Before dawn on any powder day in Utah, you’ll hear volleys of thunder echo and thrum against the walls of Little Cottonwood Canyon. That’ll be Ski Patrol performing avalanche control work; keeping the slopes safe for powder lovers on their quest to shred the greatest snow on earth.
Though Patrol works tirelessly, they are not alone in their mission to keep the mountains safe for skiers. The ski resorts of Utah also utilize the help of some fuzzier employees with four paws…
Avalanche dogs are an incredible asset to any resort’s snow safety team. If you spend a day at Alta Ski Resort, you might just spy the newest (and youngest) member of their patrol squad: Lucy. A red blur in constant motion, Lucy can be seen galloping around the base area in her uniform, riding lifts, or catching snowmobile rides. In her short time at Alta, she’s reached celebrity status and we took some time with Lucy’s human, Dave, to learn about her journey from puppy to certified rescue dog.
Just as it requires a special type of dog to become a certified avalanche dog (retrievers, labs or German shepherds are preferred), it also takes a special breed of human, willing to dedicate countless hours to dog training and discipline. When Dave decided to participate in Alta’s avalanche dog program, he committed to becoming Lucy’s full-time caregiver and raising her to be a successful rescue partner.
When considering puppies, Dave chose a trusted breeder of golden labs with a proven track record in Malad, Idaho. Dave was looking for a smaller dog since their joints hold up better, and they are also easier to load and transport on helicopter rescue missions. At 5 weeks, Dave visited the litter to test each puppy to see which pooch best liked to play the game of tug. Dave was looking for a dog that was highly motivated to play, for this is the instinct that will help a dog become a very successful rescue companion.
The danger of burial in a tree well or avalanche is a very real threat while exploring Utah’s incredible terrain, which averages over 500 inches of yearly snowfall. Dogs are an asset to any rescue team, as they can travel anywhere and can locate a victim without the aid of technology such as an avalanche transceiver or RECCO reflectors. The dogs can also be very useful in rescue situations year round, locating lost hikers or stranded mountaineers in the summer or fall.
For the dogs, locating a human victim is a game, and they are highly motivated to play. For Lucy, she is ONLY permitted to play her favorite game, tug-of-war, after locating something. Dave began Lucy’s training by teaching obedience and exposing her to all sorts of stimuli so she will eventually be accustomed to ignoring distractions. Dave places her on snowmobiles, chairlifts, helicopters, and exposes her to the sounds of avalanche control work. He will even take her to Home Depot, the Alta medical clinic, or crowded public spaces to teach her to remain calm in diverse situations.
Dave introduced Lucy to the exciting game of hide-and-seek at a tender age. At first, Dave hid and Lucy’s task was to locate Dave, the reward was a rousing game of tug. Lucy’s progression will lead to playing hide-and-seek in the snow, looking for other people, and eventually looking for someone hiding in a hole beneath snow to simulate a rescue situation. Eventually Lucy will be introduced into a blind search situation where she must locate a buried human in order to earn her reward to play tug.
Lucy’s challenge is monumental. She will learn to differentiate the scent of a human rising up beneath the snowpack from that of rescuers on the scene, as well as any clothing or equipment lying on the snow’s surface that may distract her. Dave and Lucy are aiming for rescue certification by March of 2018. By Christmas of 2017 she will be working hard on practicing blind searches in the field.
Dave compares working with Lucy to teaching a rookie ski patroller the ropes of mountain safety. She has a lot to learn, but her work ethic is fantastic. She brings great energy to the mountain and guests love to see her bounding around on the snow.
To see a dog up at Alta Ski Resort is actually quite rare. This is because dogs and domesticated animals are not permitted in four of Utah’s canyons along the Wasatch Front. The mountains that tower above Salt Lake City are the primary water source for this desert outpost. As such, there are strict rules on recreational use in this sensitive ecosystem. Dogs are not permitted access up Little Cottonwood in order to protect the watershed and drinking water from diseases transmitted by dogs or other domesticated animals. Alta Ski Patrol is awarded just 5 permits to keep dogs up the canyon. The fact that these rescue dogs have special access allows them to be used in any sort of rescue situation in the backcountry as well.
Ski Patrol’s primary goal is to keep the mountain safe, as the danger in these wild environments is very real and life-threatening. With Lucy’s help, Alta aims to keep all guests safe on the slopes. Though the temptation to give any avalanche dog a pet will be huge, always ask a handler before petting or interacting with a rescue or service dog. If given permission, remove your skis or snowboard, as the edges can easily cut or injure a dog.
On your next visit to Alta, keep your eyes peeled for the leaping form of Lucy in her red vest and don’t forget to thank a patroller or a pup for their tireless work in safeguarding the mountain’s slopes.