Avalanches are killers, Matt Gunn, founder of Aspiring Avalanche Dogs, says.
His teams of rescue dogs and handlers were a vital part of rescue efforts, but they were just as committed to educating people about the very real dangers of the mountains, he said.
‘‘I’ve had six friends killed in avalanches over the years. First, one occurred in 1991 in Ohau, and since then it has been a steady stream of mates getting taken out in avalanches.’’
The last one, two years ago, was the death of Russell Braddock, ‘‘who was an incredible mountaineer. He didn’t trigger the avalanche, it was triggered by someone above him’’, Mr Gunn said.
His avalanche rescue dog teams were based at Treble Cone skifield in Wanaka and were able to be rapidly deployed to help locate people caught in avalanches, he said.
‘‘We are all volunteer members of LandSAR, and as such we get deployed by the police.
‘‘Avalanches do occur within ski areas. The snowpack presents itself slightly differently every year, and there’s always the potential for random events.’’
Without rescue dogs, probe teams had to clear an area, which meant using lines of people with 3m-long poles trying to find people under the snow, Mr Gunn said.
‘‘A dog can clear a site infinitely quicker than a probe team.’’
‘‘Dogs and doctors’’ were the two things that were needed very early in avalanche search and rescue callouts, Avalanche New Zealand director Andrew Hobman said.
These two factors could increase the survivability of someone caught in an avalanche.
There was a ‘‘death curve’’ with avalanches, which was the probability of survival.
‘‘Within the first 10 minutes you have a really high chance of surviving, that is, if you haven’t succumbed to trauma before that.’’
In about 50% of avalanche fatalities people died of trauma before the avalanche stopped moving, Mr Hobman said.
‘‘They’ve either hit rocks, or been flushed off cliffs. That’s a very common situation in New Zealand.’’
Avalanche transceivers could be helpful if people had been buried, Mr Hobman said.
‘‘That is a little device that emits a signal, and your friends switch theirs to receive and they can come and search for you, and probe to strike you and dig you out with a shovel.’’
But transceivers cost from $300 to more than $1000 and not everyone used them, so rescue dogs were still very important in search and recovery, he said.
There were few techniques that were successful in finding buried people if they did not have a transceiver, and a dog was one of them, Mr Hobman said.
‘‘They are absolutely critical.’’
Treble Cone patrol manager Brendan Kearns said avalanche rescue dogs were an integral part of the patrol team and were well equipped to respond.
‘‘We often see people heading out to the ‘slack country’ — this is the terrain just beyond the ski area boundary.’’
People often assumed that because the ski area was safe, it was also safe beyond the ski boundaries, Mr Kearns said.
‘‘If they don’t have the appropriate gear and skill set they could easily have an avalanche involvement.
‘‘There is a very limited window of time to successfully rescue someone [10-15 minutes]. Once on site, our dogs can cover a considerable area very quickly,’’ Mr Kearns said.