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New era for avalanche dogs service

The Wānaka App

Maddy Harker

26 March 2024, 4:06 PM

New era for avalanche dogs serviceMatt and Wizzid celebrate after another successful SARDA NZ assessment search at the Southern Hemisphere Proving Ground last winter.

Aspiring Avalanche Dogs (AAD) founder Matt Gunn says he is proud of the legacy the organisation is leaving behind as avalanche dog services for the Southern Lakes enter a new era. 

A familiar sight on the mountain, Matt and his avalanche-trained border collie Wizzid will be at Treble Cone again this winter, but for the first full season they will be representing the recently-formed Search and Rescue Dogs Avalanche NZ (SARDA NZ) rather than AAD, whose goal it was to provide a succession of teams just at Treble Cone.

The new SARDA NZ organisation has 17 teams (handler and dog duos) around the country including three at Treble Cone (as well as Matt and Wizzid, there is Brendan Kearns with Poppy and Tussock, and Callum Grant with Ziggy).

“SARDA NZ is the new national body tasked by the NZ Police to provide an avalanche search dog response, we also have full endorsement from the Mountain Safety Council and the Ski Area Association of New Zealand,” Matt said. 

Matt is involved with the organisation as a trainer and is on the fundraising committee.

AAD made the difficult decision to break away from NZLandSAR to form SARDA NZ mainly due to funding cuts, he said. But Matt is proud of what had been achieved with AAD, saying: “We’re going to leave behind a real legacy.”

The small, volunteer-run organisation, which operated for almost 15 years, punched above its weight, he said, doing things Matt said he hadn’t seen elsewhere, “even internationally”.

This included how the dogs are transported around the hill “in the dog rig which we call the rocketship; it’s a rescue toboggan on steroids which we had custom made”; and the Alpine Survival Kits (ASK) AAD developed, which include essentials for providing shelter and introducing heat.

“If people are fortunate enough to survive the trauma of an avalanche, very sadly many victims die of hypothermia once they are exposed to the elements,” Matt said.

Wizzid and Matt training at Treble Cone last winter. 

There have been over 20 searches in AAD’s history, including police and ski patrol deployments, but no rescues “as there has never been anyone to find”.

“Having multiple dogs on site we are able to help the search party reach a point of high confidence that no one is buried which is massive in our ability to call the search site clear. This is not only important as it reduces the risk to the search party but it’s massive for the company as they navigate the corporate side of things,” Matt said.

“It’s not just about the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Even just having the dogs on the hill is significant.”

With the move over to SARDA NZ comes additional support from semi-retired professionals on the business and fundraising side, more opportunities “and being more in control of our own destiny”, Matt said.

“We’re going to do some really cool things,” he said. 

The annual Cardrona/Treble Cone season pass raffle will take place in early June, this year raising money for SARDA NZ instead of AAD for the first time, with all funds raised tagged to be spent in the Wānaka region.

There are also some exciting announcements due in the coming weeks, Matt said.

As SARDA NZ is a new organisation it is currently in need of funds for equipment and anyone who would like to make a donation can do so via the QR code on the organisation’s website.

"The generosity and incredible support that AAD has received over the years from local businesses and the public has enabled us to build a foundation of equipment and processes that will serve the region for many years to come,” Matt said.

“I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved and on behalf of the AAD committee I would like to thank everyone for their support and encourage everyone to get behind SARDA NZ.” 

Learn more about SARDA NZ, follow them on Facebook or donate here.

PHOTOS: Supplied