Meet Deer Valley Resort’s newest avalanche search and rescue dog, Rooster.
If you have shopped at the Deer Valley Signatures stores, you may have noticed the Avalanche Rescue Dog Benefit Merchandise, also know as “Avy Dog.” If you are a frequent Deer Valley skier, you may also have encountered one or several dogs sporting the Ski Patrol logo on their back. To get their full story, I met with Chris Erkkila, Deer Valley’s Ski Patrol Assistant Manager, who told me everything I always wanted to know about these “mountain saviors.”
The Deer Valley Avalanche Dog program dates back twenty years. From the time one of the resort’s patrollers worked tirelessly to get it off the ground to this very day, it has evolved to the point that Deer Valley’s Ski Patrol now has three avalanche dogs, with at least one on the mountain every day. These dogs are owned by their handlers and go home with them every night.
Let’s begin by meeting them. We have Ninja, a male Pointer/Lab mix, that is almost four years old; Piper a female Shepherd mix, an 11 year old veteran that also happens to be Chris Erkkila’s dog and Izzy, a female Lab/Boarder Collie that is nine years old. The Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR), a local non-profit organization oversees the training and certifications. Nine ski areas are member of the WBR, and account for a total of 30 to 40 dogs.
A lot of work and training is involved with avalanche dogs. “When we select a puppy,” explains Chris, “we have a series of puppy aptitude tests. In every litter of puppies there’s an Alpha pup, the most aggressive and strongest of the litter. We generally look for the next pup down from the Alpha, one that doesn’t seem to be scared of anything, has strong senses, is apt to attach and interact with humans. We also want a dog that is very curious, has high energy and a strong drive.”
Of course, there are other considerations. Some breeds are better suited than others for the job. A thick coat is definitely an advantage compared to a thin one; with it, a dog can stay warm longer, while thin-haired dogs may have to wear an extra coat. There are also breeds that have a higher sense of smell than others. Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and boarder collies are better suited than most.
Size matters too; large dogs get tired faster because of the mass they must carry and may develop orthopedic problems faster. Then there’s the mere fact of getting around. Carrying the dog down the slope, loading it up on a chairlift, a snowmobile or a helicopter can be hard with larger dogs. Conversely, a small dog will have a harder time climbing on big chunks of snow or walking into deep powder. The happy medium seems to fall right between 40 and 60 pounds.
Once the puppy is selected, training begins at once with with socialization and obedience. Then training for search follows. It begins very progressively by using one of the dog toys and hiding it behind a tree, then burying it under the snow. This is followed by using articles of clothing like a scarf or a wool sweater scented by a human being, and slowly, the search training evolves to a real person. First, just by hiding behind a tree, before the person is actually buried under the snow. Some avalanche dogs can smell people that are buried under 15 feet of snow.
A person’s scent permeates throughout the snow pack and eventually makes its way through to the surface. The surface scent may get to an area that is not necessarily the actual body location. The scent works its way trough a cone-shaped path that may follow a slanted trajectory depending on the snow structure. In addition, windy conditions or even just a slight breeze may affect how a dog will catch the scent coming out of the cone.
The dog must be led in relation to the wind. Upwind, it becomes impossible for a dog to catch the scent. Stormy and blizzard conditions may make locating very tricky and difficult. The same applies to terrain conditions that generally are always steep, rugged and involve snow density of varying degrees. Around an avalanche, the surface of snow can be rough and will tire a dog very fast. This is why dogs are often carried to the rescue site so as to save as much of their energy as possible.
Dog certification is handled by the WBR. Three levels are offered: A, B, and C. Level C designates a candidate entering the program. Level B is for dogs capable of searching within the ski area boundaries. Level A is the full certification and applies to dogs capable of searching both within the ski area and the backcountry. Dogs cannot be tested for Level A until they’re at least 18 month old. For most dogs, it often takes two winter seasons of work and training to pass the the Level A test. Sometimes, it may take a dog three full years to reach Level A.
From that point on, dogs can expect to work on search and rescue until they are about 10. Piper, Deer Valley’s oldest dog, is 11 years old; she’s still going strong, but may be an exception amongst her peers.
Training is a big endeavor that must be kept up. Deer Valley avalanche dogs stay active year-round. During the off-season, their handlers take them around the resort while mountain biking or working on trails. Their dogs must stay active and obedient while also receiving some agility training to mitigate an off-season sedentary time period. On occasions, outside agencies, like the Summit County Sheriff Department, may come up and expose the dogs to cadaver work, materials they don’t encounter on a daily basis.
Having the dogs out in the summer help them familiarize themselves with the whole mountain environment; this way, they become closely acquainted with the terrain and their surroundings. Chris adds, “I can see the evidence of this in the winter as my dog recognizes the very details of the terrain she traveled back and forth during summer, she tends to follow her usual path in a winter environment.”
