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Dogging It

Features
posted: 01/15/2003

Dog fanciers like to say that pooches and their owners grow to resemble each other. The very idea makes scientists groan and cat lovers barf, but here at the Copper Mountain patrol shack, it seems reasonable enough. Just look at supervisor (or second in command) Patti Burnett and her avalanche dog, a golden retriever named Sandy. Not that Burnett-one of the highest-ranking women on a major-area ski patrol-would ever spend business hours sleeping on the floor and licking her paws. But a few days ago, while wrestling a Slow! banner off a groomer, Burnett yanked too hard on a metal post, causing it to rocket out of the hardpack and into her face. The result-a dark bruise just above her mouth-looks eerily like the black scar that tumor surgery left on Sandy's upper lip.

After years at Burnett's side-two in training and the ensuing six assisting search-and-rescue operations-Sandy mirrors his master's expressions. Both appear happy, flashing frequent, easy smiles. At the same time, there's a wistfulness to their eyes, a resignation that anger, pain, grief, and death loom ever near. Grim foreboding, after all, accounts for their vital but depressing careers here in Summit County. Sandy: a human-enamored dog whose world-class snout locates more corpses than survivors. Burnett: a passionate skier forced to pull passes, rope-off powder shots, and inform orphans that skulls never prevail over trees, even if they do have all the momentum in their favor.

Where resort marketing departments see skier days, ski patrols see potential victims. As supervisor of Copper's unit, Burnett, 50, keeps the sprawling 2,433-acre mountain under control by cutting chaos off at the knees. Delegating authority via a radio, a cell phone, and several land lines, she maneuvers some 170 patrollers and volunteers across the resort. It's odd to watch the macho mountain men who work patrol jobs take orders from an elfin, five-foot-one boss with a Dorothy Hamill haircut. But who better to manage conflict and mishaps than the mother of two pre-teen girls? "As a woman, I can multi-task well," Burnett smiles. "At accident scenes, a mom knows how to deal with the victim, the family, and fellow patrollers simultaneously."

Burnett's rise through the ranks began in 1980, when she switched to the patrol side from ski school because, in her words, "in a bad snow year, an instructor teaches no lessons and earns no money." It wasn't easy. Toboggans she was guiding occasionally threatened to run over her petite butt. A devout Christian, she found forgiveness sorely lacking in the Us-versus-Them approach of old-school redcoats. "Our interactions with the public are unique in the ski industry-and too often they're negative," Burnett says. "Either people are hurt or we're busting them. We need to educate people, not alienate them."

It sounds like common sense, but common sense isn't as prevalent as people assume. In the minds of many skiers, a jacket with a cross on the back automatically conjures up images of traffic cops with authority complexes who'll yank your pass if you dare tuck on a flat. All too often that image fits. The most well-known patroller in America, after all, isn't a Patti Burnett figure; it's Jackson Hole's infamous Dr. No, a strict boundary fascist who gave so much grief to rope-ducking Doug Coombs in the late '90s that Coombs eventually abandoned Jackson to teach his acclaimed extreme ski camps in Europe and Alaska. Then there's Burnett-whose unthreatening size and girlish singsong voice saps the energy out of confrontations, including one last year that resulted between a pass-clipping patroller...and Picabo Street.

It's a demeanor that works on many fronts. When men respond to injury situations, the inherently male tendency of speaking only when you have something to say can lead to long silences that the injured fill with fear and panic. Burnett calms victims with a running stream of soothing chatter, reciting the EMTsnames and describing why they can help: "This is Pam and she's the Life Flight nurse..." Rule-violators and ACL-rippers alike no doubt prefer Burnett's mold of nurturing patroller-they simply don't expect it.They do expect kindness and good vibes from dogs, though. Indeed, nothing has brought Copper's enforcers and enforcees together as effectively as the domesticated canine snoring at Burnett's feet. Along with four other avy dogs, Sandy stares out at you from the Copper trail map, making the mango-coated patrollers in the background appear warm and cuddly. This season, oversize photos of the avy-dog team were hung like flags from Copper Mountain light poles. Simply put, dogs are good PR, especially dogs that come to the rescue after tons of avalanche debris coalesces around you in an icy wave.

