Meet Ed, Silverton avalanche rescue team’s first avalanche rescue dog in training in nearly five decades.
With an increasing number of people taking to the backcountry, the addition of an avalanche rescue dog is considered a major aid in the event a skier without a beacon is caught in an avalanche.
“Having a dog at my side is extremely valuable,” said Ryan Mason, Ed’s handler. “Up here, we just haven’t had that dog element of avalanche rescue deployment.”
The last avalanche rescue dogs to romp around the high country of the San Juan Mountains were in the 1970s. But as mines closed over the years, and Silverton’s population dropped, so too did the number of avalanche rescue dogs.
About a year ago, Mason set out to change that.
Mason, who worked for a decade on the Telluride Ski Patrol, which has an extensive avalanche rescue dog-training program, watched how handlers trained canines for the life-saving work and the benefit it brought.
Last year, he landed a job with the Silverton-San Juan County Ambulance Association as a paramedic and joined the all-volunteer San Juan County Search and Rescue team, which is deployed when someone is caught in an avalanche.
At a professional rescue course in March, Mason ran into an acquaintance who breeds working dogs in Wisconsin. The 35-year-old Pennsylvania native immediately recognized the opportunity to train a rescue dog of his own.
Months later, Mason picked Ed out of a litter. The golden retriever was the runt, which is helpful in case Mason needs to carry Ed into the backcountry or load him into a helicopter.
As a tradition, Mason said avalanche rescue dogs are named after prominent people in the ski/snow science culture. So, Ed is named after Ed LaChapelle, a pioneer in the field of avalanche research and forecasting who lived in Silverton.
It will take about two years for Ed to complete his training, which will culminate at a validation course on the Front Range.
In the meantime, Mason is doing basic puppy training, mixing in some rescue exercises, such as hiding Ed’s favorite toy in the dirt to get the puppy used to using his nose or carrying the pup in a bag to get him used to uncomfortable travel.
“It’s all a game to them,” Mason said. “You’re basically playing hide-and-seek, and you make it more and more difficult until eventually they’re finding someone buried in the snow.”
Avalanche rescue dogs, used since the 1880s, are most common on ski resorts and are deployed to help locate people who are caught up in a snowslide who do not have a GPS spotter or beacon.
In the backcountry surrounding Silverton, most people venture out with this life-saving, essential equipment, said Jim Donovan, emergency manager for San Juan County. But for those who don’t, that is where Ed steps in.
On average, there are two or three rescues per year for people caught in an avalanche in the San Juans around Silverton, Donovan said. And time is always critical to ensure a person’s survival.
After 30 minutes caught in an avalanche, the chance of survival drastically drops to about 30 percent. That is where a dog’s exceptional sense of smell can make a difference between life and death. Mason said dogs can cover an area four to five times quicker than a human.
And it is not always skiers who require rescue. Sometimes drivers can be caught up in an avalanche that spills out onto a highway, which is increasingly more common, Donovan said.
It used to be that parking lots on the mountain passes between Durango and Silverton were empty. But now, they’re filled every weekend, Donovan said.
“We have just seen an increase in winter accidents,” Donovan said. “And we’re expecting to see more.”
Voters in Silverton recently approved a sales tax increase to funnel more money to emergency services, which Donovan said will help respond to the increase in recreational tourism.
“Now, we have more resources to train,” Donovan said.
Amber Pickren, a Durango dog trainer and owner of Gentle Canine, will help Mason train Ed.
In January 2019, Mason and Ed will travel to get a Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment validation. Janie Merickel, the liaison officer of the executive board at C-RAD, said dogs must find one to three “people” in a 100-by-100 yard space within 20 minutes to receive the validation.
“If you have a good dog and a handler that understands the process, you can get there in a couple of years,” said Merickel, who added C-RAD validates about six to 18 dogs a year.
Mason, who created Silverton Avalanche Rescue Dogs (which also has a Facebook page that tracks Ed’s progress) hopes to add to more dogs over the years.
“We’re going to build things slow, one dog at a time,” he said. “With Ed, for instance, before he becomes a good avalanche rescue dog, he just needs to be a good dog.”