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Mt. Bachelor introduces new avalanche rescue dog

MT. BACHELOR — The most popular visitor at the Mt. Bachelor ski area west of Bend this winter might be Shasta, a 10-week-old golden retriever training to become the resort’s next avalanche rescue dog.

For the past two weeks, skiers and snowboarders have enjoyed seeing Shasta get familiar with the mountain.

Shasta’s handler, Drew Clendenen, a ski patroller at Mt. Bachelor for the past nine years, walks her around the resort’s base area and takes her on snowmobile rides. Soon she will learn to ride a chairlift, Clendenen said.

By next winter, Shasta will be trained to find someone trapped under the snow.

“The end goal is you have a dog that uses its nose to smell someone that could be 10 feet in the ground,” Clendenen said.

Shasta is the 16th dog to join Mt. Bachelor’s Avalanche Rescue Dog Program, which started in the mid-1990s. Shasta joins three other rescue dogs in the program — two 8-year-old golden retrievers, Mango and Banyan, and a 9-year-old black Lab, Riggins.

Betsy Norsen, director of mountain operations at Mt. Bachelor, said golden retrievers and Labs make some of the best avalanche rescue dogs because they are agile and have a strong drive. Finding a person under the snow is fun for the dogs, and they are rewarded with a treat or toy when they accomplish the goal, Norsen said.

“They are actually better at traveling over avalanche terrain than humans on skis,” Norsen said.

The ski patrol staffers call the dogs their backup insurance plan. Typically, two dogs are at the mountain each day, but are hardly ever used for rescues since avalanches are rare at Mt. Bachelor, Norsen said.

For example, Riggins has been a part of two rescues in his 9-year career, called upon to confirm nobody was trapped under a slab of snow.

Mostly, the rescue dogs spend their days training with their handlers and doing demonstrations for school groups and the resort’s periodic safety awareness presentations.

“We keep them here just in case,” Norsen said.

Mt. Bachelor has an avalanche reduction plan that keeps terrain closed in dangerous conditions and has staff use explosives to jar loose snow on a slope. The prevention dramatically limits the amount of avalanches at the ski area, Norsen said.

Outside of the ski area, avalanches are common in backcountry terrain across the region, according to Kevin Grove, a board member for the Central Oregon Avalanche Center, which studies and forecasts avalanches.

Avalanches in Central Oregon are directly related to major winter storms, Grove said.

Earlier this month, a string of winter storms led to about six reports of incidents involving sliding snow, Grove said.

“When we see big storms where we were getting considerable amounts of snow in short periods of time and considerable amounts of wind, there tends to be avalanches occurring within those storm layers,” Grove said.

While incidents have been minor in Central Oregon, this winter is the deadliest avalanche season across the nation since the early 1900s, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

So far, 29 people have died in avalanches nationwide, including 14 within the first week of February, the center reported. That is an increase from 23 deaths reported last winter.

Most of the deaths are being reported in Utah, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, where snowpack has been weak, Grove said.

“Across the U.S., the avalanche hazard has been quite high all season long,” Grove said. “There have been some persistent weak layers down at the ground that have been producing avalanches.”

The danger of avalanches is a constant motivation to train rescue dogs like Shasta.

Clendenen, who named the puppy after Mount Shasta in Northern California where he started his ski patrol career 11 years ago, said Shasta will be sent to an avalanche dog training program at Stevens Pass Ski Resort in Washington.

Shasta, who came from a breeder in Ellensburg, Washington, will learn how to sense a human is stuck under the snow and signal to the ski patrol to start digging for the person. A successful rescue means getting a treat or toy.

“The dog is going to alert us by digging or barking,” Clendenen said. “It’s all about a game.”

Shasta the puppy explores in the snow while spending time with her handler, Drew Clendenen, and fellow avalanche rescue dog Riggins at Mt. Bachelor on Friday. Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin