SANDPOINT, Idaho — The deadly avalanche on Silver Mountain was a traumatic event for the surrounding community. But for two North Idaho Labradors, it was a day they had been training for their entire lives.
The avalanche that swept down the 16-to-1 run near Wardner Peak killed three people and injured four on Jan. 7. It took crews three days to recover all people from the area.
The search for missing skiers sent dozens of search crews up the mountain sporting advanced technology to help in the search. But the most valuable tools proved to be Abbey and Annie, avalanche search and rescue dogs from Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint.
"[Their] job is to find people that are buried in avalanches when they don't have an avalanche rescue beacon on," Jeff Thompson, Director of the Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, said.
That is exactly what the two dogs did. Thompson said they helped alert crews to victims buried in the snow in the aftermath of the Silver Mountain avalanche.
To do that, the handlers let their dogs search about 30 feet ahead of them. They watch for cues signalling that the dogs found a scent.
"For these two, it's really a strong commitment to the dig," Thompson said. "When I get that look, I know that this is the spot."
Handlers knows their dogs' cues so well, because they've practiced hundreds of times. Abbey and Annie spend their days educating mountain skiers and practicing search and rescue drills.
Over the years, they have mastered the ability to sniff and dig out jackets and toys so that when a day like Jan. 7 comes around, they are prepared.
"They understood the severeness of the situation, and I could see that in their personality," Thompson said.
He said the goal is always to find victims alive, but that was not the case for the people Abbey and Annie sniffed out on Silver Mountain.
The teams combed the avalanche site for hours, sniffing for any traces of the missing skiers. Despite GPS, helicopters and other advanced technology, Abbey and Annie were still the most effective tools.