Darwin’s nose works overtime as he stalks in circles. Then, suddenly, he pounces—the eight-month-old bowzer attacks a crisp autumn leaf. Darwin is an avalanche dog in training and this play is all part of his education. “These dogs live to be outside,” says Sara Cohen, the coordinator of Crystal Mountain Resort’s avalanche dog program. “As puppies, we encourage their natural instincts. Then they become adults, and when we put their vests on, they know it’s time to work—and they come alive.”
Crystal is the largest ski resort in Washington State, with 2,600 acres. Much of that is avalanche terrain. Eight dogs make up Crystal’s team. Common breeds used for avalanche safety are labs, golden retrievers, and Belgian malinois. “Labradoodles would be fantastic avalanche dogs,” says Cohen. “But none of our patrollers want to be seen with them.” Darwin is a “candidate,” and his handlers worked diligently this summer on basic obedience to get him ready for his first season at the resort. This winter, he’ll learn foundation skills like sit, stay, and how to board a chairlift. In one test, dogs sniff out live burials—often volunteer patrollers secreted under the snow. “A mock burial is actually a very peaceful experience,” says Cohen. “And then there’s the magic of hearing paws on the snow above you.” As he demonstrates a grasp of these skills, Darwin will move to operational status.
The dog’s handlers are Crystal patrollers who lead active lives. Their dogs do the same. In summer, they hike, bike, climb, raft rivers, and explore the Pacific Northwest. But work calls in warmer months, too. Cirrus, one of Crystal’s avalanche dogs, assisted in the recovery of climbing ranger’s body on Mount Rainier when weather and avalanche conditions delayed rescue workers for two weeks. Cirrus helped locate his body under several feet of snow.
Each dog’s career span depends on a variety of factors, including age and physical health. Labs, for example, usually slow down at age nine or 10. They make guest appearances for high-pressure rescues, but retired dogs generally spend golden years with their families, off the clock but staying active in the mountains. —Charlotte Austin