The Adventurers: Mountain rescue dog handler Michelle French

French, Lida and Carson stand ready to assist.
Photo: Wade Vandervort

Sure, Las Vegas is home to some of the most stunning interior spaces in the world. But we’re not just a city of indoor folk who commute between desk, couch and casino. We’re also a city of outdoor adventurers. Meet six Southern Nevadans who explore the wild places beyond the edges of suburbia. They climb to mountainous heights, paddle down the Colorado River, overcome their fears and push physical limits. Each confronts the sublime in a unique way—and hopefully compels the rest of us to discover our own adventures.

In case of avalanche, you’ve got a 90 percent chance of survival if you’re found within 15 minutes. Odds plummet to around 30 percent if the search extends to 30 minutes. Humans aren’t particularly adept at finding people buried in the snow—but dogs are.

In 2005, 13-year-old Allen Brett Hutchison was swept from the ski lift during an avalanche on Lee Canyon. The boy’s death deeply affected Michelle French, who’d assisted with the search. “I said to myself, ‘Damn, I live up here, I should have a dog.’ It might never happen again, but at least you have one more tool that’s readily available.”

Michelle and her husband, Greg, created nonprofit organization Bristlecone Avalanche Rescue K9’s (B.A.R.K.) to help fund the rescue dog program they’re building at Mount Charleston. They’re training two American Field Labradors: Lida and Carson, each named after Nevada cities.

“Labrador puppies can be a handful,” Michelle says. “You need that energy and that drive. You can’t have a lazy dog as an avalanche rescue dog.”

After retiring from running a repossession business in 2010, Michelle had planned to ride a bicycle across the country. Instead, she became Lee Canyon’s ski patrol manager. “It’s a hell of a retirement job, but it’s fun.”

Michelle takes Lida on daily hikes and bike rides. They play hide and seek and practice focus amid distraction. In the winter, she digs snow caves and buries (willing) participants and personal items for Lida to find.

“[On the ski lift], by the third tower up, Lida is singing, because she knows we’re going to do something.” On the way down, Michelle skis with Lida between her legs or on her back.

Lida goes to the ski resort every day it’s open in winter. And the little girls in ski school love her. “To some degree she’s sort of a mascot. I try not to push that so much. I want people to know that the dogs are there for a reason.”

For more information or to donate, go to barkleecanyon.com.

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