I asked Chris if any of the three Deer Valley dogs have been involved in actual search and rescue operation: “Yes, we’ve been dispatched quite a few times to actual avalanche sites. One of the most interesting instances, happened late in May, near Sundance resort. We were flown up in a helicopter to Mt. Timpanogos where the search operations took place.”
At Deer Valley, the “Avy Dogs” perform a very vital and necessary function. They can be seen as an extra insurance policy. Some might argue that these dogs are seen as “low-tech” assistants in a array of new high-tech devices that are being used to locate skiers or measure avalanche danger. “Sometimes dogs can pickup where high-tech left off,” Erkkila explains, “just a couple of years ago, we were all out doing avalanche beacon drills training, and low and behold the beacon batteries died. I had to bring my dog Piper, to find the beacon buried deep under the snow. She found it pretty quickly, so technology is as good as battery life, and with Piper we don’t have to worry about that!”
With always one dog on the mountain on any given day, skiers have the opportunity to visit a Deer Valley Avy Dog at one of the patrol shacks. Just ask to find out where the dog or dogs are for the day. Chris Erkkila offers: “Come and say hi, collect one of our new trading cards that we created for each one of our dogs, and come take some photos!”
Fresh out of college, Kathy began her career at Deer Valley Resort as a Ski Instructor before joining the Ski Patrol team and then moving on to the resort’s Human Resources department. She didn’t stop there and worked part-time in retail at the resort’s Signatures Stores, while she pursued a career as a professional cyclist. Today, she is the Tour & Travel/International Coordinator in the Marketing department. Before she re-invents herself once more, I stopped Kathy for a few precious minutes to uncover the secret of her breathless career path with Deer Valley Resort.
JF: What was your life like before Deer Valley Resort?
Kathy Sherwin: I was raised in Tacoma, Washington and always was a very active child. I was a tomboy, I guess; I already had my little BMX bike and built a track for it in the back of the house. I also played soccer, tennis and was put on the ski bus every week by my parents.
JF: Where did you go skiing?
Kathy Sherwin: Snoqualmie Pass, Crystal Mountain and White Pass; those were the main places I learned to ski; I was always on the go!
JF: As you grew up, which career path did you want to pursue?
Kathy Sherwin: It’s kind of funny; I wanted to be a doctor. As I started volunteering and working in that field, I soon realized that everyone was sick. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around all these sick people all the time and started looking instead into preventive approaches to healthcare which led me to a healthier lifestyle. I met my late husband in college and he was the one who had a bicycle and said, “Hey, let’s commute to school everyday.” It was of course much faster to ride our bikes than drive for 40 minutes in Seattle’s traffic. That’s how I got back into bike riding.
JF: I guess, biking was well planted into your DNA.
Kathy Sherwin: Yes. I remember telling my mom, “I want to bike race!” when I was 6 years old, but it didn’t happen.
JF: So you are at the university and then you graduate; what brought you to Deer Valley Resort?
Kathy Sherwin: My late husband said, “I’ve heard about Deer Valley Resort, it’s a great place in Utah; they treat their employees extremely well.” So we went, we got jobs, he became a Mountain Host and I became a Ski Instructor.
JF: Had you taught skiing before?
Kathy Sherwin: Yes, I forgot to tell you; I had taught skiing at Ski Acres, next to Snoqualmie in Washington, during my last year of college.
JF: What were your expectations when you arrived at Deer Valley Resort?
Kathy Sherwin: That we would work there for a season or two and leave.
JF: And move on to another place?
Kathy Sherwin: Yes, but Deer Valley Resort was so fantastic and with the employee benefits, the way we were treated, and the tight-knit family atmosphere, it was hard to think about leaving.
JF: Were you hooked?
Kathy Sherwin: Totally!
JF: What did you learn during your first season?
Kathy Sherwin: The importance of customer service. If you had a question from a guest and didn’t have an answer for it, you would go find it out and would get back to the guest no matter how much work it meant and whether it took a few minutes or an hour. I thought it was pretty cool because many other places didn’t know how to service their customers that well.
JF: What else did you learn?
Kathy Sherwin: The other thing that I discovered, that I thought was really neat and interesting, was that all the departments were working well together. So we got along well with the kitchen and the kitchen would help us, Mountain Hosts would help us too; soon, the other departments would pitch in. The philosophy was, “We’re all under one roof, we’re trying to achieve the same goals, so we need to help each other to achieve them.”
JF: Did you feel this came naturally from all your coworkers?
Kathy Sherwin: We had orientation and training, but no one can force a certain attitude on you. With the kind of employees that we have, many of them so well-educated, this way of acting comes quite naturally. It isn’t pushed down your throat and most people buy in to that concept.
JF: What’s remarkable about your career at Deer Valley Resort is the impressive range of positions you have occupied over the years; tell us about that.
Kathy Sherwin: The ski school came naturally because I had done it previously. Still continuing on the thought that I wanted to go into medicine, I became an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) and joined the Ski Patrol for a few years. Then about a year later, after my husband and I married, I had the urge to get a “real job” and an Administrative Assistant position in Human Resources became available. I applied and got the job.
