Many people’s image of avalanche rescue is a big fluffy St Bernard dog lolloping through thick snow with a barrel of brandy. Legend has it that St Bernard de Menthon visited the high alpine passes to exorcise demons that were harassing voyagers. Towards the end of the Roman Empire monks built hospices (mansio) on the passes. One of their tasks was to help stricken travelers.
Since the 17th century the monks have used the hardy St Bernard dog which has become a universal image of mountain rescue. A stubborn and clever companion, it is said that they would sooner perish than let a man die on the mountain. In 1830 the Canon Dallèves described how one day the postman arrived at the hospice having encountered a man too tired to walk on account of the bad weather. The monks immediately set out, despite the 60cm of fresh snow and huge flakes tumbling out of the heavens. They fancied that they could hear avalanches rumbling down from the heights of Mont Fort. The wind was so strong it blew out the lanterns. It was the St Bernard dogs alone that guided them. At 11pm, thanks to the dogs, they found the poor man lying against a rock, his hands frozen.
These days the rescue services prefer lighter breeds such as the Alsatian or Sheepdog and technical means including heat sensors, ground imaging radar and more particularly Recco and avalanche beacons are playing an increasingly important role.
In the St Bernard’s hospice the Augustinian monks are selling their 18 dogs to devote more time to people. The dogs need a lot of care and are very lively and there are only four monks remaining at the hospice. The dogs will be sold to owners who promise to return once a year. The dogs are said to have saved the lives of 2,500 travelers over the years but have not been used for avalanche rescue work for half a century.