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BARK dogs on alert for avalanche rescues at Snoqualmie Pass | Slideshow & Story

Looking for a buried body, a border collie named Tippy responded to the command of his handler, Aaron Opp.

“Search,” Opp told the dog. Tippy circled a mound of snow, loped upwind to catch a scent, then nosed into the snow to dig Opp’s fellow handler Kevin Marston out of his place of concealment.

Marston wasn’t lost in an avalanche — he was testing and reinforcing Tippy’s skills as an avalanche rescue dog. All told, the ‘rescue’ took less than a minute.

Marston and Opp work with Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K9s, or BARK. They are among nine on-call rescue teams that search for buried skiers and travelers at Snoqualmie Pass.

Handlers said they are impressed by their dog’s skills on the snow, every time.

“Some of our dogs can find people nine feet down,” Opp said.

Handlers work in tandem with dogs, bonding for life. Marston describes his connection with a young yellow Labrador named Greta as “super-tight.”

“She wants to be with me all the time,” he said. “She’s just starved for affection — and food.”

Greta lives with Marston and his family, and goes with him to work, both during the winter at Snoqualmie Pass and in the summer at his carpentry gig.

During training for rescues, Greta is all business. When Marston straps a red vest onto the dog’s back, she knows it’s time to go to work.

Marston issues key words, or commands, to his dog.

“It all begins with obedience,” he said. Handlers use consistent training, and their dogs learn fast.

Dog’s life

After Marston’s rescue, Opp rewarded Tippy with what she always craves: play time. He tossed a small handwarmer, and both Tippy and Greta raced after the scrap of fabric.

Training them from puppies, handlers seek dogs with huge drive and energy. Dogs can be motivated by play or treats, but Opp and Marston also include a healthy amount of praise and attention.

While Marston and Opp’s dogs have never rescued a real victim, they train constantly. To be certified, the dogs must pass a test, finding two people buried several feet deep, as well as two out of three items of clothing buried about a foot down.

“When you watch a Lab work, you can tell they have these great noses,” Opp said.

“These guys are more precise, a lot more methodical,” he added, pointing to the border collie. “They range better.”

Weather conditions determine how fast a dog can find its target. If the wind is roaring, it is harder for the dog to find a scent.

Cold, however, doesn’t faze the animals. Dogs usually sport a thick undercoat to survive cold temperatures. One handler’s family accidentally left his dog outside all night in zero degree weather. In the morning, the dog came inside, ate a little, and wanted back outside 10 minutes later.

“These dogs are really hardy,” Marston said. “They’re tough — they’re working dogs.”

BARK canines tend to be smaller in size. A 100-pound dog would tire quickly in the snow; smaller animals do better. Handlers can also carry smaller dogs by themselves, packing them on skis.

A typical rescue dog’s career lasts about 10 years.

Backcountry bombs

By day, the dog handlers work as avalanche controllers for the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Snoqualmie ski resorts. From their weather monitoring station at the summit, the forecasters predict snowfall on Snoqualmie Pass. As often as once a week during the winter, the teams pack explosive charges to the slopes surrounding Interstate 90 and the ski areas.

“We try to keep the highway safe and traffic flowing,” said avalanche forecaster John Stimberis.

At night, once highway traffic is halted, forecasters lower charges from the heights, or pedal explosives up the slope on lines via stationary bicycles mounted in small huts.

The bombs are a 28-pound pack of ammonium nitrate fuel oil, dubbed “ANFO” by pyrotechnicians.

“It’s relatively inexpensive,” Stimberis said. “A good bang for your buck.”

The explosives teams wear earplugs, and stay at a safe distance when the charge goes off. Air bursts maximize the effect, clearing a wide area.

When the controlled avalanche is over, state road crews clear the snow from the roadway and traffic resumes.

“For highway control, 99 percent of the time, we’re in a safe area,” Stimberis said.

Avalanche control in ski areas is a little different. Forecasters have less control over where the danger spots may be, but have more time to do clearing work. That’s because ski areas are only open for set hours, giving avalanche teams the nights and mornings to freely do their work.

“They don’t have that 24-7 demand that the highway does,” Stimberis said.

In the backcountry, avalanches are usually triggered by people.

Footsteps on the surface of snow can transmit to a weaker level, causing the entire snow structure to come down.

To be safe, snow enthusiasts need to be aware of conditions and stay out of areas closed due to avalanche danger.

“In the backcountry, you’re at your own risk,” Stimberis said. He urges skiers to visit the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center Web site, www.nwac.us, to learn the avalanche forecast for that day.

Busy place

Keeping Snoqualmie Pass open is huge job for the state.

Besides moving “millions and millions of dollars” in freight, Snoqualmie Pass serves as a vital link for medical care.

“It’s the main east-west artery in the Northwest,” said Mike Westbay, communication manager for WSDOT’s south central region, which includes Snoqualmie Pass.

In terms of travel, Monday is the busiest day on the pass, Tuesday the lightest.

WSDOT urges travelers to plan ahead and heed weather advisory warnings during the winter. Pass conditions can be viewed online at www.wsdot.wa.gov, by phone, and at readerboards over the Interstate.

As the the state works on new safety improvements at the pass, including a huge, six-lane snow shed, work by the forecasters, and potential rescues by BARK members, may change. But Stimberis said it won’t go away.

There will be more forecasting, less bomb setting, he predicts.

“It’ll be better for drivers,” Stimberis said.

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