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Frankie Goes to School
Frankie Goes to School
Little Cottonwood Canyon is known in snow safety circles as the “birthplace” of avalanche mitigation and control. Techniques developed here by snow safety experts to keep skiers, autos and buildings safe have become a model for mountain communities and resorts across the world. So, it is only fitting that the steep-walled canyon is home to some of the world’s best experts in avalanche avoidance, as well as the best search and rescue teams. And a favorite member of this team is not on two skis or a snowboard, but rather four paws.
Meet Frankie, a 6-year-old black labrador retriever. Along with his handler/member of Snowbird’s ski patrol, Margie Van Komen, Frankie has gained the highest level of certification for avalanche work within the Wasatch: a Level A certification. This means not only is Frankie qualified to search within a ski area property, but also the Wasatch backcountry and other surrounding areas.
Every state has their own certification qualifications, with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) having the most stringent testing in the U.S. On average, the process takes 18 months to two years to earn a Level A certification.
Frankie and Van Komen began with an obedience foundation and gradually built his drive to hunt and play. By test time, they were successfully able to find three people, each buried separately 3-5 feet below the snow surface, within 20 minutes!
How rare is this level of training and certification? “Frankie is just one of 25 Level A certified dogs with WBR,” says Van Komen. “He is also only one of seven certified by the state of Utah to search avalanche debris.”
Now that Frankie has reached a Level A certification, the training doesn’t end. “The training opportunities are endless at Snowbird,” says Van Komen.
“We can train all the time! Just walking through a crowd at Oktoberfest can present training opportunities. Fun is just as important, too!”
The main goal is to build a partnership so that when Van Komen asks Frankie to do some serious and potentially life-threatening work, he is ready to respond appropriately and with enthusiasm.
“Frankie is an integral part of operations here at Snowbird. Anytime we have a report of an avalanche, he and his fellow partners go and check it out, whether in the resort or out on the road.” Following closely in Frankie’s paw-prints is Gus: Snowbird’s 2-year-old labrador who recently earned his Level A certification with WBR.
Safety has always been and continues to be Snowbird’s top priority, something Van Komen stresses that each guest does the same.
“We are trained, and continue training to be there when things go wrong. But, making smart decisions and obeying posted signs is extremely important for all visitors.”
Van Komen is also quick to point out that while Frankie is a working dog, he is still, after all, a puppy. “When Frankie gets really excited, he will chomp his teeth together really loud. It’s super cute and funny. He also is quite a klutz, usually giving us a good laugh bouncing off something and then popping right back up, ready to go!”
About the Author
Nick Como escaped the skyscrapers of NYC for the tall peaks of the Wasatch. Climber, skier, canyoneer, mountain biker, and lover of food. Just don’t think of offering him pizza with pineapple on it.