By Sam Brown
Last week Val d’Isère was host to the inaugural avalanche dog training session for the Haute-Tarentaise region. Resorts dog units from Tignes, Val d’Isère, Les Arcs, Le Trois Valées and La Plagne all congregated in Val d’Isère at a specially prepared area underneath the Datcha chairlift for three days of training.
If you happened to ski past last week you would have been forgiven for mistaking the area for a glorified Alpine Crufts event, but no; the dogs and their handlers were here for some serious training! The dogs were a broad mixture of ages and breeds from Collies to Alsatians and Retrievers, all with varying levels of experience.
The dogs are all used in avalanche rescue emergencies throughout the Alps and are credited with saving countless lives each season. The purpose of this training exercise was to familiarise the younger dogs with the process of a rescue and to refresh the older dogs’ memory of the process.
Somehow, I found myself volunteering to help with the exercise as an avalanche victim, and upon arrival watched pisteurs being dug out of tiny holes by over enthusiastic dogs! All of a sudden it was my turn, and after a quick explanation from the chief trainer, I was handed a small rope toy and told to stand at the ready by my icy grave.
The aim is to make it as much fun for the dogs as possible. So with a dog and its handler excitedly waiting about 100m away, I am told to start frantically waving the toy. Once the dog is released I’m instructed to quickly dive feet first into a tiny snow hole, at which point pisteurs promptly fill my only means of escape with snow. All goes quiet and black. It only takes a couple of minutes before a snowy snout starts to dig its way through into my snowhole, at which point I’m to congratulate the dog and begin to wrestle with it inside the hole until he is able to pull me out. This was just the warm up though!
Once each dog had cycled through the warm up exercise, it was time for the main event. The whole of the area underneath the Datcha lift had been ploughed up by a piste basher to simulate an avalanche zone. I was taken over to another much deeper hole, handed a radio, another rope toy and promptly asked to jump in. The main difference this time was that the entrance to my snowhole would be piled high with snow by a piste basher! Once the piste basher had done its work, I was well and truly buried and alone under the dark snow; a much more intimidating experience than I had anticipated. In this scenario the dog was using scent to find the ‘victims’ and had received no visual cues as to their whereabouts as had been the case in the warm up exercise.
I was alone under the snow for about ten minutes, in which time you certainly begin to wonder what it would be like if this were all for real. It was greatly reassuring knowing that there were people looking for me outside! Within ten minutes another bigger snout suddenly started scuffling and digging around outside (a very welcome sound) and within a further couple of minutes a huge Alsatian was fully inside my snow hole pulling at the rope toy and trying to get me out of the hole. Once he’d achieved that, he got a very well deserved congratulations and some no doubt tasty snacks from his handler.
After freeing me from my snow cave, the handler and dog continued on through the area to find 2 to 3 more ‘victims’. It was fantastic to witness the dogs and their handlers at work and great to know that these guys are ready and waiting should an emergency ever occur in our ski area!