The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Avalanche teams doggedly prepare to be called out during 2010 Olympics

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WHISTLER, B.C. - There are two simultaneous conversations happening these days atop Whistler mountain.

One is about what life is going to look like there next winter during the 2010 Olympics, the other about the avalanches this winter that have killed 15 people across the province so far.

On a recent winter night, a group of wind-kissed mountain staff traded sarcastic barbs about the Games in between sombre recountings of avalanche situations until eventually came the question everyone was thinking.

"A recent avalanche incident made the international papers," said Tim Boal, a retired RCMP officer.

"Can you imagine if the Olympics was on at the same time?"

Olympic events will be held both in Whistler, B.C., and on Cypress mountain in North Vancouver.

Over twenty-five hundred athletes and officials, thousands of spectators and thousands more volunteers will be on or near those mountains during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The RCMP-led Olympic security team will secure the venues and the spectators but then there's the matter of safeguarding against any havoc wreaked by the snow itself.

The fear for the Games isn't that a roaring wave of snow will engulf an athlete or a spectator but that people using ski runs or backcountry trails in the area could end up trapped.

Security planners say that any incident near the Games and during the Games will reflect on the Games and they need to be prepared.

"There will be a lot of people here and we want this resource to be available," said Boal, who is overseeing dog services for the Olympics.

"RCMP resources will be tied up with other things."

Meet Bree, an apricot standard poodle.

She's one of 18 dogs currently vying for a spot on the all-volunteer avalanche rescue team for the Games.

Though there are police dogs trained for avalanche rescue, most of the canine community will have their noses to the grindstone during the Games, keeping alert for a whiff of danger.

Finding a team of dogs that could work during the Games is how Boal ended up on the top of Whistler mountain this month testing 14 dogs for their aptitude as search and rescue animals.

Bree is an unusual choice for a rescue dog in a world where hardy German shepherds and rugged retrievers are kings on the snow mound.

But during her beginner training, Bree put some of them to shame.

Her nose just skimmed the crystal snow as she furiously tried to pick up the scent, again and again, of something foreign to the mountain.

The sign she'd found it was her tail.

It changed from a tick-tock twitch to an alarmed waggle until she'd dug through a mound of snow to snap her teeth around the prize, a ratty old sweater.

Passing a series of tests like that will eventually allow Bree, and her handlers, to obtain certification from one of world's most prestigious avalanche dog rescue associations - Canada's.

The association, known as CARDA, is a B.C.-based volunteer group of elite ski patrollers that began 30 years ago to formalize the training program for avalanche rescue dogs.

CARDA's program and reputation is the reason why the RCMP sought it out to provide the dogs for the Olympics.

Getting just basic certification with a dog takes as much as two years, but by the time patrollers reach the level where they can run their own search teams, they're often on at least their second or third canine partner.

The annual certification courses mark the culmination of hours of training handlers also do on their own time.

While most search dogs are purebred, even mutts have a place on the team.

Kal, a two and a half year old mix, seemed intelligent and strong so patroller Bree Korobanik thought she'd see if the dog could hack it on the mountain.

"She absolutely loves the snow, and she loves trying to find (things)," she said.

Many patrollers at the course have stories of bodies they've found or those they couldn't, but sharing with someone who doesn't work in their world is hard.

"It's a very complex set of emotions for anyone in the rescue business," said Kyle Hale, president of CARDA whose day job is at Kicking Horse mountain in Golden, B.C.

"You train and you put a lot of time and effort into developing this resource knowing full well you're going to be called out to deal with fatalities."

Though many CARDA members often have full time jobs as ski patrollers or avalanche forecasters, the fact that they're certified to work with a rescue dog doesn't bring them a higher salary.

Some groused openly they resented being asked to take time off to volunteer for the Games when so many other security people were getting paid.

The security budget for the Olympics has not been released but is speculated to be somewhere between half and $1 billion.

Those picked for the team will have accommodation and meals paid for and will be on call in case of calamity at any of the three mountain area venues.

Whether it's a real threat is uncertain; over the last two winters, the avalanche risk in the area ran the scale from low to high.

To the team, the risk isn't as important as the need to be prepared - and optimistic.

Only one person was ever found alive by a dog in Canada after an avalanche, in Fernie, B.C. nine years ago.

"We're going to get another one," Hale said.

"There's enough dogs scattered across the province in areas that have fast response times and I'm confident we're going to save another life."

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