Several years ago, when I first learned to ski, I almost fell out of the chairlift at Steven’s Pass because I was gawking at a yellow Labrador retriever wearing a bright red vest. The dog had jumped into a lift chair behind me and was riding the lift up the mountain.
Wondering what in the world a dog was doing on a ski lift, I waited at the top after disembarking, pretending to adjust my ski mittens while I stared in amazement at the dog and its handler.
It turns out the dog was an Avalanche Search and Rescue Dog, trained to find skiers and snowboarders trapped in a snow slide. These dogs are also used to find skiers who have fallen and are covered by new snowfall, or have become lost and are holed up in a snow cave.
Once buried by snow, the victim is impossible to find with the naked eye and may have only a short time to live if not rescued. Many avalanche victims owe their lives to dogs trained in avalanche rescue.
In the late 1930s the Swiss Army started training search dogs in avalanche rescue, techniques that have been refined in the decades since. The dogs are taught to alert when they find “pools” of human scent.
Highly trained and organized volunteer rescue groups across the US, Canada, and Europe now provide avalanche search and rescue service to ski areas.
I hope none of us ever needs the services of one of these fantastic dogs, but their dedication to their task and their joy in the snow make them a beautiful (and comforting) sight.
There are lots of YouTube videos featuring avalanche search and rescue dogs. This video gives you a fascinating inside look at Mount Bachelor, Oregon’s avalanche dog program that trains canines to find buried skiers and snowboarders.