DOG DAYS

The hows, wheres, and whys of ski­ing with your dog.

SKI - - CLINIC - Free­lance writer Erme Catino grew up ski­ing on the East Coast but suc­cumbed to the lure of Utah’s Wasatch Moun­tains five years ago. He set­tled in Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon, where he lives with his wife and their Ber­nese Moun­tain Dog, Mans­field.

DOG SAFETY

First, a dis­claimer of sorts: While Kicker and Gru don't have back­coun­try train­ing as you'd see with pa­trol dogs, their own­ers are ex­pe­ri­enced back­coun­try skiers with avy safety train­ing. The dogs have been well trained off snow and have had count­less ex­pe­ri­ences on snow with their own­ers in prepa­ra­tion for this story.

Speak­ing of train­ing, dogs should mas­ter ba­sic com­mands, in­clud­ing sit, stay, heel, walk, and come, be­fore go­ing into the back­coun­try. Un­trained dogs can get too ex­cited jump­ing to­wards their owner while in mo­tion on skis, and the sharp edges of skis or boards are the big­gest threat to a dog's safety. If pos­si­ble, al­ways ski with a part­ner. Hav­ing some­one to stay back and keep the dog under control while the other skis is help­ful. Tune into your dog's cues; they can tire eas­ily in the cold and at al­ti­tude. Keep the dog's paws free of ice and snow. Use a chest har­ness so you can help them out of sticky sit­u­a­tions more eas­ily and with­out hav­ing to tug at the neck. It may seem ob­vi­ous, but pick up your dog's poop. And fi­nally, be pre­pared to leave your ca­nine com­pan­ion at home. Some­times the stars don't align, and your dog will be safer—and hap­pier—to lay by the fire.

TRIP PLAN­NING

The Win­ter­tux Chalet is just 50 miles north of Ketchum, Idaho, in Sawtooth National For­est. It's open year-round; win­ter ac­cess is by snow­mo­bile, snow­shoe­ing, or skin­ning. Back­coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence is re­quired. The three-story hut is 1,200 square feet with one big bed­room up­stairs, a fully stocked kitchen, and a com­fort­able liv­ing area with a wood­stove. The chalet sleeps 10 com­fort­ably, with a max­i­mum of two dogs with an added fee. Nightly rates are $375 per night (two-night min­i­mum); weekly rate is $2,500. Find more info at win­ter­tux.com.

full view; one could eas­ily ski sev­eral slopes and con­nect ad­join­ing val­leys with­out hav­ing to cross a track or ski the same slope twice. After a cou­ple jaunts back and forth try­ing to gain a per­spec­tive into the cirque, I’m able to find a sneaky en­trance onto the broad alpine face. Through­out the up­per reaches of these moun­tains, mini-spines flank the rock fea­tures. Caked in snow—a prod­uct of the sea­son’s deep snow­pack—they are primed for ski­ing.

I ski-cut the up­per sec­tion of the slope be­fore en­ter­ing the high ramp and arc­ing into the bowl. Bascetta fol­lows suit, and we then roll over the first alpine bench into the sub-alpine, ski­ing fast whipped-cream pow­der be­fore the fi­nal pitch, after which the snow turns to chow­der. It's a wor­thy run, but be­fore cel­e­brat­ing we have to con­tour around the for­est and ne­go­ti­ate the stream cross­ing—re­turn­ing to our up-track seems more rea­son­able than break­ing trail in the lower-el­e­va­tion manky snow. How­ever, spring’s early surge is re­treat­ing. Dark clouds ap­proach, and it seems our cold storm is fi­nally brew­ing.

The highly an­tic­i­pated cool down and squalls of snow dis­si­pate through­out the night under a clear Milky Way-lit sky. Muse yelps “stars!” after the 5 a.m. alarm awak­ens the cabin’s skiers and mutts. Kicker and Gru scam­per up­stairs. Tails wag­ging, wool socks hang­ing out of their mouths, they sense the ex­cite­ment. (One quickly learns that a con­se­quence of ski­ing with dogs is an on­go­ing scav­enger hunt for ran­dom ar­ti­cles of soft cloth­ing.)

Skin­ning away from the warm and cozy con­fines of the hut, our head­lamps bob and glow as the star-lit sky fades into the early morn­ing. Kicker is jacked up, and be­gins bound­ing ahead with me. Upon reach­ing the first meadow above the cabin he be­gins to growl. The prior day Bascetta and I had seen var­i­ous wildlife tracks. Per­haps it was spring’s early ar­rival. Ei­ther way Kicker’s growl stops me in my tracks. I call him to heel at my side and calm him down, and I scan the scene. There’s noth­ing as quiet and still and breath­lessly in­spir­ing as the early morn­ing wilder­ness. It’s why we do what we do. With a few fox tracks and scat in sight, it seems be­nign, and I con­tinue skin­ning while Kicker, tail wag­ging, cir­cles back to Muse.

We re­turn to the knoll from ear­lier in the week, where four inches of snow sit atop a crust on the north, and a

break­able crust on the south—which we fig­ure will soften after sun­rise. Set­ting the skin­ner back up the ridge and even­tu­ally switch­ing to boot pack­ing, we cut our­selves an en­trance up a small cor­nice and have a sum­mit party with the pups. The sun has just risen, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the gor­geous Sawtooth National For­est and Smoky and Boul­der moun­tains—alpine peaks with sparsely treed bowls loom­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion, just beg­ging to be skied.

Within a cou­ple min­utes Gru and Kicker are launch­ing off the cor­nice onto the slope below. Chas­ing with spi­ral­ing tails, they leap after their com­pan­ions. Muse opens up the line with Kicker, set­tling into the trees half­way down the crux for the rest of us to catch up.

Clouds are fil­ter­ing in and out, but with a win­dow of light, I punch it down the cen­ter to the flats and then down the next steep pitch that car­ries me to Beaver Creek. The south­fac­ing line falls away below the hori­zon with a con­sis­tent pitch. The sun has warmed the un­der­lin­ing crust mak­ing for smooth turns, each one peel­ing a bit of di­a­mond dust off the sur­face. It isn’t the deep­est snow, but just enough to make the ski­ing feel like win­ter again.

As the sun be­gins warm­ing the snow, the spring weather is again bat­tling win­ter’s grip upon the moun­tains. No one seems to mind the sud­den deep chill in the Sawtooth’s most mem­o­rable win­ter to date. Es­pe­cially the dogs, who, like us, played all day in the snow, brack­eted by sleep­ing like bricks in this beautiful moun­tain cabin—with­out a care in the world, ex­cept maybe where to hide some socks and slip­pers.

Who can re­sist a face like that? Gru knows that his owner, Asel­tine, can­not. Bot­tom: The two revel in great pow­der con­di­tions dur­ing their Win­ter­tux ad­ven­ture.

Clockwise from left: Kicker is right at home on the sled; Asel­tine and Gru get after it in Sawtooth National For­est; the fu­ture is bright for ad­ven­ture dogs Kicker and Gru; Muse gets air time, Kicker ap­proves; Win­ter­tux is so­lar-pow­ered thanks to Goal...

The Win­ter­tux hut is open year-round, ac­cessed by high-clear­ance ve­hi­cles or ATVs in the sum­mer and skis or snow­mo­biles in the win­ter. Right: Two very good boys.

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