Helicopter Dog: Inside an Avalanche Search and Rescue First

Avy dog courtesy of Eva Capozzola
Eva Capozzola

Though he didn’t know it a decade ago, the Sherriff found his deputy. That is, Adam Sheriff, Mountain Safety Team Leader and avalanche forecaster for British Columbia’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, who brought home a puppy that was a reject from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The black shepherd was too small to be a police dog. But the dog, named Brooke, was a perfect size to be a CARDA dog (certified by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association).

“Right from the onset Brooke showed great hunt and prey drive,” says Sherriff. “She would pursue her ball for hours if she lost it in the grass while playing fetch. She showed no signs of ever wanting to quit searching or playing.”

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Avy dog
courtesy Adam Sherriff

It isn’t easy to train a CARDA dog, even with a naturally gifted animal like Brooke. It takes loads of dedicated hours and countless courses (for both dog and handler), plus re-certification each year. Costs add up fast. In sum, a fully trained rescue dog is worth well over $40,000. Since 2000, when a B.C.-based dog-and-handler team first uncovered a live buried subject, the ends have justified the means. For the dogs, the prolonged training isn’t exactly a grind.

“Brooke loves every day at work, each morning when I let her out of her run she waits by the front gate to load up in the truck,” says Sherriff, who also teaches for Canadian Avalanche Association as well as CARDA. “Trucks and helicopters take her to work, and she loves riding in both because she knows wherever we go, we are going to go do something fun.”

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courtesy Adam Sherriff

Other times, it’s not all fun and games. A decade of technical training and preparation led to day last spring where all the preparation and work was put to the test. Parks Canada Visitor Safety called in help to search for three missing climbers, presumed to have perished in an avalanche on Howse Peak in Banff National Park.

“It was obvious that it was going to be a very technical response,” Sherriff said after assessing the terrain and information relayed from an initial reconnaissance flight, which had established the deceased climbers’ likely location in avalanche debris with some of their gear—though they had been unable to launch a ground search due to unsafe weather conditions. Knowing that a storm was coming, and that an avalanche could cover up the climbing gear, Banff Public Safety dropped a beacon to mark the area.

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Avy Dog 2
Courtesy Parks Canada

With better weather the next day (April 21), the team called in the dogs—that is, Sherriff and Brooke. The hazard was still high for a ground search, requiring the use of a ‘long line’ down from a helicopter—first, to human rescuers. After the initial tethered searchers probed (unsuccessfully) for three 20-minute shifts totaling one hour, the next search would be with Brooke.

Brooke Avalanche Dog
Courtesy Parks Canada

The helicopter hovered down to the side of the snowy mountain and lowered Sherriff and Brooke on the 150-foot long line. Sheriff hit the ground, pulling a few feet of slack in the line to move around. He dropped Brooke to start her search, attached to him via a 115-foot leash. This is where, in essence, the $50,000 dog began taking the $2 million helicopter for a walk.

The cost was high and the time was tight. To complicate matters—beyond the noise of the helicopter swirling a hundred feet up—the wind made it even more difficult for Brooke to get a scent and find its source.

“At first, Brooke was confused by the noise and wind, I could see her looking back to me for clarification of our task.” Sherriff says. Hovering is an exhausting technique for pilots and the team wasn’t sure how Brooke would respond either; they had only allotted 20 minutes for the search. Brooke’s nose and speed, however, allowed her to cover large areas of debris that would’ve taken a human probe-line hours to cover.

“Not only is using a dog faster than probing,” Sherriff adds, “it’s also far less exposure for rescuers by limiting the amount of resources on the slope.”

Sherriff and Brooke started upslope from the GPS coordinate and efficiently worked their way down. Right at 20 minutes, Brooke started heading back upslope and Sherriff and pilot Paul Maloney took notice. She had something.

“Brooke began digging and I could see she had reached the source of scent.” Sherriff says. “I marked her ‘find’ with three wands and then flew back to staging with Brooke and played ball.”

Avy CA dog
Courtesy Parks Canada

No one on the crew had ever executed a search with a dog tethered to a rescue helicopter. Or heard of one prior.

Although it was a first, Sherriff says, it was essentially a combination of previously practiced skills. “I trained Brooke early on around helicopters, making her very comfortable both inside them, and while slinging underneath them,” he adds. “Throughout her career, I also introduced her to working areas while attached to a rope. This practice was to simulate working in glaciated terrain, or in areas of high fall hazard. So by combining her previous training, she had done all parts of the proposed mission—just not while still attached to the helicopter long line.“

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At 10 years old, Brooke made one of the most unique recoveries to date. She found the scent of Jess Roskelley, Hansjorg Auer and David Lama—three of the strongest alpinists to ever live. As members of The North Face Global Athlete Team, the high-profile accident itself garnered press around the globe; the lesser-known recovery providing families and followers priceless clues as to what happened to these talented climbers, and allowing loved ones a key degree of closure to help process the tragedy.

The procedure that Brooke, Sherriff, Maloney and the rest of the Parks Canada Visitor Safety team executed will likely (hopefully) never have to be repeated. It has brought more awareness to the climbing community on the importance of always wearing a beacon in avalanche terrain, survivable or not. Brooke and Sherriff still proved that it can be done, and that rigorous training is absolutely worth it.

Avy Dog 5
courtesy Eva Capozzola

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