Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Ski Patrol Rescue Dogs watching out for us everyday we go riding.
Skiers and snowboarders love snow. So do dogs. When you hit the slopes out West this winter, you may notice Man’s Best Friend riding the lifts, cruising around piggy-back on snowmobiles, running behind a skier, or just chilling out. Take the time to give these ski patrol rescue dogs a good petting. After all, they are there to save your life.
Virtually every Western (and European) ski resort has a canine staff, a team of highly trained ski patrol rescue dogs who use their speed, on snow agility and incredible sense of smell to locate buried avalanche victims faster than any known alternative. It is believed that one dog and its handler can do the job of 150 trained human searchers in the same amount of time. For much of skiing history, this canine safety net has been hidden behind the scenes, but resorts have given them an increasingly public persona in recent years – and guests love them.
The good news is that the dogs rarely have any real work to do at the resorts. Although they train hard, “in-bounds” avalanches, within the boundaries of public ski resorts, are extremely rare. In the history of U.S. snowsports, only one skier without an avalanche transceiver has been rescued by a patrol dog within ski resort boundaries, at Wyoming’s legendary Jackson Hole. The dogs spend their time training and serve as resort ambassadors. Many mountains have “baseball” cards for each canine rescue expert, which ski patrollers hand out to children, who then eagerly want to collect them all. At Utah’s Snowbasin, patrollers carry cards for the patrol dogs, and children trying to get them must recite a rule from the Skier Responsibility Code. They pose for pictures and love a good petting, but they also serve a higher purpose, safety education, and at many resorts go out into the community with their patrollers to spread the winter safety message, visiting local schools. At Deer Valley, ski school classes of kids visit the dogs in patrol headquarters. “We show them the dogs and use it as a catalyst to talk about ski safety, what to do if they get separated from their group, stuff like that,” said Ski Patrol Director Steve Graff.
At Colorado’s Loveland mountain the dogs double as therapists for injured skiers in the patrol’s medical room. Arapahoe Basin and Monarch host interactive days on the slopes with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Monarch has practice avalanche pits near green runs so beginners can watch the dogs train and practice. At Snowmass, dogs ride the chairs to the top where they spend part of the day greeting skiers getting off the lifts. Vail’s rescue icon, a Golden Retriever named Henry, has his own eponymous mountain top warming hut skiers can visit for a break.
In many cases, ski patrols let volunteers from the local community (or visitors) participate in training exercises, which is what I have done over the years at Colorado’s Beaver Creek and California’s Heavenly. Several years ago, at Beaver Creek, I was “buried” in a pit about six feet below the surface and later found and dug out by Blue, a Labrador Retriever. Blue’s human partner, Brent Redden, who he shared a home with off the slopes, told me that, “Kids pet them all day, and we take them into schools, about 20 times each year, to talk to the kids about ski safety.” Patrollers typically get a dog as a puppy, in many cases a rescue or shelter dog. It is a one on one relationship where the patroller trains it, lives with it, and eventually and keeps it as his or her pet when it retires. The resort typically covers all the expenses for food, training, and medical expenses.
But the ski patrol rescue dogs also do real work. While rarely needed in-bounds, a lot of rescue dogs are also part of regional teams for backcountry emergencies, which are more common. In Utah, the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue includes dogs and patrollers from the nine resorts clustered around Salt Lake City, Park City and Ogden. If a skier, climber or snowmobiler goes missing in the wild, helicopters are dispatched to resorts to pick up dog/human teams. Colorado’s Rapid Avalanche Deployment Team (CRAD) operates in similar fashion.
Many of the resorts sell ski patrol rescue dog t-shirts or posters as fundraisers for the ski patrol, so this winter, when you see that fun loving Golden Retriever lounging outside the patrol shack in his red and white safety vest, give him a good petting, and consider taking home a souvenir. After all, he’s there for you.
Pray for Snow!