Avalanche rescue fields a new top dog

Dogged pursuit — Apex professional ski patrol member Steve Ritchey and certified avalanche rescue dog Charlie perform a training run at the mountain Thursday. The team are currently the only ones working in the Okanagan right now.  - Mark Brett/Western News
Dogged pursuit — Apex professional ski patrol member Steve Ritchey and certified avalanche rescue dog Charlie perform a training run at the mountain Thursday. The team are currently the only ones working in the Okanagan right now.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Western News

Apex Mountain now boasts the world’s most effective avalanche rescue tool — the only one of its kind in the Okanagan.

His name is Charlie.

After more than two years of grueling training and regular testing, the three-year-old Labrador-golden retriever and handler Steve Ritchey have earned Avalanche Rescue Dog Team certification.

“It’s been a lot of work — I go to a course spring and fall and winter too, and in my spare time I train — but it’s really been worth it,” said Ritchey, a member of the mountain’s professional ski patrol and a Penticton Search and Rescue volunteer.

The certification is through the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, which works in conjunction with the RCMP police dog services division.

What makes the distinction even more impressive, considering the difficult conditions he works in and the rugged terrain he has to cover, is the fact the Penticton resident is 63 years old.

“I guess I did get in it a little late,” said Ritchey with a laugh.

However, his boss, Apex ski patrol director Paul Hirschfield, is quick to qualify the number.

“That’s a very, very young 63,” said Hirschfield. “Steve is very capable and competent. And now with a dog like Charlie on board — especially when we get pronounced avalanche seasons like we have had in the last three or four years — there is a greater possibility of having to do a rescue, and this will make everything so much easier and faster for us.”

Just how effective the use of avalanche rescue dogs are was illustrated in a National Research Council Canada study.

It showed a trained canine is the equivalent of 20 foot searchers, and can cover a one-hectare area (hasty or coarse search) in 30 minutes compared to the four hours it would take that number of people using probe poles.

As well, a dog and handler can be quickly airlifted to a site and begin looking much sooner.

The simple equation in search and rescue terms is: “speed equals a viable victim.”

The general rule is the survival rate for people buried in snow is 90 per cent if found in 15 minutes, dropping to 30-50 per cent after 35 minutes.

There are documented cases of people living for hours, but those instances are rare.

“It depends on the snow conditions, how deep they are buried and whether they have some air that’s getting to them — they might live up to an hour or longer,” said Ritchey. “Most times there is some room to breathe but that area gets glazed up from your breath and you start breathing in your exhaled air and then you die.”

Dogs can find people or human-scented items like clothes up to several metres deep that otherwise might be missed.

Ironically, it was his own first-hand experience some years ago in the backcountry near Nakusp that got him interested in his current line of work.

That was an incident where he found himself riding the crest on a wave of snow down a steep, narrow gully thinking his only hope was to make it to the fast-approaching trees.

He did so, but not without suffering some broken ribs from the force of the snow as it “wrapped” him around one of the trees.

Ritchey wound up spending a couple of days in hospital with broken ribs and a much greater respect for snow-related dangers.

“I’m just very lucky, it could have been much, much worse,” he said.

There is an average of 14 avalanche-related fatalities annually in Canada, with 2008-09 being one of the worst with 24 deaths.

B.C.’s first death this winter came at the end of December when a Maple Ridge man died after being swept away while snowmobiling near Coquihalla Pass.

In addition to using common sense, officials urge people to be prepared by carrying the necessary equipment such as beacon, probe and shovel.

Although the recent warming trend has sent the avalanche rating skyward the worst is still to come with the approach of spring.

Avalanches are a regular occurrence in the Apex area, and although there have not been any recent fatalities, last year a skier suffered a broken leg and the previous winter another man was completely buried but was able to be rescued.

“Absolutely, the potential always exists and there have been a number of near misses and that’s why adding another level of protection (Charlie) is so important,” said Hirschfield.

Although they have not yet been involved in a snow search yet, Ritchey and Charlie (also a certified ground searcher) recorded their first “find” last November.

The pair located a missing hunter from Princeton.

“When Charlie and I found him, unfortunately it was too late. But at least the family got closure, which is very important,” he said.

In the short time Ritchey and Charlie have been together, a very strong bond has developed between the pair.

“You become joined at the hip and you learn to read the dog, and that’s a big part of the team aspect,” said Ritchey. “I may have started this late in life but my goal is to establish a program at Apex for search dogs, and so if I can pass that on and we have a future for dogs here that would be great.”

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