You’re buried in a snow cave with no light and a depleting supply of oxygen. But then you hear scratching on the surface, get a whiff of cold air and the tawny muzzle of a golden retriever thrusts through the crust toward you.
If you’re an avalanche victim, the dog has just saved your life.
All three of the South Shore ski resorts have specialized avalanche rescue dog teams comprised mostly of golden retrievers and labs ready for a situation like this — a solo skier or rider gets caught without a transceiver in a slide and needs to be recovered quickly, dead or alive.
While most of the dogs won’t ever need their avi skills outside of weekly trainings — the last time Heavenly Mountain Resort deployed its dogs for a retrieval was in 2009 — the ski patrollers who handle the animals say it’s the fastest way to locate someone who doesn’t have specialized equipment.
“Ninety-nine percent of the dogs will go their whole career without making a rescue, and hopefully they don’t have to,” Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s Assistant Director of Ski Patrol Dave Paradysz said. “The goal is the same: To find people fast who have been caught in an avalanche.”
Making a live find
If the number of retrievals is small, the number of live rescues is even smaller. But in 1993, Paradysz and his dog, Doc, not only found an avalanche victim, they found him alive.
Jeff Eckland, Kirkwood’s current assistant mountain manager, had hiked above what is now Chair Three to take advantage of some fresh powder. Paradysz remembered that it was a few days after a big storm and patrol hadn’t blasted the area yet. Eckland dropped into the run when the snow beneath him gave way and he was caught in a slide. One of his companions reported him missing while the other trekked to the nearest patrol hut where Paradysz and Doc were waiting.
The duo immediately headed out to the location where Eckland was last seen. Doc caught the scent and in less than 20 minutes, they found Eckland buried in 4 feet of snow.
“That was pretty notable. He was bent backwards like a pretzel against a tree. He said tunnel vision was starting to set in and then all of a sudden he could hear the dog scratching and he got a whiff of air and it started to get lighter. It’s pretty cool to hear him talk about it,” Paradysz said.
Eckland suffered from a few bruised vertebrae, but he was alive. A day like that validates the whole avalanche rescue dog program, Paradysz said.
A day in the life
Most days aren’t so eventful. Typically, avi dogs will hang out at the patrol shack, train with their handlers and greet guests. They do a lot of public relations for the resort, Heavenly’s Avalanche Dog Program Coordinator Colton Terry said. Terry’s dog, Summit, just finished a photo shoot for Maxim Magazine’s Heavenly Angels contest where he posed with the new angel and was tasked with nothing more than “looking cute,” Terry said.
The dogs train about once a week for avalanche rescues. Sierra-at-Tahoe handler Tim Owen said puppies will start by searching for their owner in an open hole. About two years later, they’ll have the skills to smell out and help dig up a stranger completely buried in snow.
The animals also train with California Shock Trauma Air Rescue Ambulance — or CALSTAR — in case the dog team ever needs to be transported by helicopter. The idea is to get the dogs used to the machines before they’re needed in a real avalanche rescue situation, Chief Flight Nurse Bryan Pond said. And even though CALSTAR hasn’t deployed any of the dog teams since the program started in 2008, it’s important to have the dogs and handlers ready to go, he said.
“Most of them do fairly well. Some of them get pretty skittish, but since the dogs have the handlers there, they don’t freak out,” Pond said.
According to Owen, any dog can be trained to find an avalanche victim. But many of the golden retrievers working at the South Shore ski resorts come from an avi dog lineage that dates back to the early 1980s. To give you some idea, Terry’s dog, Summit, is the great grandson of Paradysz’s Doc. And Summit, like Doc, is one of the few dogs ever used in a real retrieval situation. Quite simply, they’re bred for the work.
“Everybody can play basketball, but not everyone can make it to the NBA. And that’s what we’re looking for — a dog who can make it to the NBA,” Paradysz said.