Alpine Rescue Dogs

The following is excerpted from Smithsonian Magazine. Click here to read the whole story.

volunteer firefighters in Colorado

Alpine Rescue circa 1955

Since the early 18th century, monks living in the snowy, dangerous St. Bernard Pass—a route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland—kept St. Bernard dogs to help them on their rescue missions after bad snowstorms. Over a span of nearly 200 years, about 2,000 people, from lost children to Napoleon’s soldiers, were rescued because of the heroic dogs’ uncanny sense of direction and resistance to cold.

At a little more than 8,000 feet above sea level sits the Great St. Bernard Pass, a 49-mile route in the Western Alps. The pass is only snow free for a couple of months during the summer and has been a treacherous route for many travelers throughout history. In order to help struggling trekkers, an Augustine monk named St. Bernard de Menthon founded a hospice and monastery around the year 1050.

At the turn of the 18th century, servants called marroniers were assigned to accompany travelers between the hospice and Bourg-Saint-Pierre, a municipality on the Swiss side. By 1750, marroniers were routinely accompanied by the dogs, whose broad chests helped to clear paths for travelers. The marroniers soon discovered the dogs’ tremendous sense of smell and ability to discover people buried deep in the snow, and sent them out in packs of two or three alone to seek lost or injured travelers.

The canines made rescue excursions on the St. Bernard Pass for the next 150 years. Often the dogs would find buried travelers, dig through the snow and lie on top of the injured to provide warmth. Meanwhile, the other dog would return to the hospice to alert the monks of the stranded pilgrim. The system became so organized that when Napoleon and his 250,000 soldiers crossed through the pass between 1790 and 1810, not one soldier lost his life. The soldiers’ chronicles tell of how many lives were saved by the dogs in what the army called “the White Death.”

All in all, the St. Bernard rescue dogs were credited with saving the lives of more than 2,000 people until the last documented recovery in 1897 when a 12-year-old boy was found nearly frozen in a crevice and awakened by a dog.

 

~ If you haven’t gotten your 2012 Firefighter Calendar yet, it’s not too late! You can purchase them at The Big Chili. 100% of the proceeds from every calendar sold through the end of the year goes to our local fire departments.

 

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