More than a dozen dogs and their handlers will be on standby during the Olympics in case an avalanche hits.
About 25 avalanche rescue dog teams will be working in Whistler and on Cypress Mountain during the Olympics
By Damian Inwood, The Province
About 25 avalanche rescue dog teams will be working in Whistler and on Cypress Mountain during the Olympics in case security staff get caught in backcountry snowslides.
The teams, from B.C., Alberta and Squaw Valley, Calif., will each work for about a week at the three mountain venues.
“There’ll be one dog and handler team, plus an assistant for each of the winter ski venues,” said Kyle Hale, the Golden-based president of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. “At any one time, there’ll be one for the Callaghan Valley, one for Whistler venue and one for the Cypress Mountain venue. We’re providing a total of about 25 dog-and-handler teams over the course of the six or seven weeks.”
The teams will work at the venues during daylight hours and will be on standby at night, he said. Hale added that CARDA is working with the RCMP’s Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit but will also deal with any avalanche or search-and-rescue incident involving the public.
He said daily avalanche forecasts will be given to the teams so they can assess the hazard levels.
“Depending on the operational requirements, we’ll be all over the place,” he added. “The venues are quite small and we’ll have various modes of transportation, and it’s our hope we don’t need to activate. Our dogs ride chairlifts, helicopters, Ski-doos–any mode of winter transport.”
Hale said that while avalanches are rare in the ski resorts themselves, they’re common in backcountry areas where security staff will be working.
He said the California teams are involved because 2010 is the 50th anniversary of Squaw Valley hosting the 1960 Winter Games.
RCMP Cpl. Jen Allan said the ISU will cover the cost of accommodation and meals for the Canadian and U.S. teams, but will only pay travel expenses for the dogs and handlers from B.C. and Alberta.
She said the rescue association will supplement a “large contingent” of RCMP dog teams working in Vancouver and Whistler during the Olympics.
“The majority of them will be explosive-profile dogs and will be involved in sweeping the venues prior to [Olympics organizers] taking possession of them,” Allan said. “The sweeps will be occurring near the end of January.”
She said the rescue-dog association provides the security unit with special skills in avalanche situations and “helps us with the geographical challenges of securing a mountainous region.”
From his backyard in Fernie, B.C. Steve Morrison points out slide paths in the surrounding Lizard Range, where avalanches bring down hundreds of tons of snow, rock and tree at speeds of up to 139 kilometres an hour. It’s even worse than he’s describing. And his retriever-mix, ‘Mojo,’ knows all about it. The two form an Avalanche Rescue Dog team, one of four validated teams at Fernie Alpine Resort, each certified by the internationally renowned Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). These teams are becoming more and more critical to avalanche rescue programs.
Fernie is poised to be Canada’s next boom resort town. In 1998, when the resorts of the Canadian Rockies took over the hill, the ski terrain doubled, and the numbers jumped from around 150,000 skiers a season to 300,000-plus in 2007. Add to that the huge dump of snow Fernie has had over the past few seasons (Fernie’s five enormous bowls receive an average of 29 feet of snowfall each winter – enough snow to cover a three-storey building) and that spells avalanche.
“We see a lot of avalanches. Hundreds in a season,” says Steve, who helps bring many of them down. “We blast pretty well every morning,” he says, explaining the use of controlled explosives to knock down massive slabs of snow in order to mitigate the hazard. A member of the Canadian Avalanche Association, serving on its explosives committee, Steve fires the avalauncher. The Fernie patrol also deploys explosives from a helicopter on occasion, usually when the weather is good and the cornices are large.
Big shoes to fill
For Steve, a man with over 23 years of patrol in the snow, it was during the last four years, with his canine companion at his side, when he found his most critical role on the hill. “I was looking for a change, a new challenge. And, I was looking for a dog. When ‘Keno’ and Robin retired, there was a void. Mojo and I filled it.” Steve is referring to the retired senior Avalanche Rescue Dog team of Robin Siggers and his yellow Lab Keno, the Fernie team credited with the first and only live find by an avalanche dog in Canada.
Pretty big shoes to fill, but Steve has confidence in Mojo. “He is great in the snow – loves swimming in powder. He has long powerful legs, good nose, fine discipline and lots of energy.” Mojo received his first CARDA validation in January 2005. (CARDA’s qualifications require dogs and their handlers to be revalidated every year.)
Ready for anything
The training is extreme, but necessary. Mojo needs to be ready for anything. This includes transport by helicopter, snowmobile, snow cat and ski lift; travel on foot with handler on touring skis; backcountry and ski area rescue. “We are involved in mainly body recovery,” says Steve, referring to the unlikely probability of finding anyone alive. Avalanches are deadly. “But it is our goal to be on the scene quickly enough to beat the statistical odds.” If anyone can find a live buried person (who isn’t carrying or wearing an avalanche transceiver) in the shortest amount of time, it’s the dogs. At the very least, the dog’s keen scenting abilities bring a fast resolution to the tragedy: the recovery of the victim.
On the job
Well-trained dogs can roughly search an avalanche area as large as a football field eight times faster than a rescue team that probes the snow searching for dense matter (bodies). It’s the handler’s job to take charge, acting as the eyes and brains of a search so the dog can focus on its greatest attribute: its nose. A dog can detect an item as bland as a ski pole, buried metres deep in densely packed snow, thanks to its ultra-keen olfactory system, which is 10,000 to 10 million times more sensitive than a human’s. “Cold temperatures can be a real challenge, and avalanche debris can be dense with few air pockets. Prolonged wind can cause a crust so that nothing can seep out.”
Most victims are found near the run out of an avalanche, thus the handler directs the dog to sweep the toe first, nose to the ground, running back and forth in a tight zigzag pattern. Once an odour is detected, the dog alerts the handler by barking, wagging, or digging, paws churning the snow. It takes years of practice to train a dog to follow a scent, especially one that’s unfamiliar, in highly distracting and often inclement conditions.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time, nothing happens, but we have to be prepared,” says Steve. “On a typical day, we practise on the mountain, riding in a snow cat or on a snowmobile, training in obedience or uncovering hidden articles.”
The above written by:
Dawn Matheson is a freelance writer, multimedia artist and web video producer living in Guelph, Ont. She claims a childhood spent in British Columbia gives her street cred to write about mountain culture. Her old friend ‘Brandy’ will forever inspire her to write about dogs.
(Excerpted from ‘Rocky Mountain snow dogs’ which originally appeared in Dogs in Canada’s January 2009 issue.)
CARDA aka Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association