Up at The Basin, he’s simply known as “T.” The lifties helped him learn to ride chairlifts at ten weeks old. Two weeks later, he was stepped on by a size 11 ski boot, an entanglement that earned him six weeks in a cast. Unfazed, he began hanging with skiers at the top of the West Wall saddle near Pali Chair as he healed. He once was on scene for a twelve-year-old with a knee injury long before his partner got there; the manager of the rental shop made him a Gore-Tex cape out of an old ski patrol jacket hood so he could be recognized as the Caped Crusader he was. Just before his second birthday, he slayed his Avi Certification Test.
Precocious? Maybe. In reality, the early years of four-footed canine marvel Tane, a sunny, happy golden retriever, also apply to the young lives of most avalanche dogs in Summit County, perhaps especially at Arapahoe Basin, where young dogs-in-training are embraced as a key part of the ski area’s extended family. The Basin is a place where the idea that it takes a village to raise a child is a practice liberally applied to its cherished rescue dogs.
“We are very fortunate at the Basin,” explains Arapahoe Basin Assistant Ski Patrol Director Becs Hodgetts, who is Tane’s handler and human mom. “When we have a new puppy, we are encouraged to bring them to work from ten weeks on. The management and staff have so much experience raising our Avi dogs that they have a tribe of surrogate parents. Lift maintenance guys run daily “dog taxis” up and down the mountain; patrollers watch them for potty breaks, walks, and training; and the guests visit them daily in Ski Patrol HQ. They become some of the most well socialized dogs around.”
Arapahoe Basin acquired its first avalanche dog in 1989—Alex, a husky/shepherd mix. “He was a gorgeous, intelligent and athletic dog,” says Tim Finnigan, Director of Mountain Operations at the Basin. Since then, A-Basin has kept two to four dogs on staff each season. Summit County’s other ski areas also maintain their own small crews of avalanche dogs, whose ranks include everything from Labs to Australian shepherds to the classic Heinz 57 shelter mutt. The dogs train throughout the year and head out on varying numbers of annual rescues, where they provide crucial search support as well as emotional support during searches that end with tragic outcomes.
“Dog programs are really an industry standard at this point for Western ski areas,” says Finnigan. “The dogs are a very effective searching resource, a fantastic avalanche education tool, and great way for patrollers to stay engaged in avalanche training.”
The path to becoming an avi search and rescue team member is intense for patrol dogs, as well as their owners. Patrol dog handlers must have, at a minimum, an EMT-B license, Level 2 Avalanche Certification, ICS (Incident Command System) training, at least six years, typically, of ski patrol or Search and Rescue experience, and the capacity to spend the night and self-extricate themselves from extreme winter backcountry conditions. They dedicate a significant amount of volunteer time to the training.
“Any spare second you have at work is spent working with your dog,” explains Hodgetts. “We start at an early age, introducing the dogs to chairlifts and snowmobiles, to riding in toboggans and snowcats. At first we carry them in our arms, but pretty quickly they do it on their own. They learn to be unfazed by it all. It takes a lot to spook the Basin beasts.”
For the actual process of teaching the dogs to search, Hodgetts explains, “you begin with simple games of run away and hide, then advance to hiding in a trench, then to slowly successively deeper burials.” Currently, the team is working dogs in training for full and multiple burials, where volunteers are buried as in pre-dug holes as victims, and after a few minutes for their scent to rise, the dogs are sent out to search for them.
Teams train to become certified by a local Summit County group called CRAD, the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment. Once certified, with the blessing of their ski area, teams are recommended to the Sheriff’s office as a mutual aid resource for their Rapid Avalanche Deployment program. The program is an impressive co-operation between Flight for Life, the Sheriff’s Department, local Search and Rescue and local ski areas. It is quickly becoming a role model for the rest of the mountain states in the US.”
Some years, Tane and other Basin avalanche dogs average three searches, other years, just one or none. Since, on average, a well-trained avi dog can search an area 12 to 20 times faster than the standard human search team and probe line, getting the dog and handler in as soon as possible vastly increases the speed of a search and minimizes the time rescuers themselves are exposed to additional avalanche hazards. Once an avalanche technician ascertains the scene safety, the dog and handler head into the avalanche debris field before the presence of other rescuers can confuse the scent. The handler searches the debris field for any visual clues that indicate the probable burial location, and then commands their dog to search, starting downwind of the site. Dogs are trained to pick up on human scent buried in the snow; when they alert, the handler marks the location with a flag and the probe team is called over to probe the area while the dog continues to search.
Summit County is able to have an unusually rapid deployment of resources due to a rare confluence of professional resources based in the County. These include a large concentration of ski patrollers, avalanche dogs, avalanche techs, and search professionals associated with the County’s four ski areas; a high level of interagency coordination; and a locally based Flight for Life helicopter. Breck Ski Patrol and Search and Rescue volunteer Hunter Mortensen and his avalanche dog, Tali, were once on scene above a possible burial a mere fifteen minutes after the report of an avalanche came in. Flight for Life landed in Breckenridge four minutes after the initial call, picked up Mortensen and Tali, and was doing a fly-over above the site of the possible burial in the Loveland Pass backcountry eleven minutes later. Though the group was able to sight tracks both in and out of the avalanche debris on that call, meaning no rescue was needed, the potential to be at a rescue that quickly could potentially mean the difference between a live rescue or mere recovery mission. The goal of all CRAD’s training is to be ready for that day.
