Beaver Creek’s elite team of avalanche dogs
General Leigh loves to play. She loves to be outside. She loves to hike, and to romp around with her sister in the snow. Isn’t all of that natural for any mountain dweller?
And she’s driven. If you give her a task, she’ll accomplish it. When her handler, ski patroller Matt Sargent, buries a toy in the snow, General Leigh, a blue heeler-border collie mix, will scurry to find it.
“She has a real strong work ethic,” Sargent says. “We started doing burial drills when she was 2 1/2 months old. I could tell she was like, ‘I know ‘sit,’ I know ‘come,’ but what’s my job? What do you want from me?’ That’s kind of the heeler, the cattle dog in her coming out. She knows she has a task.”
That drive could, one day, be the difference between life and death. General Leigh, now just a puppy, is being trained to become an avalanche dog that would be able to find a person who’s buried under the snow.
But, for now, she’s getting used to her first season on the job at Beaver Creek Mountain alongside Sargent, a fifth-year patroller who is her handler and caretaker. “I am very much a dog person,” Sargent says. “They’re just great mountain companions. She’s my hiking buddy. When you can’t get your two-legged friends to go with you, you always have a four-legged one.”
He’ll often take General Leigh along when he hikes or skins up Meadow Mountain near Minturn or rock climbs. “She’s becoming quite a crag dog,” Sargent says. “She loves to sit and guard the beer at the bottom of the cliff.”
She loves to romp around with her sister, Meeka Mojito, another Beaver Creek ski patrol puppy. They wrestle and tumble and yelp around the floor of the Ski Patrol Headquarters at the top of Beaver Creek Mountain after they’re let out of their kennel. Both were adopted from the Eagle Valley Humane Society.
Meeka’s handler is Dave “Martini” Martin, an eighth-year patroller. Martin’s first ski-patrol dog, Sadie May, passed away last year after developing a rare disease and going through some serious medical treatments. Martin is now trying to get Meeka accustomed to the things she’ll have to do every day, such as riding snowmobiles and toboggans and jumping onto lifts. “She usually jumps up, but sometimes she looks up and me and says, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to jump up,” he says.
The ski patrol’s third puppy is Scout, an 8-month-old black Lab whose handler is Tyler Wells, another patroller. “She spends a lot of time with me,” Wells says. “There’s a strong bond there. There’s a lot of trust involved. The dog has to trust you, has to respect you. I have to be stern with her, but I also have to show her a lot of love and establish that bond.”
Meeka, General Leigh and Scout look like the skittish rookies they are compared to Dixie, the yellow Lab who’s been working with ski patrol for five years. “There’s definitely kind of a hierarchy,” says her handler, Jeff Thompson, an 11-year veteran of ski patrol. “It’ll take them a little time before they want to give them the time of day.”
Dixie and black Lab Blu, the two veteran ski patrol dogs, are both certified by the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program. To become certified, dogs must be able to uncover two people buried under 6 feet of snow in a 200-by-200-meter test area. If someone is buried in an avalanche, Dixie may be called on to jump into a helicopter with her handler and fly to the site of the slide.
Dixie is a true mountain dog, having climbed more fourteeners ” 15 or 20 ” than most Coloradoans. Thompson, who is a wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in the summer, takes Dixie along on many of his outdoor pursuits. This past summer, she did four five-day backcountry trips with him.
“She’s right there next to me in the tent,” he says. “We’re hiking all day long.” Dixie’s personality has begun to mirror his own, Thompson says, describing his dog as “energetic” and “aware.”
“I think it’s just her nature,” Thompson says. “As soon as I’m up, first thing in the morning, it’s, ‘Where are we going? What are we doing?’ That type of thing.”
Which is exactly the kind of dog you want when you’re trying to find a buried person. The dogs use their keen sense of smell to pinpoint someone who has disappeared under the snow.
And you need to have a dog that’s not only aware, but one that will respond to the handler’s every command.
“It’s that relationship between the handler and the dog that we’re looking for,” Thompson says. “How does the dog react to their handler? Do they look at him like ‘You are God, I’ll do whatever you want’? Or can they not even control their dog? You want them to look at you like, ‘You tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ And we definitely have that.”