Sunday, December 27, 2009

BC dogs

Monday Edit: There will be no Thursday post. Also, this just in: Mount Redoubt's back! ... maybe LINK
Nice and relaxxing long weekend with some good spring like skiing in town. Temps have been hovering around the freezing mark for over a week with some liquid percipitation as high as 2,000, or so has been reported. I never made it out this weekend.
I'm off to go groom what little snow is left, so here's an Op-ed published earlier this month.

Dogs love backcountry but need extra caution
By Out and About Dante Petri
The only sight more graceful than a skilled snowboarder or skier making turns down the side of a creamy white mountainside in the Turnagain Pass backcountry is perhaps their four-legged best friend, diving headfirst through the weightless powder behind them.
I love seeing dogs enjoying the snow as much as their master backcountry skiing, and if I had my own pup I'd like to bring him or her out there too,
Dogs on steep snow-covered slopes face the same dangers as humans though, and every now and then I can't help but think maybe a few dogs should have stayed home.
I was reminded of this last weekend snowboarding on a popular aspect in Turnagain Pass called Tincan.
Not too far from the top of a bowl run, I saw two skiers ahead of me, apparently enjoying the view over the steep south facing ridge that plummets almost 800 vertical feet or more to a valley bottom.
Then I realized one of the skiers kept shouting something into the abyss, realized the dog I'd seen with them earlier was nowhere to be seen.
The pup had, for whatever reason, headed over the ridge. This was just the beginning of a sad story I thought.
The dog was completely out of sight, and for all its owner knew, it could have launched an avalanche, tumbled over a rockface, become trapped in a glide crack or just said the heck with it, and run off into the wild.
Even as stable as avalanche conditions were, the slope was way too steep for the owner or his friend to venture down if the dog was hurt, and what's more, now they were stuck on a ridge above treeline waiting.
If they did have to go get the dog out of the valley it would have entailed skiing back down and then likely breaking trail a few miles up the valley.
Fortunately the weather couldn't have been nicer so there was no risk of exposure from standing around.
Happily for all involved as well, the Lab climbed back up over the crest of the ridge to his waiting owner and continued on to beat him to the summit, tail wagging the whole way.
I talked with Carl Skustad, the director and a forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center in Girdwood about dog safety in the backcountry Thursday.
Some of the dangers he highlighted for me were the same that this dog could have faced on its foray: triggering an avalanche or falling into a glide crack.
Others he mentioned included falling into tree wells, or even becoming entrapped in deep, loose snow.
Dogs face the same dangers as people up there, and if people can make mistakes with deadly consequences, it goes without saying that a dog with no knowledge of the hazards can as well.
To me, this dog's little trek highlighted almost everything that could go wrong with a pup in the backcountry, and avalanche conditions were pretty safe at the time.
In another scenario the ending to the story might have been different.
The dog's safety is certainly important, but dogs in the backcountry also raise safety concerns for other users.
As smart as they may be, the average pooch will be likely too tempted to wait up top for its master to make his or her way to a safe spot before following suit down the face.
It's not uncommon to see a skier and their dog making their way down a slope at the same time, a potentially hazardous practice.
In the worst case scenario, a dog may run out over a ready-to-pop slope or overhanging cornice and endanger people below.
Skustad said this is particularly a concern with bigger dogs, and that they have triggered avalanches that took out skiers and riders below them.
What happens if a dog launches a slide and buries itself and possibly friends or strangers?
Skustad told me he doesn't personally recommend harnessing a dog with a locator beacon since it won't be distinguishable from a person's who might be buried as well.
I'd have to agree with that, as much as we might love our dogs, if there's a person and a dog trapped in the same slide, the priority is obvious.
Some quick Internet research revealed that there are beacon systems that operate at different frequencies so searchers can look for people first, and dogs or gear second, but you can plan on spending for these systems.
Maybe that's a price worth paying though.
The bottom line is that there's absolutely an extra degree of caution dog owners should take when they bring a canine into the backcountry if they want to avoid tragedy.
The obvious is to evaluate conditions not only for skiing and riding, but also for the dog.
Is the terrain safe for a dog? Can the snowpack withstand an extra hundred pounds punching down through the layers? Is an aspect cratered with glide cracks or tree wells?
Those are just a few questions an owner should be asking before letting "Rex" jump into the back of the car with the waxed up planks.
Additionally, how well trained is the dog? Having a dog that follows the next person it meets, or runs off at the sight of a ptarmigan is a pup that needs a more training before it buries its snout into the face of a mountain.
Dante Petri can be reached at

1 comment:

Alaska Jack said...

Thanks for the op-ed from a dog-loving BC skier.