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Purgatory Resort welcomes young pup to ski patrol

Ember, an 8-week-old black Lab, begins avalanche search and rescue dog training
Ember, an 8-week-old black Lab, is the newest member of Purgatory Resort’s ski patrol. (Christian Ridings/Purgatory Resort)

Purgatory Resort is welcoming a new member to its ski patrol team.

Ember, an 8-week-old black Labrador retriever, will join Purgatory Resort’s avalanche search and rescue team to help keep winter visitors at Purgatory and the surrounding San Juan Mountains safe.

“Speed is critical in avalanche rescues, with victims having little chance of survival if they are buried for 30 minutes or more,” said Blayne Woods, Purgatory ski patrol director, EMT-IV and Ember’s handler. “In five or 10 minutes, a trained avalanche dog can search an area the size of a football field. By contrast, it would take a person about 4 hours to search the same area. Since chances of survival in an avalanche burial drop after 15 minutes, a trained dog team can be the difference between life and death. For a skier trapped on a snowy mountain, an avy dog is your best friend.”

Ember is owned by Bristlecone Avalanche Rescue K9s (BARK), a 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation formed in 2016 to train and support working or retired avalanche rescue dogs. BARK is based at Purgatory Resort with dogs Lida, Carson and new pup Ember.

Avalanche dog handlers like Woods are typically search and rescue members with extensive first aid and backcountry skills, including avalanche coursework and certifications.

Ember and her handler, Purgatory patrol director and EMT Blayne Woods, get set to begin training in the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment validation protocol for certifying rescue dog teams. (Christian Ridings/Purgatory Resort)

Ember and Woods will train as a team, following the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD) validation protocol for certifying rescue dogs. Full avalanche rescue certification typically takes two to three years from puppyhood and includes both the dog and the handler. A validated team – one that can be used and trusted in rescues – must be able to find two buried human victims and two buried articles of clothing or gear in 40 minutes.

Ember will spend her first year learning basic obedience, travel techniques with a skier, loading and unloading from a chairlift, riding on snowmobiles and in snowcats. She’ll also practice drills from basic hide and seek, to finding “victims” buried in snow caves and article searches. Starting this fall, Woods and Ember will travel to Summit County to attend a series of C-RAD training courses.

Avalanches occur in the high mountains of Colorado as the result of snow accumulating on steep slopes. If the snowpack becomes unstable, it can suddenly release and rapidly descend downslope with enough force to destroy structures and uproot or snap off large trees. With steep slopes, lots of snow and highly fluctuating temperatures, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains have some of the most complex avalanche terrain and snowpack conditions in the U.S.

“We are stoked to welcome Ember to our dedicated team of ski patrol professionals,” said Jim Brantley, director of mountain ops. “Helping people enjoy our mountain safely is our primary objective. People love dogs, and avy dogs help raise awareness of the numerous hazards involved with traveling in avalanche terrain. We are proud to partner with BARK and we are grateful to them for providing rescue dogs to help our patrollers work more effectively.”

Purgatory’s Snow Safety Program operates throughout the winter season. Purgatory’s ski patrol is trained in avalanche safety and performs avalanche forecasting and control work on a regular basis, as well as monitoring hazards and protection measures. Outside the eastern boundary of Purgatory Resort, ski patrol manages several avalanche starting zones in the Monkey Brains, Monkey Gully, Monkey Launch Chutes, Sun Dog, and Columbine Gully areas. The resort said it’s critical that skiers and riders respect ski area boundaries and avalanche closure areas.

For current forecast and avalanche danger ratings, visit https://avalanche.state.co.us/.

For more information about BARK, visit barkleecanyon.com.