The impetus for copper's avy-dog program occurred in 1983, Burnett tells me as we venture across wind-swept Copper Peak's Spaulding Ridge to the canine training area in Upper Enchanted Forest. That year, a patroller friend of hers was buried in a slide just outside the resort and died of trauma. "It was our first experience with an avalanche fatality so close to our boundary," Burnett says. "It made us search out every tool possible for avalanche rescues." Soon after, Burnett called in the dogs.

"With skiers in avalanches, you mostly find people who are dead," she says, explaining that completely buried victims rarely survive longer than 15 minutes. Dogs improve odds by pinpointing the spot to dig and by even digging a bit themselves. Dog noses, which have 220 million cells devoted to sense of smell compared with a human's mere five million, can detect one drop of blood in five quarts of water. Avy dogs are trained to ferret out buried human scents while disregarding other rescuers. Here to demonstrate is Moe, a two-year-old Australian shepherd with spooky blue eyes. The minus-13-degree cold should help the still-in-training Moe, Burnett says, because scents move easier through light, hollow snow than through the dense mush of spring.

A volunteer crawls into a snowcave, and we seal the exit with blocks of snow. "Ready to work?" Burnett commands, with a loud seriousness that most lollygagging, spoiled ski-town dogs would hardly recognize. "Go search!" Moe bolts forward and runs a ragged perimeter around some old snow pits for about two minutes before stopping at the pit near the volunteer. He digs hesitantly at first, then starts wheeling his paws in a blur that recalls Wile E. Coyote's vain chases after the Road Runner. Burnett congratulates Moe with a hug and a treat, and brings Sandy to the fore.

Sandy inevitably draws comparisons to Burnett's former golden retriever, the renowned Hasty. The subject of Burnett's new book, Avalanche: Hasty Search (Doral Publishing, 623-875-2057), the golden retriever was a search-and-rescue all-star. Not only could he pinpoint avalanche victims, he also could track lost souls in mountain search-and-rescue operations, once locating a toddler after an epic search atop 10,000-foot-high Kenosha Pass.

"I offered Hasty the kid's pajamas and said, 'Time to go to work-go find,'" Burnett says. "'Find' is the word we use for wilderness searches; in avalanches, or whenever he's looking for buried scents, I say, 'Go search.' Under the find command, he's supposed to eliminate all the other scents and just go to that one. The search took hours. Hasty led me right through a cow pasture with several bulls, which he totally ignored, and other terrain till we found the kid."

Sandy certainly has big paw prints to fill. Only a few times in North American ski history have rescue dogs accomplished live avalanche finds; Hasty's was one of the first. "Usually, a live recovery has to come from the victim's party," Burnett says matter-of-factly. "By the time a slide can get reported to ski patrol, the victim's usually dead. But in 1988, Hasty and his secondary handler got on the scene early. The woman was buried near the toe of the avalanche, a few feet down. Because she didn't have a transceiver, though, the others were doing a probe line in the wrong spot. Hasty alerted a little to the south, they moved the probe line, and dug the victim out."

Here at the artificial inbounds disaster, it's so cold that Sandy repeatedly lifts his paws, keeping only three on the snow at a time. When Burnett slips off his leash, though, the dog instantly forgets his discomfort. Aroused by his master's "ready to work?" question, he knifes directly to the correct snow pit when she commands, "Go search!" Within 30 seconds, he alerts to the buried volunteer and paws at the snow standing between oxygen and the faux-victim's lungs. The contrast to the dawdling Moe is remarkable.

Credit the golden retriever breed's unrivaled "biddability," which is dog-handler speak for "desire to please humans." In other words, retrievers are unashamed suck-ups even by the standards of dogs, a standout species where sucking-up is concerned. "I prefer goldens and labs for rescue work," Burnett says, "because they're very trainable. They like people, they're smart and energetic, and they like to use their noses."

