounds rescues and two were out-of-bounds avalanches at Tunnel Creek, including the infamous slide in 2012. That massive slide, which was eventually immortalized in heart-wrenching detail by the New York Times, started when 16 highly skilled skiers and snowboarders took off down the slope. The slide descended 2,650 vertical feet, carrying away five skiers. Three were found dead.
Transceivers played a big role in locating and rescuing those buried at Tunnel Creek, but dogs were brought in as a secondary measure.
“We were fairly certain that we had located all the victims but I proceeded to the site because we weren’t 100 percent sure that there wasn’t someone without a rescue beacon on,” Hunter says. “We did what we call ‘clear the path,’ and that’s what we do on witnessed slides. We use the dogs to cross an avalanche path to make sure there’s no one buried in it.”
Skiers and snowboarders can take several steps to stay safe in avalanche country.
- Consider taking a course on avalanche awareness and rescue so you can spot the warning signs and understand how to react if a slide does occur.
- Check avalanche forecasts for your ski area through the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center.
- When skiing out-of-bounds or in the backcountry, carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel, and be educated on how to use them.
- Wear an avalanche air bag, which you can deploy in case of a slide. These airbags fit in a backpack and are inflated with the pull of a string. If a slide swallows you up, the airbag will help carry you toward the surface of the flow.
- Always ski with a partner, and ski one at a time down a slope. That way, you’re only exposing one person at a time to a slide.
For more information on staying safe in avalanche country, consider taking a class.
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