My palms are sweaty despite my fingers turning blue as I struggle to buckle my boots. The sun is still resting behind the towering, iconic East Wall of Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, warming up the face of the mountain. At 8 a.m., I am one of the first cars to pull into the parking lot, a full hour before the lifts start turning. With my camera bag strapped to my shoulders and memo pad in my pocket, I’m ready to spend the day with Rio, an avalanche rescue dog, and Matt Norfleet, her handler, at A-Basin.
I’ve always admired the men and women who make careers out of keeping us safe on the slopes. I’ve also always been fascinated by the work that their canine companions do. After all, avalanche dogs do far more than populate Instagram feeds and elicit oohs and aahs from skiers passing by. And so do their handlers.
Norfleet meets me at the patrol hut at the top of Lenawee lift. Right away, a smiley, regal and beautiful golden retriever trots down the stairs, followed by the infamous clunk of ski boots. Norfleet, Assistant Director of Ski Patrol at the resort, greets me warmly, and introduces me to Rio — the six-year-old female golden retriever he handles.
Contrary to what many might think, not all avalanche rescue dogs are bred specifically for that purpose. Also surprising, Norfleet’s not actually Rio’s owner. Rob Ware, who has previously trained avalanche dogs, brought Rio home to be a family pet. But after realizing that the dog was uniquely smart — she could play hide and seek as a puppy at 10 weeks old better than some of the dogs he had trained — Ware realized she was destined for a different path.
“We saw her potential at home and out in the woods,” says Ware, “and I was like, ‘We gotta train her.’”
Rio’s ability and intelligence comes not just from the intense training she receives, but also from her breed. Picture an avalanche dog and an image of a faithful St. Bernard toting a flask of whiskey around its neck might come to mind. However, St. Bernard dogs haven’t had a large amount of employment experience in search and rescue compared to other breeds. Golden Retrievers, however, are ideal as they often have the stable temperaments, high drive, and good focus. Sometimes the program will adopt rescue dogs from local shelters, but often they look to respected breeders in the area.
“We’ve had dogs not make it through the program, and you’re looking at a year and a half or two years before we figure that out,” Norfleet explains. “So, anything we can do to set ourselves up for success, we'll do it.”
Norfleet has always been a dog-person, so, after several seasons as a patroller, when he got the opportunity to be Rio’s handler, he was ready for the new challenge. He spent a week at the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School, where he and Rio went through rigorous training that he could bring back to Colorado and pass onto other future-handlers at Arapahoe Basin.
The WBR International Dog School is a four-day training program hosted in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, open to all Avalanche Rescue K-9 teams. The days are packed tightly with improving response times to realistic scenarios including helicopter and snowmobile drills, simulated live burials and general obedience training. The oldest school of its kind in the United States, the WBR International Dog School is highly respected and the instructors represent some of the most experienced and qualified programs from around the world.
“It’s a lot to train a dog,” Norfleet says, “and in my role, I have to train guys to train dogs. When it comes down to the work, you just have to be diligent.”
It is obvious how much attention Rio gets on a daily basis as we ski down to take another ride up the Lenawee lift. Norfleet skis in a wide wedge with Rio between his legs. People look on with admiration, smiling at Rio, taking photos. Rio is certainly no stranger to attention — the oohs and aahs continue throughout the day as she confidently leaps onto chair lifts, stays obediently by Norfleet’s side, and shows off her impressive listening skills.
It’s mid-day and it is finally time to see what this dynamo can do. We head to one of the drill locations, where a team of two patrollers had worked together to bury one of them in a pre-built cave, simulating a complete live burial. I wait with my camera ready as Norfleet and Rio make their way down to us. Norfleet gives the simple “Search!” command, and Rio is off.
In under 30 seconds of entering the drill area, Rio finds what she is looking for, and barks to alert Norfleet. Once she’s acknowledged, she starts digging in the snow, trying to find the buried patroller. With Norfleet’s help, they dig through and free him. The whole thing takes under 90 seconds. Rio’s reward, and what makes it a successful training drill, is a playful period of “tugging,” where Rio and Norfleet celebrate by tussling with a toy the patroller brought along, accompanied by lots of loud, high-pitched praise and excitement. I’ve never been so amazed by what an animal can do.
In order for avalanche dogs to be successful, “the whole thing has to be their favorite game in the world,” Norfleet says of the search process. “She knows and she can tell by the way I move what we’re going to do. If I’m looking through my pack she can tell we’re going to go do something,” Norfleet says.
Mike Halajcsik, another ski patroller and dog handler at Loveland Ski Area, talks about the importance of the drills and the training the dogs receive. “Every day is training,” he explains. “It’s all about training them to love the game.”
Training typically includes many small drills during the days, however a large part of the necessary training the teams receive includes flight drills. This past February, multiple patrollers from nine different Colorado ski resorts went to Loveland and Arapahoe Basin for mid-season training with C-RAD, the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment Program.
The program was developed by Flight for Life Colorado with the primary mission of being able to get an avalanche team to the scene of an accident within a critical timeframe. The dispatched team consists of a Snow Safety Technician, a dog handler, and an avalanche rescue dog. The synergy between the members of the team is critical in shaving off seconds that could save a life. C-RAD helps ski resorts with growing rescue programs get the training they need to be successful.
The training day in February included helicopter rides, live burial simulations, and other drills. “These trainings are pretty vital,” says Halajcsik. “They get all of us together, our technicians, the handlers, and dogs; they get everyone doing these drills all day, and they get better as time goes on.”
While the program is still growing, its proponents have high aspirations and goals for the future. “We want our brand to mean something,” Norfleet says. “We want people to say, ‘Hey, my dog is C-RAD certified.’ We want that to be a standard and we have to hold that standard.”
Program directors like Norfleet hope that one day C-RAD will be held in the same high regard as other similar ventures, such as the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue of Utah and the Canadian Avalanche Dog Rescue Association.
But it will take time—literally. When I asked Norfleet about some of the challenges he faces, he points to time being simply limited. “Everything's getting busier it seems like, ski areas are really busy. Trying to make time to train your dog, help train other dogs, run the program, and keep C-RAD on the right track and focused is important, because we interact with a lot of different agencies. Making sure that we’re doing everything we need for our whole group, it’s a full time job.”
At the end of the day, I say my final good-byes to Rio and Norfleet. Spending a day with the impressive team of two was memorable. While I hope that I would never find myself in an avalanche or other emergency situation in the backcountry, it's nice knowing these two—and other teams like them—have my back.