Most searches, sadly, remain recovery missions. Most live avalanche rescues are done by backcountry partners already on scene, simply due to the fact that the survival window of burials longer than 15 minutes drops off dramatically, according to an oft-cited ten year study by the Swiss Avalanche Research Center at Davos. Typically, by the time the dogs and other county resources get to the search site, it is outside that time window and too late. Still, the dogs serve an important role in healing, for both the families of avalanche victims and for the rescuers.
“Much time, energy and resources are put into developing an avalanche dog program, even though statistics show that live saves are rare,” explains Finnigan. “But dogs allow us, as rescuers, to exhaust every possible resource before giving up. And ultimately, it helps to know that everything that could be done was done [to help save a victim].
“We have a culture, in the medical, fire, rescue, and ski patrol world, of doing everything we can to ease the pain and suffering of the people we serve,” continues Finnigan. “This includes the families of those who are injured or killed. If there is even a remote chance that a procedure can be done may result in favorable outcome, we’ll exhaust it, even if the chances are one in a million. Knowing that we have done so helps in the healing process.”
Each decision to send Tane out on a search is the toughest, scariest part of the work for Hodgetts, who is rarely fazed by the the long exposure to cold and the endurance required in rescues. Instead, it’s the weight of the responsibility for Tane’s wellbeing that taxes her. “He has an unbelievable trust in humans. I think his bond not only with me, but with all the regular staff at the area. I feel confident that if one of our lift maintenance guys took him out into the field, he would work for them. But in making the decision to put him on the ground during a rescue, I’m taking responsibility for my best friend’s safety. A human can make that decision for themselves, but he’s relying on me.”
Life is not all work for the spirited golden. The human bond is, by necessity, a strong one for an avalanche dog. Hodgetts describes Tane as her “best friend. We are together 24/7.”
For Tane, that means a life of incredible adventure: Hodgett’s is a former semi-pro endurance mountain biker and adventure racer, a Class IV kayaker, and a talented endurance runner who recently won the women’s crown at the 2012 Breckenridge Crest Trail Marathon, beating most of the men along the way. Tane’s kayak time is mostly limited to play boating: “I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to ask a rafter: ‘Hey, not only will you carry all my stuff, but can my big wet dog ride on your raft as well?!’ ” laughs Hodgetts. Off the water, Tane joins his mom for trail runs throughout the mountains. “There is nothing better than coming around the turn to see him waiting for you in the middle of the trail. He comes home wet and filthy, and I am tired and happy.”
The trust and deep bond that develop through that time together are critical to developing good avalanche dogs. “Avi dogs and other working dogs like Tali and I spend much more time together in a day than most human dog relationships,” says Mortensen. “The trust we build in each other as a result of that is extensive. Tali will do almost anything I ask. I can read the most nuanced body language in her—and that’s becomes critical during a rescue. Sometimes you’re in situations where you are on a backcountry call for what is only a possible burial—a report of a slide with possible tracks in, but no confirmation or call in of a burial or missing skier. If we have been searching for over an hour in an area in that situation, and there has been absolutely no sign from Tali, I may be able to confidently call off a search—because I know my dog.” This is important, because a winter backcountry search can also put rescuers themselves at high risk. Calling off a search can be a hard call to make, but handlers need the confidence to be able to make that call, and that’s where the bond they develop in training comes into play.
Hodgetts describes the importance of that bond in a similar fashion. “We spend so much time together that I feel like we can read each other well. This makes working together easier, because we trust each other and are able to assess our responses to situations, and act accordingly.”
Fortunately, rescue calls are fairly rare, and the dogs spend most of their time with handlers and at the ski area, on call and ready.
“There is certainly a light-hearted side to having the dogs around,” says Finnigan. “Our first avi dog, Alex, often joined us after work, and he got his own stool at the A-Basin bar. The bartender used to sometimes pour him a small splash of beer and he would join us in libations. It is just plain fun to have the unconditional love and companionship from those dogs when you arrive at work. When patrollers or guests arrive at patrol headquarters throughout the day, the dogs are always there to greet them with a wagging tale and wiggling body. All the kids love them. They are members of the A-Basin family.”
Though Tane himself tends to be a teetotaler, the smiles, companionship, and camaraderie he brings to the Basin family, several generations after Alex, remain the same. Day’s end finds him curled up beside Hodgetts in her small apartment at the base of the ski area. As his mom laughs while sharing tales of his adventures, Tane’s tail thumps gently on the floor at the sound of her voice. Adventures have their place, but until the need arises, this Basin Beast is content to enjoy a moment’s rest. Who knows when the next call will come?
This article was first published in the Winter 2013 issue of Breckenridge magazine.