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Dog of the Day

"King" of Mammoth Mountain

by Carie Broecker
Photos Courtesy of Eastside K9

dog on shoulders

You hear a loud rumble and look up to see the side of the snow-covered mountain moving; an enormous wave of snow and debris is rolling toward you, clearing everything in its path. You are swept away, you tumble, next you are in darkness, you can’t move, you can breathe --but for how long? Your best chance of survival is that you will be found within fifteen minutes. After that, your chances of survival diminish considerably with every passing minute. Time is of the essence.

How will anyone find you buried in a bank of snow? If you were wise, you are wearing a transmitter. If anyone in your ski party is able, they will turn their transceiver to receive mode and will begin to pick up an audible beep leading them to you, where they will hopefully be successful in digging you out in time. This is your best-case scenario.

If this avalanche occurred on Mammoth Mountain, and you are not wearing a transceiver or no one in your group is able to search for you, your next best chance of survival lies in the paws of King, a five-year-old Golden Retriever who has been training since puppyhood to save your life!

Sean Macedonio, King’s handler, has been with Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol since 1993. Mammoth Mountain did not have an avalanche dog program when Sean first started, although it is high on the list for potential avalanche danger. Neighboring ski resorts, Squaw Valley, Alpine, and Kirkwood all had rescue dog programs. Sean got permission to start a program for Mammoth Mountain, and in 2004 he began his search for Mammoth Mountain’s first avalanche dog.

Sean searched for a puppy with high prey drive that was eager to please and had lots of confidence. Sean’s search led him to King, an eight-week-old Golden Retriever puppy, whose father had also been an avalanche dog.

King’s training started immediately. Sean began by hiding a toy in a cardboard box, then hiding the toy in the snow, then hiding with the toy, and then hiding the toy with someone King had never met. For King, the game was (and still is) fun and simple – “find my toy!”

After two years of training, Sean and King attended an intensive weeklong training in Utah with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. Shortly after that, they were ready for their certification test called “validating.”  Sean and King were validated for the first time in 2007 and then again in 2009. The teams must get validated every two years.

On-going practice for Sean and King involves weekly scenarios set up with other members of the ski patrol. Sean and King arrive on the scene, and Sean must interview the “witnesses,” assess the situation, and work with King to find the “survivors.” The survivor in the mock scenario is hiding with King’s special toy that he only gets when he finds a survivor. King’s special toy is a “Lunker”, a foot-long, tube-shaped toy with a one-foot rope on the end. King goes wild for it!

When patrolling the mountain, Sean always has the Lunker with him. In a real disaster, once King alerts to a survivor, Sean would toss the Lunker in the area of the survivor so King can get his reward and then they would move along quickly to find the next survivor. Sean and King do not excavate the victims out of the snow pack. They must keep on the move to find the next victim. The rest of the rescue team handles the excavation.

Although there has not been an avalanche disaster at Mammoth Mountain since the avalanche dog program started, each season, once the snow falls, Sean and King are always on alert. Tragedy can strike at any time, and they must be ready to respond.

While patrolling the mountain, seventy-five-pound King either rides in a toboggan pulled by Sean, a snowmobile, snowcat, on the chairlift, or rides on Sean’s shoulders. King must conserve his energy for the search. King is also comfortable boarding and riding in a helicopter in case they need to be air-lifted to a search site.

Patrolling a whole mountain with no more than fifteen minutes to spare is a daunting task. Sean strategically chooses the area on the mountain where he and King will patrol, taking into account the history of the snow pack, isolated area snow releases, and his vast experience on the mountain. The ski patrol is always anticipating what might happen. Lives depend on it.

chief and Scott

At five-years-old, King will most likely work another three or four seasons before he is ready to retire. Fortunately, two years ago, King started mentoring Chief, a black Labrador Retriever, to become the ski patrol’s second avalanche dog. Chief and his handler, Scott Quirsfeld, will be ready to validate this year. In the next few years, Sean will find a new puppy to train so that when King retires there are still two dogs in the program. Next time you head out to ski Mammoth Mountain you can feel a bit more secure because King and Chief are on the job!

Sean founded Eastside K-9, a nonprofit organization, to raise funds for the avalanche dog program. If you would like to support Eastside K-9, please visit www.eastsidek-9.org.


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