Sandy can distinguish between the scent of a living victim and one who has just perished. He once won the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge (a kind of canine Winter Olympics). Still, he may never eclipse the fame of Hasty. "Remember hearing about the Vail ski instructor who got buried the day his avalanche transceiver was delivered to his P.O. box?" Burnett asks. "Hasty alerted to his body within minutes. It would have taken a team of humans hours of crossing a slide path to find him." The dog's fast work may have saved several lives that day, just by minimizing the rescue unit's exposure to additional avalanches. The ski instructor who ventured deep into the backcountry without a transceiver, though, was dead by the time searchers arrived.

Summit county seems like a safe place thanks to its proximity to Denver and the eternal hum of traffic on I-70. But it can be a death trap: Historically the county records more avalanche deaths than anywhere else in the States. Copper Mountain Resort alone contains more than 100 named slide paths. With slopes climbing well above 12,000 feet, the altitude is also as extreme as that of any ski resort in the world, save a few Bolivian, Russian, and Himalayan joints where hardly anyone goes. It's a gentle playground surrounded by risk.

Just two days before I arrived, Burnett stayed up all night as her husband, Dan, and 30 other search-and-rescue members undertook a mission to save three snowmobilers who'd plunged over a 200-foot cornice near Vail Pass. One was dead; the other two-his brothers-were injured and helpless on a night when temperatures dropped to minus 30. The all-night rescue of the survivors caused two team members to be hospitalized with frostbite.

Since it's a Saturday in early March, thousands of weekend warriors will descend today on Copper, where they'll embark on all manner of screaming beaters, yard sales with knee blowouts, and wrong turns out-of-bounds. The wicked cold front, which is driving temperatures down to the minus 20's, also promises a rash of dead skin.

"On Saturdays like this one," Burnett says, "we guess we'll have 30 accidents that need our response." No wonder Copper forbids on-duty patrollers to remove more than one ski boot at a time. They gotta be ready. A palpable urgency hangs in the shack as the crew braces for countless disasters.

Burnett learns of a snowboarder who has cut a rope and gotten lost in an outback drainage. The victim, on the verge of hypothermia, has called 911 to say, "I think I'm going to die." Then his cell phone loses service. Burnett arranges for an ambulance to park at the bottom of the gully with its siren on for the lost boarder to hear. When patrollers finally find the poaccene early. The woman was buried near the toe of the avalanche, a few feet down. Because she didn't have a transceiver, though, the others were doing a probe line in the wrong spot. Hasty alerted a little to the south, they moved the probe line, and dug the victim out."

Here at the artificial inbounds disaster, it's so cold that Sandy repeatedly lifts his paws, keeping only three on the snow at a time. When Burnett slips off his leash, though, the dog instantly forgets his discomfort. Aroused by his master's "ready to work?" question, he knifes directly to the correct snow pit when she commands, "Go search!" Within 30 seconds, he alerts to the buried volunteer and paws at the snow standing between oxygen and the faux-victim's lungs. The contrast to the dawdling Moe is remarkable.

Credit the golden retriever breed's unrivaled "biddability," which is dog-handler speak for "desire to please humans." In other words, retrievers are unashamed suck-ups even by the standards of dogs, a standout species where sucking-up is concerned. "I prefer goldens and labs for rescue work," Burnett says, "because they're very trainable. They like people, they're smart and energetic, and they like to use their noses."

Sandy can distinguish between the scent of a living victim and one who has just perished. He once won the Purina Dog Chow Incredible Dog Challenge (a kind of canine Winter Olympics). Still, he may never eclipse the fame of Hasty. "Remember hearing about the Vail ski instructor who got buried the day his avalanche transceiver was delivered to his P.O. box?" Burnett asks. "Hasty alerted to his body within minutes. It would have taken a team of humans hours of crossing a slide path to find him." The dog's fast work may have saved several lives that day, just by minimizing the rescue unit's exposure to additional avalanches. The ski instructor who ventured deep into the backcountry without a transceiver, though, was dead by the time searchers arrived.