JF: Was it a year-round job?
Kathy Sherwin: Yes, salaried, full-time. I did it for a little over 10 years and worked my way up to HR Manager by the time I left. I decided to then pursue my passion of racing a bicycle full-time.
JF: Did you take a sabbatical or did you find some other working arrangement?
Kathy Sherwin: What I did was to work on-call with the Deer Valley Signatures stores. I would come to help over Christmas, holidays and other busy periods and did this for six years. In the meantime, I was racing my bike full-time, traveling the world and training daily.
JF: How did that passion for mountain bike racing develop?
Kathy Sherwin: When I was sitting in the HR department, I watched the NORBA (National Off Road Bicycle Association) series come through and set up mountain bike races; I wondered what this was all about and thought it would be cool to try one day.
JF: Did you have any mountain biking experience?
Kathy Sherwin: Not really, I would occasionally ride a hard-tail mountain bike and eventually I ended up getting a full-suspension one. I loved it and started to race. My first competition was the Intermountain Cup Series, 14 years ago. I participated as a beginner and won my category, which was a real shocker to me.
JF: What happened after that?
Kathy Sherwin: Everyone was excited for me and told me to go on to the next race, which I did and won! Then I got a local sponsor and little by little, I built my resume up to garner even more sponsors, about ten of them. I was able to accomplish all this without even setting the goal of becoming a professional in the first place.
JF: Is this how you went on to race nationally and joined the international scene?
Kathy Sherwin: Right. I raced in Canada, Belgium, Scotland, Germany, among other countries.
JF: How long did you race as a Professional?
Kathy Sherwin: About six years.
JF: How did you return to Deer Valley Resort?
Kathy Sherwin: I always knew I wanted to return to Deer Valley and this was always part of the plan. I knew I wanted to work in the Marketing department. A position became available when my husband was sick with cancer, which made the transition so timely.
JF: How do you like working in the Marketing department?
Kathy Sherwin: I love it. It’s amazing, as a professional athlete, how you must learn to sell yourself. First I was really shy about it, but it soon became a matter of survival. You learn how to push yourself and show what is important to the person you’re selling something to. It’s amazing how my competitive experience translated into the sales and marketing process. Add to this my love and passion for Deer Valley Resort, the best product out there, all these pieces make it so easy!
JF: In looking back over your remarkable career, where do you see the essence of the Deer Valley Difference?
Kathy Sherwin: It’s all in the guest service quality, being upfront with all the experience and value we’re offering our guests. The key is to provide guests with an experience that is always over the top and makes a true difference for them. I love being part of that entire process. I would also add that the company’s leadership has a huge influence on the Deer Valley Difference. For example, Bob Wheaton, our President and General Manager, is instrumental in making it work by leading through example and there’s a trickle down effect throughout the entire work force. This and the fact that we’re all empowered to think out-of-the-box when it comes to solving problems and finding solutions for guests, continuously fuels a customer service experience second to none.
JF: In closing, and for our readers considering a Deer Valley Resort career, what advice would you give them?
Kathy Sherwin: They should know that our employees are kind, open, willing to engage guests, hardworking and willing to go above and beyond the call of duty. Another very cool thing about Deer Valley Resort is that we hire a lot from within – I mean a lot. So go get that “entry-level” job, because, before you know it, you can have a year-round position; this is exactly what I did.
Doctor Peter Taillac and Ski Patrol’s Hylton Early have told us how to make the best of your Deer Valley ski vacation. Today, they will conclude their great tips series by discussing safety issues that are of concern to our most advanced skiers and learn how to stay safe under most weather and snow conditions!
JF: Can you tell us about avalanche control and snow safety in general?
Hylton Early: These are issues that we take extremely seriously at Deer Valley. We have a snow safety program that includes four rescue dogs that are specifically trained for avalanche rescue both at Deer Valley and out in the back country as well. We do conduct explosive control work to make sure that the runs are safe. That doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee that they will be absolutely safe as avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing, and it’s important to keep this fact in mind.
JF: Is Ski Patrol available for on-hill, last minute updates?
Hylton Early: Yes, you can always check-in with Ski Patrol at the top of Bald Mountain or the top of Empire before you head into areas that could be avalanche-prone. This way, you will also get the latest reports because the Ski Patrol staff would have been there early on and will able to tell you where the safe lines and the best places to ski are. If you’re not quite sure about what to take along, the Ski Patrol is available to remind you about the necessary equipment you might need to stay safe out there.
JF: What about ropes line and closed signs?
Hylton Early: You always want to respect these. They’re in place for a reason. Just like anybody else, we want to open runs as fast as we can but we want to make sure that they are safe before opening them to skiers!
JF: Any advice for the lone skier?
