Rescue dogs

Backcountry users review safety and meet avalanche rescue dogs at Beacon Bash

Participants practice using their avalanche beacons on Saturday, November 13, 2021, during Beacon Bash at Winter Park Resort. The fourth annual event brought together backcountry skiers to practice their avalanche skills at the start of the season.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

Ideally, an off-piste skier doesn’t have much first-hand experience conducting avalanche rescues.

While avoiding avalanches is good, it also means that the skier will not practice much in performing these rescue techniques if the situation arises. That’s why Beacon Bash brings backcountry users together early in the season.

Saturday’s event at the Winter Park Resort’s Mary Jane parking lot drew a few hundred backcountry enthusiasts, as well as local businesses and guides. The fourth annual event included beacon demonstrations, a visit with the Winter Park Resort avalanche dog team, and plenty of opportunities for backcountry riders to practice their skills.

A number of Beacon Bash participants had never participated in it before. While the mood was light at the party, the backcountry seriousness was not lost either.

Due in part to a worse-than-usual snowpack and a growing interest in backcountry recreation, last winter was tied for the deadliest season since 1992 with 37 fatalities per avalanche across the country. Twelve of those deaths occurred in Colorado, including two in Grand County: a backcountry skier north of Berthoud Pass and a snowmobiler at Pumphouse Lake, southwest of Rollins Pass.

Justin Ibarra, operations manager for Colorado Adventure Guides, simulated what to do if only one partner was buried in an avalanche below the rescuer. He outlined the specific steps to follow during an avalanche rescue, with an emphasis on safety and best practices.

“It takes practice – not just once at the start of the season at the Beacon Bash event,” Ibarra said. “I hope you do this throughout the season. It’s a perishable skill… If you don’t use it, you lose it. I hope it’s not a skill you use (in Mountain).

There was also a multi-person avalanche rescue demonstration, an event for people to meet new backcountry partners, and buried beacons for attendees to practice locating. Perhaps the highlight of the day, however, was the demonstrations by Biskit, Gravy, Emma and Charlotte – the stars of the Winter Park Resort’s avalanche dog team.

Charlotte, who has been Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment certified for many years, is a border collie and the veteran of the team. Gravy, another collie just over a year old, is working on getting certified, while Emma was certified last year. As far as her team can tell, she might be the only Doberman to be C-RAD certified.

The loudest of the bunch was Biskit, another C-RAD certified border collie.

“A good animated runaway is very exciting for them,” said Rico LaRocca, Biskit’s handler, over the dog’s enthusiastic barking.

Biskit eagerly chased the rope for the demonstration and was able to enjoy an energetic round of tug of war for his efforts. Sauce also showed off her skills, finding a hidden “victim” in the trees.

By rewarding the avalanche dogs for finding humans out of sight, the team trains the dogs to find buried skiers. Ideally, however, skiers have a beacon and do not need an avalanche rescue dog.

While the canine team works for the station, they also provide out-of-bounds rescues when needed across much of northern Colorado. The group is a non-profit organization that promotes and supports avalanche awareness and education, public safety in avalanche terrain, and job training.

Along with the demonstrations, backcountry enthusiasts were encouraged to enroll in American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education avalanche courses, first aid courses and other resources to promote safety and preparation in the mountains.