In 2008, Mt. Hood Meadows Professional Ski Patrol began its current Avalanche Dog Rescue program. Led by Joe Silliman, the program now boasts three dogs in training, joining numerous resorts nationwide in efforts to elevate snow safety programs. On a given day Joe, along with Patrollers Dave Baker and Nick Asher, can be found working with Emma, Stella, and Penny on integrating with employees search and rescue techniques, as well as helping to further increase the positive interactions between guests and Ski Patrol.
For years, snow related rescue operations were best described as chaotic and it wasn't until the late 1930's that the Swiss Army started training search dogs in Avalanche Rescue. Since that time trainers have refined their training techniques and now many avalanche victims can owe their lives to dogs trained in avalanche rescue.
Avy Dog Fundraiser Feb 20 in White Salmon
Victims buried in snow as a result of an avalanche are but one class of snow rescues. Youth and elderly that have fallen due to injury or hypothermia and as a result are covered by snowfall as well as the healthy well-prepared hiker and skier who hole up in a snow cave after having become lost or exhausted constitute another class of Avalanche Rescue. Once buried, detection by the naked eye is impossible.
The trained search dog works a snowfield rapidly, searching for human scent rising up through the snow pack. When the dog finds a potential scent source he will bury his head into the snow trying to locate the source. If the human smell intensifies, he begins to dig trying to get closer to the source. If the scent becomes weaker, a trained dog will start to work outwards from the area to attempt to either pinpoint an area of stronger buried source or rule the scent out as surface odor left by human searchers.
When someone is buried in an avalanche, speed is of the essence in locating the individual. A Swiss study on avalanche mortality published in 1992 indicates that approximately 90 percent of persons buried in avalanches survive if recovered in the first 15 minutes. Chances for a live recovery at the 35-minute mark fall to 30 percent and after two hours the survival rate is three percent. However, there are exceptions to every statistic. In certain circumstances people have been found alive 5-6 hours after being buried; in a few documented cases people have been recovered alive after 24 hours!
A well-trained avalanche rescue dog is a model of efficiency in that one dog is equivalent to approximately twenty human searchers and can search the same area in an eighth of the time.
Although efficient, trained dogs are not infallible. Surface conditions, snow conditions, capabilities of the particular dog and scent diffusion all play an important role in how deep the victim can actually be buried and still be located. There have been confirmed reports, in optimal conditions, of a dog in Austria locating a body at approximately 12 meters. In the U.S. there has been a confirmed find at 10 meters. However, this type of success is few and far between. Realistically one can expect an experienced dog to be able to locate victims between 2-4 meters without a lot of difficulty in most scenting conditions.
Speed, efficiency and a nose capable of detecting human scent deep beneath the surface of the snow has allowed the Avalanche Rescue Dog to earn itself the reputation of becoming an invaluable asset in the context of snow and avalanche rescue. Studies have proven the capabilities of dogs in the avalanche setting and, in turn, trained dogs have proven their abilities worldwide.
Interested in supporting the Mt. Hood Meadows Avalanche dogs, while enjoying a great night out in the Hood River area? On February 20th, the program will hold its winter fundraiser at Everybody's in White Salmon. Food, drink, an amazing slideshow of a ski descent of K2, and a giant raffle will all be part of the evening.