Digging Deep. What it Takes to Become an Avalanche Rescue Dog in Colorado
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For many of us, the mountains are both a sacred playground and refuge.
The tree lines and trail heads, the contours and creek beds…they cradle the blank canvas of fresh snowfall waiting for us to carve our long awaited winter adventures on ridge lines and through basins.
Living, playing, and working in the backcountry is a gamble and, the house always holds the cards. But, we return day after day, year after year risking the odds and banking on a bit of good luck, skill, knowledge, and some common sense.
(Given its brink of extinction, maybe we shouldn’t bank so hard on the latter…)
Winter in the mountains brings the inherent risk of avalanche.
Unless you live in avalanche country or even close enough to appreciate the magnitude of their wake, they might seem like an un-relatable, mountain powder phenomenon. But, in reality, approximately 100,000 avalanches occur every year and leave 150+ fatalities in their path worldwide. Considering that slabs can be as wide as football fields (or wider) with SUV sized chunks of snow and ice moving at 200 mph, they swallow everything in their path like a concrete tidal wave. Some slides have tipped the scales weighing close to 100 million TONS. But, slides don’t have to be that gigantic to be deadly.
“It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.. but first you have to find the haystack.”
~Doug Lesch, President of C-RAD
The complexities of avalanche rescue are plentiful.. The primary factor is time. You don’t have much of it once you’re trapped under the snow.
Many slides occur in the back country without any witnesses which raises the risk that much higher. Unless someone saw you get burried, or knows that you were in that area when the slide occurred it makes it extremely difficult for emergency responders to pinpoint an area to search,
Even if you’re skiing in-bounds and there are witnesses to the slide, a wall of snow can move you down the side of a mountain at break neck speed, force, and unknown depths. In most cases, the shear weight of the snow renders you unable to move or claw your way out…not to mention any injuries you may have sustained.
Your chance of surviving a slide is slim…but not entirely out of the realm of possibility if you take some proper precautions. Wearing a beacon and/or Recco gear, not going solo, and being aware of snow-pack conditions before you head out, helps to increase your odds. It’s certainly not fool proof but, it’s responsible back country behavior that could make all the difference..
Trying to increase your chances of surviving is exactly what a search and rescue team in Summit County, Colorado has been working on year round since the mid 1980’s.
Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment or C-RAD as they’re known, is a 501(c)3, non-profit organization comprised entirely of volunteers diligently honing their avalanche rescue teams and creating future generations of highly trained rescue personnel.
One of the most critical components of those teams?
The mission of Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment is to cultivate, inspire, and produce dog teams for successful avalanche search and rescue.
I had the good fortune to speak with Doug Lesch, the current president of C-RAD.
He’s a super chill guy with the kind of confidence and enthusiasm you’d want leading the charge if you ever found yourself on the wrong side of the powder.
I caught up with him after he wrapped up a long day of work on the slopes. In addition to his work with C-RAD, Doug is a ski patroller for Copper Mountain where his dog Keena joins him almost daily.
“He’s a super chill guy with the kind of confidence and enthusiasm you’d want leading the charge if you ever found yourself on the wrong side of the powder.”
Doug was generous with his time as I peppered him with questions about the mission of C-RAD and what it takes to become a successful rescue team of dog and handler.
Falling into conversation about serving in the search and rescue community was easy for both of us and our mutual enthusiasm buoyed our chat along for just over an hour.
He cracked a beer. I sipped on my fifth cup of coffee for the day.
What he shared was enlightening, inspiring, and stoked my hunger to be back in the Foothills of Colorado with an avi-pup in training.
Training an avalanche dog is a year round process and typically takes an average of two years before a team is ready to be validated. Preparing for validation is a combination of long hours of training in multiple skill sets, varied terrain, conditions, and through every season but always within the dogs limits and with their safety as a priority.
The validation process puts the handler and their dog to the test by requiring them to achieve certain parameters during staged searches. Qualifiers such as finding a “victim” in twenty minutes or less within an avalanche debris field, and clearing an area with an unknown number of burials are part of the testing scenarios.
In order for a team to be validated and ready for deployment, they must pass this initial field test and then re-validate every 3 seasons.
Doug says that “every dog is a good dog but not every dog is meant to be an avalanche rescue dog,” But, the weight of that doesn’t entirely fall on the four paws of the dogs trying their best to do what they’re being asked.
A handler can make or break the success of a working dog and the critical factors that typically determine the outcome are trust and communication. A dog has to trust her handler just as much as the handler must trust her dog. It’s a mutual working relationship that ultimately boils down to “trusting your dog and taking care of each other.”
The scent abilities of avalanche dogs is nothing short of mystical and science still hasn’t been able to completely figure out how they do what they do.
Not every debris field is free of other odor contaminates from multiple rescuers, emergency personnel, bystanders, or even other animals nor is it always a fresh slide. If a debris field or conditions aren’t safe, some slide sites can’t be searched for months which brings in all sorts of other challenging factors for the dog.
Scent can even be picked up in water and it’s not that unusual for dogs to detect odor as far as 14’ deep and even in a frozen lake!
Science has spent billions of dollars trying to replicate the skilled precision of a dog’s nose and has yet to successfully do so..
A dog’s sensitivity to a wide array of emotions raises some curious hypothesis regarding the buffet of odors that are undetectable to humans but seemingly obvious for our four legged friends.
Regardless of how they can sniff things out, we’re darn lucky that they can.
Doug and I covered a wide swath of topics in the podcast pertaining to life as an avalanche rescuer; the good, the bad, even the precious levity that can revive the spirit of the teams given the emotional weight of their service.
Day in and day out, these dog teams are ready to go at a moment’s notice. They train relentlessly to make sure they’re prepared when someone needs them the most.
The efforts of C-RAD are supported by tax-deductible donations from people like you. You don’t have to be running probe lines to make an impact.
A $20 donation provides one team one hour of training but any amount helps.
When it comes to traveling in the backcountry, getting educated and prepared before you go should be the first thing you do.
There are phenomenal avalanche education programs available in most states where the danger is a factor. AIARE, an avalanche education organization, has a list of courses sorted by state. You can access that here.
Another organization, Know Before You Go is an education program that is completely free with online resources as well as live education available in most states with areas that experience slides. Check them out if you’re planning on any type of winter excursions.
The next time you’re in the backcountry, thank your local avalanche dog and handler team by keeping them at home.
Plan. Prepare. Stay Aware.
Be safe out there.
“The first Colorado avalanche rescue dogs started training in Summit County in the mid-1980s. But the real catalyst for the creation of Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment was the devastating Peak 7 avalanche outside the Breckenridge Ski Area boundary in 1987.
Realizing the need for coordinated, county-wide avalanche response with trained dogs, the Summit County Sheriff, Summit County Search and Rescue Group, and Flight for Life helicopter service began to lay the groundwork for what would eventually become the robust statewide C-RAD program we have today. (source: www.C-rad.org)
Eight people were caught in the massive slide, and four people without avalanche transceivers were buried and killed. The search and rescue operation took three days and required hundreds of rescue professionals and volunteers painstakingly probing into feet of avalanche debris to find the victims.” (source: www.c-rad.org)