Hylton Early: It’s very important to let someone else know where you’re going and to have a plan of a place to meet up. In today’s cell phone culture, it’s easy to get complacent, but your battery can die or your phone can fall out of your pocket, so it’s always good to have a fail-safe meeting point, like meet for lunch at a certain lodge. If you are skiing some expert terrain, I would really recommend that you always ski with a partner, so if you were to get injured, this buddy can provide aid to you and let the Ski Patrol know where you are.
JF: How can skiers reach Ski Patrol?
Hylton Early: The Ski Patrol number 435-645-6804 is located on the back of all the trail map, or you can dial extension 6804 from any mountain phone. It’s a smart idea to program it into your cell phone. You can of course always report an injury to any lift employee as well. The Deer Valley Mobile App also has a button to immediately call Ski Patrol.
JF: Do you have tips for the great Deer Valley powder days?
Hylton Early: Everyone gets so excited and so filled with adrenaline on these wonderful powder days, that it’s always a good idea to remember to ski safely and to follow the Skier’s Responsibility Code. The most obvious incident is when you lose your ski in deep powder; if your ski came off, make sure to remember the last point when you saw it, which will help greatly if Ski Patrol comes to help you locate it. If you’re skiing the trees, always be on the watch out for stumps and obstacles and be also aware of tree wells; some people have the smart idea of carrying a whistle clipped to their jacket that can serve to alert others of you were to fall into a well and signal your location; this warning signal also comes very handy if you were injured in any location hidden from view.
JF: Doctor Taillac, is there anything you’d like to add to these details and advices aimed at keeping us safe on the mountain?
Doctor Peter Taillac: I just would like to compliment the Ski Patrol for the great job they do, here at Deer Valley Resort. They’re very knowledgeable and take a great deal of pride in what they’re doing for skiers. They are very diligent at keeping up with their medical training on regular basis so they stay very sharp. We feel that they have a great relationship with the Clinic. Our doctors and nurses know what they’re talking about when they bring in a patient. Guests are safe, here at Deer Valley, they have a great medical safety net available to them and if there is an incident, they’ll be in very good hands.
JF: Hylton, do you have any other comment on behalf of Deer Valley Ski Patrol?
Hylton Early: Unlike many ski resorts that have a mix between professionals augmented by part-time ski patrollers. Deer Valley Ski Patrol is 100% professional and this allows us to keep the highest level of training standard and care for the benefit of our guests.
Thank you for following this four part series on Deer Valley’s Invisible Safety Net. If you missed any of the posts follow the links below.
In the two previous blogs, we’ve learned from Doctor Peter Taillac and Ski Patrol’s Hylton Early about the amazing “Doctor Patrol” roaming the slopes at Deer Valley Resort, and we received some great tips for planning a perfect ski vacation. Today, they’ll share more tips aimed at enhancing your safety on the slopes.
JF: Let’s talk about gear for a moment; what precautions should people take with their own equipment?
Hylton Early: Obviously, you want to make sure that your equipment is in good shape. You want to check that the ski brakes work properly, or if you happen to Telemark, for instance, you must make sure you have safety leashes, a requirement that is part of the skier’s responsibility code. It’s also a good idea to have your bindings checked once a season to make sure they are still properly adjusted to your boots and set to your weight, age and ability. Also if you haven’t skied on them for a season or two, it might be a good idea to have them tuned up so bases are flat and your edges are sharp enough so they respond as expected when you need them.
JF: What trends are you seeing these days in terms of skier’s injuries?
Hylton Early: In leg injuries, most are in the ligaments that surround the knee like the ACL and MCL as well as strains and cartilage tears. Lower in the list might be tibia injuries or even farther down the list, a few traumas involving the femur.
Doctor Peter Taillac: I agree, these are the most common ones. One of my pet peeves is that people have their bindings set too tight. When you fall and the skis start to twist, they twist the knee with it and, as I always like to say, either the binding is going to open or the ligaments in the knee are going to be hurt. I prefer to see the binding go! So, again, it is super important that your bindings are properly adjusted to your weight and your ability and I personally prefer to have my binding set on the low side than ending up with a twisted knee!
JF: Like for “defensive driving”, are there similar tips that would apply to a ski day.
Hylton Early: It all starts with knowing the conditions on the mountain, reviewing the weather report and the groomed run report Deer Valley puts out everyday, so that you know what the conditions are going to be, and also are prepared for a changing weather. A run may different at 10 a.m. than it will be at 2 p.m. Don’t assume necessarily that it’s going to be the same thing. The analogy you made to driving and skiing can be very similar. It all starts with knowing the Skier Responsibility Code, making sure your equipment is in good shape, that you stop in areas that are safe and that you never forget that the skier ahead of you has always right of way.
JF: Are these precautions enough?
