Colorado’s sporadic, heavy snowstorms and our dry and windy climate mix to create fragile and inconsistent snow packs which often contribute to large and dangerous avalanches.
If your backcountry wanderlust led you to become buried in one of these frozen deluges your chance of survival would be cut in half after 30 minutes. Avalanche search and rescue dogs speed up the process to dictate the difference between life and death.
A sobering topic, to be sure, but Copper’s Ski Patrol Foreman, Mike Russo, a 20-year ski patrol veteran, offers a surefire method to avoid this fate: “Observe and obey ski area closures and never cross a rope – we close trails to protect you from potentially dangerous avalanche conditions. Our ropes are deployed in a way to make it easy, and safe, for you to get from one open area to another.”
January is the National Ski Areas Association’s (NSAA) Annual Safety Awareness Month, and Copper is proud to have won top awards the past three seasons and for receiving “Best Overall Safety Program” for a large resort in the nation in 2013.
Copper isn’t new to training these furry, four-legged heroes: its Canine Avalanche Rescue Unit has been in place for the past twenty years. This is Russo’s first year working as a handler for four-year-old Race, a female yellow lab, one of Copper’s six avy rescue dogs.
“Race started out in another program as a wheelchair assistance service dog, but she couldn’t pass the final test because they couldn’t break her of two habits: putting her nose to the ground and her high energy level,” says Russo.
The program directors reached out to John Reller, another Copper Ski Patrol veteran and a nationally recognized avalanche search and rescue dog trainer, to find out if he could help place her into a different venue. Reller obliged and brought Race into Copper’s avy dog program and into his own home; he’s now her owner.
The very characteristics which made Race fail at her job of helping folks in wheelchairs make her priceless in her destiny of locating stranded avalanche victims. “It’s a pretty good fit for her,” says Russo.
Russo says that when there’s been a local avalanche and victims are involved, the Summit County Rescue Group dispatches an available Flight for Life Colorado helicopter to carry a search dog, a handler and a snow technician who are airlifted directly to the backcountry avalanche site.
“Snow is porous, so a person’s scent travels well,” says Russo. Post-avalanche “the dogs search the debris field and clue onto the scent cone, the location in the snow where the scent converges and reaches the air. They scan back and forth with their noses to the ground to pinpoint where the scent is coming from. Then they bark and dig, and the handler is able to tell the rest of the team where to begin working,” says Russo. “The process is really fairly accurate. These dogs save us a tremendous amount of time; and if a person is wearing an avalanche beacon we find them that much sooner,” says Russo.
Some of Copper’s avy dogs are cross-trained to make rescues in the summer as well, since the Summit County Rescue Group, an all-volunteer, non-profit arm of Summit County’s Sheriff’s office provides year-round backcountry search and rescue services to the entire county.
What’s a typical day in the life of a Copper avy dog?
“Race comes to work with me in the morning, and she gets up the mountain using the same means I do: riding the lift, or riding the snow mobile or snow cat,” Russo says. The Copper Ski Patrol also employs explosives to preemptively set off smaller, controlled avalanches, “so our dogs can’t be easily spooked by loud noises,” says Russo.
“The key thing for our dogs is socialization,” says Russo. Even though Reller owns Race “she stays at our house part-time and plays with our kids. She’s a fully-trained, highly obedient dog,” Russo explains.
What prompted Russo to become an avy dog handler?
“As the dad of two small kids, I vowed I’d never have a child in diapers and a dog at the same time. I really wanted to be part of the program first before I considered getting a family dog," says Russo.
According to Russo, here’s one of the many perks of handling your own avy dog: “It gives me a whole new aspect to my day; now I have a compadre by my side, and she’s excited about our work. The dogs know what to do; the handler just reads what the dog is telling them.”
More safety tips and information -
2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
3.You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
4. Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
5. Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
6. Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
7. Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.