4:45 the alarm goes off. I sit up and nudge my handler Collin’s arm as he silences his phone.
His hand draws back from the nightstand, scratching me under the ear. He gives me a couple more rubs on the head while he lingers in bed. I lay back down next the bed while he gets ready in the dark. The bedroom door opens and we tiptoe down the hall; he reminds me to be quiet and not wake the baby. I find my bed in the living room while he prepares coffee and goes out to snow-blow the driveway. The garage door opens. Collin calls “Walter,” and I pop up and trot out to load up into the truck.
Early morning drives to the resort are my favorite. The highway is empty, only snowplows and ski patrollers are out on these snowy roads this early. The snow flies past the windshield; the wipers push it aside. Collin quietly sips his coffee. It’s going to be a good day.
Once at Alpine Meadows, I jump down from the truck, and we walk through the dark parking lot as loaders rumble by clearing snow. Into the ski patrol locker room, I pass my sleepy human friends to find my crate.
The patrollers have their meeting; we’ve received 18 inches of snow overnight, with a two-day storm total of 32 inches. The snow is still coming down heavy, but it’s supposed to clear out by mid-morning. The meeting finishes, and Collin puts my vest on before we head outside. While the patroller’s stuff their backpacks with explosives, I test out just how deep the snow is trying to find my spot to “do my business.’’ After a couple of full-speed ear-scratching slides on the groomed snow, we head to the ski lift.
We wait our turn as patrollers load the Summit lift. Collin slides ahead. Without a word, I leave his heel and jump on to the chair as it spins the bullwheel. The ride up involves a few more head rubs and ear scratches, me resting my chin on Collin’s leg. My fur is covered in snow by the time we near the top, the wind howling. At the top, I jump off the chair and round the corner to head into the Patrol Shack.
Avalanche control mornings mean I get to share the Patrol Shack with my K9 coworkers while our handlers throw bombs to test the slopes. We lay around, but it sounds like a war zone out there. Over the next two hours, 200 to 300 explosions will echo through the peaks of Alpine Meadows. It brings back memories of being a puppy. On days like this, the dispatcher would feed me treats every time a bomb went off. Nowadays, I just sleep through the thunder.
The patrollers file back in, excited about how good the skiing is, and leery of how active the avalanches are. The sun has come out, and skiers and snowboarders are tracking up the new snow. The radio crackles with a report of an avalanche in the backcountry. Collin gathers his things and asks if I want to go to work. We head outside and he clicks into his skis, he signals, and I jump into his arms. I love to run down hill, but we’re much faster on his skis, especially through deep snow.
There’s a helicopter waiting for us, blades still spinning, as we reach the bottom of the hill. A crew member comes out to meet us, takes Collin’s skis, and we walk under the blades together. Ike and his handler, Chase, climb into the helicopter. We’re headed to the search site. We get a view of the avalanche as we fly by. Once we land, Ike and I go straight to work. We’ve done this before. He takes the left side; I take the right. We work a zigzag pattern up the slope while Chase and Collin follow, using their avalanche transceivers. My nose twitches as I catch a scent. I work back and forth to find the source. Here it’s the strongest. I start to dig furiously. Two feet down, the scent is getting stronger. I break through to find a patroller holding a rolled up sweater, I latch on and start to tug, and hear a “get me outta here.” I thrash my head back and forth pulling the patroller out of the hole. Collin starts to praise me, “Good search dog!” He takes the sweater, and we have the best game of tug rolling in the snow. It was just training today, but, boy, do I love my job.
Walter is a 7-year-old Golden Retriever who is trained as an avalanche search and rescue dog. He had some help from his handler, Collin Butler, with this report. Walter and Butler work for the Alpine Meadows Professional Ski Patrol with seven other dog teams. Walter was bred from MVP Golden Retrievers in Eu Claire, Wisc., and moved to Truckee when he was 7 weeks old. Walter and his Alpine Patrol dog coworkers are also members of AARF, the Alpine Avalanche Rescue Foundation. AARF is a 501c3 nonprofit created to support avalanche safety and rescue, through both dog and human education, along with community outreach. You can find AARF on Instagram
@alpinepatroldogs, on Facebook, and on the web at AlpinePatrolDogs.com.
The Alpine Avalanche Rescue Foundation was created for the sole purpose of supporting avalanche safety and rescue. We are driven by howls, woofs, and smiles. AARF is built on a foundation of professional dog handlers.
We strive to connect the community, dogs, and educational opportunities to build productive relationships to make a positive impact on avalanche awareness, safety and education. We strive to connect the community, dogs and educational opportunities to build productive relationships to make a positive impact on avalanche awareness, safety, and education.
Walter is 7, and his handler is Collin Butler.
Ike is a Lab, and his handler is Chase Allstadt.
Main article photo by: Photos by Ben Arnst