Photo by Adam Finkle
Because the unmitigated bummer of any ski season is avalanches, we interviewed a first responder who is on call when bad things happen to good skiers. Alta Ski Resort's Banjo is one of 30 avalanche dogs stationed on the Wasatch Front, trained to find snow-buried humans quickly and help dig them out.
Salt Lake magazine: Hi, Banjo (with a behind-the-ears scratch).
Banjo: (throaty whine)
Banjo’s handler: Banjo’s such a talker.
Banjo: Don’t patronize me . . . please.
SLM: So, how’d you become a member of the elite avalanche team?
Banjo: I auditioned as a pup—part of a litter of promising yellow labs. I remember the day well. We were introduced to Jonathan [Morgan, Banjo’s Ski Patrol partner] who produced this intriguing—mesmerizing really—piece of nylon strap. I don’t know why, but I just wanted to chomp on it and pull. All my mates found it great fun, too. But I just wouldn’t let go. Even when Jonathan swung me off the floor—I just chomped harder. I guess I’m a bit obsessive. Anyway, Jonathan made quite a fuss about my “high drive,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
SLM: Is an avalanche-dog’s training as rigorous as we’ve heard?
Banjo: Only if you think flying miles on those noisy, smelly whirly things, then jumping out the door with 10–15 minutes to smell a human through a few feet of snow is rigorous. Then, in between missions, I’ve got to be Prince Charming to any human, dog or cat who happens by. Frankly, the PR aspect of the job is the most wearing—never a doggy treat, let alone a go at the TUG TOY.
SLM: Didn’t you just do a fashion shoot for Sundance Catalog?
Banjo: Oh, that. I understand my human was paid well—but do you know there wasn’t even a GAME OF TUG in it for me. Same with this shoot, I suppose.
SLM: If I may ask, what are you worth?
Banjo: Embarrassing question—I suppose, with the training and all—$75,000. At 21 (dog years), I’m in my prime, with 49 years to retirement.
SLM: Have you ever, you know, dug some poor sap out of a real avalanche?
Banjo: Actually, no. It may be hard on the human ego, but that’s not what this is about. The real adrenaline rush is, well, this is a bit embarrassing—a GAME OF TUG! We dogs learn in training that if we find a smelly human under the snow, it will have a TUG TOY! We only get to play TUG if we sniff out a buried human. Do you have any idea, a glimmer, of the inexpressible joy there is in a GAME OF TUG? Impossible to explain to a human.
SLM: Er, we’ll definitely have to try it sometime.