Caroline Elliott - Ski Patrol Search and Rescue dog handler
"I've always had a love for the mountains. From a very young age my father used to take me to Austria with the family. My dad wasn’t a skier, so he sent mum off with me to the Three Valleys, Meribel. I was a gymnast when I was very young, I was part of a team by the age of ten. For muscle tone and suppleness it set me up for life I’d say. I started skiing when I was 10, and at age 17 I took up freestyle skiing. I loved the gymnastic side of it, it was very technical, I learned to use my edges very well. We had competitions in the Alps, and in the summer I used to train off a water jump in Holland with the Dutch team. One of my major passions is ski touring, as well as normal skiing and hiking.
I joined the fire brigade in 2007 here in France, and 4 or 5 years later I joined the Search and Rescue dog handling team. The course we do for avalanche Search and Rescue is in the Alps, and to be an avalanche dog handler you have to pass. It’s two and half weeks and it’s not only intensive, but it's quite expensive. It’s thanks to the fire brigade I’ve got where I got because they paid for all the training.
Ski Patrol is a qualification you can do around the world, but the qualification I did in Australia in 2004 wasn’t valid in France so I had to redo it. I’ve been working in this field for the past 10 years in a ski resort in the Pyrenees. I've decided to come out of it due to injury, so I’m taking a year’s sabbatical to have a career break and reflect. I’ve got a few projects to develop, I’m still training the dog with the French dog handling unit, and I’m doing my film, Follow Fjord."
"Search and rescue is a year-round role, like the mountain rescue in the UK. It’s voluntary, although in France it’s paid a minimal sum. It’s not a job, it’s a full time activity, but it doesn’t pay a living wage. I have to juggle to fit it with the rest of life. In winter when the dog is on duty, you take 24 hour shifts with a beeper system. On those days you can't go far, you have to be able to get in a car or a helicopter and just go. If you’re in the supermarket shopping, you just have to run. You can’t go out and party, you have to adapt. The rest of the year it’s a bit easier, but with an avalanche you’ve got very minimal time to arrive and be effective.
In a call out, the beeper will go off and I’ll get a call telling me where it is. At that point I'll run for my red uniform and my ABS backpack. The dog will realise as soon as he sees the uniform - he knows he’s going to work - he gets very excited. He gets into the back of the car and we go off to meet the fire brigade vehicle, or to the helicopter drop zone. Generally for avalanches we’ll winch from the helicopter because we need to get in there as fast as possible.
If it’s a search and rescue up in the mountains, normally the dog is in a harness, and they drop us off by landing in a safe area or winch us down if it's more tricky. Once he’s down, I take a deep breath through my nose and say ‘Cherche!’ and then he’ll bound off. But he knows already, he knows when he goes in the helicopter. When the rescue helicopter passes here he’ll look up, even from a sound sleep, he recognises the sound of the engine."
"There are more callouts in the summertime for people that are lost in the mountains. So he’s air scenting, looking for any scent. When he finds it, he’ll try and calculate where the scent is coming from and follow it. When he finds the person, it’s for us to do the investigation, it might not be the right person and you have to go and find someone else. All he knows is that he will get a reward if he finds live human scent. A tracking dog can find someone quicker if they've got the smell of the person available on say a piece of clothing and they have a starting track, but air scenting is like a needle in a haystack.
Normally avalanches happen in off piste-areas, and 9/10 avalanches are started by a human being on a slope that hasn’t been groomed (compacted), or backcountry territory. The people who are doing it generally are skilled skiers or boarders, but these days due to the equipment that is available, people find it easier to go off and do things that they might not have the mountain knowledge to be doing. Also, ski touring used to be a sport people did around April/May, after the ski resorts shut, but now people are ski touring in the season as well. So a lot more people are going out into the backcountry.
With off-piste skiing you have to gain the knowledge before you go, be well equipped and know how to use the equipment, and respect the conditions. It’s actually making yourself aware, and going out with someone who is a bit more experienced than you if you can, never skiing alone, if you can avoid it."
"This season I don’t think they've had many callouts, it depends on the snow. If you get a huge snowfall, and different temperatures and other factors helping to generate avalanches there can probably be six in a season. In an avalanche search and rescue scenario you generally walk in with the dog, so you have to be very competent in the snow.
I like the challenge, I've always lived off challenge, there’s an adrenaline rush. The mountain environment is my favourite place to be, and being able to practice and do something that I’m passionate about, and to develop snow safety and knowledge with people is the best result for me."
Photos by Eric Roustand and Jean Michel Morlot