Hylton Early: Probably not if you truly want to ski “defensively.” You may want to go a little bit farther, like always looking around you to see what other skiers are doing, looking all the way down the run so you can anticipate both the snow and terrain conditions as well as the skiers’ traffic ahead of you. In addition, even though skiers behind you should be mindful of what you might do, like turning to the right or to the left, it’s always a good idea to look over your shoulder to verify that you can change direction safely, and this alone goes a long way to avoiding a possible collision.
JF: What about the use of electronic devices while skiing?
Hylton Early: You want to make sure that if you need to text or call someone, you come to a full stop into a safe spot where you’re visible from above. Of course, don’t text or phone while you’re moving. If you want to listen to music – not something we would recommend as we think its best for you to hear what’s around you – keep it in an appropriate volume, or better yet, just place one ear-bud into one ear instead of both so you’re still can hear the sounds around you.
In the conclusion of our “Doctor Patrol” series, we’ll cover more talks about safety in powder snow, powder conditions and the like. Don’t miss it!
In our previous blog, we were introduced to the amazing “Doctor Patrol” at Deer Valley. Today, both Doctor Peter Taillac and Ski Patrol’s Hylton Early will dispense some great advice about making your ski stay with us as fun and safe as possible.
JF: What about some physical conditioning prior to going skiing?
Hylton Early: There are many things you can do to prepare yourself for your ski trip. Doing exercises, like some body weight squats, single leg squats, strengthen your leg muscles, and so on. There are many sources: On line tips and videos, books or magazine that list good physical conditioning exercise for skies. If you have a personal trainer, ask for a specific program prior to your ski vacation.
JF: What advice would you give to guests coming to Deer Valley Resort to ski?
Hylton Early: There are a lot of things you can do to prepare for a great day on the slopes. First, make sure to hydrate and make time for a good breakfast that will give you enough fuel for a fun day out. Also, give yourself the time to acclimate to our higher elevation. You don’t want to forget your sun protection that you will re-apply as the day progresses and don’t forget good eye protection. You also want to make sure you have warm clothing and well thought accessories like good gloves and neck gators or face-masks. People more sensitive to cold may also consider getting some hand and foot warming products or devices.
JF: What about helmets?
Doctor Peter Taillac: This by far is my favorite subject and perhaps the most important piece of equipment. For me, it’s a big issue, because in my emergency department, I take care of skiers who crash with helmets and skiers who crash without them. I can tell you that my patients with helmets are always far better off. Even if they hit their head hard and get knocked out, they aren’t as likely to be permanently brain-injured. Those who don’t have helmets, even if they just suffer a small hit to the head can sustain a severe concussion or some internal bleeding that can cause permanent damage. The helmet is the equivalent to wearing a seat-belt in a car; it makes all the difference in the world in your outcome should you be unlucky enough to be in a ski accident.
JF: Sounds like we should never hit the slopes without wearing a helmet!
Doctor Peter Taillac: Absolutely! The only permanent injury that you can sustain while skiing is a head-injury. If you break your tibia, fracture your arm, dislocate your shoulder or get a severe chest or abdominal injury, even with some internal bleeding, these traumas, for the most part, can all be repaired. A head injury however is a totally different story; too often, we don’t have the technology available to make a severe brain injury get better.
JF: What about inserting some periods of rest into a ski vacation?
Hylton Early: It’s always a good idea to take a break and it’s even better to always listen to your body; if you do, it will tell you if your knees are aching or your back is sore. One good thing you can do is go out on the first chair, right around 9 a.m. and ski till 11 a.m. when the conditions are going to be best. That way, instead of putting in a full day, you can take the afternoon to relax. Listening to your body is paramount, especially if you are of a more advanced age or know you have difficulties acclimatizing to higher altitudes.
JF: Doctor, is there anything you’d like to add on getting used to higher elevations?
Doctor Peter Taillac: Well, it’s important to realize that it always takes a couple of days to adapt from sea level to an altitude of 7,000 – 8,000 feet. I would recommend that if visitors want to ski on their first day, they take it very easy, stay on the lower, less challenging slopes, and just ease into skiing that very first day out. As they start feeling more comfortable, they can go a little bit higher on the mountain and try more difficult runs the next days. I personally found that, as Hylton mentioned, getting an early start and taking a nice, long lunch break, perhaps even a little snooze, and then come back out, is a really good way to make for long but not exactly exhausting day.
JF: Do you have any special recommendations for small kids?
Doctor Peter Taillac: Kids often won’t tell you when they’re cold until it hurts, but their small bodies can loose temperature much faster than adults, because they have disproportionately bigger heads and most of the heat is lost through the head. So for kids, having warm clothing, good cover over their head and ears, in addition to their helmet, is always important. Lastly, for everyone and for all kids in particular, it’s always a good idea to dress as if it’s very cold, make sure to layer your clothing so if there’s a need to shed a layer latter on, as the weather warms up, that’s fast and convenient. It’s a lot easier to take a layer off than putting one back on.
In our next blog, we’ll talk about ski equipment and safety on the mountain. So please stay tuned for next installment of “Deer Valley’s invisible safety net!”
