Queenstown reporter Christina McDonald was dog bait
this week and survived to tell the tale. She tells what it is
like to be buried alive in snow on the Remarkables skifield and
Dog handler Matt Gunn gives commands to his avalanche dog
Rocket outside the snow cave. Photos by Blair Whitaker.
It is not every day you are buried alive, straining your ears
to pick up the approaching sounds of paws pounding through
And it is not every day an avalanche occurs, but when they
do, teams of specially trained dogs need to be prepared for
the job ahead.
Otago Daily Times reporter Christina McDonald helps train
Earlier this week, I agreed to the "dog-baiting"
experience and was escorted into a snow cave and essentially
locked in, all in aid of helping train 2-year-old Border collie
cross Rocket, a trainee avalanche dog.
It was hard to get a sense of what it would be like to be
caught in an avalanche-induced snow cave, since while
enclosed in my purpose-built one I was equipped with a radio
transceiver and an "Avalung" breathing tube if needed and the
cave's floor was lined with a camping mat.
Nonetheless, with a giant sleeping bag-style jacket, borrowed
from Blair Whitaker of snow cave fame, limiting upper body
movements, I did feel a sense of helplessness and reliance on
my rescue team.
When Rocket did arrive, he immediately began digging a small
hole in the snow wall between myself and the rest of the
Once he had broken through, a long nose appeared and
furiously inhaled the scent of what he was looking for, which
surprisingly, was not a human body.
Before I had contorted myself into the cave I was given
Rocket's toy rope.
Rocket, like the other avalanche dogs, has been trained to
think his beloved toy has been submerged in snow and his
mission is to locate it, after which he will be treated to a
Aspiring Avalanche Dogs handler Matt Gunn said the dogs were
trained "to think that the toy is in the hole".
"We try to have at least three sessions a week. It just
depends on other work commitments and volunteers," Mr Gunn
Friends and family were "roped" in as dog bait, but people
were often interested in taking part in the training once
they heard what Aspiring Avalanche Dogs was doing.
During a real avalanche situation the dogs would be searching
for "any old human scent" and handlers kept the dogs' toys
hidden in their jackets.
"We do what we call 'subbing of the toy', which means that we
throw in the toy [once the dog has located someone or
confirmed there is no-one trapped] so it just magically
In the Southern Lakes area, along with Aspiring Avalanche
Dogs, there were volunteer dog teams at Cardrona and the
Remarkables and another trained dog in Glenorchy.
In an avalanche situation New Zealand Police would deploy dog
teams to specific locations.
Once Rocket had alerted Mr Gunn and the others to my
location, he was showered with attention and given his
And after I emerged from the mountain's icy grip, I was free
to return to work.