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Dogs’ noses can lead to buried skiers

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BEAVER CREEK – Dixie’s tail could signal the difference between life and death. If the yellow Lab’s tail is wagging from left to right, there may be hope for a buried backcountry skier in the critical minutes after an avalanche.That tail movement is the way Dixie’s handlers on the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol know if she detects the scent of a buried skier.”If someone’s not carrying a beacon, the only way they’re going to be found is with a dog or until the snow melts,” said Jeff Thompson, a ski patroller who cares for 3-year-old Dixie and 2-year-old Blu, Beaver Creek’s rescue dogs. Thompson shares handler duties with fellow patroller Brent Redden.When Dixie wags her tail, or when Blu starts barking, the ski patrollers start digging. Ski Patrol treats backcountry avalanche rescues as if the slide victim is still alive. But there is precious little time for a skier caught under snow. It could be 10 minutes before he or she suffocates. A pocket of air may extend that time to 45 minutes.”The reality is that most of the time it’s a recovery because of the amount of time it takes (to get to the scene of an avalanche),” Thompson said.

While Beaver Creek ski patrollers almost eliminate avalanche danger in-bounds, some out-of-bounds areas near the resort are susceptible to slides. The dogs and their handlers can also be deployed to areas near Vail Mountain, which doesn’t have its own avalanche dogs, or to by helicopter other backcountry areas.Last season, the dogs were used at two avalanches. One was at the Sky Chutes near Copper Mountain in April, when three skiers set off two avalanches but did not get caught in the slide. The other was the in-bounds avalanche at Arapahoe Basin in May. One skier died in that slide, although initial reports indicated there were more people caught in the slide.Thompson expects the dogs will be used again this season, he said. “I anticipate once the temperature changes, we need to be ready to go,” he said.Working on scent

Most large ski resorts across the West have rescue dogs. Until three years ago, none of the ski mountains in Eagle County did. Thompson and Redden convinced management at Beaver Creek to start a canine rescue program. This is the program’s second full season.Blu became certified as a rescue dog last week, and Dixie got her certification last March. To get certification, the dogs have to find two people buried 6 feet under snow within 20 minutes.The dogs work primarily on scent. They also depend on their handlers to position them in the area of the victim and where the wind isn’t carrying away the scent. Labradors are an ideal breed for the rescue dogs, Thompson said.”Labradors have a drive to retrieve, whether it’s a tennis ball or a person under the snow,” he said.They are accustomed to the cold because they were bred to swim in the cold waters of Canada to aid fishermen. At night, the dogs come home with either Thompson or Redden.The dogs also are great ambassadors for the resort, Thompson said. They often greet guests at the top of lifts or appear at safety events. This week, they are doing demonstrations as part of National Safety Awareness Week.



Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14623, or estoner@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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