Snow dogs |

Snow dogs

❱❱ Jill Beathard | Snowmass Sun
Odin and Hatchet, two Snowmass ski patrol avalanche dogs, take a break from work and play in the snow Tuesday.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Some acts of generosity go unseen. Some manifest themselves in living, even furry, ways.

Bill Portner has been visiting Aspen/Snowmass since 1962, when East Coast ski resorts were having a tough snow year and his father decided to take the family out West. Since then, Bill has frequented Snowmass, teaching his wife Kathryn and their kids and now grandkids how to ski here. Though spending most of their time in Naples, Florida, or Naples, Maine, the family also owns a condo at Timbers.

When Aspen Skiing Co. started offering first tracks (when skiers can take the lift up for one run before the slopes open to the general public), the Portners made it an annual tradition. Through first tracks, they met ski instructors like Ed Petrosius, who four years ago made a small request of them that turned into something much bigger.

Petrosius mentioned to Bill and Kathryn that Snowmass ski patroller Nathan Garfield had just lost his dog, not only a beloved pet but also a search-and-rescue trained patrol dog. Petrosius told the Portners that some Skico employees were taking up a collection to help Garfield buy a new dog.

“I turn to my wife — because I don’t do anything without talking to her — and I say, ‘how much does a dog cost? Can’t we just buy the dog instead of them trying to collect $5 here, $10 there,’” said Portner, a self-avowed dog person himself, in a phone interview last week.

Garfield said at first he wasn’t sure about accepting the donation from Portner. But Portner wrote a check, gave it to Petrosius and said for him to give it to Garfield.

“Then I got to know them better and learned how generous and genuine they really are,” Garfield said.

So Garfield picked out a black Lab puppy, and because Portner asked that he name the dog after his parents, Grace and Jay, Garfield named his new companion Gray.

If the story ended there, it would still be a remarkably generous gift. But last year, two other patrollers became interested in having dogs, and once again, the Portners stepped up.

“I’m not into just buying people dogs,” said Portner, who added he knows what it’s like “to get in trouble” because he once triggered an avalanche while skiing with his father in Zermatt. “I was interested in maintaining safety and the professionalism of our ski patrol.”

Safety first

Dogs help ski patrollers do their jobs mainly by aiding in search and rescue. Using their sense of smell, they can find someone buried by an avalanche, and they are trained to then start digging that person out.

Ski patrol dogs go through different levels of certification, starting with obedience and then basic and advanced search and rescue, Garfield said. But the owners undergo all that training with their dogs and reinforce it through a number of drills and games.

“They probably think they’re just playing,” said patroller Colin Mabbett, who owns Hatchet, the youngest Snowmass patrol dog at just 5 months.

The Snowmass ski patrol has dug a small cave in a snowbank above the Big Burn chairlift where they can bury someone (on Tuesday, that was this reporter) for a dog to find. They release the animal downwind of the cave, and the dogs will spread out in a cone shape, eventually narrowing in on where the smell is coming from and digging.

For training purposes, the person in the cave holds an old sweater that the dog then gets to play tug with as its reward. It’s supposed to mimic the action a canine would take if it had successfully hunted something.

Patrol dogs get picked for certain traits. Mabbett said a breeder “almost designed my dog for us,” as Hatchet is a mix similar to one of the older patrol dogs in Snomwass. Gray and 9-month-old Odin are labs, which is helpful since the avalanche rescue training is similar to retrieving, Garfield said.

Furry friends

The Snowmass patrol dogs don’t have to do a lot of real-life rescues, which is a good thing, Garfield said. Their other primary purpose is essentially public relations. Unlike some working dogs, the Snowmass patrol dogs can interact with people just like any other pet (except for when they’re training, working or loading on a chairlift).

“My dog’s very social — sometimes almost too social,” said Mabbett, who added that he gets stopped in the street by people who recognize Hatchet. “He’s famous.”

That’s particularly helpful when patrollers are talking to kids or school groups.

“It gives us an in with the kids to talk about avalanche safety and boundary rules,” he said.

The patrollers are truly the dogs’ owners: They feed them, care for them and train them, and if a patroller were to leave, the dog would go with them. But the patrollers do get help caring for the dogs: Skico provides them with a stipend, Natural Balance donates dog food, and the Aspen Animal Hospital provides veterinary care through a trade agreement with Skico.

That also means that the Portner family has gotten to maintain a relationship with the dogs. They were in Snowmass just a couple of weeks ago, and Bill got to bring one of his granddaughters up to meet the new puppies.

“They’re really into dogs themselves,” said Emily Casebeer, who owns Odin. “They call them their grand-dogs.”

The Portners never wanted recognition for their donation, even though they’ve sponsored three of the now five patrol dogs on Snowmass. Bill said the patrollers are the ones who deserve any credit.

“I don’t think the general skiing population has any idea how hardworking the ski patrollers are,” Portner said. “They help you, they protect you, they get you off the mountain when you’re hurt. … This is just a way of us giving a little bit back.”


See more