Several years ago Charlotte’s then boyfriend, Dave (now husband – he finally manned up) and I were hanging out in Alta after skiing, and the conversation turned to my hunting dog, Rumble.  Rumble was barely 10 months old, and we had only been able to hunt him one season. But he already proven he was very trainable even by a novice like me and that he had a remarkable nose for finding birds.  We were lamenting that we couldn’t hunt birds since winter is generally a non-hunting season. But that (and the red wine) started the wheels turning, and one of us (I am sure it was me!) posited the crazy idea that perhaps he could be trained to be an avalanche dog.

Yes, there are such animals. Most major western resorts and many outdoor rescue operations have dogs specifically trained to search for victims of avalanches. Each of Alta and Snowbird have at least 4 such dogs, and they can routinely be seen romping around the areas with their ski patrol handlers.

The crazy idea became victim to my usual apres-ski routine – hot shower; red wine; dinner (more red wine) and sleep. In other words, I forgot about it. Fortunately, Dave is younger (i.e. not as forgetful as me) and loves to research ideas, even wacky ones. So it was with a tad of fanfare that he announced to me the following day that he had found an K9 avalanche course for Rumble.

I was intrigued but dubious. The course was being offered by the American Avalanche Institute “AAI”, one of the premier avalanche groups, and was listed as a course offered only to “professionals.”  Now skiing is one of the few things I can do well, I have taken avalanche courses and spend some time in the backcountry but a “professional” I am not. But with Dave egging me on and fueled with a glass of red wine (have I mentioned I like red wine) I called AAI.  With some exaggeration of Rumbles talent and certainly stretching my skills, I pleaded my case, and amazingly the gruff sounding Jason said I could “try it.” I suspect my offer to send them the $500 for the course that day helped more than it should have.

I remained excited until the moment several months later when I started the drive up to Grand Targhee for the 5 day course. At that point I realized I was way in over my head. Looking back on it, if I had known to what extent that was true I would have turned around and crawled home. Fortunately for Rumble, all he knew was we were going on an adventure.

While Rumble was already exceptionally good at locating birds, riding chairlifts, skiing with me and digging for buried clothes and people were not yet in his repertoire. And the old dog “handler” (aka me) had to learn new tricks and then train Rumble. Amazingly, we survived and he thrived.  Chairlifts were the first pieces of furniture he was allowed to climb up on so he happily took to that. (We only had one close call when a menacing hawk decided to check us out. Rumble nearly tumbled out of the chair as he bent over backwards to watch the hawk’s every swoop and dive.) He and I learned to be compatible ski partners – him above me as I side slipped down steep slopes and between my legs as I snow plowed down the less steep pitches.

My new ski partner

Of course, the most important task for him to master was finding buried people. To simulate live burials we dug snow caves into large mounds of snow made by the Targhee snow cat drivers. We humans would take turns getting packed into a cave after which a dog would be released to search.  (I hated being the one “buried” but found that closing my eyes and picturing runs in deep powder helped.)  Rumble excelled at locating the human scent and intently staring at the snow pile from which it came.  Teaching him it was also his job to energetically dig into the pile to locate the person was more difficult. Unfortunately for me, having a dog’s handler mimic the necessary digging motions was key. Between that and Rumble realizing the buried person always had an item he could play tug of war with, we successfully preserved.

My view when they start to bury you in a snow cave.

Rumble and I have now successfully completed two avalanche courses, and my hope is that next year he can become a certified avi/rescue dog. While certification requirements vary, essentially the dog needs to find a certain number of clothing articles and buried persons within an allotted time period (usually 15-20 minutes).  As a certified dog (and handler) we could be useful to the Utah rescue groups. But frankly I am doubtful they really need us.

So why do this?  Mmm… good question. I suppose there are several answers – one dog related and several all about me. Rumble and I need to learn new tricks and these courses have helped cement the bond he and I have. And then there is the all about me part.  This combines skiing and dogs (two of my favorites things) in a very unique way.  And the older I get I think it is important for me to feel out of my comfort zone and be challenged in new unexpected ways. Being on ski lifts with Rumble, learning how to find people buried in snow with your dog and being buried in the snow myself puts me WAY out of any comfort zone.

conSKIerge co-founder

Kevin Dennis is a life long ski bum with a 34 year legal career on the side. Now retired, he skis 80+ days a year. While he lives in Alta UT in the winters, he has traveled extensively through skiing and has skied almost every major resort in North America (and many you have never heard of). He continues to hit the road often throughout the western United States and Canada and trips over the last several years have included ventures in British Columbia, Montana and Colorado. Whether you want to know about the behemoths like Aspen or Squaw or are interested in the road less travelled (Lost Trail Powder Mountain in Montana or Whitewater in BC anyone?), Kevin has been there, has an opinion and you will most likely have to tell him to shut up after a half hour!