Snowbowl Ski Paw-trol – Flagstaff Business News

Ava, the avalanche rescue dog, is trained to find skiers under the snow

At age 4, Ava was jumping through a heavy powder day, taking a lift in the Arizona Gondola, or riding on the shoulders of her handler Hailey Hagerty as she ski the Arizona Snowbowl trails. Her favorite pastime is hiding in the woods. For her, that means finding a human scent buried in the snow and then digging until she finds what she’s looking for.

“We put people in really shallow caves under the snow for this exercise – it’s safe and there’s a lot of air,” Hagerty said. “She uses her sense of smell. And when she finds someone, she’ll enter that location and alert the skiers who are looking by digging down and barking. As soon as she gets to them, she tries to get them out of the snow with a rope pulling toy. For them, it’s the most exciting thing in the world. She is super excited when she finds someone. “

Ava, an English Cream Golden Retriever, is Snowbowl’s first avalanche rescue dog. She was introduced to the Mountain Resort when Hagerty was a public health student at Northern Arizona University. “My capstone project was to start this avalanche rescue dog program up here.”

While developing her project, Hagerty gave Snowbowl the idea. Today, aged 26, Hagerty is a paramedic with Ski Patrol and a nurse at Flagstaff Medical Center. Ava, her dog and co-worker, grew up on the mountain and is now the mother of six pups, all of whom have made homes in Flagstaff.

“When people see us, they are welcome to come over and say hello and ask what she’s doing and pet her,” Hagerty said. “She works a lot, so you can’t stroke her. But if you’re lucky enough to catch us on the mountain, we’d love to meet you! “

Hagerty grew up in Tucson but has been skiing in Telluride since she was six while visiting her family’s home in nearby Dolores, Colorado. She also always loved dogs and learned from other dog trainers before starting working with Ava. “Ava has years of training, we drive non-stop. She comes to work about 30 hours a week and probably exercises a few hours each day. Part of this is training on a search and rescue drill. Part of it is exercising on chairlifts and snowmobiles and getting out and about in the mountains. “

Derik Spice, assistant ski patrol director and snow safety coordinator for Snowbowl, says dogs can be a key tool in search and rescue efforts because of their acute sense of smell and their ability to cover more ground than humans. “The goal is to expand the dog program,” he said, “to ensure that the ski resort is ready for rescue every day, since Ava of course also has days off.”

Despite avalanche safety efforts, the 2020-21 winter season has already proven to be one of the deadliest in US history. At least 22 people died – more than half were skiers and snowboarders. The deadliest week of a century occurred from January 30 to February 6, 2021 when more than 15 people died. Among the victims were four skiers trapped on a steep, north-facing slope in the Mill Creek Canyon avalanche, Utah, on Saturday, February 6. Four survived the event. They were reportedly all seasoned skiers wearing avalanche safety equipment such as beacons, shovels and probes.

Avalanches are most likely to occur after fresh snowfall has added another layer to a blanket of snow, according to Spice. An overloaded blanket of snow can trigger a slide. “We are concerned about avalanches if we get eight inches of snow in 12 hours or 12 inches of snow in 24 hours. significant wind transport; or even an event on rain on snow, ”said Spice. “The wind is also a big factor.”

He also attributes some of the risk to more people wanting to be out in the backcountry due to COVID-19 restrictions. He says avalanche formation is critical to moving outside of the ski area. The Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center, a local nonprofit organization, offers courses and information about conditions on the San Francisco Peaks. Information is available at

To reduce the risk, Snowbowl Ski Patrol members drop explosives in the top bowl of the ski resort to shake unstable layers when a dangerous amount of snow builds up. “One of our main tasks is to reduce avalanche hazards before the site can be opened to the public,” said Spice.

“The best chance of surviving an avalanche is to have a beacon, shovel, probe, and a partner who is trained and ready to rescue,” Hagerty said. “But in case you don’t have a beacon with you, a dog is your best chance of being found.”

Even though Ava knows the drill and is ready to step into action, Hagerty hopes the Ski Patrol never has to use it. “We hope she’s really here to remind people to travel safely while in avalanche areas and just to be safe on the mountain by being in control and avoiding collisions and making sure, that everyone is having a great, safe time at Snowbowl. “FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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