Editor’s note: This article first ran on Gear Patrol, but we’re rerunning it here with permission. All photos by Austin and Nikkie Parker.
The call comes on the radio almost as soon as Belle and her handler, Gerald, reach the top of the Snake Creek lift. There’s been an avalanche in the resort boundary. Two skiers are buried. They spring into action, the tension and excitement apparent in Belle as the two head along the Snake Creek Bowl traverse to the slide area.
Within seconds, Belle has caught the scent of a victim and barrels across the snow field, letting the ski patrol members know where to follow with her eager barking. Her nose leads her directly to the first buried skier, whom she helps dig out.
The second victim is much harder to find. Gerald guides Belle in a sweeping pattern across the path of the slide and downhill. With no results, they work their way back up. Suddenly, Belle tenses and sprints towards a small stand of pines, barking and baying directions to the men following her.
After nearly 20 agonizing minutes, the second victim is freed from the snow, earning Belle her reward of tug-of-war, praise, and petting. With both victims safe and the slide area cleared, Belle has passed her test.
While today’s search was a drill, Belle and the other dogs of the Brighton Avalanche Rescue K-9 (B.A.R.K.) teams are ready at a moment’s notice to respond to accidents and rescue situations in Brighton Resort and the surrounding backcountry areas of Utah’s Wasatch mountains.
Under the umbrella of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue organization, ski patrollers from Brighton and surrounding resorts have developed a partnership with search and rescue groups and the law enforcement community in nearby counties to provide professional training, coordination, and new technologies for rapid response in avalanches and other emergency situations.
The road to being a fully trained and qualified avalanche rescue dog is not unlike the training regimen of police and military working dogs. Selected at a very young age for their natural agility, curiosity, and desire to please, rescue dogs begin training as young as eight weeks old. For the first year, their primary job is to learn obedience commands and become familiar with the resort and members of the ski patrol.
Once rescue training starts, these C-level dogs will undergo many tests, like the refresher Belle just took part in. After passing a simulated emergency test, with one victim buried anywhere from three to six feet deep, a dog may graduate to B level, or resort, status.
The A-level dogs are the heroes of the rescue world, certified to operate anywhere they are called on and able to replace nearly 50 human searchers when the hunt is on to save avalanche victims.
Likewise, handlers like Gerald go through rigorous training (it can take years) to become snow safety professionals. Following basic EMT and mountain medicine courses, members of ski patrol and search and rescue teams attend seminars like the WBR International Dog School, the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association school, and other search and rescue courses to hone their skills in training and working with their dogs.
Many rescuers are also certified in avalanche study and forecasting. Watching snow conditions for stability and safety has gone from an esoteric process to a very regulated and codified science, and training is available from mountain rescue and guide services across the country.
Gerald and Belle spend nearly the entire season at Brighton when they are not training at other resorts or in the backcountry. If you’ve ever seen a ski patrol member heading down the slopes with an unlucky toboggan-bound skier or boarder in tow, you’ve seen the most visible part of the job. However, a typical day for a patroller may start in the pre-dawn hours, setting resort boundary ropes and testing snow pack safety, especially if any new snow fell overnight.
Safety operations also include avalanche prevention. Most often, this means pre-triggering any suspicious slopes using canons, explosive charges, or even sending a patroller down the slope to intentionally set an avalanche off under controlled conditions. Once the lifts are open and guests are on the snow, a patroller becomes a jack of all trades, directing traffic, handling mild accidents, providing first aid and responding to any emergency situations that may arise. Belle also gets in on the act, taking a few runs around the mountain and riding the lifts with Gerald.
In many ways, Belle and her other four-legged friends on the B.A.R.K. team are the best ambassadors for safety the resort has. Her friendly and enthusiastic attitude lends itself to meeting guests — lots of petting and ear scratches are always in order — and to performing her duties as the premier safety pro on the mountain.
At the end of the day, when the lifts close and the parking lot empties, Belle and Gerald take one last run to make sure the mountain is clear for the night, then ready themselves for the next routine day or emergency call out.
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