#128 – Man’s (and woman’s) best friend learning to search for avalanche victims in North Wales

‘Cluanie’ ready for another avalanche rescue training session

‘Cluanie’ ready for another avalanche rescue training session

Statistics tell us that the average UK resident can currently expect to live for over 80 years.  Bury that same UK resident (or any human for that matter) in an avalanche, and life expectancy drops to about 15-20 minutes!  Because of this, the best hope for the winter mountaineer or skier caught in an avalanche is rescue by members of the same party, using transceivers (radio beacons), shovels and probes.

Helen and ‘Cluanie’ heading in to the training area

Helen and ‘Cluanie’ heading in to the training area

In the UK few winter climbers carry that sort of kit.  In that case there are two search alternatives – one involves a line of rescuers, almost shoulder to shoulder, probing the snow with rods, the second alternative is the air-scenting search dog. So, when the snow falls in the mountains of the UK, the various Search And Rescue Dog Associations (SARDA) take advantage of the conditions, and train to search for avalanche victims.

Trained search dog ‘Cluanie’ ready for action

Trained search dog ‘Cluanie’ ready for action

Apprentice search dog ‘Mist’

Apprentice search dog ‘Mist’

There was a heavy dump of snow in North Wales on the first day of spring, on top of an existing snowpack.  This gave ideal training conditions for searching for avalanche victims.  The stars of the show were search dog ‘Cluanie’ with handler Helen Howe, assisted by volunteer bodies Peter and Danny, all from Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team  – also along for the ride was ace photographer David Higgs.  My Border Collie ‘Mist’ is at an early stage in search training, but also came along for the training experience.

Danny and the author digging the snow cave, watched by ‘Cluanie’ (below) and ‘Mist’ (above)

Danny and the author digging the snow cave, watched by ‘Cluanie’ (below) and ‘Mist’ (above)

Finishing the snow hole, watched closely by ‘Cluanie’

Finishing the snow hole, watched closely by ‘Cluanie’

As well as the dog, I had brought another useful tool – a snow shovel!  To practice searches on snow buried victims you first need a victim.  The next requirement is a hole in the snow to simulate an avalanche burial, hence the snow shovel.  Danny and I both laid into a snow bank on the slopes of the Llanberis Pass, producing a snow cave that could be blocked up to simulate an avalanche burial.

Border Collie ‘Cluanie’ searching for a buried victim

Border Collie ‘Cluanie’ searching for a buried victim

The victim's first view of the search dog

The victim’s first view of the search dog

‘Cluanie’ and a successful find

‘Cluanie’ and a successful find

After we had dug our snow hole, Helen completed a couple of searches with ‘Cluanie’, with Danny and David playing the role of victim.  For a trained search dog like ‘Cluanie’ the job is pretty simple.  Search for a human scent, follow it to the source, and in this case help the handler by doing a bit of digging – it really was as simple as that.

‘Mist’ moving up to the search area, followed by the author and Helen

‘Mist’ moving up to the search area, followed by the author and Helen

 ‘Mist’ on a short training run-out

‘Mist’ on a short training run-out

After a master class by Helen and ‘Cluanie’ in searching for snow buried victims, it was time for ‘Mist’ to have a go.  ‘Mist’ and I are at a very early stage in search training, and a complete burial scenario was too advanced for us – instead we completed some short run-outs, where the ‘body’ plays a game of ‘hide and seek’ for the trainee dog, including the snow cave as one of the hiding places.

‘Mist’ and the author searching up to the snow cave

‘Mist’ and the author searching up to the snow cave

This last winter has seen several avalanche deaths in the mountains of the UK, and companion rescue (plus carrying the right gear) is always the best hope following a snow slide.  A far better policy though is learning about avalanche avoidance before an accident strikes.  Failing that, it’s down to the volunteers and search dogs to come to the rescue.

Helen Howe of SARDA Wales and Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, with search dog ‘Cluanie'

Helen Howe of SARDA Wales and Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, with search dog ‘Cluanie’

Text © Paul Shorrock – Images © David Higgs, all rights reserved.

p.s. I am indebted to David Higgs for allowing me to use his fine images of the dogs working.  The images may not be reproduced without his permission – should anyone wish to do so, please message me with your contact details, and I will forward the request to David.

p.p.s.  Anyone wishing to read more about the search dogs of SARDA Wales will find information on their website.  You can also make a donation towards the training of these fantastic dogs – think of it as a good insurance policy.

p.p.p.s  On a completely different tack, as I completed this post I found the first sheep tick of the season on ‘Mist’.  If you walk your dogs in sheep or deer country, it’s time to protect them against these pests – a monthly application of ‘Frontline’ does the trick.  Discuss it with your vet if not sure.

