Beaver Creek Resort keeps skiers and snowboarders safe with a group of rescue dogs
When Chris Johnson plays fetch with his dog, Luna, he has to be very clear about what they are fetching.
“She’s a huge fan of fetching anything — which is part of her job, too,” the Beaver Creek Ski Patroller said of his pure-bred black Labrador who is avalanche certified. “She’s got a hierarchy of toys and at the top of the list is her avalanche reward toy and then right below that is a Frisbee and then below that is a tennis ball. If it’s soft and you throw it, she’ll go get it.”
While in-bound rescues are few and far between, the Ski Patrol avalanche dogs are a community asset — not just pretty, slobbering faces at the Beav’. The dogs go to work with their owners, such as Johnson, and along with their humans, they assist the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Vail Mountain Rescue, HAATS and other backcountry service entities when needed.
In the fall, Johnson and Luna were part of a team sent out into the backcountry of Chaffee County to assist with an individual stuck in the backcountry.
“We flew right over the top of the 14,000-foot Missouri Peak in a Blackhawk and circled around and they dropped us right on the ridge,” Johnson said. “They threw us out the side and took off.”
The individual was later found safely.
‘She’s two dogs’
An average day for Luna and other Ski Patrol dogs includes heading up the mountain with their humans — via chairlift, snowmobile or shoulder — and then “she’ll pretty much hang out most of the day,” Johnson said.
In total, there are five avalanche dogs at Beaver Creek — two certified, two semiretired and one in training. The dogs are all across the mountain and are happy to say hello, just be sure to introduce yourself.
“This goes for any service dog: You should never call, whistle, try and give commands, chase or feed any service dog,” Johnson said.
Dogs usually become avalanche certified within the first two years of their lives, staying trained and active until they are about 10 years old. Luna, who just recently celebrated her fifth birthday, still has some years to go.
“I mean having your dog at work is pretty awesome,” Johnson said. “It’s not just me, all the patrollers are dog lovers for the most part.”
And for Luna, it’s not all fun and games — but that’s a lot of it.
“She’s two dogs — an at-work dog and at-home dog and they are totally different,” Johnson said.
The official ski patrol vest helps her know when it’s time for work.
“The vest is a big part of it, but she just kind of knows where we are. She knows home and she knows work. There’s not really a command for chill out,” Johnson said.
Most days, you’ll find Luna hanging out at Ski Patrol wherever Johnson is, but on those tough days when someone needs help in the Colorado backcountry, Luna and her handler are ready to assist.
“We’ll go anywhere they take us,” Johnson said.
Richardson has shot for the magazine since 1984, and his work is up for public viewing at multiple locations in the area.