Ski dogs go to work when an avalanche hits

Sue Manning
Associated Press

Los Angeles – — Wylee the border collie can search an avalanche the size of a football field in five or 10 minutes. It would take a probe line of 50 people using poles a couple hours to cover the same ground.

When 30 minutes can mean the difference between life and death for a skier lost on a snowy mountain, most people would bank on the dog.

“The fastest thing is a dog — faster than a beacon or echo,” said Craig Noble, ski patrol and dog supervisor at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort in Olympic Valley, California. “We respond to a lot of avalanches that don’t involve any people. But we don’t know that before we leave. We just get there and get the dogs working.”

Speed is crucial in avalanche rescues, with minimal chances of survival if victims are buried for 30 minutes or more.

Noble skis 220 days a year by following the snow from California to Chile and Australia. He also takes yearly classes from the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, with trainings at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia among other locations. Noble relays what he learns to the ski patrollers at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows (the site of the 1960 winter Olympics) and Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado. He’s brought all of their dog programs up to the same CARDA standard.

He also teaches classes for students in the mountain communities. “The kids love the dogs,” he said.

Every dog and handler must recertify as a team every year, he said, but before handlers get a dog to work with, they train for a year without one.

“It’s easier to teach animals than people,” Noble explained.

Wylee is 8, but he’s fit and a lean 42 pounds, with plenty of time left in his career, Noble says. Most patrollers use Labradors or golden retrievers, but Noble opted for Wylee partly because he weighs about half what the other breeds weigh. Patrollers have to carry their dogs to search sites in addition to hauling 60-pound backpacks with shovels, probes, headlamps, water and other equipment. The dogs need the lift so they don’t get tired before they start working.

Dogs are not a requirement for ski patrollers, though. In fact, for every dog team there are six patrollers who go it alone at Squaw Alpine. During the past five winters, avalanches have killed 145 people in the United States.