It’s a chilly November afternoon in Summit County. In the scrubby, lakefront expanse of Windy Point Campground, puffs of breath rise visibly from a group of five dozen shivering bodies— half of them human. The other half: Canis lupus familiaris— dogs—of all different ages and breeds.
Lane Critser, a retired cop and dog handler, struts among the group and shouts instructions in the booming, authoritative tones of a veteran lawman, laying out plans for the day. It’s the first training session for this year’s members of the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment crew, or C-RAD, an organization of volunteer dog handlers, avalanche technicians and avalanche-rescue dogs who partner with Flight for Life and local sheriffs’ offices to operate some of the best avalanche search-and-rescue teams in Colorado. Excitement is in the air.
“We’re going to start with some basic runaway drills,” Critser tells the group. “We want to get the dogs familiar with the process before they ride on the chopper tomorrow.”
The mention of a chopper ride doesn’t faze this particular crop of Coloradans. Most of today’s trainees are professional ski patrollers, with years of experience in search-and-rescue, and many have participated in C-RAD before—some for just a few years, some for much longer. C-RAD requires a continual re-certification of skills, so even the true veterans, those with decades of know-how under their belts, must show up once a month throughout ski season to refresh their abilities.
The volunteers break into small teams, and the exercises begin. At its foundation, search-and-rescue dog training hinges on the “runaway,” a short exercise in which a dog uses scent to locate a hidden handler (called the quarry), earning a treat with each successful find. Most often, this treat consists of a round of “ragging”—tug-of-war with a short length of rope—a game meant to boost the dog’s hunt drive and instill a craving for more reward.
Critser, pulling on a baseball cap and lacing up a pair of black work boots, floats around and doles out pointers. After 20 years training police dogs, he’s able to identify even the subtlest flaws in handling technique. He singles out a man named Bill, a C-RAD newcomer, who’s having trouble getting his black Lab, Max, excited about the runaway drills.
“You’re not rewarding him quick enough,” Critser says. “When you reward immediately, it breeds into him the idea that finding live human scent is the best thing that can happen to him.”
Bill tries again, with more success.
“Better,” Critser says, “but your praise tone is too low. It sounds like a command tone. That’s going to confuse the dog. Try it again.”
To watch Critser instruct the handlers is to understand how deliberate and dedicated C-RAD expects its volunteers to be. Critser himself repeats to the group, at regular intervals, the reality of the situation: raising and training a rescue dog requires an enormous amount of time and energy. This brings up an obvious question. Why volunteer decent chunks of the ski season—time away from the slopes—to a program like C-RAD? Troy Booker, a scruffy, blue-eyed avalanche technician going into his 20th year at Breckenridge, says it’s all about community.
“We’re all skiers; we all love the sport. There’s a camaraderie within the community— an understanding that we help each other out,” he says. “As an avalanche technician, I’ve developed a set of skills that allow me to help in this specific way. So, of course, I want to put those skills to use.”
Doug Lesch, one of the organizers of this year’s C-RAD trainings, is particularly drawn to the sense of heritage and growth the organization provides.
“It’s this wonderful mix of new people with a lot of new energy and excitement, and then folks who have been doing it for years or decades with a ton of wisdom and expertise,” he says. “It’s an awesome combination between the two.”
As evening comes on in Windy Point Campground, Critser winds down the drills and congratulates everyone on a job well done. Over the course of the afternoon, a diversity of personalities, both canine and human, has emerged—something Critser heartily encourages.
“Some dogs are harder, more aggressive; some are softer. Same with you all,” he says. “That’s perfectly fine. Your energy goes down the leash to your dog. If you respond naturally and enthusiastically to the training, your dog is going to be comfortable and enthusiastic, too.”
As the group disperses, driving away into the dusk, a light snow starts to fall. There is more work to be done before this year’s CRAD crew is fit to deploy. But the volunteers, along with their canine counterparts, still have time before avalanche seasons begins. Tomorrow, the chopper rides. And soon, the real show, winter, when thousands of Coloradans will take to the slopes, protected—in case of the worst emergency—by a group of volunteers motivated by nothing more than a love of their sport, a commitment to their dogs and a desire to help.