Summit county seems like a safe place thanks to its proximity to Denver and the eternal hum of traffic on I-70. But it can be a death trap: Historically the county records more avalanche deaths than anywhere else in the States. Copper Mountain Resort alone contains more than 100 named slide paths. With slopes climbing well above 12,000 feet, the altitude is also as extreme as that of any ski resort in the world, save a few Bolivian, Russian, and Himalayan joints where hardly anyone goes. It's a gentle playground surrounded by risk.

Just two days before I arrived, Burnett stayed up all night as her husband, Dan, and 30 other search-and-rescue members undertook a mission to save three snowmobilers who'd plunged over a 200-foot cornice near Vail Pass. One was dead; the other two-his brothers-were injured and helpless on a night when temperatures dropped to minus 30. The all-night rescue of the survivors caused two team members to be hospitalized with frostbite.

Since it's a Saturday in early March, thousands of weekend warriors will descend today on Copper, where they'll embark on all manner of screaming beaters, yard sales with knee blowouts, and wrong turns out-of-bounds. The wicked cold front, which is driving temperatures down to the minus 20's, also promises a rash of dead skin.

"On Saturdays like this one," Burnett says, "we guess we'll have 30 accidents that need our response." No wonder Copper forbids on-duty patrollers to remove more than one ski boot at a time. They gotta be ready. A palpable urgency hangs in the shack as the crew braces for countless disasters.

Burnett learns of a snowboarder who has cut a rope and gotten lost in an outback drainage. The victim, on the verge of hypothermia, has called 911 to say, "I think I'm going to die." Then his cell phone loses service. Burnett arranges for an ambulance to park at the bottom of the gully with its siren on for the lost boarder to hear. When patrollers finally find the poacher, a walking advertisement for the Darwin Awards, he has ditched his board, taken off his boots (a common occurrence with hypothermia victims), and is stumbling through the frigid snow in cotton socks. Burnett sighs: "Five minutes after you walk in the door, something weird happens."

Cold alpine environment versus brains on vacation: a never-ending battle that keeps Burnett perpetually on guard. Dan Burnett says his wife sees everything on the mountain except her own skis: "Instead of looking two turns ahead like a normal skier, she's scanning left and right, looking to see if lift-tower pads are hung at the right height. We'll never make a full run, even at resorts where nobody knows Patti, because she's gravitating to people in pain or in trouble. She'll literally stop to help someone fix their hat. With her, there's always someone to help."

The same spirit lives inside her dog. It revealed itself during the avy exercises in Upper Enchanted Forest. No matter how much Sandy adores Milk-Bone rewards for making his teeth as white as Burnett's-not to mention the delicious crunch-a Milk-Bone alone can't explain the effort Sandy brought to digging. Raking his soft paws time and time again over jagged chunks of ice, Sandy evinced utter selflessness and otherworldly determination, traits he must have picked up from Mom.

poacher, a walking advertisement for the Darwin Awards, he has ditched his board, taken off his boots (a common occurrence with hypothermia victims), and is stumbling through the frigid snow in cotton socks. Burnett sighs: "Five minutes after you walk in the door, something weird happens."

Cold alpine environment versus brains on vacation: a never-ending battle that keeps Burnett perpetually on guard. Dan Burnett says his wife sees everything on the mountain except her own skis: "Instead of looking two turns ahead like a normal skier, she's scanning left and right, looking to see if lift-tower pads are hung at the right height. We'll never make a full run, even at resorts where nobody knows Patti, because she's gravitating to people in pain or in trouble. She'll literally stop to help someone fix their hat. With her, there's always someone to help."

The same spirit lives inside her dog. It revealed itself during the avy exercises in Upper Enchanted Forest. No matter how much Sandy adores Milk-Bone rewards for making his teeth as white as Burnett's-not to mention the delicious crunch-a Milk-Bone alone can't explain the effort Sandy brought to digging. Raking his soft paws time and time again over jagged chunks of ice, Sandy evinced utter selflessness and otherworldly determination, traits he must have picked up from Mom.

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