Buried alive in what feels like a sub-zero coffin, I wait impatiently for Fred to come save me. I try to steady myself, my camera poised and ready for the moment when he unearths me from my tomb. Snow begins to fall on my face and camera lens as I try to carefully maintain focus, all while squealing like an injured rabbit and calling Fred’s name in the highest voice I can muster. Finally, soft patches of light begin to break through to the darkness, followed by the excited and happy face of Fred as he frees me and pulls me back into the light of day.
This burial, thankfully, was just a mock training scenario, and Fred is an avalanche rescue dog with Vail Mountain’s ski patrol. I wasn’t actually caught in an avalanche, I had no injuries, and I knew I could get out of that snowy tomb at any time. Even with that comfortable knowledge it was difficult to keep the gravity of the scenario which we were playing from overwhelming me. I don’t typically feel like someone who is prone to claustrophobia, but those few minutes in which I was buried and closed into a space just barely larger than my own body outline immediately caused a sense of helplessness of which I was not a fan. It also brought a larger rush of adrenaline than I was anticipating.
I was fortunate enough to get to spend a day with Fred and his ski patrol handler (an old friend of mine) as I got to shadow these two around Vail Mountain during, what for them, is a fairly normal day at the office. My friend (I’m going to leave all humans here anonymous because Fred is the real star of this story) is a veteran ski patroler with years on the team at Vail, while Fred is just a one year-old avalanche patrol dog; he’s a true professional, but he is a pup still very much learning the ropes. Both human and canine are living out the daily dream of many and getting to work outside all day, skiing and running around their paradise of an office.
The primary reason I was out with Fred on this particular day was to document a very special kind of training that involved the Flight for Life helicopter and the newer/younger members of the avalanche rescue dog team at Vail. This training involved getting the dogs comfortable and familiar with the procedures of loading into the helicopter, behaving in flight, unloading at the designated mock rescue site, and then finally jumping into action to search for and rescue an avalanche victim. I was lucky enough to pretend to be that victim, with my camera at the ready.
Before witnessing this type of training firsthand I was unaware that when someone in the backcountry calls for Search and Rescue to come to the site of an avalanche burial, the call often goes out to the nearest ski patrol team with an available avalanche dog. I had been under the impression that Search and Rescue teams were different and separate from ski patrol at various mountain resorts, and that when one may need that sort of rescue you weren’t going to see your favorite resort ski patrol dog show up on the scene. I was wrong in the best kind of way.
The training I was witnessing is a vital piece of the rescue puzzle for many mountainous regions, especially here in Colorado, and I must say that knowing one of these highly trained dogs might get the rescue call brought me an unexpected sense of relief. As a diehard lifelong skier and someone that spends more and more of their time in the backcountry in highly consequential terrain, I without question hope to never need to make that call for help. But if one day I do, I sure hope a dog like Fred shows up. The speed at which I saw him find the initial mock burial victim, and then the speed at which he found me on his second round of searching, was impressive to say the least and a whole lot faster than I’ve seen humans searching for a buried avalanche beacon.
Once the mock burial exercises were complete, I was able to shadow Fred and his handler as they moved around Vail conducting more normal daily duties. The sheer level of stamina and athleticism needed to be a good patrol dog was something that immediately impressed me. The human ski patrollers have an already strenuous and demanding job, but they at least have the ability and joy of skiing from one area of the mountain to the next. Fred, on the other hand, was running and sprinting the whole way (with the occasional shoulder carry when needed), not that he seemed to mind in the slightest. If anyone has ever looked like they enjoy their “job” I’d have to say Fred looks like he’s balancing work and play better than most of us.
Ever since I was young I have always revered ski patrollers. Having grown up in a small mountain town in Colorado, ski patrollers were always the heroes I wanted to one day become, and becoming a ski patrol member is still on my bucket list. As a skier, there is a reverence for what the patrollers do and how important they are in those environments, and yet in many ways it is often a thankless job that is performed by incredibly dedicated people out of pure passion and love for the mountains, skiing, and helping people.
The joys of having a canine companion along as your partner for those ski patrol duties only adds to the beauty of the job, and it is immediately clear that both human and dog love and take their jobs very seriously. You can see the smiles on skiers faces, young and old, as one of the patrol dogs comes running by, everyone pointing and maybe calling their name when they know and recognize their favorite patrol dog. These happier moments in between more serious calls to duty remind one of why dogs are our best friends, why we find ourselves relying on them so heavily for important and often life-saving tasks, and why simply having a dog at your side immediately makes any day better. At the end of it all, Fred gets to lay his head on the deck of the patrol hut as the sun warms his face, and watch the skiers cruise on by. Just another day at the office.
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