Skiing is fun, exhilarating and Deer Valley Resort has its own ways to minimize the risk inherent with the joy of skiing, thanks to an original program that involves local doctors, nurses and its professional ski patrol staff. In this four-part interview, I sat down with Doctor Peter Taillac and Hylton Early, a Deer Valley Ski Patroller.
JF: Let’s start by doing a quick introduction, gentlemen…
Doctor Peter Taillac: I’m a clinical professor of emergency medicine at the University of Utah, and member of the Doctor Patrol here at Deer Valley Resort. I’m a full time emergency physician and take care of hurt and ill people for a living.
Hylton Early: I’ve been a ski patroller at Deer Valley Resort for four winter seasons. I’m an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) and outdoor emergency care technician.
JF: I wasn’t aware that, every day, there’s a doctor available to work with the Deer Valley ski patrol?
Hylton Early: That’s right; every day, we have at least one doctor on the mountain. Each doctor serves under the medical control of Doctor Robert Wynn, our medical director. The doctors are available on a daily basis should we need to consult on an incident. It might involve skiers that aren’t feeling well or aren’t quite sure what’s going on with them. Of course, it could also be a more serious traumatic injury for which we want to get our doctors’ expertise to see what we can be done for that patient.
JF: Are your doctors all skiers?
Hylton Early: Absolutely, our doctors are on skis and are available to come right to the scene of an incident. Often, this is the most critical moment when we’re about to make the initial transport and triage decisions for an injured skier.
JF: Is there any other role for these doctors?
Hylton Early: In fact there is; in addition to their on-hill duties, our doctors are also involved with our continuing education. As patrollers, we all have to meet certain requirement to be re-certified every four years, so these same doctors regularly lecture us, talking about specific topics, like lower leg trauma, head injuries, or dislocated shoulders, so we are totally dialed-on the subject when we’re confronted with it on the hill.
JF: I’ve also seen nurses around; are they part of the same program?
Hylton Early: Correct; we also have one nurse present with us every day. She is usually based at this First Aid location, but we can also bring her along to an incident if we want to get a higher level of care on the spot, as we are triaging the patient.
JF: Are both the nurse and the doctor based at this First Aid location?
Hylton Early: The nurse is based at the Silver Lake First Aid, so if you were to walk into this room, she’d likely be available to evaluate you. She’s also able to come up on the hill with some special drugs and a wider scope of practices that can help us in a traumatic situation. The doctor is more itinerant and tends to roam the mountain. We have instant access to his cell phone and can get him right away if his presence is needed anywhere on the hill.
JF: What an impressive cadre of highly qualified individuals! Now tell me, what are the typical qualifications of your Ski Patrol colleagues?
Hylton Early: Most of them are either “Outdoor Emergency Care” technician, which is a National Ski Patrol certification, similar to an EMT Basic. Many others are EMT Basic, that is, the first level of EMT. Then, we also have a few paramedics working with us, those are professional patrollers who work part-time. They generally are employed full-time with the Park City or the Salt Lake City Fire Departments and assist us one or two days a week.
JF: So tell me, how many ski patrollers are on any given day on the mountain at Deer Valley?
Hylton Early: We have between 28 and 32 of them on the slopes, every day. If we include the doctor and the nurse, this adds up to 34 medical professionals available to take care of our ski visitors on a daily basis!
In our next blog, we’ll get some important advice about making your ski vacation with us as safe as enjoyable as possible…
Last week I caught up with Deer Valley Resorts’ Bike and Ski Patrol Manager, Steve Graff, as he was returning from inspecting the impressive network of hiking and mountain bike trails the resort will soon re-open to the public. Here are some of the many interesting things I learned about his busy department and their myriad of responsibilities…
JF: Steve, it’s good to be visiting with you and the patrollers again. Tell me, where’s all the snow? What has happened to you and your staff since the end of the skiing season and what are you up to now?
Steve Graff (SG): After we closed the mountain down in April, we spent another week taking down signs, ropes, pads and getting everything ready for snow melt. After taking a little bit of time off to transition between seasons, our staff is back to work. As you can imagine, our personnel shrinks a bit at this time of the year; most get back to their seasonal jobs. Many go to work as National Parks Rangers all over the country, while those who can never get enough winter continue ski patrolling in New Zealand and Australia. Some are wild land fire fighters or smoke-jumpers, and the rest of us are back at Deer Valley Resort getting the place ready for warm weather activities.
JF: How many employees return for Mountain Bike Patrol?
SG: Out of our 70 or so ski patrollers, about 15 stay on during the summer.
JF: How long is the season?
SG: It goes from mid-June through Labor Day (September 2, 2013).
JF: Are you the crew in charge of maintaining trails and cutting new ones?
SG: Our main priority is helping injured but the bulk of our work is actually trail construction and trail maintenance.
JF: Any new trail this year?
SG: The two newest trails were actually started last season. Both are in the Empire Canyon area, off the Ruby Express chairlift.
