Sara Cohen runs down a snowy hill on the top of Crystal Mountain, calling out encouragement to her dog, Piper. “Come on, Piper! You can do it, Piper! Piper! Piper!”
Eventually the smart black and white dog races down to Cohen, who is standing near a cave carved in the snow. It’s one of the earliest drills for a dog training to be an avalanche rescue dog.
Kim Haft looks on, watching Piper race through the snow. It’s a drill she knows well from her experience training her dog partner, Darwin.
“If you don’t feel a little bit embarrassed when you’re running away, you’re not doing it right,” Haft said. “You don’t have enough stoke.”
Piper was still in the beginning phases of training. The next step is Cohen hiding in the cave carved out of snow, covering herself up in snow, and waiting for Piper to locate and dig her out.
The avalanche dogs at Crystal must rescue a ski patroller in the drills quickly before they can move on to real-life rescues where every minute counts.
The team and highly trained dogs patrol Crystal Mountain, ready to assist. They are like four-legged rock stars to the regulars. Young skiers scream their names like they’re The Beatles — or should we say The Beagles? Their Facebook page has thousands of likes. They even have a line of T-shirts, hoodies, stickers, and collectible trading cards.
Fame and head scratches aside, the dogs can save lives — they are able to find victims in life-threatening snow immersion events, like avalanches.
In 2014-15, the season was so light on snow, the dogs didn’t have as much work as usual, and there were major challenges keeping their skills sharp and the dogs certified. Last winter was a welcome change for the dogs (and skiers) when the snow returned at average levels.
Many different breeds of dogs can be trained to be avalanche dogs. Some people imagine an image of a Saint Bernard with a barrel around its neck making the save, but there aren’t any of those dogs on the team.
In fact, they prefer dogs that possess high drive but also are comfortable around people and are able to be carried by the patrollers. Examples are Piper, a Border collie, and Darwin, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever. Darwin is of a breed not often seen; at first glance he looks like a brown collie. He made his way to Washington from New Brunswick, Canada.
“We are looking at dogs that are a little bit smaller; it’s beneficial to be able to carry your dog,” said Cohen.
The ski patrollers who work with the avalanche dogs have a sense of duty, too. They felt a calling to help keep those on the mountain safe. The dogs act as their partners. The dogs serve the greater good — and really belong to the people on the mountain whom they serve.
Ski patroller Andrew Longstreth says he has “mountain psychosis”: a love of being up on the top of the mountain. He’s been patrolling since 1991. Cirrus, a celebrated German Shepherd avalanche dog, was his partner. Cirrus is now retired.
Haft and her husband, Mike Haft, are Darwin’s folks. She has been patrolling for five years, and Mike has been a ski patroller for eight. They’ve been with Darwin since he was just a pup, bringing him around the mountain to get him used to the sights and sounds.
While training for Darwin’s certification test, Kim crawled into a carved-out cave, and Cohen covered her up. Mike brought out Darwin.
“Search!” Mike commanded.
Darwin, nose to the snow, raced down the hill, found the place Kim was buried, and dug her out of the snow. He was rewarded by a quick game of tug. When crisis happens on the mountain, he’ll be ready. Until then, he’s available for pats on the back, and the occasional selfie.