A SCENTS OF PURPOSE
Being a ski patroller, avy bomber and dog handler in France while being British AND a woman is a dramatic true story, in the first place, and now Caroline Elliott, has used her experiences to write a book for children based on the life of her beloved avalanche dog, Fjord.
After working for many years in the mountains, the last 10 being in ski patrol and as an avalanche dog handler in France, Caroline Elliott has written a children’s book starring her flat-coated retriever avy dog, Fjord.
Fjord’s mountain mission is a magical story aimed at helping to orientate children around a resort, take a look behind the scenes, at the same time providing the essential knowledge so they can enjoy to the full their trip to the mountains, staying safe on the slopes and helping to reduce their carbon footprint.
Caroline is raising funds to make this book happen, in eBook form to start, then hopefully in print in the most ecologically way possible (recycled paper) aiming to publish for Christmas. Help her to raise funds here and raise more children to ski safe.
So what does it take to be an avalanche dog handler working with a trained dog that can save lives in the mountains?
Which breed of dog is best for avalanche training and why?
Generally a dog with a long nose! May sound silly but the longer the nose the better smelling capacity a dog will have; dogs used in avalanche search range from labs to retrievers, to German shepherds and Malinois to border collies and my mate in Val d’Isere has a Munsterland (he’s also great at hunting out the local cheese and saucisson in the patrol hut!).
It’s also good to have a dog that is not too heavy because sometimes you need to hoist your dog up over your shoulders and carry it rested on your backpack. (so a bulldog would be no good - sorry!).
Oh yes and no bitches (females) allowed in France, the train of thought is that they could potentially put the other males off the job so to speak when called into an avalanche.
However Switzerland and Italy allow females and that is where I will be heading to train my new pup Källa.
What are the basic training techniques for Search and Rescue dogs?
We start off training our dogs in the discipline of air scenting meaning they find the scent on the air as opposed to following it on the ground. It is all about playing, using their favourite toy, getting them mega hyped so they only focus on getting hold of their toy no matter what. This will start with a person holding their toy running into a snow hole and being partially visible. Little by little the hole will be closed off, then the dog will suddenly go, “I can’t see them”, and then kick into using their snout! That’s basically simplifying the whole procedure.
In France the qualifying training takes just over two weeks and is in Les Deux Alpes every year mid-November. Your dog can take part in this if it has passed preliminary tests and is a minimum of one year old and maximum four.
How good is a trained avalanche dog at finding anyone buried in the snow? Quicker than a transceiver?
This really does depend on the situation and the snow. They both complement each other and still we go out to avalanches where casualties are not wearing a transceiver (because often they were on a slope and deemed it safe, and most often these slopes are shut due to danger and yet they go down them or youngsters are led by their parents).
Wet snow can hinder smell escaping to the surface, blocking the air passages and a dog will indicate (bark and wag its tail) a couple of metres away depending on how the smell filtrates out.
It can take 20-30 minutes for one metre of snow over your head for the smell particles to reach the surface. as we all know that statisically proven under 15mins you have good probability of coming out unscathed, therefore wearing a transceiver is really essential.
Do they enjoy the search? What about being dropped by helicopter?
They love the search, they only do it because it’s one big game! If the dog handler is feeling anxious, they will pick up on this, which was my case when it came to helicopter winching - Fjord was never enthralled with the idea of being pushed out into the void, we were the nightmare pair for the helicopter crew!
How attached do you get as a handler? Do the dogs become pets?
Very attached, because you go through so much together. My dog unit with the fire and rescue specialised mountain service sent me on a military training exercise after the winter season one year. I didn’t sleep for three days (well maybe an hour or two each night) and we were flown to Spain in a private plane to work at night with the Spanish then back to near Marseille to be ‘kidnapped’ by the Foreign Legion at 4am - very exciting but I slept for a week after.
My world stopped in February this year when I lost my avalanche dog ‘Fjord’ just after his first avalanche training session for the winter in France. He died in emergency surgery and the loss was like losing a family member and the little minx chose to go the day before my birthday. His legacy will be carried on in the book, hence my determination to get it out there.
How did your latest project, a children's snow safety book, Fjord's Mountain Mission come about?
As I mentioned previously, I lost Fjord in February, we had spent a lot of time educating youngsters, going into schools, talking at events, so they become more aware of the mountain environment and safer as a result. I wanted to carry this legacy forward in an illustrated children’s book, in memory of Fjord.
I found the illustrator Evgenia Malina who comes, originally, not far from the beautiful mountain range in Kazakhstan. She is bringing to life the adventures of Fjord, which is heart-warming.
How did you become a snow safety expert and qualified ski patroller as well as a Search and Rescue dog handler?
