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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.