- Drift: An intermediate trail
- Payroll: More of a free riding, “flowy” trail, with some nice jumps and drops that should add some extra levels of excitement in that general area
JF: This sounds promising! By the way who comes up with these unique trail names?
SG: Payroll is actually a mine name and Drift comes from a drift road that is off Tour de Sud. Some others come directly from the public, “Devo” is a good example; we were just finishing constructing it when we ran into a lady that said “Yeah, that trail is ‘Devo.”
JF: Does your remaining staff receive summer-specific training?
SG: There’s a lot of cross-over between summer and winter duties like medical training and lift evacuation skills and those are regularly being refreshed. We add motorcycle, ATV and six-wheeler riding that are unique to our summer season.
JF: You mean, training on vehicles that get you around the mountain?
SG: Right; instead of snowmobiles, toboggans or skis, we use bikes, motorcycles and ATVs!
JF: What types of interventions are typical to the warmer months?
SG: Overall, the few injuries we deal with are less severe than in winter because speed is less of a factor. We see a quite a few scrapes and bruises though, maybe a few dislocations, perhaps more blood than usual, but in general, far less severe injuries.
JF: It seems to me that you and your staff aren’t always on the mountain; over the years, I’ve noticed your presence at all the Deer Valley’s summer concerts. What’s your role there?
SG: To attend the concert!
JF: I should have expected this! So, all Patrollers are music aficionados?
SG: Well, this is another one of our Mountain Bike Patrol duties. We offer first aid response at the Deer Valley concerts, so we attend them all. Depending on the event, between two and four of us are present. We’re there for medical emergencies or other situations.
JF: Are they specific recommendations you’d like to share with mountain bikers and hikers intent to use the Deer Valley Resort trail system?
SG: There are a few good rules; first, we don’t charge for uphill travel outside of chairlift rides. If trail users bike, they must wear a helmet and dogs must be left at home whether their owners hike or bike. Always make sure to look at the map and come up with a route before heading out; remember that there are some trails that are specifically for downhill mountain biking, others specifically for hiking and then they’re others that are designated for both. So, it’s good to know what kind of trail you’re planning to take. If you want to hike and don’t want to see bikers, go on a hiking-only trail. If you want to pedal up, make sure you chose the multi-use trail, not the downhill-only one. That way, everyone can enjoy their experience to the fullest.
JF: Are there lessons or orientations tours visitors can take?
SG: Yes; both are available and are highly recommended. We offer guided tours of the mountain that will also provide some mountain biking tips; those are for intermediate level and above, but they’re also “mountain bike 101” lessons that will take a rank beginner straight to the single-track trails. Many riders often say: “I know how to handle a bike, therefore I don’t need lessons” but as you know JF, mountain biking is a very different deal, it’s not like riding in the neighborhood; there’s weight transfer, forward-and-back and side-to-side involved, it’s a lot more dynamic experience than pedaling on asphalt around the block.
JF: What other recommendations would you give hikers or mountain bikers visiting Deer Valley Resort?
SG: I know some people who chose to ride their mountain bike by themselves, purely for exercise. If you’re one of them, just let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. Always wear a helmet and sunglasses. Even if you’re going on a short trip, throw an extra power bar in your pack, a replacement tube, enough water, some basic tools if you ever break down. Even if you aren’t quite sure how to fix it, some passer-by might be able to assist you and get you back on your way. Always wear gloves; if you ever fall, the first thing that’s going to hit the ground is your hand. Some extra protection goes a long way!
JF: Any tips about the weather?
SG: Always be prepared for anything! In the mountains, the weather can change rapidly. Look for thunderstorms. If you can hear thunder, lightning isn’t far, so get off the high ground, don’t huddle under the tallest tree, just wait for the storm to pass; it generally never lasts very long.
JF: What about encounters with wildlife?
SG: We do see quite a bit of wildlife. This is one of the great things about hiking and mountain biking around Deer Valley. I’ve had the pleasure to see all kinds of animals around this mountain. You just got to give them space. We’ve taken a lot of space away from them and we should always treat the mountain as their own domain. If I see a moose on the trail, I make my presence known, and hopefully he’ll amble on.
JF: So, how ready are you for Deer Valley Resort summer opening?
SG: Well, we’re opening on June 14, and based on my most recent trail inspections, we’re going to have a fantastic opening, with ninety percent of the trails perfectly passable, so please, come and join us!
Somewhere up in the snow, along a ridgeline outside of Park City, a group of skiers move through the blue on white Wasatch landscape. The squeaky crunch of a chalky snowpack and heavy breathing are interrupted by quick conversation and casual observations. A day trip to some lower angle snowfields has yielded good turns and spirits are high. Apparent stability has everyone eyeing steeper terrain. One by one they ascend a minor looking slope, each focused on the turns waiting above. The first sign of trouble is word passed down the track that something slid around the turn. Everyone moves quickly to see what happened. The seemingly small slope they were headed too broke away with the first skier; a large debris field lies below them.
