By Yvonne Pesquera
Taos Ski Valley patrol dogs are cute, friendly and highly trained. It is the last point — their well-honed and expert skill set — that makes the team of canines so widely respected.
In January 2019, Jonathan Stuart, public relations manager for Taos Ski Valley, said three dogs were on patrol last season: Izzy, Ozlo and Saddie.
“Taos Ski Valley Patrol has been doing the training since the early 1980s. We have a sub-department that trains and handles the dogs. Additionally, patrol goes to avalanche dog schools to stay up-to-date with training techniques,” said Stuart.
There is no national certification for avalanche dogs, but Taos Ski Valley requires each of its dogs to earn in-house certification. The dogs have to complete training for one to two ski seasons before getting those credentials.
The dogs come primarily from breeders of hunting dogs and they join the team as puppies. The ski valley typically selects pups that are retriever-types and have a “high drive” to work.
“Their first year on the mountain, the dogs are slowly familiarized with the work environment, such as learning to load and ride on snowmobiles and chairlifts and in toboggans. From day one, obedience training is very important,” Stuart explained. In training, the dogs must demonstrate very good skills at listening to commands. When a dog has matured sufficiently, they begin specialized advanced avalanche training. This routine starts with simple hide-and-seek games and then moves into rehearsing drills for multiple buried victims.
Upgraded avalanche control
Avalanches are just a fact of ski life. To assist avalanche mitigation, this year Taos installed a Gazex Avalanche Mitigation System on Kachina Peak. Gazex is an avalanche mitigation system, which utilizes propane-ignited exploders. A mixture of propane and oxygen is piped to the exploders, which can be ignited by radio frequency. The system on Kachina Peak includes five exploders.
The detonation of the Gazex system produces only carbon dioxide and water stream, creating a gaseous shockwave capable of releasing an avalanche. Neither waste nor noxious gas is discharged into the environment during the process.
The previous method of avalanche control involved firing rounds of explosives from a long-range Avalauncher. That system is sometimes unreliable and causes prolonged lift closures. The Gazex system is more effective and safer.
The website, taosavalanchecenter.org, posts a daily “Hazard Rating” on snowpack conditions at various elevations around Taos Ski Valley, plus a map of avalanche sightings and links to other avalanche centers, and for educational presentations.
— Scott Gerdes contributed to this article.