I have always had a love of the mountains learning to ski at the age of 10 in Meribel. My patrol career started would you believe it in Australia in 2003 when I trained up with the voli patrol. Reaching France it became clear that the certificates with kangaroos were not going to hold any weight! Therefore I set about passing all my exams from the ski test to becoming a 2nd level patroller from the ENSA in 2011.
I also trained with Météo France as a snow observer for ski patrol to do our daily weather obs and weekly snow pits. This was followed by training in Alpes d’huez to become a controlled avy bomber in 2012 (I don’t mention this on immigration forms when travelling Trans-Atlantic!). Then a few weeks later I embarked on the training to qualify as an avalanche dog handler.
Above all I learnt through my training and the myriad of real-life situations that education is the key to help people avoid banal accidents and subsequent injury and finding themselves in an avalanche in the first place.
How difficult is it for a non-French person - and a woman - to become a Pisteur Secouriste 2éme Degré in France along with the specialisation 'Artifiicier' – a controlled bomber to prevent avalanches?
If I said it was not difficult, I’d be lying! I always had the impression I had to try harder, luckily, I’m very determined and don’t give up easily. It is still a predominantly male profession, but the percentage of females is increasing thankfully.
I applied for French nationality in 2014 so, luckily, I can still work with no issues in the coming years. Some colleagues at times could be ‘tricky’ but they were happy when there was an English speaker! And I think if you prove you will do the work to the same level as the guys there is no reason for friction. At the end of the day you have to be able to do everything the job dictates, and you are a team. And stating the obvious, to integrate in any foreign country you need to speak the language well and really want to integrate! (especially with the feisty French!).
What's the most dangerous situation you've been in while doing your job?
In our profession we manage risk on a daily basis, for example when we go off control bombing, we follow itineraries in and out so we’re not going into sensitive areas.
When as a dog handler we go off to an avalanche, there is always a risk of a second, but you make that decision when you arrive, if it’s too dangerous you don’t go in. There is no point in making more victims! We are fully equipped with all the safety gear including ABS bags. It’s just the dogs that are ‘naked’ so to speak.
I’d say my biggest fear is when we are in the height of the holiday period and people are riding the slopes far far too fast, I always fear being skied into because I know all too well the outcome of collisions can be extremely serious.
When do you feel fear (if ever)?
I always feel apprehension when I go to a big collision on the slopes or when I go to an avalanche alert (especially if it’s in a chopper!), the adrenaline pumps through the veins but this is positive, and it keeps you alert and focused and, at the end of the day, fear is the body’s natural reaction to protect you from danger. There might no longer be hairy mammoths to hunt or stampeding us in the mountains, but our body just reacts to what our mind triggers.
How concerned are you at the potential increase in ski tourers out in the backcountry during the winter season?
Ski touring used to be an activity one did once spring arrived, never before, when snow pack at this stage in the winter has had time to stabilise and risks are generally less.
The problem is, nowadays, with the better equipment people with less mountain knowledge are able to access such areas, often thinking if they wear the right gear, they will be fine. With less financial freedom due to the present situation, people could go for this option too. But how often do they practise with their transceiver and know inside out how their equipment works? When the stress of a real-life scenario occurs you function so differently.
Best advice for backcountry novices?
Undertake a course with a reputable organisation, learn and PRACTISE (you can do this in your back garden, up in the hills nearby you, you don’t need snow to do transceiver training) and remember the powder will always return. The majority of our call outs for avalanches occur when the risk is moderate to considerable (on the new ratings), not high (when people just don’t go out).
What skis and bindings to you ride?
Depends what I’m doing, for patrol we are given skis for the season and these change each year.
I have two pairs of touring skis, Dynafit ‘Guide’ and Fischer ‘TransAlp’ with Low - Tech bindings, the models are a couple of years old, so I won’t embarrass myself. Remember it’s not the skis it is the skills that count! Any brands who would like to provide me with a pair to trial I’d be up for it! (we ‘re planning on creating a beautiful short film this winter for the next Kendal Mountain Festival).
What's your can't-live-without item of ski clothing/ gear?
I’d say a vest / gilet. It can be shoved into your backpack and put on if you’re feeling chilly, indispensable for ski touring. And my Lifesystemes flask.
What technical kit do you rely on for backcountry - apart from a dog?
The normal trio of backpack with ski holding straps, transceiver, probe, shovel, (all of these coming from Ortovox), a comprehensive first aid kit (Lifesystemes), Vaseline or ‘Neve’s’ paws balm to protect my pooch’s paws! A Buff is always great for under the helmet or as a head band or to protect your neck and if you have two, they can be doubled up as a sling! A good vacuum flask for hot tea.
I don’t use an ABS bag but do have a couple of Recco tabs to attach to my dog’s Ruffwear harness. This company provide us with some great technical gear for work and training. (Ok Fjord was not too keen on the booties, but Källa will be trying them soon!)