ALTA, Utah — There is no good answer for how to survive an avalanche.
The most effective solution is prevention. Consult the forecast, recognize the signs, and play it safe. But part of what makes avalanches so terrifying – besides that they reach speeds of 60 mph, besides that the impact alone can be fatal and besides the thought of suffocating under the crushing weight of a massive pile of snow – is their unpredictability. So while even the most savvy skier or snowboarder may take precautions, anyone can experience an unlucky day.
But if that day comes, the best way to survive may be with the help of an avalanche-rescue dog.
The Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) International Dog School prepares Avalanche Rescue K-9 teams for those moments. USA TODAY Sports got an exclusive look in January at the semi-annual, four-day program that brings in dogs and their handlers from around the world to educate them on how to respond when they get the call no ski patroller wants to hear.
“Honestly,” said Heather Dent, a dog-school student and handler of a small Australian cattle dog, “I hope to never deploy her. That is the goal. I never want to work my dog for real, but if I have to we’ll be good. She’s ready.”
Over the past decade, an average of 27 people have died in avalanches each year. While WBR does not track the number of rescues its graduates are responsible for, the school that was founded in 1976 has trained hundreds of teams, who then spread the live-saving knowledge across the globe.
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Once a victim is stuck in an avalanche, the clock moves fast. WBR president Tracy Christiansen said unless there is an air pocket, a person’s chance of survival drops significantly after 3-5 minutes.
“Miracles have happened when people have survived 40 minutes,” WBR president Tracy Christiansen said. “I’ve heard stories of up to 20 hours where they’ve been in air pockets and been able to survive. So those things do happen. That’s why we always believe in going for the live find.”
Christiansen urges visitors to “always be searchable,” never travel alone and always carry a tracking device. And if a victim can’t perform a self-rescue and doesn’t have some form of location technology, “the dogs are their only chance,” he said.
Dogs are selected by ski patrollers as puppies and begin training when they are a few months old. From the moment they meet, dog and handler are inseparable.
Marshall Thomson is a ski patroller in Crested Butte, Colo., but drove to southeast Nebraska to pick up his dog from a breeder at just 8 weeks old. The 12-hour ride back took 36 hours when Thomson and his puppy encountered what he describes as the worst snowstorm he’s seen in his life.
“We were cuddled up in a sleeping bag in the middle of the highway,” Thomson said. “I didn’t know if she’d ever go out in snow after that storm because it was pretty brutal.
Thomson named the puppy Skadi after the Nordic goddess of winter as a nod to the blizzard. Today, they are one of five teams attending the WBR school thanks to a scholarship from Subaru, a partner of the National Ski Patrol, a non-profit founded in 1938 that has more than 30,000 ski patrollers working to keeping people safe on mountains across the country.
Skadi and the other 23 dogs in attendance last month started every morning with obedience training. Two dozen dogs, each in a brightly-colored harness that made them easier for the handler to carry, lined up at the snowy base of the mountain just outside of the cozy Alta Peruvian Lodge. Handlers looked at their dogs, calmly said “down,” and their animals plopped onto the snow in near unison.
To test the dog’s self-restraint, handlers began to walk away, then returned, then walked circles around their dog. The dog laid in the snow, turning its head from left to right as the handler changed direction. The dogs’ eyes followed the humans with curiosity, as if to say, “I don’t know why you’re walking around when you could just hang out here with me, but I’ll be waiting until you do.”
The dogs are taught to search for human scent and dig once they find its strongest source. To simulate a real avalanche emergency, a handler – along with a USA TODAY Sports reporter – climbed into a man-made snow cave that was sealed with snow. Inside was a tight squeeze but quiet and protective from the cold wind outside.
“When an avalanche victim is buried,” said Christiansen, “they don’t have the luxury of being in a snow cave. There’s tons of snow. It’s in their face, it’s in their mouth, it’s in their ears. It’s a terrible place for a victim to be.”
While this cave had no shortage of oxygen, it was not for the claustrophobic, and there was a tremendous sense of relief to hear a dog sniffing outside and see a wet nose bust through the snow.
From outside the cave, the dog looked up at its handler until given the magic word: “Search!”
The animal took off into the powder, walking with its nose to the ground until its head jolted up. The dog found the scent. It got closer and closer to the snow cave until it was certain it had found the source. Once there it began furiously digging, and within minutes from being told “search,” the dog had found its victim.
Avalanche rescue dogs are asked to do things that would scare most dogs: fly in helicopters, ride on snowmobiles, walk through deep mountain snow at night with the sun’s reflection off the moon as the main source of light, and get on their handler’s shoulders so they can be skied down the mountain.
Mike Currid, another Subaru scholarship recipient, said his dog, Reagan, has been lowered from chairlifts 60 feet off the ground. The dogs wouldn’t be up for these tasks if they didn’t have faith in their handlers, and the handlers cherish that bond.
Dent, the handler with an Australian cattle dog, put her backpack on the snow to give Momo a perch to sit atop while also keeping her paws off the cold ground. Ripley, a Border Collie, hopped into Joe Baldwin’s arms to bundle up in the cold mountain air. Charlie Stewart dug an alcove into the snow for Iggy that kept her protected from the wind and the commotion of skiers, snowmobiles and other dogs.
“She sleeps in my bed at night, we’re best friends,” said Dan Skilling of his dog Tela. “She trusts me so much. If I tell her to do something, she’s going to do it no matter what. And I know that she will always be there for me. The unconditional love and support I get from her means the world.”
And Christiansen said that extends to anybody unlucky to be caught in an avalanche.
“It truly is a bond between an animal and a man helping out another human being,” he said.