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Avalanche rescue dogs pass the test

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Eight-month-old Kelsy stared down the obstacle course near the Whistler Mountain half pipe, head cocked to the side, eyes trained ahead.

She was the youngest dog on the beginner course ahead and holding her own nicely during the week-long Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association training.

She may have been tired now, just like the 19 other dogs that had been put to the CARDA tests, but when her handler Shelly Jackson urged her on with a "C’mon Kelsy, let’s go," the Golden Labrador from Golden, B.C. was all wagging tail and excited barks.

Weaving from left to right in search of a buried person in a nearby snow cave, Kelsy quickly found the scent and, paws to the ground, she began furiously digging. The target was uncovered within a matter of seconds and a playful tug-of-war ensued.

"It’s called ragging," said CARDA Instructor Scott Hicks, watching as Kelsy yanked back and forth on the toy with the person in the snow cave.

"That’s their reward at the end of the search."

There were 20 dog teams on Whistler Mountain during the 18 th annual CARDA training week, which ran in conjunction with last week’s Big Mountain Experience.

Thirteen teams were from B.C., three from Alberta and four from the United States.

For most of the handlers the training week and the CARDA certification that follows combines two life passions.

"I just love dogs and skiing," said Hicks.

"That’s pretty well the norm for all these handlers."

The five pups in the beginner course were screened in May to test their natural drive and pursuit responses. Their handlers also met a series of prerequisites for the program that included being actively involved in a winter mountain rescue group, having First Aid, CPR and a minimum Canadian Avalanche Association Level 1.

But the pups weren’t the only ones at work on Whistler last week; there were also seasoned avalanche dogs on hand to show the pups what it’s all about.

As the five pups were taken through a series of drills near the half pipe, up above an experienced dog team was hanging 75 metres from a helicopter.

They were dropped at the top of a slope where a mock avalanche rescue was being staged.

The five-member Hasty Search team, the initial response team, had already done a search of the avalanche scene and found five bodies buried under the snow with transceivers.

But there were still bodies buried without any rescue beacons to direct patrol.

For people like that, who are ill-equipped when an avalanche occurs, the dogs are really their only chance of survival.

Within minutes of flying in on the long line, the rescue dog started digging in one spot and found what he was looking for buried in a snow cave.

"The creation of CARDA was to get a network of teams in place in the mountainous regions of the province so that they are able to respond quickly," said CARDA President Anton Horvath, who is also an avalanche forecaster at Whistler-Blackcomb.

He has been involved in the program almost from its inception in the early ’80s and has been involved with the executive for the past 15 years.

Horvath, along with his three-year-old German Shepherd Macklin, is one of the five avalanche dog teams on Whistler Mountain. There is one team on Blackcomb, along with a volunteer team and two more teams currently in training.

Although the chances of an inbound avalanche are highly unlikely because of the comprehensive avalanche program at Whistler-Blackcomb, the teams are there for back up just in case.

"If there’s ever an incident in the ski area we’re able to respond," said Horvath.

"But if a ski patroller was out on an avalanche control route and he was buried in an avalanche during the course of conducting patrol, his best chance of survival is with an avalanche transceiver. If it failed to function for whatever reason... then our only other means of finding him would be with the dog. So it’s kind of insurance for our patrollers in conducting avalanche control."

The dog teams can also respond very quickly to any of the surrounding mountains if there is an avalanche in the backcountry.

"We have such readily available access to the backcountry here," said Horvath.

"We can respond very quickly anywhere on the mountains from here to the other side of the valley at Rainbow or on the Pemberton Ice Cap."

As soon as they get the call to respond the clock starts ticking.

There is an 80 per cent chance of survival in the first 20 minutes of burial. After that the chances of a live recovery drop dramatically.

If there’s any doubt that the dogs are a crucial part to an avalanche rescue, just ask Forest Latimer, a ski patroller at Fernie where the only live recovery with a dog has taken place in Canada.

It was there two years ago that a young liftie decided to ski off a designated route and triggered a size two avalanche.

The liftie had been buried for about 22 minutes when Keno, one of the two avalanche dogs at the resort, pulled his glove from the snow.

"It was a good boost for our program," said Latimer, who was patrolling at the resort the day it happened.

He added that it was a real lesson learned in avalanche awareness for many young skiers and boarders at that resort.

Professional snowboarder Brian Savard, who spoke at Whistler-Blackcomb’s Avalanche Awareness Day last week, has also learned first-hand about the dangers of avalanches after being caught up in one with fatal consequences.

"I know first hand how much power they have – just the destructive capabilities and the awesome power they can create," he said, adding that along with Peips, probes and shovels in your avalanche arsenal, you also need common sense.

"It’s when you let your guard down in the backcountry; that’s when you get caught."

There are currently 34 operational CARDA teams in Canada.

Last week the Canadian Avalanche Association also announced that they have achieved assured funding this season for the public avalanche bulletin.

The bulletin, which is posted three days a week on the CAA Web site, started in 1991 with less than 1,000 users that first year.

This year roughly half a million people are expected to log on and use the information posted there as a preventative tool when heading out in the backcountry.

Justin Trudeau, spokesperson for the Canadian Avalanche Foundation who was also on hand at the Avalanche Awareness Day, summed it up when he said: "As soon as you step out of bounds, as soon as you duck under the rope... the situation changes radically. You are on your own.

"We’re saying, ‘yes, take the risks, live fully... but know what you’re getting into.’"