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For Alyeska dogs, avalanche rescue is just a big game

Ben Anderson
Zooka, Mik Jedlicka's dog, inside the ski patrol hut underneath the roundhouse near the top of Alyeska. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The kennel inside the ski patrol hut near the top of Alyeska. The rescue dogs are one tool available to patrollers responding to an avalanche, the others are the Recco radar system, beacons and probing. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Yuki, patroller Tim Glassett's dog, runs towards a "buried" skier during a training. The dogs are trained to find people by scent, and are rewarded after each successful find. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Yuki finds a buried subject during a training exercise. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Zooka successfully finds a buried subject during a training. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Lead dog handler Brian McGorry rewards Zooka after a successful training exercise, where the dog located a buried subject. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mik Jedlicka plays with her dog Zooka after a successful training exercise. Play is an important reward for the dogs. To the dogs, everything they do is play, even locating someone trapped in an avalanche. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Mik Jedlicka loads her dog Zooka onto her shoulders for a ride down the mountain. While almost any dog can be trained to find a scent, these dogs are also chosen for their small size, since for safety reasons they are often carried around the mountain. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Tim Glassett and his dog Yuki ski down the mountain. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Tim Glassett and his dog Yuki search for a buried subject during a training exercise. The dog quickly located the subject, who was buried under a foot of snow. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Brian McGorry arrives on the scene of a simulated burial. McGorry is carrying a Recco unit and probe, tools that, in addition to the dogs, can help locate a subject buried in an avalanche. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Tim Glassett and his dog Yuki make their way down the mountain. If there is any risk of the dog getting hit by a skier, the dog will ride on the shoulders of their owner. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Mik Jedlicka and her dog Zooka heading down the mountain. Jan 24, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska Resort ski patrollers Brian McGorry, at left with his dog Fundy, and Mik Jedlicka, with her dog Zooka, get ready to ride the lift up the mountain. McGorry is also the lead dog handler for the Patrol Avalanche Canine program. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Tim Glassett and his dog Yuki ride the chairlift up the mountain. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Mik Jedlicka and her dog Zooka ride the ski lift up the mountain. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Avalanche rescue dog Yuki relaxes in the ski patrol hut at the top of Alyeska Resort. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alyeska ski patroller Tim Glassett and his dog Yuki ride chair 6 to the top of the mountain. Jan 24, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

GIRDWOOD -- For the dogs of Alyeska’s Patrol Avalanche Canine (PAC) program, the tough job of saving lives is “kind of a big game,” says Alyeska Resort ski patroller and dog handler Brian McGorry.

Not that they don’t take it seriously -- the dogs train regularly to find and recover skiers and snowboarders buried by avalanches. They just don’t know how important their task is.

“Their entire existence is kind of a big game,” McGorry said. “The more fun you make the game, the better they do their job.”

This is apparent in the way the dogs attack that job. When it’s time to do a recovery, they bark excitedly, bounding up to snow caves where “subjects” -- staged avalanche victims -- are buried. They claw at the snow until they make a hole large enough for their small bodies to get through, then plunge into the den without a second thought.

The PAC program has been around since 2007, but its roots go back much further. The first Alyeska avalanche dog, Zooka -- that’s short for Bazooka -- is about 5-1/2 years old, says his handler, Mik Jedlicka. The program originally came into being thanks to help from Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, which have been training canines for decades to assist in Alaska’s many search-and-rescue efforts, including avalanches. They were instrumental in helping train the Alyeska dogs, McGorry said, and remain an important part of the program.

The three PAC handlers and dogs -- Jedlicka and Zooka, McGorry and his 4-year-old dog Fundy, and Tim Glassett and 2-1/2-year-old Yuki -- also assist when needed on search and rescue operations outside of Alyeska, but they spend most of their days in the winter months at Alaska's largest ski resort training and being on hand in case of an avalanche. Fortunately, Glassett said, they’ve never been called into action in the most urgent of ways -- when a skier gets buried in an avalanche.

“The last couple of years, we’ve had some avalanches in the area, but nobody’s been buried in them,” Glassett said. “We’ve used them to clear areas, but they’ve never had to find a member of the public.”

But the dogs provide a valuable service, no matter how oblivious they are to the true nature of their job. And on Friday, the public can help support the program at a charity auction held at the Sitzmark Bar and Grill, located at the base of Alyeska. The auction helps fund the program, and additional training for the dogs and their handlers, which often takes them out of state. McGorry had just returned from a five-day training seminar near Salt Lake City with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. They also hope to add another dog to the program in the near future, if they get enough funding and find the right handler.

All three dogs are male, and all three are Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers, a specialized breed that is readily-trainable and relatively small -- an important feature for a dog that spends much of its time hanging out on ski lifts. Though the tram at Alyeska is currently out of service after a New Year’s Eve accident, McGorry said the dogs prefer the open-air ski lifts over the often-crowded tram.

“Going up the lift is like a Sunday drive with the window down for them,” he said.

The dogs are trained using a multi-step technique called the “Swiss Phase 4 Method” developed by the Swiss military and adopted by the Swiss Alpine Club. It entails varying degrees of separation from their handler and trainer during faux-rescues. The dogs are typically trained by placing a subject in a snow cave, blocking them in with new snow, then releasing the dog in an attempt to locate them. The dogs are then rewarded -- Yuki goes for sausage treats, Fundy has a tug toy, and Zooka favors a sweater or jacket, typically made of wool or polyester, which absorbs scent better, according to Jedlicka. Zooka tears pieces off while playing tug-of-war with Jedlicka after a successful recovery.

“Value Village loves us,” McGorry jokes.

The dogs are just one aspect of avalanche-rescue techniques. Other primary methods of recovery:

• Avalanche beacons worn by skiers and riders;

• Probes and shovels to delve into the snow, and

• The RECCO system, which features reflective tags built into ski gear.

But dogs are much more efficient than going into an area with just probes and shovels, hoping to find buried mountaineers. “The major thing with the dogs is that there are a lot of people around here who aren’t wearing a beacon,” Jedlicka said, “and a probe line can take hours and hours and hours.” Buried avalanche victims must be dug out quickly if they're to survive, and once victims been buried an hour, the odds of survival are miniscule. 

McGorry said that a team of probers could take about an hour to scout an acre’s worth of area, but the dogs can scout that same area in about 20 minutes. That’s precious time for a skier or snowboarder buried in one of the most-avalanche-prone regions in the U.S.

And if you're unfortunate enough to be stuck in such a terrifying situation, what better rescue than a furry savior barging his way into a claustrophobic, suffocating cocoon of snow, looking to play?

The fourth-annual Alyeska ski patrol auction takes place at the Sitzmark Bar and Grill beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com