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Into the storm: Big Sky Resort’s avalanche dogs

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Hank enjoying himself after successfully completing a training exercise. PHOTO BY KIRBY GRUBAUGH

By Brandon Walker EBS COMMUNITY EDITOR

BIG SKY – I couldn’t help my mind from wandering as I lowered myself under the snow. After the final shovel-full capped off the exit, the silence was ominous. This was only a training exercise, but I was still overwhelmed imagining how helpless it would feel to be trapped in an avalanche.

How long could this take? Would the avalanche dog find me?

Hank, a 2.5-year-old, 39-pound Australian Cattle dog, earned his avalanche certification last year. His owner and handler, Max Erpenbach, picked him up when he was only 9 weeks old.

“He’s my personal dog, … so I care about him a lot and I want the best for him,” said Erpenbach who’s originally from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and has been patrolling at Big Sky for six years. It can be stressful to have Hank in crowded scenarios on the hill, Erpenbach said, because he worries the dog could get hurt. “But keeping him under control and watching him progress every day has been super rewarding.”

In about a minute, I heard Hank’s paws digging at the snow above me. When he broke through, he climbed into the hole to join me for a celebratory game of tug of war. A newfound appreciation for these dogs, what they do, and their handlers who spend countless hours training them, consumed me.

According to Erpenbach, tug of war isn’t simply a reward for Hank. His canine companion enjoys the activity so much that he limits when he allows Hank to do such. “It’s a huge party. The dogs tugging, and everybody is making high pitched noises kind of mimicking like a howl,” Erpenbach said. “So, we’re tapping into like super primal instincts, but to them it’s just a game, and it’s all about the tug.”

As early as 1750, monks began using dogs for snow rescues on the Great St. Bernard Pass in the Western Alps. Their breed of choice was the St. Bernard, and during a span of a little less than 200 years the animals rescued more than 2,000 individuals, according to a 2016 article on smithsonianmag.com.

Erpenbach and Hank train every day to maintain their skills. At only 2.5-years-old, Hank became a certified avalanche dog last year. PHOTO BY KIRBY GRUBAUGH

Avalanche dogs made their debut at Big Sky Resort in the 1980s. “The dog program became recognized as a viable resource industry-wide, and ski areas with avalanche programs started rescue dog programs across the West,” said Big Sky Ski Patrol’s snow safety director Mike Buotte. Forty years later, the program, which is funded by Big Sky Ski Patrol, continues to grow with the resort. Currently, the squad has five certified avalanche dogs, with another five in training.

A typical day for Hank begins at the base area kennels. From there he rides the lifts with Erpenbach up Lone Peak to where he will be on-duty for the day, fitting in a brief training exercise at some point. “When he’s coming back up here, he’s a pretty sassy dog. [He] barks at me a lot when we’re clicking into the skis, and he’s definitely very stoked to come to work every day,” Erpenbach said.

Health is paramount for a dog to be able to perform properly, and Erpenbach rests Hank as much as possible, including on weekends, even discouraging play with other avalanche dogs to conserve his energy. To keep Hank’s skills sharp, the pair typically does one training drill each day, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes. Drills can range from the live burial I experienced, in which an individual enters a pre-dug hole, to burying an article of clothing that the dog has to locate.

To become certified, a dog and handler team must find multiple live burials in 30 minutes, similar to what Hank did when he found me. “They usually can find those live burials in five to 10 minutes, but they want to see you work with the dog for the whole 30 [minutes] and watch you, the handler, run the scene,” Erpenbach explained. “So that’s where a lot of the test is—on you, and not so much the dog.” With this certification, Hank can help with search and rescue efforts anywhere in Gallatin and Madison counties.

Thanks to preventative avalanche efforts, avalanche dogs are actually rarely called in to assist, Buotte said in an email to EBS. “[There are very] few, if any, documented cases in North America, mostly due to robust avalanche mitigation,” he wrote. “Dog teams are used routinely locally and across the West to search for backcountry burials where the subject was not wearing an avalanche beacon.”

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