Dogs, handlers train to save avalanche victims along Wasatch Front (video)
BRIGHTON Tucker, the 4-month-old black Labrador Retriever, locked his legs and did his best to get off of his leash as Lauren Edwards pulled him toward the waiting helicopter.
But like all good avalanche rescue dogs, the young puppy quickly gave up his battle. He entered the AirMed chopper for a quick ride around the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Then, back on solid ground, Tucker knew what to do next.
After a few words of encouragement, the puppy headed for a deep pile of snow and quickly discovered an "avalanche victim."
The rousing encouragement Tucker received from Edwards and others will deepen his desire to please his handlers by finding people who have been buried in avalanches.
"It was his first helicopter ride. He did so well. I'm very proud of him," said Edwards, who works on the ski patrol at Canyons Resort and serves as Tucker's primarily handler.
Tucker is one of seven avalanche rescue dogs on staff at Canyons.
Similar rescue scenes played out Wednesday at Brighton Resort as more than 20 ski patrol and avalanche dog teams attended the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue Dog School.
Roughly 200 ski patrollers and 45 dogs from nine resorts (Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, Park City, Canyons, Deer Valley, Snowbasin and Sundance) provide professional rescue services to the volunteer organization.
Ari Theodore works at Snowbird. He said WBR exists due to unique conditions along the Wasatch Front and a strong commitment from the resorts and other partners such as Unified Police and Salt Lake County Search and Rescue to respond to backcountry incidents.
"We have spectacular terrain interfacing with highly density population areas. People can get into the backcountry relatively easily," he said. "Who better to respond in emergency cases than professional ski patrollers? We are already in the mountains and we know the area. Being able to train together as a group means we are all on the same page and follow all the same procedures when we are called out on an avalanche."
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue was placed on standby notice about 100 times in the winter of 2010-11. Theodore said rescurers ended up at the scene of avalanches or injuries on about half the calls from last winter.
Wednesday's training focused on acclimating the avalanche dogs to riding in helicopters and being able to hit the ground working and not distracted from the flight. The teams went through a series of mock burials increasing in difficulty each time.
Max McNeal, a ski patrol member at Brighton, has been working with his av dog, Zack, for two years. The pair have never found an avalanche victim, but they have been called in to "clear" a slide to make sure there were no people buried in the avalanche.
McNeal, who has been a part of WBR for more than a decade, says it is a lot of work to serve as a primary handler but well worth the effort.
"The training has been pretty constant for two years pretty much every day," McNeal said. "There are lot of little things and they all add up to make a great avalanche rescue dog."
Zack is at Brighton whenever McNeal is on duty and lives with the ski patroller throughout the year.
That strong bond between the dogs and their handlers and training for the chaos and excitement of a search is important when every second could mean the difference between the life and death of a person caught in a slide.
As a non-profit organization, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue depends on donations and fund-raisers to maintain the high level of avalanche rescue training for ski patrol members and dogs. Visit www.wbrescue.org for more information.
To avoid needing the services of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, visit the Utah Avalanche Center at http://utahavalanchecenter.org/