About Paul Shorrock

I've been mucking about in the mountains for longer than I care to mention. I started out by walking my local hills, then went on to rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Still doing it, and still getting a buzz. I'm now sharing the fun, through my guided walking business (Hillcraft Guided Walking) and by writing routes for other publishers, mainly Walking World and Discovery Walking Guides. Just to make sure I keep really busy, I am also currently a member of my local mountain rescue team.
This entry was posted in 5. North Wales, Border Collies, Mountain Safety and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to #128 – Man’s (and woman’s) best friend learning to search for avalanche victims in North Wales

  1. Couple beautiful dogs there.

  2. What breed (mix?) is Cluanie? A really pretty dog (yours is also, of course, very beautiful 🙂 )

    Surprised to see that much snow on the Llanberis Pass – I’ve never seen enough to make a snowhole. But i suppose I’m not in Wales that often in winter. When was that?

  3. The pics were taken at a training session on 30 March, just a week after the blizzards that hit most of us. The snow we were on must have been weeks old, but it was easy to pick out different layers as we dug the snowhole.

    Cluanie is a Border Collie! They come in a range of sizes and colours, some with prick ears, some flat, some with long coats, some smooth. The breed is quite diverse, and the main thing they have in common is intelligence, temperament and desire to work – thankfully the Kennel Club haven’t diluted those characteristics (yet) by coming up with a standardised ‘pretty dog’.

    Cluanie has a sister trained as a search and rescue dog in the Lakes, and I’ve an idea that they come from a working search dog parent – there are a few breeding lines now with second or third generation search dogs.

  4. LensScaper says:

    Great images by David Higgs, and good write -up Paul

  5. Looks like Mist’s taking it all in, very seriously! By the way, I’ll re-iterate your tick warning. Not all dog owners realise that dogs can pick up Lyme Disease just like us humans, so they definitely need protecting. Tilly had Lyme Disease a couple of summers ago and was very poorly.

    • Search dog ‘Cluanie’ featured above also picked up a tick on a search in the Clwydians this past weekend – I’m hoping it’s not the start of some kind of biblical plague 😦

  6. Really interesting post, and as already mentioned – those photos by David are astonishingly good. Animals, and snow, aren’t always the easiest of things to photograph.
    As orienteers we are super vigilant about ticks – one of our club members was in fact diagnosed with Lyme disease last year. Someone acquired their first tick of the year in Graythwaite forest recently, so they are out and about. A deer tick most likely. Last year I got a ring like rash and swelling on my arm, and when I went to the doctor made a point of mentioning the possibility of ticks and lyme disease. He had to look it up on his computer! He did thank me for bringing it to his notice though. He and another doctor reckoned mine was a spider bite, but I still got a course of antibiotics.

    • I’ve only picked up a tick once, and I suspect it had hitched a ride on ‘Mist’ then decided that I was an easier option.
      I suppose many GPs never come across Lyme’s, so you did right to point it out – vets are probably better informed, especially in country areas. There you are, go to the vet if you ever get the same symptoms again 🙂

  7. excellent post Paul, and superb photos by David too. It is satisfying to know that there is professional help if it is needed!

  8. Cheers SP. I will have to get David as a regular contributor – super images!

  9. Keith Coles says:

    Thanks for the warning Paul et al, we have two collies so I have just ordered this year’s frontline, might even use it myself!
    We enjoy your blogs keep up the good work -and stay safe.

    • Thanks for visiting Keith, and for the comment 🙂

      I was at school with a guy called Keith Coles – are you he? If not, small world! – if yes, good to hear from you 🙂

      • Keith Coles says:

        It is I from the old Cath Coll, good to see someone so happy in their work, keep it up.
        Best Regards,

      • Good to hear from you Keith – I’ll attempt to send an email to the address with your comment.

  10. MrsBoardwell says:

    Great pics! [and write up, of course! ;)]. Gutted I missed the opportunity to meet you, Chris & Misty at the Duck race over the weekend but I’m sure there will be plenty of other opportunities this summer?!
    Enjoy your training sess tonight,
    Mrs B

  11. Pingback: #147 – Ring out the old … 2013 hill memories | Paul Shorrock – One Man's Mountains AKA One Pillock's Hillocks

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