Whistler's first avalanche dog stars in children's storybook 

Radar paves way for CARDA and civilian avalanche dog-handler teams

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROD GRANGE - alpha dog Radar the avalanche dog, pictured with Bruce Watt, is immortalized in story.
  • photo by Rod Grange
  • alpha dog Radar the avalanche dog, pictured with Bruce Watt, is immortalized in story.

The official story of the origins of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) usually begins with a 1978 avalanche on Whistler Mountain that could have killed patroller Bruce Watt.

But that's not the whole story.

It's true that a close call prompted Watt to push for an on-mountain rescue dog program at Whistler, which would ultimately lead to the formation of CARDA.

And it's true that the first avalanche dog, Radar, a beautiful black German shepherd, was Watt's faithful companion for nine years and is now the star of a children's book to be released this year, Radar, the Rescue Dog.

There is, however, another story behind the story — a deadly and tragic mountaineering accident that could have scarred Watt's life in sadness and pain.

Instead, he found comfort in Radar, and later Max and Quest, and the purpose he found in their on-mountain job helped him heal.

That is where the story of CARDA really begins. And Radar's story too.

It was the fall of 1976 and Watt and his best friend John Cleland were looking for duds in Whistler Bowl — avalanche bombs that don't go off when they're supposed to.

They were young men living the Whistler dream of the seventies — squatting on the side of the mountain, skiing their hearts out all winter long. Watt was a patroller, Cleland a snow cat driver. Winter was just around the corner that Thanksgiving weekend; you could smell the sweet anticipation of it in the air.

And then Cleland's dream was cut short; a simple twist of fate, a misplaced step. He lost his footing and fell. Though he was medevaced to Vancouver, he later died.

In those days there was no critical incident stress counselling to deal with the loss of his friend, or the trauma of the events that led to his death.

"It was like 'Here, have a Scotch, you'll be alright,'" recalled Watt.

He wasn't all right at all but it would take two more years, and another close call with death, before he would find a way to heal.

In 1978 Watt was caught in an avalanche with another man on the north face of Whistler.

Watt sets the scene from the Peak Chair — looking to the left on the way up that chair is a rock face near the top. The snow on that face let go on Watt, and a visiting patroller from Snowbird, on the flat spot just before the run called Surprise.

"If we had gone over Surprise we probably wouldn't have lived," said Watt. "Luckily we were only taken a short way. We were very lucky."

He was buried but with his arm sticking out he was found in short order, dug out and then immediately began helping in the search for the Snowbird patroller, who was buried for seven minutes before he was rescued. The snow was probed with skis, the patroller dug out by hands.

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