Nine-week-old yellow Lab puppy Pika lies curled up next to the fire at the Hi Camp Ski Patrol Station at the top of Prospect Bowl, taking refuge from Tuesday's storm. She has on a red training harness and a Telski issued name tag. Pika's eyes open and close as she drifts in and out of sleep. The puppy has had a busy 10 days adjusting to life on the mountain as the newest addition to the Telluride Ski Patrol team.
Owner and handler Karl Welter drove up to Bear Creek Labs in Craig less than two weeks ago to fetch the newest member of the pack. Welter has been a member of Telluride Ski Patrol for over 14 years. Outside of the hunting dogs Welter had growing up in Wisconsin, Pika is the patroller's first dog.
"This year, she will experience all these places and all the people around her, like the snowmobile, chairlift and the gondola, and the ski mountain in the snow," said Welter.
There are currently five certified Telluride avalanche dogs working with ski patrol on the mountain. The dogs receive their ultimate certification from the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment Organization (C-rad). The pack includes Mona, Lady Bee, Sadie, Stella, Quill and Gretchen. Veteran yellow Lab Wiley retired last year.
Each dog goes through extensive training. Welter explained it will be a couple of years before Pika is a certified avalanche dog. On average, dogs are certified after their second year of training. Gretchen, a two-and-half-year-old yellow Lab from the same breeder as Pika, was certified on Feb. 4.
"Avalanche dogs play a key role in guest and employee safety. While we take drastic measures in avalanche mitigation, in the rare case that an employee or a guest gets caught in an avalanche, our dogs can reduce search times and save lives," said Patrick Latcham, Telski’s vice president of sales and marketing.
Gretchen's handler, Sam Schlepphorst, said having a dog on the mountain changed his job quite a bit.
"There's a lot of responsibility that comes with bringing a dog up here. It's dangerous for them to be around all the skiers, snowcats, chairlifts and snowmobiles. I think that probably my favorite thing about it is getting out of the shack and doing these trainings, where I'm able to get her on human-sent … and watching the progression that's taken place in the last two years," Schlepphorst said.
Gretchen and the other dogs have already let Pika know she’s the rookie of the pack. However, Schlepphorst referred to Pika as a "firecracker," so she’ll be able to hold her own when she weighs more than 15 pounds.
Although Pika and Gretchen are from the same breeder, they are not from the same bloodline. In Pika's litter, there were three boys and two girls. Welter knew he wanted a female, as males tend to have dominance issues. He conducted "aptitude tests" on the two girls. One test included picking up the puppy and seeing how long it took for the puppy to try and escape the handler's grasp.
"You want them to be kind of right in the middle between dominant and submissive … if they are a little more submissive, they're just going to sit there in your arms and look around. And if they're a little more dominant and they don't like it, they'll squirm. So, after five or 10 seconds and they're squirming, this means they are going to push back against some of your obedience training," Welter said.
Even as a puppy, Pika is clearly curious and intelligent. When Welter was playing with Pika and her littermates, Pika attentively chased after a tennis ball and actively responded when called to by Welter.
Welter and his partner decided on the name Pika after the small rodent-like mammals that can be tamed but not kept as pets. Pikas can be found across Colorado and throughout the San Juans in mountain meadows. Welter emphasized that a dog's name, especially a rescue dog's, needs to be high pitched, with crisp syllables, so that the name can carry through harsh mountain air and conditions.
The name Pika is also in reference to the initials PI, for Peter Inglis, a patroller and legendary Telluride skier who passed away in 2015.
"Many of our avy dogs are named for legacy patrollers and for locals. Mona was a patroller, and Bee is an influential local woman," Welter added.
The dogs are a part of the Telluride Avalanche Dogs (TAD) organization. A nonprofit started by Kim and Gary Richard and other patrollers in 2012, TAD helps pay for vet bills, training opportunities and dog food.
Throughout her career, Pika will continuously train one on one with Welter. The puppy has a long way to go and big shoes to fill, but Welter is confident Pika is up to the challenge.