By Bruce Kasanoff
On a sunny and warm February morning, ski patroller Lauren Edwards is standing a few hundred yards above the top of the Ninety-Nine 90 ski lift at Park City Mountain. She’s holding her very excited avalanche rescue dog, a four-year-old Lab named Tucker.
Somewhere within a hundred yards of the pair, one of Lauren’s colleagues is buried under four feet of snow. Deliberately buried, that is. Finding people in snow caves is one way ski patrollers train dogs like Tucker to be ready for an actual incident.
When Lauren finally gives the command for Tucker to begin his search, he takes off like a rocket through the deep snow. He loves nothing more than to be doing his
job — to him, this is a giant game of hide- and-seek. Patrollers count on the powerful drive that dogs have — to chase balls or pursue prey — and harness it into rescue attempts.
Tucker runs an arcing path across the high mountain terrain but quickly angles back to narrow his search, trying to pick up a scent. He decides on a spot and starts
digging aggressively. In mere seconds, he’s opened a void in the snow and found Paul Edwards. Paul has Tucker’s favorite toy and, as a reward for the successful “rescue,” he immediately starts a game of tug-of-war.
Tucker is certified by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue as a Level A rescue dog, its highest level. For that distinction, he had to search a 100-meter-square snowfield to find bodies under the snow. During such training searches, neither the dog nor the trainer knows precisely how many buried bodies there are, and they’re given 20 minutes to “clear the field”.
For the trainers, being “buried” isn’t so bad. The patrollers dig a snow cave large enough for the entombed person to be comfortable and have plenty of air. But in an actual avalanche, a buried skier only has a matter of minutes to gain access to air. That’s why patrollers and their dogs are stationed on high resort peaks, where they can move quickly in the event of an avalanche.
Once trained, a dog like Tucker knows how to ride a chairlift — he jumps right on — and run both up and down the slopes as commanded by his trainer. Perhaps surprisingly, he and other rescue dogs at ski resorts are at greatest risk when navigating on easy slopes busy with skiers. On this morning, two of Park City’s dogs are nursing cut paws from close encounters with recreational skiers. People get excited when they see the dogs and forget that their skis may project several feet in front of their bodies.
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (wbrescue.org), which trains and certifies both dogs and their handlers, is a non- profit organization that provides rapid response for avalanche rescue, winter- related mountain rescue, and medical evacuation incidents. Their members include ski patrollers at each local ski area, who collectively work with over 30 highly- trained avalanche rescue dogs. Hopefully, no one you know will ever need them, but it’s comforting knowing Tucker and his friends are at the ready!