When an avalanche happens, Tremper is there to save lives.
Scouring the side of the mountain, avalanche forecaster Andrew wasn’t sure of himself. Was he looking in the right direction? His dog, Tremper, would let him know.
The rescue duo was searching a steep slope for a skier who’d triggered an avalanche near Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Details were vague, and the search site was massive: over two football fields wide.
Suddenly, a sign: Tremper caught a scent of the skier buried 8 to 10 feet in the snow, twice the depth he trains for. The golden retriever’s head snapped down, tail helicoptered, and he started digging.
“He knew somebody was buried there,” Andrew says. “He has this nose to find somebody buried in 10 feet of snow … I mean, he’s totally a hero.”
Leading backcountry search and rescue
Tremper’s days are a mix of strength and knowhow, sprinkled with a dog’s intuition and a good old-fashioned tug-of-war game.
Five days a week, Tremper trains to save people buried in the snow. As a member of the Mt. Rose Avalanche Dogs search and rescue team, he patrols daily anywhere from 800 to 900 people skiing the Carson Mountain range, an offshoot of the Sierra Nevada. That’s double black diamond terrain; sought-after backcountry for skilled skiers pining for a mix of freshly fallen snow and steep alpine. And a prime spot for avalanches.
Tremper is part of a team of dogs raised to save lives. Avalanche-related deaths in the U.S. have risen substantially in the past 50 years, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, as skiers and snowmobilers with faster and lighter gear seek fresh, untouched slopes. The threat of avalanches doesn’t deter people from places like Mt. Rose, Andrew says. And that means Tremper must work harder to keep people safe.
“A lot of times, a dog is the best hope for finding a person buried in the snow,” Andrew says.
And when he finds what he’s looking for in a dog training exercise, Tremper gets his favorite reward: A game of tug-of-war with Andrew.
Raising a snow dog
“When I was looking for Tremper … I wanted a dog that could be at home with me,” Andrew says.
In 2011, Andrew began looking for his own search-and-rescue dog. The journey led him to Utah’s Point of the Mountain, where Tremper was born.
The 7-week-old puppy didn’t whine or run away when Andrew picked him up from a litter of pups. The two played with a ball, and the puppy got a belly rub. And on the long ride home, the pup sat in the passenger seat.
“I had him right next to me and made sure I let him know everything was as it should be,” Andrew says.
The next day, Tremper began the hard work needed to become a search-and-rescue dog. Andrew put a belt around his oversized ski patrol jacket, tucked Tremper inside, and zipped it up. The two rode the chairlift and skied a bit. The puppy would peek out from Andrew’s jacket, squint at the snow, and duck back into the jacket.
His confidence came with routine and training. Today, Tremper and Andrew have a unique bond as they patrol the mountain together, mitigating avalanche hazards. They put tremendous trust in each other: Tremper in Andrew to keep him safe, Andrew in Tremper to spring to action when called upon.
Tremper has become an ambassador for avalanche awareness, posing for pictures and drawing oohs and aahs as he rides the chairlift. Andrew even uses Tremper to help forecast avalanche conditions, seeing how the dog moves and whether snow is building up on his paws (an indicator of whether the snow is wetter or lighter than usual).
“I value that relationship between Tremper and me more than you know,” Andrew says. “I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t have Tremper.”
“There’s a level of completeness to being an avalanche forecaster who also has an avalanche dog capable of finding somebody. Also, just the amount of fun it is to have your best friend with you at work.”
Delivering harmony on the mountain
Tremper has two speeds: sleep and retrieve. Even when the snow is up to his chest, he leaps over it, chasing anything you can throw. Well, except a snowball. He won’t go for that. He can find a tennis ball or a wool sweater buried two or three feet deep in the snow.
Raised on the mountain, he’s 86 pounds of search-and-rescue-built muscle. And he’s handsome. With the classic golden retriever look, Tremper carries himself like a lion, sleeps like a bear, and seeks affection everywhere.
But even heroes have their routine.
Every morning, Tremper wakes up near Andrew’s bed, puts his head on Andrew’s chest, and waits for a belly rub. It’s a ritual that goes back to his early days, riding around in Andrew’s jacket.
“He needs to have his daily snuggles,” Andrew says.
But when Tremper gets his gear and heads out the door, he’s ready to lead the way.
“When he puts his vest on, it’s almost like a seriousness comes over him,” Andrew says. “I think he’s proud of himself. I can see pride in him.”
On the mountain, Tremper can get himself on the ski lift. When he runs down the mountain with Andrew on skis, he stays between Andrew’s legs. It’s a way to protect Tremper’s paws from getting cut by other skiers. Tremper doesn’t need much direction anymore. The search-and-rescue dog just knows what he’s supposed to do.
“It’s sort of like a harmony when we’re skiing down the mountain,” Andrew says.
Working his way home
At the end of the workday, Tremper and Andrew sweep the mountain together one last time.
“He knows it’s the end of the day,” Andrew says. “He gets to go on one more ski run.”
Tremper is tired, so Andrew takes off his leather glove and throws it to Tremper to carry down the mountain, the last job on the last run home. At home, Andrew takes off his ski boots, removes Tremper’s vest, and scratches and rubs him down. Tremper plays with a toy shark or monkey, eats salmon and yams, and watches ski movies. He loves to watch ski movies.
“I’ve always thought of avalanche dogs as heroes,” Andrew says. “But it takes the word hero from being sort of that superhero idea, and puts it into a real form. Tremper is a dog that can find people buried in the snow. That’s a hero, in my mind.”
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