LOST TRAIL – The sight of a happy black furry dog bounding off the chairlift and racing down the slopes of Lost Trail Powder Mountain, laden with carabiners and sporting a dusting of snow on his snout, still raises a few eyebrows these days.
But he’s become a mainstay on the mountain to most of the regulars by now.
And if anyone in the popular area is ever buried by an avalanche, his happy face might be the first thing they see.
River, a 5-year-old border collie/terrier mutt, is the first and only certified avalanche Search and Rescue dog employed by the ski area south of Darby. Actually, he works for dog food and attention, but his trainer and loving owner is Sarah Cathcart, who was hired by the Lost Trail Ski Patrol in January.
Now Cathcart and River patrol the hill regularly and are ready at a moment’s notice, using the canine’s powerful sense of smell and digging ability, to find anyone buried by a slide and rescue them within minutes.
To be certified, Cathcart and River completed the Wasatch Backcountry International Rescue Dog School in Utah last year, which she said was an adrenaline-packed experience.
“It took six days, and they tested our dogs in really extreme circumstances,” Cathcart explained. “For the final test, they load you onto a helicopter while it is still running and drop you off in the slide country. They have an avalanche scene set up, and your dog has to rescue a person ‘buried’ in a snow cave under real-life conditions. And then you are required to hike back out.”
Cathcart said organizers had set up the snow cave beforehand, and River had to go into the hole and play with the person to pass the test.
“He develops what we call victim loyalty,” she said. “He’s been training since he was 1 year old. He has learned that finding people buried in snow means he gets to play. You know when he finds someone because he starts digging furiously. You see a huge rooster tail of snow coming out behind him. He is actually taught to grab an article of clothing and drag them out, too.”
Dogs are the superheroes of avalanche search and rescue because time is of the essence.
“There is what we call a golden 15 minutes in order to find someone lost in an avalanche,” Cathcart said. “Within that time, you have a 94 percent chance of living, as long as you didn’t have an injury from trauma, like hitting a tree on the way down. When people are buried by snow, they die of CO2 asphyxiation, not the lack of oxygen.”
Cathcart said the test is meant to be as realistic as possible.
“When I got off the helicopter, a person approached me and said, ‘There’s been an avalanche,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Ok, take me to the avalanche,’ then I send my dog out. I just follow my dog. The No. 1 mistake trainers make is thinking too much. You are supposed to follow the dog. You learn to read him. I’ve been learning to read his body language. You have to spend time learning their behavior. Some people know because the dog’s tail will make really big circles. River doesn’t bark, but he’ll dig in the snow.”
The test area is 100 yards square, and the first test requires only finding one person. The second level requires finding two different people, as would be common in many avalanches.
She said River is built to be an avalanche rescue dog.
“The ideal dog for avalanche work is something with a really thick coat, like goldens or labs,” she said. “German shepherds are good. A typical breed is a border collie. They are pretty good across the board as far as a search and rescue breed. Terriers go to the ground, because they are ratters. They hunt rats and squirrels, historically. Essentially what I’m asking my dog to do is find his prey and dig a hole, so a terrier makes a great avalanche dog.”
Cathcart has a degree in outdoor recreation from Idaho State University. She said she was one of the few females who took the avalanche dog course and the only snowboarder.
“It was pretty intense,” she said. “I was scared a lot. The most intimidating thing is being a boarder and one of the few females. I didn’t have a purebred dog like some of the other people either.” As for getting on the chairlift, River seems as comfortable as any skier as he hangs two paws off the front of the chair.
“He shook the first time he rode one, but he’s fine now,” Cathcart said. “I get nervous when he sees a squirrel. I don’t think he would ever jump, but I still hold him and shout ‘don’t even think about it’ at him.”
Originally from Los Angeles, Cathcart said she couldn’t be happier to be working for the Lost Trail Ski Patrol.
“I love it here,” she said. The annual fundraiser for the ski patrol, the Lost Trail Ski Patrol Steak Fry, will be held Feb. 16, with live music and a beer garden.