A mountaineer's best friend

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The Independent Online
UP ON the screes of Mellbreak, just above Crummock Water in the northern Lake District, a black Border collie called Megan is hard at work. A peregrine falcon dips in the wind above. On hillsides close by, the dog's mother and sister round up sheep. A different, sometimes tougher, job has fallen to Megan. She searches, often in atrocious weather, not for lost ewes, but stray fell walkers.

On the ground below, a small group of humans and dogs from local mountain rescue teams watch her progress in the grey light. It seems a peculiar way to spend a cold Bank Holiday morning. 'You need one full day and two evenings a week to train a dog for rescue work,' says Ian Forsyth, of the Wasdale mountain rescue team. Much practice is necessary, sometimes in deep snow, to keep dogs and handlers up to scratch.

The dogs' efficiency cannot be denied. Last month, it was a rescue dog that confirmed to searchers that the bodies of two paratroopers lay 9ft below the snow in a Glencoe gully. It was another rescue dog, Norcon Cobra, a German shepherd, which found Jane Thomas half buried in snow, still just alive, in the Cairngorms, with visibility at less than 10ft. Despite being found, Ms Thomas later died.

For dogs, unlike helicopters, can work in the worst conditions. 'One day we were on exercise above Eskdale, searching in a blizzard,' says Mr Forsyth. 'I realised my dog had vanished. I called and called, then I felt a nudge on my leg and there were two black holes looking up at me from the white. He'd been completely covered by snow.'

Loch, a collie owned by David Riley, of the Langdale-Ambleside mountain rescue team, once went missing for two days in atrocious conditions on Helvellyn. He was last seen barking at the top of a gully and the rescue teams feared he had been caught in an avalanche. None the less, the search continued. A farmer's collie of similar appearance was appalled to find himself winched into a rescue helicopter. Finally the real Loch was discovered heading home through a nearby valley.

'The problem is that so many rescues happen,' says Rick Outhwaite, rescuer and dog handler with the Cockermouth team, drily, 'on nights you wouldn't put a dog out.' In Scotland some of the rescue dogs are owned by the police. In the Lake District all 21 are family pets, trained, owned and worked by volunteers who are dependent on employers for leave to answer daytime emergencies and on donations for equipment and insurance.

Rick Outhwaite is a council planning officer. Ian Forsyth works for British Nuclear Fuels at nearby Sellafield. Why put themselves through such hard work and, sometimes, risk?

'Someone would do it for me,' says Mr Outhwaite. 'I think I spent three-and-a-half years training my dog, Arrow. Then we found someone one night after six-and-a-half hours. It makes it all worthwhile.'

Dogs have repeatedly saved lives since Hamish MacInnes of the Glencoe rescue team introduced the idea of using them for mountain rescue work in Britain 20 years ago. But there are times when the dogs, for all their best efforts, come too late. 'When Prince finds a body rather than a living person,' says Mr Forsyth, 'I can always tell. There's a different indication. He's concerned.'

After the Lockerbie disaster in 1988, when search and rescue dogs were called out to look for the scattered bodies, two dogs never worked again, says Mr Forsyth, who was there with Prince. Highly intelligent and sensitive to their handlers' feelings, the atmosphere of tragedy, and the high number of the dead they had found, ended their enthusiasm for their work.

The stress affected handlers too. 'For quite a period of time afterwards I was upset,' says Mr Forsyth. 'I don't think it ever goes away. But now I can drive past Lockerbie. The first time I did that - it was six or eight months afterwards - I burst into tears.'

In most cases, however, missing climbers on the fells are found, suffering from cold or with a sprained ankle, but safe, or the hunt turns out to have been based on a false alarm.

Mountain rescue work with dogs has its mundane and even amusing moments. There was a time when Prince, out searching on Eskdale, came across a honeymoon couple camped in search of a little tranquility. At 3am, hearing barking, the husband opened the tent door, only to see a soaking, muddy, collie zoom past him into the marital sleeping bag. For the dogs' job is to find any human out on the hills, whether covered in heather, snow or bracken, or sheltered in a gully, and to follow the airborne scent to its source. Occasionally the dogs find walkers who are not lost and, very occasionally, also find and eat their sandwiches.

'Remember the case of the pile of butties?' says Mr Forsyth, looking up the hill. 'The dogs thought it was Shangri-La.' The small group by the lakeside look up as Miff, the trainee dog of Wasdale mountain rescue member Penny Kirby, searches the slopes of Mellbreak. Suddenly her tail begins to circle like a helicopter blade and she is running across the fell to find her handler, frantic to pass on the news that she has found someone lying on the ground. 'Good girl]' comes the cry faintly down the hillside. 'Show me] Show me]' Miff runs off again towards her discovery, and back, to and fro, the classic sequence of the rescue dog.

Ideally, a dog also barks on making a find, and again on reporting to the boss, so that in bad weather they are more easily traced. Some are keener on this than others: Prince, for example, barks on report, but not at the found person, unless he can't reach them. Arrow barks loudly on finding and tears at Rick's trousers in excitement. Miff, by contrast, is a quiet dog. Her body language is clear enough. That which was lost has been found - as it will be, a score or so times, by such dogs running on these same dangerous fells, in 1994.

(Photograph omitted)