For resorts, rescuers and ski patrol, rescue dogs add certainty (w/ video)
Being caught in an avalanche is terrible no matter what kind of gear you have. But if you’re not carrying a transceiver, which allows rescuers to hone in on a radio signal, your chances of being found plummet. In that scenario, the best thing you could hear is the sound of a dog barking and pawing through the snow — a dog like Rooster, a 3-year-old red heeler, Australian shepherd mix who works for the ski patrol at Deer Valley Resort.
According to Susan Anderson, snow safety supervisor at Deer Valley Resort, dogs have been part of the resort’s ski patrol system for about 25 years. For Rooster, this is only his second full season.
He is a bit short and stocky, which makes him very portable, according to Anderson and Rooster’s handler, Mark Chytka. Chytka can pick him up by a handle on Rooster’s harness and carry him over rough terrain, though most of the time, Rooster bounds through the snow behind him.
More importantly, Rooster has what you might call “the right stuff.”
“Smart, driven, trainable,” Anderson said. “We want dogs that are a little more dominant because it gives them their confidence, but you also want dogs that you can train. Our dogs, they have to be good with people. Half their job is PR here. They meet hundreds and hundreds of people per week.”
Anderson said Deer Valley keeps two fully trained dogs on staff with another in training. The dogs start training when they are adopted by their handlers, usually at around 3 months old. They will then work every day or every other day until they can no longer perform their job. Then they become guests in the patrol shacks, where they are always welcome.
On Sunday, a group of ski patrollers, including Rooster and Chytka, skied down from the Empire patrol shack through Daly Bowl to a mock avalanche area, where Anderson and others were waiting to put Rooster’s skills to the test.
On the descent, Rooster trotted along behind Chytka on the steep slopes, and rushed through the snow on the flats to keep up.
Once they reached Anderson, a ski patroller — playing the role of a skier whose friends were enveloped by a slide — started to describe the situation to Chytka, who cut the patroller’s story short and asked the relevant questions.
After a brief psych-up session with Rooster, (“Wanna go find someone? Wanna go find someone? Let’s go search!”), Chytka turned the dog loose to traverse the area and hone in on two buried volunteers, borrowed from the resort’s finance and human resources departments.
Rooster waded through the deep snow beside Chytka, who by this time had extended a long collapsible probe. Chytka skied to the far side of the mock slide area, then started traversing back when Rooster left his handler and came back to where the members of ski patrol were taking notes.
“He’s sniffing us to learn our scent and eliminate it from his search,” Anderson said. And, sure enough, Rooster turned and dropped back down the slope, then into the trees where he found his first clue — an article of clothing buried in the snow — at two minutes and 15 seconds into his search. Just over a minute later, he picked up the scent of one of the volunteers and started barking at a pile of snow at the base of a couple trees.
Chytka and Rooster dug out the entombed finance employee, asked her about her party and injuries, and then Rooster got back to sniffing.
At five minutes into the search, rooster caught a whiff of another article, and after another 50 seconds, he had found the second and final victim; Lisa Buroojy of human resources. Chytka confirmed her location with the probe, then sent Rooster in to dig her out.
“What’s in there? What’s in there? What’s in there?” Chytka said, encouraging his dog.
Rooster charged down into the small snow cave.
“Speak, Rooster! Speak!” Chytka told him.
Rooster barked three times, signaling he had found someone.
“Guboy!” Chytka said. Then Rooster started hauling Buroojy out.
After traversing the slide area again in search of additional articles, Chytka led Rooster to a small rise at the bottom of the slide area, where Rooster found a smelly wool blanket that he got to play tug of war with.
“We always do a reward with him at the end, where we know where (the reward) is, so they always end with a positive, fun tug no matter what,” Anderson said.
The patrollers then went through a short debriefing, and skied back down the hill with the volunteers.
“At least in the resorts, most people don’t ski with a beacon, so our main way of locating them if something does happen in-bounds is a dog,” Chytka said. “It’s a really good insurance policy for resorts, too. It’s kind of that catch-net or backup. If we have a slide, we can go clear it and make sure nobody is in it, and be pretty comfortable with that.”
Rooster and Chytka are also part of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, which responds to backcountry incidents across the Wasatch Mountains.
“If we have an avalanche in the perimeter of the backcountry, we can be sent out to respond to that,” Chytka said. “Sometimes it’s via snowmobile or helicopter, sometimes we’re just putting skins on our feet and hiking out.”
Tracy Christensen, president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, said the dogs add another level of sophistication to the search teams.
“It’s amazing what these dogs can do once you understand how powerful that nose is,” he said.
That’s why the organization can call on 42 dogs from nine ski resorts ready to search, all of which have met a standard of certification.
“We all know each other, our dogs are all familiar with each other, so there’s no socialization on the scene,” he said.
With training done for the day, Rooster and Chytka went up to the Flagstaff ski patrol building, where Rooster promptly hopped up onto a seat beside another patroller, who started petting him.
At the end of the day, Rooster would go home with Chytka, where along with the three other dogs Chytka owns, Rooster becomes “part of the pack.”
And in the morning, he would return to work.
“It’s really great,” Chytka said. “It’s nice to have your buddy with you at work every day. Everyone likes the dogs.”
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