Man's Best Friend Saves Skiers

Meet the avalanche rescue dogs at Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Resort.

January 7, 2010, 6:07 PM

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo., Jan. 8, 2010— -- Tali might just be the cutest dog you never want to meet.

Tali, a mutt, is part of an elite team of rescue dogs at Breckenridge Ski Resort trained specifically to find people buried in avalanches.

The ski resort does everything possible to prevent such disasters (we'll get to that in a minute), but sometimes catastrophe still strikes or -- more likely -- somebody skis out of bounds and gets caught in a slide.

That's when Breckenridge's ski patrol -- the largest in Colorado -- mobilizes.

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Tali, her ski patrol handler Hunter Mortensen and an avalanche technician hop into a helicopter and head off to help the trapped skiers. (Tali is just one of five rescue dogs that can be called into action.)

The technician searches for an avalanche beacon that one of the skiers might have. Tali and the other dogs do their own search.

"She's trained to find human scent coming up from the snowpack," Mortensen said. "She's just run around until she finds where that scent's coming up, and then she starts digging where that scent's the strongest."

The skiers are found, dug out of the snow and then brought by the patrol team down to the nearest road.

"Our primary role here is to be prepared at any time if there is an avalanche to head out, and if someone is not wearing a beacon or the proper equipment she's trained and certified to find them underneath the snow," Mortensen added.

But that's just the worst-case, out-of-bounds scenario.

Breckenridge Ski Resort's Avalanche Rescue Dogs

It typically takes about two years to train the rescue dogs. While Tali is a mutt, the other four dogs are a Labrador, Labrador mixed breed, golden retriever and an Australian shepherd.

Tali almost didn't make it to the ranks of Breckenridge's ski patrol.

"She is a rescued, rescue dog. She came from the pound. She was scheduled to be put down when she was a little puppy because nobody had taken her yet," Mortensen said. "I got her from the pound, and she just showed all the right traits to be a good working rescue dog. I started training her and she was successful. She proved me right. So it just proves that it's not the breed, it's the dog and their desire to do it."

Tali and the other dogs get lots of practice but luckily don't have to spring to action often. In fact, the 83-member ski patrol hasn't had to make an avalanche rescue in four years.

Each morning, the ski patrol works hard to ensure that such a disaster doesn't happen on any of Breckenridge's in-bounds expert terrain.

Breckenridge has a whopping 2,358 acres of skiable terrain on four mountains. About 30 percent of that is above the tree line and 55 percent is classified as expert or most difficult.

Expert skiers flock to the ski area's exposed bowls, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. The resort boasts the highest chairlift in North America and, from the top of it, some skiers hike even higher in search of the perfect run.

But they may find risks along the way. The steep terrain and heavy Colorado snowfalls mean that avalanches are more likely.

Ski Patrol Uses Explosives to Prevent Avalanches

To minimize the risk of such slides, most mornings teams from the ski patrol load explosives into their backpacks and head out to the bowls.

Then an intricate dance with the snow begins as the patrollers try to cause controlled avalanches.

Spread out across the bowls, the patrol teams light the fuses and throw the explosives into the snow. Seconds later, a boom echoes across the mountain -- sometimes the blasts can be heard miles away in the town below -- and a large mass of snow starts sliding down the upper mountain. These are not giant avalanches that knock out trees and buildings below, just controlled slides that break up unstable snow.

Sometimes, the ski patrol doesn't even need to use explosives to set off a slide.

One or two patrollers will simply ski horizontally across the bowl, their skis cutting deep into snow. In some cases, their parallel cuts will be enough to trigger an avalanche.

Once the blasting is done, the ski patrol will determine if the area is safe enough to open to skiers or if they should keep the bowl closed until conditions improve.

While all of this is going on, a few hundred feet below, Tali and the other rescue dogs -- Rudy, Roux, Kodi and Atticus -- stare out the windows of ski patrol headquarters waiting for that call their masters hope they will never get.

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