Ike the labrador’s frosted snout poked out from the deep, snowy trenches of the Art’s Knob ski run at the Alpine Meadows resort. His legs were sinking, fighting to drag his furry frame uphill.
Throughout his wooded search radius, the wind taunted him with an elusive scent.
Nearing a tree, Ike hunched his back. Alert to the familiar smell of human clothing, he shuffled his feet in a rapid digging dance and burrowed downward.
Moments later he was back to the surface, a strip of white fabric between his teeth.
The article, buried strategically 48 hours prior, was Ike’s morning training challenge. With heavy El Niño snows on the horizon, locking in on such human scents is a skill that Ike and other Tahoe-region rescue dogs will need to master.
Mountain patrol teams are busy preparing man’s best friend – and most valuable search tool – for possible avalanches this winter.
“We want them to have something called victim loyalty,” his handler, Chase Allstadt, said while rewarding Shove, an 8-month-old golden retriever, with a toy after the pup successfully ejected his handler from a snow pile. “They will dig until they are exhausted. They will not stop digging until that person is out. … There should be nothing more fun for one of these dogs than to dig up a live person.”
But in an avalanche situation, the rescue dogs’ duties are no laughing matter. Trained to trace and recover buried bodies, avalanche dogs are a crucial asset for many ski resorts, and can mean the difference between finding someone dead or alive.
Just over 90 percent of avalanche victims survive if dug out within 15 minutes, according to the National Geographic Society. After that, survival rates drop substantially, with only 20 to 30 percent of victims likely to survive after 45 minutes.
Fortunately, avalanches within bounds of ski areas are rare.
An average of 29 people die in avalanches in the United States each year, with the vast majority occurring outside the bounds of ski resorts, according to research from the National Ski Areas Association.
The last avalanche death at Alpine Meadows was of Bill Foster on Dec. 24, 2012. Foster, a ski patrol employee, helped launch the Alpine Meadows avalanche rescue dog program in the early 1980s. A major avalanche killed seven people at Alpine Meadows in 1982.
While most avalanche dogs will never pull a body from the snow, it’s important that they can do so should a major accident occur, said Brian Slusser, ski patrol manager at Alpine Meadows. While patrol teams can use electronic methods, such as transceivers and RECCO search devices, to find bodies under the snow, the dogs are often the most efficient way to canvas an area.
Most commonly, patrol teams use dogs to double-check the scene and confirm that there aren’t any bodies after an avalanche, Allstadt said.
“It’s one more tool, often to confirm no one was buried,” he said. “We need to be very sure.”
Dogs at Alpine Meadows train multiple days each week, for up to 11 hours a day in a combination of basic obedience, agility, mountain navigation and search and rescue.
During the week, when mountain traffic is light, avalanche dogs run drills with their handlers so they can practice finding articles of clothing or buried persons. For practice they might look for a glove or a pole dropped from the chairlift.
In his drill, Ike the labrador found the strip of fabric in 8 1/2 minutes – a feat Allstadt considers worthy of a reward. For Ike, that means a long bout of snow play.
On the weekends, the furry squad – most of them golden retrievers – nuzzle up to visitors or lie around in the patrol lodge. Alpine has eight dogs on staff – three retired, three mission-ready and two in training.
A love for people and a desire to please are part of the foundation for a good avalanche rescue dog, Slusser said. It’s important for the dogs to smell and interact with lots of humans, mostly so they can do their job more efficiently.
Ski patrol employees seek out good avalanche dogs when the pups are as young as 7 weeks old. The dogs have to pass annual certifications and follow protocols put out by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association.
“We don’t care if they’re cute,” Slusser said. “If they’re not cutting it, they’re out.
“We need dogs that can work.”