Tahoe’s ski patrol teams employ dogs to help with avalanche rescues

Watch: Meet the Donner Summit Avalanche Dogs

Ski with the Donner Summit Avalanche Dogs, The Sugar Bowl Ski Patrol, February 17, 2021

Jason Bean, Reno Gazette Journal

Buster’s workday at Sugar Bowl Resort starts withA solid game of tug-of war. Nova, his coworker, begins her day. With a vigorous roll in the snow

Buster, Nova Graupel and Griffey are all black Labradors and golden retrievers who love one another. They love to play, frolic and have a lot of fun. They are also critical members of the resort’s ski patrolTeam.

Avalanches are often associated with Backcountry skiing and riding. Be prepared for the “what-if”Situation: Many Tahoe-area skiResorts have canines that serve on their ski patrol teams.

“There’s no technology in the world that can compete with a dog’s nose (if you get buried),”Sugar Bowl ski patroller Andrew Pinkham.

Dogs that need a job

The dogsThat serves on ski patrol aren’t your run-of-the-mill house dogs.

Patrol officers look out for dogs that have high drive – ones they say make “bad pets.”

“We want dogs that really need a job,”Pinkham stated.

The handlers are the ones who do the hard work withBreeders and agencies toFind out dogs suitable for the position – Graupel comes from a line of working dogsInclude parents who serve at the Canadian border with their children. You are looking for explosives.

“Many pet owners want their dog to hang out and cuddle on the couch. We look for dogs that are kind of fiery and have a lot of drive to search and hunt so we can ask them to perform these longer, harder tasks in mountain environments,”Chase Allstadt, skiAlpine Meadows’ dog team coordinator and patroller “That’s what I share with my handlers – you are getting a dog your spouse may not love.”

Each handler purchases and trains his or her dog, and it’s not cheap. Sugar Bowl’s handlers estimate they spend about $1,500 on each dog.

“It’s part of the passion of what we love to do – being on the mountain and keeping people safe,” said Mike Trombetta, Graupel’s handler. “I am passionate about avalanche safety and awareness, and the dogs are another tool for the box.”

The dogsAre they properly trained? to Play the game “hide and seek,”Courtney Meyerholz, Sugar Bowl Patrol Director, said that this mimics the experience of finding people under an avalanche.

The dogsLearn ToDifferentiate Between the Scents of Skiers/Riders Who Have Falled on Snow and People Who Are Trapped Under Snow will be the end result

“These dogs are trained to detect human scents under the snow,”Allstadt stated. “There may be human scents on the surface of the snow, and the dogs may acknowledge that, but that is not what the dog is trained to go out there to do. It is trained to pursue human scent to its source. Our dogs are trained to find any human scent under the snow, rather than a specific scent.”

Sugar Bowl currently has two dogs that are validated – meaning they are qualified to participate in search and rescue operations – and two that are working toward validation. Three Alpine Meadows-validated Search and Rescue Operations available. There are three additional dogs in training.

It takes about two years. toThree years toTrain the dogs before they are validated by the Placer County Sheriff’s Office.

Validation is required for dogs. “victim”A 100×100 meter search field is completed in 10 minutes. Extra time is also given to the dog to find three buried items of clothing while its handler must find hidden beacons – transceivers that backcountry skiers and riders wear in case they are caught in an avalanche.

“The whole process of bringing these dogs through until they validate is a journey,”Chris Dunbar, who works for Sugar Bowl, said: withNova, Nova’s dog. “But once you’re at the end, it’s really rewarding to see it pay off.”

Mobilizing their resources

Sugar Bowl and Alpine Meadow’s patrolMembers estimate their dogsYou can find someone buried up to10 to 12 feet below the surface Studies show that 93 percent to 94 percent of avalanche victims are recovered alive if they are found within 15 minutes – after that, the odds of survival drop significantly. 

Both Sugar Bowls, as well Alpine Meadows, have experienced declines in the number and severity of avalanches.

“It’s a very low occurrence,”Meyerholz stated.

“It is quite likely in a dog’s career, that they never respond,”Allstadt stated. “Most of our skiPatrollers who volunteer to work outside resorts may experience slides. Call-outs are usually outside the resorts. skiCapacity for resort.”

In his 15 years on Alpine Meadows’ ski patrol, all the searches he’s responded to have been outside the resort, he said. During these situations, avalanche beacons were unable to locate the victim. “at that point in time, you’ve gotta rely on a dog. It’s the only tool that hasn’t been tried.”

Buster, who Meyerholz co-handles with Pinkham, has been mobilized for action three times but has never been deployed at the resort.

“You mobilize all your resources, but hopefully you don’t have to use them,”Meyerholz stated. 

Although resort avalanches can be rare, they are not uncommon.

2016: An avalanche was caused by a Sugar Bowl rider who went out of bounds. Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe skier who strayed from the lines was also killed in an avalanche in 2016. One person was killed in an Alpine Meadows avalanche in 2020.

“The ski resorts in the Tahoe area do a really good job mitigating the avalanche hazards,”JB Brown, President of Sierra Avalanche Center, said. Brown said he is not aware of any avalanches in the area resorts this season. There has been one fatal avalanche in the backcountry this year. A 43-year-old man died March 20 in an avalanche triggered by a collapsing cornice near Truckee, California.

Simulating a rescue

During a training exercise for the RGJ toDunbar, observe, of the Sugar Bowl ski patrolWas? “rescued”Starting at avalancheSimulation at Sugar Bowl

He crawled in the ungroomed snow from trees to the bottom, where he found a snow cave. Dunbar was placed 3 feet below ground by another patroller. He took his skis, poles, and placed snowblocks on top.

A few rays of sunlight made their way through cracks in the snow as Dunbar sat mostly in the dark. He could hear people outside, but those inside the cave couldn’t hear him.

Buster waited for his handler at the top. His handler. After they had skied part the slope, Buster received the order. toSearch.

To find the scent, he raced down the slope. Buster sprinted down the slope and found Dunbar’s scent after a few minutes.

After a few minutes of paddling and frantic paddling, the man was able break through. He was successful, and was rewarded with a game tug-of-war as well as praise.  

Buster ran down and got on the chairlift. He then headed back. To the top of the mountain

“The life of an avalanche dog never stops,”Meyerholz stated.

Amy Alonzo is an American reporter based in Nevada who covers the outdoors, recreation, and culture of Lake Tahoe. Reach her at [email protected] or (775) 741-8588. Here’s how to support ongoing coverage and local journalism. 

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