As the mercury in our thermometers and the snowline on our mountains continue to plunge, you can sense the excitement levels rising around the community. Whistlerites love to play in the snow, and a good many of us work in it too. The same goes for the dogs of Whistler. It’s becoming more and more common to see local dogs lapping up face shots as they chase their owners down backcountry ski slopes.
For some dogs, this surprising agility and seemingly unlimited energy in deep snow, combined with their amazingly keen sense of smell make them a huge asset in the mountains. Most of us know about St. Bernards, named for the Swiss mountain pass where monks bred the renowned rescue dogs. Dating back to the Medieval Period, St Bernards were credited with saving hundreds, if not thousands of snow-bound travelers atop the high-alpine pass.
Edmund Landseer's 1820 painting "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller" is the reputed source of the St. Bernard-brandy myth. While Landseer's hyperactive imagination invented the mini-kegs, the scene does show the dogs in their leaner, shorter-haired form. As well, while alcohol might make you feel warmer, it can actually accelerate the onset of hypothermia, making it less than ideal for rescuing victims of avalanches and blizzards.
Fewer are aware that in the early nineteenth century a series of deadly winters led the monks to cross-breed their remaining dogs with Newfoundlands. The resulting dogs were bulkier and had longer hair that clumped up in deep snow. Today St. Bernards are big and cuddly, but essentially useless in the mountains.
German Shepherds are much better-suited for mountain rescue. This is one of many bits of mountain-dog trivia one can learn from long-time Whistlerite Bruce Watt (apparently, the mini-keg of brandy around the St. Bernard’s necks is myth, as well). And Bruce should know; thirty years ago the former Whistler Mountain ski patroller successfully trained and certified Canada’s first civilian avalanche rescue dog.
This coming Wednesday Bruce will be giving a presentation about his role in the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) as part of the Whistler Museum’s monthly Speaker Series (event details available here). And yes, a real-life avalanche rescue dog will be there too!
The initial impulse to train avalanche dogs in Canada dates back to 1979. That winter Bruce Watt and an exchange patroller from Utah were buried by a large avalanche on the north slopes of Whistler Peak. Luckily, they both survived, but Bruce emerged from the near-catastrophe determined to contribute to snow safety and help prevent future tragedies.
Inspired by similar programs in the Alps and the western United States, Bruce decided to explore the possibilities of training an avalanche rescue dog. I’ll let Bruce explain what came next, but his efforts were well worth it, as today there are thirty-one certified rescue dog teams across western Canada.
As part of their training rescue dogs learn to ride on snowmobiles, in or hanging from helicopters, even on the shoulders of skiers! Photo courtesy CARDA
A 1998 incident in the Grouse Mountain backcountry clearly demonstrates how much the rescue dogs can contribute to stressful, complicated and hazardous winter search-and-rescue operations. During a heavy storm a skier had been caught in an avalanche and a search crew of eight rescuers and two dogs set out to recover the victim. With the avalanche hazard still high, the team found themselves in a compromised situation, “it was a very steep, cliffed area and just a rotten, horrible place to be,” recalls Bruce Brink, a Blackcomb ski patroller who took part in the search.
Without dogs, they would have been resigned to a time-consuming probe search requiring dozens of individuals. Instead, the two dog/handler teams were able to quickly the area in minutes, as the others stayed back, away from the slide risk. Convinced the victim was not in the area the teams pulled back.
Minutes later a class 2 avalanche swept through the search area and over a two-hundred foot cliff. “By having the dogs there we saved five or six lives, easy” Brink asserts.
Their agility and keen sense of smell enables rescue dogs to search avalanche debris much faster then a human, and the victim doesn't need to be wearing a transceiver. Photo courtesy CARDA.
With the coming winter in mind (La Nina!), Bruce’s talk promises to provide a compelling reminder of the ever-present risks in the mountains, while offering well-deserved recognition for the numerous individuals, human and canine alike, who endure countless hours and serious hardship to make these alpine playgrounds safer for us all. And yes, the rescue dogs, like their human counterparts, play as hard as they work up their in the mountains!
Photo courtesy CARDA.