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Ski Patrol’s Best Friend

One of Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Ski Patrollers has some particularly bad breath. I’ve just watched Rico execute a rescue of a buried avalanche victim in a training drill put on by Wolf Creek, and as I congratulate him on a job well done, Rico’s halitosis washes over me and I’m struggling for fresh air, much like the simulated avalanche victim he just rescued. I can’t help but wonder what he had for breakfast.

Having smelled Rico’s breath, my guess would be dog food. And I’d be right, because Rico is one of Wolf Creek Ski Area’s avalanche dogs.

I’ve been hanging out with Ski Patrol for most of the day, learning about their training and seeing examples of the best-practices they’ve put in to place. When I ask about Rico, Eric Dietemeyer, the Patrol Director of Wolf Creek Ski Patrol, enthusiastically offers to put on a training drill for Rico, one of the ski area’s avalanche rescue dogs.

It’s an early spring day as Dietemeyer begins digging. Meanwhile I am told to go walk in circles. Really. See, when the Rico arrives on the scene, Patrol wants it to be difficult to tell where the victim might be located. So while he digs I wander, stomping a random path of debris in hopes of disguising our hiding spot.

Avalanche Rescues are hard work. Avalanche Rescues are hard work.

Our victim is George, a patroller at Wolfie who remarks that even though he’s about the be put in to a hole dug four feet deep in snow, it’s still better than office work. He climbs in, is buried, and the waiting begins. George has a good-size air pocked built in to his cave, but if it did collapse, we’d have a real rescue on our hands.

Dietemeyer and I stand off to the side so as not to give away the location of our victim. As we await Rico, who was sleeping in the Patrol Shack until ready to be deployed, we spot a skier headed down toward us. Oblivious to our little burial, the skier cruises right down the middle of the slope. He’s headed right toward George’s cave.

“Head this way, head this way!” shouts Dietemeyer, waving his arms in hopes of redirecting the skier.

“What?” the skier shouts back as he skis right over George before continuing on down the hill. The snow seemed to hold, and I chuckle at the irony. Moments later Rico arrives on the horizon.

After rescuing a simulated burial victim, Rico checks out the hole for himself. After rescuing a simulated burial victim, Rico checks out the hole for himself.

The golden lab bounds down the hill, smiling and tail wagging. After briefly sniffing around me and my camera gear, Rico trots over, and paws at the precise place George is hidden. Bingo! After a few minutes of digging our victim is free, and we’re all laughing about the misguided skier who skied over George.

I’ve done enough training in avalanche rescue situations and beacon searches to know that Rico’s performance today is truly remarkable. A well-trained dog is a tool that any skier or snowboarder would want on their side if they’re ever in an avalanche burial situation.

I had utmost faith in Wolf Creek’s Ski Patrol long before meeting Rico, but I feel even better now that I know he’s on the team. I guess I’ll just have to overlook the dog breath.

-Mountain Correspondent