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Gilpin County News - Eldora Mountain Resort

Eldora Mountain Resort has the best snow they've had in years. It is a skier's paradise. But these wonderful, layers upon layers of snow also bring the danger of avalanches.

A recent massive snowslide buried cars on Berthoud Pass. Fortunately the people in the car were found and rescued with only minor injuries.

Not all avalanche victims are that lucky. They aren't always found and aren't always rescued, but recovered. And tragic as it is to have someone die, buried in snow, the suffering is compounded when that person's body cannot be found.

On the Front Range, search and rescue dogs are often sent to the scene to find the victim, and now, the Eldora Mountain Resort Ski Patrol has their own dog and handler team. Sue Purvis and Tasha, her black Lab, are the cool new kids on the mountain block and are joining in the effort to educate people on avalanche safety.

Last Thursday, the Nederland Community Library and the family of Joe Despres sponsored a night with Sue and Tasha. Donations were accepted and will be put towards a scholarship for a Nederland High School student to attend the Eldora Ski Patrol Avalanche Course.

Sue's venture into the world of search and rescue came from her desire to stay home. It was 1995 and she and her husband were living in Crested Butte but commuting to the Caribbean for their work.

She figured if she had a dog, she would be forced to stick close to home. Once she made that decision, she drove to Denver, needing to find her dog immediately. The first litter she looked at consisted of 10 black Labs, five and a half weeks old.

"I did the puppy test, seeing which one would chase a toy, perk up when called, or come to me. Tasha seemed more aware of me, so I picked her."

Sue was not a hunter and wondered what she and Tasha could do together. One day, pondering the question, she looked up and saw the avalanche paths all over the mountains of Crested Butte and her quest began.

She got on line looking how to get hooked up with a avalanche training and found the statewide Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado. Gunnison County had never had a search dog and there was no one in the area who could train one.

So the woman who wanted a dog to keep her home hit the road for the next two years, seeking search and rescue dog members to help her train Tasha. She went from Aspen to Fort Collins, following the training trail, and loved it.

"We met people who have become my friends for life. Through my dog I have met the most incredible people."

When Tasha was eight weeks old, her training began with playing hide and seek. Sue became a victim and would run 30 feet down a hill, hit a hard right and lay down in the grass. Tasha cruised by, straight down the hill, past Sue and into the river.

The game was too hard for, she wasn't using her nose yet. But with time, instinct and smell set in and soon Sue was hiding farther away, increasing the distance up to two miles and a trail up to 24 hours old.

Search and rescue dogs are often called to avalanche sites a day or two after it occurred. Scenting a human under snow involves a complicated science, says Sue.

She explains that every minute the body sloughs off dead skin cells, thousands of them, covered with bacteria. Two-thirds of the cells land on the ground, carrying the unique scent of each of us. But they don't just sit where they land. Wind and environment move the skin cells away from where they landed.

"It is up to us to figure out where they came from. Tasha is certified in air scenting, tracking and water. As a team we have learned basic wilderness training."

A 200-pound person with a temperature of about 100 degrees puts out heat, even under snow. The heat comes to the surface and the wind moves the heat with the human scent. It is Tasha's job to find the scent patterns and pinpoint where it is coming from.

The amazing part of watching a search and rescue dog work, says Sue, is that the dog can tell the difference between the heat of a hundred volunteer searchers and the one that she is looking for.

It took 18 months to train Tasha for avalanche work and three years for wilderness work. A search and rescue dog team puts in many hours of volunteer time and many dollars into their training and expenses. It is a huge dedication.

Once Tasha was trained, Sue and her husband moved to Boulder so he could be closer to DIA. Sue became part of the first Avalanche Deployment Team, which has the abilities to helicopter her and Tasha and an avalanche technician to the avalanche site.

Sue's background included being on the ski patrol at Crested Butte and when she called the Eldora Ski Patrol and said she wanted to work for them, they hired Tasha. Eldora welcomed them with warm, open arms.

"This is huge," says Ed LaBlanc, director of Eldora Ski Patrol. "It is such an asset to have Sue and Tasha and to be able to get to an avalanche so quickly." Sue says once they arrive at the site, the first thing the team does is to evaluate the hazard, the risk to any volunteers, to themselves. Once Tasha is ready, Sue says 'Search,' and the 11-year-old Lab goes to work. First she grids the area, covers the whole avalanche field. Sue watches for signs of interest, alert and indication.

The dog's body behavior, a snap of the head, a change in the angle of the tail, will tell Sue that Tasha is honing in on a scent. If she begins digging or barking, or both, Sue know she has found something and the avalanche team will dig at the spot.

Search and Rescue Dogs are especially helpful on low visibility days. They can see and find things when humans can't and they guide searchers by barking.

With the Rapid Deployment Team in place, there is more hope for finding people alive, says Sue.

"Dogs are a powerful tool and they are still underutilized. When there is an avalanche dogs should be called immediately, contamination at the scene decreases the efficiency of the search." Sue and Tasha train with the Front Range Rescue Dogs.

Sue and Tasha travel around the West, teaching avalanche canine courses. They practice being dropped off in helicopters, finding buried cars with people in it. She says that what happened in Berthoud Pass is exactly what she and Tasha are trained for.

Eldora Ski Patrol is holding two avalanche I courses and is raising money to send a high school student to the course, to learn about the science of snow and weather and to change their lives.

That Eldora is having this avalanche school is great, says Sue, it is a beautiful program. "It gets the local kids excited about what's in their backyard. It is an awesome opportunity and our job is to get people excited about avalanche education."

In June of 2003, Sue and Tasha received a Congressional Tribute from Scott McInnis of the Colorado House of Representatives for their work.

Sue's presentation was appreciated by the adults, but Tasha was the star of the evening as she mingled with the children and welcomed their hugs and ear rubs.

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