Winter is coming. You don’t have to be a hardcore Game of Thrones fan to know that despite a long, hot summer, there’s always the promise of an equally enduring cold winter. So although it’s hard to imagine being knee-deep in snow toward the end of August, the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue team in Utah is hard at work training for the upcoming season. This means toiling alongside some of the best coworkers a person could ask for: avalanche dogs.
This year, five of nine participating mountains have new puppies to train and work in conjunction with the local sheriff office’s search and rescue team. This means skiers at Sundance, Snowbird, Snowbasin, Solitude, and Deer Valley can rest assured that they’re closely guarded by experienced professionals who train rookie pups, including Stash, a tricolor Border Collie who was born in December and has been working with the rescue team at Snowbasin since he was just three months old.
His handler is Hans Hjelde, a ski patroller who has spent 32 seasons working in locations as varied as Colorado, New Zealand, and Kashmir. With a primary focus on avalanche reduction and snow stability hazard assessment, Hjelde has been at Snowbasin Resort for 17 seasons, 15 of those working with avalanche dogs like Stash.
So what have Hans and Stash been up to? A bit of everything to prepare the eager Border Collie to respond to mountain-related accidents. “The dog has to be ready to be instantly deployed,” Hjelde says. As part of the training program, Stash has practiced riding on chairlifts, gondolas, trams, snowmobiles, and helicopters, as well as hiking up ridges beyond the ski area boundaries and observing the use of explosives that help reduce snowslide. Essentially, Stash is being trained to coordinate search and rescue efforts with his human leaders and to find scent under the snow.
“The dog uses his nose and is trained like it’s a game,” Hjelde adds. The idea is for the pup to cover a wide area and find any type of human-related smell. Sometimes, the goal is to find a person who’s buried under the powder. Other times, the mission is simply to check the area and designate it as clear.
Unfortunately, many winter athletes and adventurers who go into extreme terrain aren’t prepared and don’t wear avalanche beacons as a safety precaution. The device sends a signal if the wearer is caught in an avalanche, which makes it easier to locate the person on the mountain. If the skier is found and dug out within 10 to 15 minutes, there’s a very good chance of survival.
Currently, Stash is considered a candidate for making such important rescues. But first, he must become comfortable at the ski resort where four other certified dogs are already hard at work. In the summertime, that means obedience training (recall, sit and stay, lie down — all on command), but also playing games like hide and seek, where he has to sniff out his hiding handler.
“Border Collies are bred as working dogs around sheep. They’re hard workers and really intelligent,” Hjelde says about Stash’s pedigree, while adding that his pup is highly energetic and independent, preferring to go off and explore things on his own sometimes, with a particular fascination for hummingbirds.
Stash will go through extensive socialization to interact with all types of people. In fact, he’s already really good around kids. “He’s just getting used to understanding what’s needed of him,” says Hjelde.
The training process will cover two full ski seasons as Stash becomes acquainted with rapid response for avalanche rescue, winter-related mountain rescue, and medical evacuation incidents. And his skills will undoubtedly be tested as the team is typically called out to clear a site a few times each season. As far as Stash’s own safety is considered, “scene safety is the primary concern,” Hjelde says. “If we feel it’s a risk, we’ll use explosives and create other small avalanches to clear the site (instead).”
Injuries aren’t uncommon, and some avalanche dogs with bad hips or shoulders are forced to retire. But Hjelde hopes to keep Stash as healthy as possible throughout a potential 8-to-10-year career, while educating the public about safety techniques methods along the way.
“People have a false sense of confidence and start pushing the boundaries if there hasn’t been a lot of precipitation,” cautions Hjelde. For those who are planning to do any back country skiing during the winter, keep in mind that most avalanches happen within 48 hours of a big snowfall. Just hope that you’re never in the position of having to meet Hjelde and Stash in a rescue scenario. Although, if you do, you’ll probably be more than glad to see that furry face through the pure white powder.
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About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).