Avalanche SAR Canines


On a cold February morning in 2013, a golden retriever named Rocky and his owner / handler John Alfond quickly climb into the back seat of the Flight for Life helicopter. Rocky slides to the other side by the window. Alfond moves up next to the dog, followed by the avalanche technician. The start is quick and hectic, and Rocky leans over to Alfond for reassurance. It takes 12 minutes to reach the Arapahoe Basin ski area and every second counts. Rocky, an avalanche dog in training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, is plunged into disaster.

Avalanches not only threaten skiers and snowboarders, but also snowmobilers and ice climbers. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an average of 25 people die in avalanches each year. In 2010 that number hit an all-time high with 36 deaths and again a record high in 2012 with 34 deaths. The risk is highest in Colorado, where there are more than 1 million acres of avalanche terrain and a notoriously unstable snowpack.

When the Flight for Life helicopter lands, police officers and members of the Arapahoe Basin ski patrol wait. They inform Alfond and his team about the incident – a man in his 40s witnessed an avalanche. The man was not affected, but saw others being swept away. Nobody is sure how many people are buried. Rocky paces up and down at the end of his leash.

Alfond, himself a member of the ski patrol in Vail, rates the safety of the scene. He identifies the direction of the wind and looks for signs of more slides – cornices or snow that could shift. Time is of the essence. After 15 minutes, nine out of ten people, or 90 percent, survive an avalanche. After 30 minutes this percentage drops to 50.

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