She takes off, sprinting down the steep face of the mountain. At one unassuming snow pile she stops, looks up, and lets out a staccato bark. Her handler knows she’s found someone buried beneath the snow.
While only a training exercise, Biskit and her handler, Rico, act every bit as serious as if this were a real call. For the Winter Park Ski Patrol Avalanche Dog team any day could mean getting that call to action. The expertly trained Winter Park avalanche rescue dogs are one of Patrol’s most valuable assets when it comes to responding to emergency snow events. Capable of searching 2.5 acres in 30 min (20 humans would need 4 hours) these four-legged patrollers work hard to mitigate risk on the mountain.
This unique branch of Patrol is led by Patrollers Rico LaRocca and Nate Bash, Co-Founders of the Winter Park Ski Patrol Avalanche Dog Program. Off the clock, Rico and Nate spend considerable time working with local schools, youth groups, and outdoor organizations teaching the importance of avalanche dogs and bringing awareness to the outdoor community. The leader of the pack is Charlotte, a six year-old Border Collie. Patroller Nate Bash has owned and trained her since she was six months-old. Bash realized the need for these highly trained dogs after learning the risks of avalanches early in his career. Owner of Biskit and the now retired Nuggit, Patroller LaRocca shares Bash’s passion for these animals and their work. Seeing the success of dog programs at other resorts, the two Patrollers came together to create a program of Winter Park’s own. The team also includes Ezma, a four year-old prospect handled by her owner Patroller Austin Foote.
Certified by Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD), Charlotte is the first dog on call in the event of an emergency. Her CRAD certification means that Charlotte can be deployed to slides throughout the county, making her a valuable tool for the Grand County Sherriff. Unlike Charlotte, Biskit and Ezma are both training towards their CRAD and Winter Park credentials. Until they pass the Winter Park On-Area Certification Test, both pups will continue to train with their handlers. Chosen specifically for traits essential to the trade, puppies are selected at a young age to begin the process of becoming a Search and Rescue animal. Everything from communicating with their handler to interacting with the rest of Patrol presents an opportunity to train and learn. Rigorous training and the highest standards are essential. “You can’t be mediocre at finding people that need you to save their life,” Bash explains.
To be an effective team, dog and handler must master the art of communication and discipline. Carving out the time and coming up with the resources to constantly train can be a real struggle, as mentioned by both Bash and Rico. Regardless of the struggles they face, both dog and man take the slopes every day to stay active and attentive to any possibility that may arise. To do so, Winter Park’s “Dog Town” has been created as a permanent training center for the winter season. With the ability to accommodate six “buried” volunteers, the team is able to prepare for the worst. While a search dog is able to locate someone buried under snow, it takes time for that individual’s scent to penetrate the snow and rise to the surface. Because of this, handlers must be able to instill a deep drive in their animal so that searching can go on continuously until a person is found. To keep their dogs motivated, Patrollers emphasize play in training. When asked what his favorite part of being a handler is, Bash explained how he loves to watch Charlotte learn through play and games. “I like watching her succeed when she wins. You know for them a search is really just a big game of hide and seek – that’s what we’ve always taught them, it’s fun.” Using play as the primary teaching tool, the Patrollers work to constantly present their dogs and themselves with new challenges. While discussing training, Nate explains, “Watching Charlotte get smarter and learn to use her nose in different ways then I even can understand, she’s so smart its challenging to train her at this point because she can outsmart me. Every time we go out, I learn something from her now…”
The bond shared by man and his best friend is only amplified by the work the pair does. Unlike Utah and a number of European resorts that own their rescue dogs, Colorado’s “avy” dogs are owned by Patrollers. This unique work arrangement allows for a bond indispensable to the work they do. While discussing the relationship between dog and handler, Rico explains “Once you’re confident with your dog, you have a tool that could potentially save a life – that’s a really cool thing.” A sentiment shared by Rico and Nate alike, learning with and from the dogs is vital. Both Patrollers have worked with canine specialists from FEMA, police departments, the military, and other Colorado resorts including Copper and Vail. A veteran trainer, Rico explains that “Seeing them learn these specific skills, and have the potential to save somebody is the most important thing to us.” He goes on, “We want to have the best tool for the job, and that job is pretty serious.”
Charlotte, Biskit, and the dogs working to be on the avalanche team work just as hard as their bipedal buddies. The next time you’re out on the mountain and see a dog working, take a moment to appreciate Patrol and its pups. While these animals are here to serve guests, Nate emphasizes the importance of understanding that “when they’re working, they need to work.” Hard working, diligent, and committed to growth and success, the dogs and their handlers work tirelessly to be prepared. “The bottom line is we want to find someone buried in avalanche terrain. We want to save somebody’s life, we want to make their day better.”