At Deer Valley, in the Bald Eagle Patrol shack, a German Short Haired Pointer/Lab named Ninja is enjoying a sun-warmed spot on a Naugahyde bench.
With a half raised head he sees his friend and teacher Sue listening to her radio as she grabs her pack. A skier is missing in the backcountry; a frantic phone call from the scene reports beacon searches unsuccessful. The urgency of her movements flips a switch in Ninja and he is immediately at the door. Sometimes it’s a chairlift or snowmobile to shuttle them to a scene. Today they hurry to a landing zone as a chopper beats out a steady cadence, coming in low and fast. In seconds Sue and Ninja are airborne and banking hard out beyond the ski areas boundary.
Once on scene the rescuers begin collecting and assessing information while Ninja surveys the half-acre field of avalanche debris. Without ever having met the person he knows they are out there somewhere. He wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. While the people around him are visually inspecting the area Ninja has his nose in the air, sorting and remembering various smells. The young dog jerks with anticipation as Sue kneels close, one hand on his back. “O.K. Ninja,” Sue whispers, his body trembling uncontrollably with anticipation, “SEARCH!”
Ninja was nearly two months old when Sue had come to see his litter. She had already been to see over forty puppies at that point, trusting standard tests and her own intuition to pass on all of them. Now, with Ninja and three of his siblings sitting in the half lean puppies tend to have, Sue started the tests again. The first was simple. Pots and pans banged together caused the puppy to Ninja’s right to jump back startled and wary. She knew he would not work. Avalanche dogs are often around loud and sudden noises and can’t be easily distracted or frightened. One by one she rolled the remaining pups on their backs. Ninja and his sister worked against her hand with moderate effort, unsure that total dominance suited them. The third lay frozen in complete submission. While a good avi dog must listen and perform it must also be able to push back on the handler when it senses it is being led away from it’s proper training. Removing the passive puppy she inspected the remaining two. Standing up and walking away Sue looked back to see if either dog had followed. The sister remained seated while Ninja was happily trotting behind her, only stopping when reached her feet. Sues search seemed to be over. After administering a few more tests such as squeezing between his toes to establish pain tolerance (he did not care at all, good for a dog that will work outside a lot), holding him in the air (think future chairlift rides, and he was indifferent), and playing tug (never had and loved it!) Sue was confident that she had found Deer Valley’s newest trainee.
There was a final and substantial hurdle for Ninja to overcome. Lila, a full Lab, was the most senior and experienced avalanche dog, with thirteen years on the Deer Valley Ski Patrol. She was known to be particular about her coworkers. With a few sniffs and a lick Ninja was deemed worthy to begin training. Training that would take more than a year and lead to the focused and determined dog that was now searching the snow for the missing skier. An animal with a nose thousands of time more sensitive than ours and indomitable spirit that will not let him quit.
At the scene of the avalanche time is on every single persons mind, raising even the most experienced professionals level of anxiety. Except Ninja. With no concept of the “golden hour” the young avalanche dog moved rapidly back and forth across the debris, ducking and weaving as every scent except the one he was looking for swirled around him. After several passes with no success his training kicked in and he stopped, turn to Sue, and sat. “Ninja, search!” she says with a flick of her arm. Assured that he is doing right he immediately resumes a pattern reminiscent of a bumblebee, his nose leading him. Within seconds Ninjas demeanor changes from “searching” to “found” and he starts frantically digging through snow that is setting up like concrete. Rescuers move in with probes and shovels, quickly finding a ski boot attached to the missing skier, nearly thirty inches under the surface. Resuscitation efforts begin and the skier is loaded into an air ambulance for the flight to the hospital, only time and circumstances to decide recovery. To the side Ninja is receiving his reward for doing his job – an exuberant game of tug with Sue, punctuated by loud praise and hearty body hugs.
The story is fiction, but the dog, the trainer, and the jobs they do are very real. Deer Valley ski area and its employees put great effort into being ready for a call to action like the one described. Here are some thoughts on how to approach and treat a working dog like Ninja.
- Always ask the handler before approaching the dog. When not busy they can often let the animals under their care meet new friends.
- Keep in mind they may be on their way to help someone or training. Now might not be the best moment for introductions.
- These animals are highly trained athletes and their diets are tailored for their work. Treats may harm the animal or impact its ability to perform when needed.
- Your ski edges will cut their paws and it can happen before you know it. If an Avi dog runs up to you try not to move around unless you are sure their legs and paws are clear of your skis. A good sniff and they usually bounce away.
- Give them nothing to do but train and lay in sunny warm spots. Be prepared when entering the backcountry, even within sight of the ski areas. Chose your days and your lines with care.
Day after day, the whole day through —
Wherever my road inclined —
Four-feet said, “I am coming with you!”
And trotted along behind.
– Excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “Four Feet”