Rising over 11,000 feet in 15 miles, there lies a peak in California near the infamous Badwater Basin, the lowest (and hottest) elevation in the United States.
Telescope peak, named for its expansive views that stretch over 100 miles in certain directions, towers over the rest of Death Valley National Park.
Some years ago, Grand Targhee Resort ski patroller Dan Nagy summited the arduous, demanding journey through scree fields and switchbacks.
It was an experience that stuck with him so much that it would become the name for his first companion, Tele.
“I just got her as a dog, to get a dog,” said Nagy.
Growing up, Nagy never had a permanent home. The son of an oil company employee, Nagy lived in and out of the United States, eventually settling in California while pursuing a geology degree at the University of California Santa Cruz.
During his time bouncing around the west coast, Nagy would meet many outdoor-minded folks, eventually inspiring a similar passion in himself. He got his first crack at ski patrolling at South Lake Tahoe ski resort Sierra at Tahoe.
“Sick of 200-inch winters,” Nagy eventually came across Teton Valley in his travels and decided it was where he wanted to be. Fast forward to the present, and Nagy finds himself as one of the lead bike patrol directors and a lead snow safety forecaster at GTR.
Both in the winter and the summer, Nagy is seldom found without his companion Tele right by his side through all his outdoor pursuits. Tele was picked up as a pup from a shelter in Lander, WY by Nagy and his wife.
Outside of the job, Tele will go trail running and mountain biking, climbing, and downhill skiing with Nagy. She can even scramble class four and easy class five as demonstrated on a summit climb of Mt Borah, Idaho’s tallest peak last year.
Once described as an “Avy Squirrel,” Tele has now been on the GTK9 team for 4 years.
“Tele ended up being the perfect size and perfect disposition,” said Nagy. “She’s not quite as maniacally focused as the other dogs on searching, but she’s such a really well-rounded dog and she’s (still) a really good search dog.”
Tele occupies a middle-of-the-pack role in the GTK9 team, smaller than some other dogs but also self-confident enough to give new recruits some tough love.
“I think all the dogs really enjoy her. They like to get along with her, but she’s also the littlest dog. She asserts herself, but she definitely knows that she’s not the dog at the top. But if there’s a new puppy, she’ll try to put them in their place,” said Nagy.
The GTK9 program is a separate non-profit from the resort and is not directly affiliated with GTR. That separation offers decreased notoriety and gives the team more freedom.
“We feel really fortunate. We somewhat intentionally try to keep ourselves like one degree removed from the resort so that we don’t ever have to have like this dog and pony show or anything,” said Nagy.
Instead of relying on resort funding, GTK9 is supported by various donors. Costs for food, health insurance for the dogs, training, equipment for the dogs, and vet visits are paid with those donations. Any extra funds get carried over for future needs or used for additional training.
To become a certified avalanche dog, a rigorous process ensues.
Before a dog can even begin training, a patroller needs to have mentored an experienced handler for a year. From there, a patroller then selects a companion and begins-at home training.
Next comes the fieldwork process, getting the K9 accustomed to moving around the mountain on lifts and on handlers’ shoulders. After the dog is trained in those actions, search training, the toughest step, begins.
After successfully completing cave searches, the dog moves on to shallow grave searches, simulating actual avalanche burials.
With what has now been two years of training, the dog is ready for a final test that requires the recovery of 3-5 simulated avalanche burial victims and 45 minutes of consecutive work. Avalanche dogs must be able to prioritize searches, being trained to go after the shallowest burials first as those have the greatest chance of survival.
There are currently 4 dogs on the team’s roster, with one (Ivy) planning for retirement and another set to come in after training. Patrollers Joe Calder, Bekka Parkinson, and Casey O’Connor handle their dogs Calvin, Ivy, and Mikko respectively round out the team in addition to Nagy and Tele.
While he is grateful for the support the team has already been provided, Nagy is hoping to grow the program with increased donations.
“The support of the community, we couldn’t do it without them. It would be sweet if there was a bit more of just a built-in, like people donating this much every year. But we do love public outreach. We love doing the events and all of our fundraisers,” said Nagy. “It’d be sweet to get to a point where somebody gave us so much money that we just had to manage a fund. And then the fundraising was to just keep it where it lives. We’re a small program, but we are growing.
Not only has Tele’s involvement on the team made Nagy a better patroller, but also a better person.
“It’s made me a lot more patient. It’s made me try to be a lot more just even with my thoughts and not to get angry,” said Nagy. “She’s a big part of this job. Every week is spent with her training.”
“Having a dog, having this other creature that you care about and have to be paying attention to has made me a better person because I feel like she’s a reflection of me. And so I feel like I have to just be better,” said Nagy.
Donations can be made at GTK9.betterworld.org.