An avalanche dog can do the work of 20 human searchers in 5 minutes.
DONNELLY, Idaho — Wylie’s presence at the Tamarack Resort ski area last winter served as both comfort and warning sign.
Canines such as the 9-year-old Australian shepherd are trained to quickly find a person buried by an avalanche. The fact that they’re needed should tell you how serious the avalanche threat is in the mountain’s out-of-bounds areas.
Those areas are easily accessible and backcountry skiing is part of the Tamarack experience, but the ski patrol team implores skiers and snowboarders to bring four potentially lifesaving items with them: a buddy, avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. The out-of-bounds areas don’t receive avalanche mitigation.
“Our situation here is unique because we have lift access to the backcountry that is so easily accessible,” said Colin Gamble, of Donnelly, a ski patrol member and Wylie’s owner/handler. “We’ve had multiple calls where people have gotten buried up to their chest or their neck out in Wildwood Bowl. We’ve had at least 10 of those since we opened (in 2004).”
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That’s why Tamarack has kept an avalanche-rescue dog on hand since it opened. Sun Valley Resort also has a dog program.
As of last winter, Tamarack hadn’t needed to use its dogs for a rescue yet. The ski patrol has responded to a few emergencies but the skiers’ friends were able to dig them out before the pros got there. The dogs also have searched where a slide path made it impossible to tell if someone was trapped.
Grand Targhee Resort in western Wyoming last winter used an avalanche-rescue dog to find a man who died in an avalanche. He stepped under a boundary rope onto a cornice, which broke. The resulting slide carried the victim over a cliff. The dog found him in 2 feet of debris. The man died from injuries sustained in the fall.
Gamble previously worked with a patroller who had an avalanche-rescue dog in Colorado. He got Wylie at 3 months old with the intent of training him as an avalanche rescuer.
Any working or retrieving dog can succeed, he said.
“They love it,” Gamble said. “For the most part, for them, it’s a game. As soon as you walk out and grab your skis, he’s excited.”
Wylie was one of four dogs in the Tamarack program last winter. Mac, a 4-year-old blue heeler mix, had trained for two years. The other two were puppies in training.
Showing his stuff
Wylie, the veteran, easily demonstrated his skills.
The Tamarack patrol crew staged a training run for Wylie with patroller Ben Hathaway of Donnelly buried in the snow.
“I trust Wylie,” Hathaway said as the snow was piled at the entrance to his cave. “I watched him do this the other day. He was pretty amazing.”
After 10 minutes, Wylie was called in to search. He ran immediately to the spot where Hathaway was buried.
After sniffing around a bit — and taking a potty break — he started digging in the snow. Gamble helped with a shovel.
Hathaway was out of the hole less than 2 minutes after Wylie was released.
“For the dogs, it’s relatively simple,” Gamble said. “In an avalanche slide path, it’s pretty much wiped clean of most scent. If someone is buried there, they see this giant scent cone, if you will, and they can see that right off. An avalanche dog can do the work of 20 people in 5 minutes. So a half an hour of 20 people searching, an avalanche dog can do that same area in about 5 minutes. It greatly increases our speed, especially if (the victim) is not wearing proper avalanche gear. The first thing we would do is look for an avalanche beacon.”