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Guide Dave McKinley and his avalanche rescue dog, Stellar, with Mt Cook looming behind them.

A Twizel-based guide and his dog on the front lines of search and rescue

When the mountains roar with the sound of an avalanche, Twizel-based guide Dave McKinley and his dog Stellar are on the front lines of search and rescue.

In the early hours of the morning on 31 October last year, the phone rang as Dave McKinley was getting ready to head into Tasman Saddle Hut on a guiding trip. A seemingly innocuous distant rumble far up the Hooker Valley, in Aoraki-Mt Cook National Park, signified disaster. Climber Jo Morgan and her two mountain guides, Martin Hess and Wolfgang Maier, had been caught in a large avalanche on Mt Hicks.

A helicopter was despatched swiftly to pick up McKinley’s avalanche rescue dog, Stellar, who was back home in Twizel (McKinley’s son, Finn, filmed the chopper landing on the front lawn). But before McKinley and Stellar could be taken to the disaster site, two bodies had been located. Morgan survived, but both guides died.

Stellar was stood down but McKinley, who’d been friends with the men, helped retrieve their bodies. Avalanches can be fickle – two people standing near each other can be caught in totally different ways – and finding people beneath the snow is a highly specialised skill. “The recovery of a body is still a comfort,” he says, “and using a dog helps keep the rest of the SAR [Search and Rescue] team to a low period of risk.”

One of the most experienced handlers in the country, McKinley has been training avalanche dogs for more than 25 years and is an internationally qualified mountain guide. One of only a few avalanche dog teams in New Zealand, he and Stellar are on standby for a huge slice of the country, from Wānaka to Mt Ruapehu.

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Dave McKinley & his rescue dog, Stellar, by Mt Cook.Stellar is the fourth dog McKinley has trained and she’s a third-generation search dog: her father and grandmother were both operational avalanche dogs. McKinley has always had labradors, and while he stresses that one breed is not necessarily better than another, avalanche specialists need strength, drive and determination.

“You could train a chihuahua to search, but you’d drop it in the snow and lose it.”

The outdoors is in McKinley’s blood. In 1946, his father, Joe, was the sergeant in charge of the UK Royal Air Force’s first mountain rescue team, based out of Fort William in Scotland. “He encouraged me in Scouts, never put up barriers to any crazy concept. He’d just check that I had a compass and say, ‘Off you go.’”

McKinley’s first deployment was in the late 1990s, when an avalanche struck on the remote Mt Strachan, above the Landsborough Valley in South Westland. Once on site with a search and rescue team, his dog indicated a particular spot, but when the handlers probed the snow, nothing was found. The dog was persistent, however, so McKinley tried going in at a different angle – and found the body of one of the climbers. It was an important lesson that still underpins McKinley’s training and deployments 25 years later.

“Trust the dogs,” he says. “If you get it wrong, then it’s generally the handler who got it wrong. Dogs don’t lie. They will tell you what they’re finding; it’s up to us to lead and interpret the information.”

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.