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Story | Unforgettable mission: Mountain rescue in Tyrol

How does a mission work and how do you actually become a mountain rescuer?

by Lukas Ruetz • 10/09/2016
Whether it's an avalanche or a fall into a crevasse: For many mountain rescuers, the most strenuous time of the year is about to begin again. We explain who the people are who risk a lot for others on the mountain and why they sometimes cross the line.

It's Tuesday, March 3, 2015, 5:15 p.m., my cell phone beeps: a text message from the Tyrol control center: "Mission BR St. Sigmund/Sellrain local station, EL A. S., St. Sigmund, missing person Pforzheimer Hütte." I'm sitting in my room at my PC. Now I jump up, stuff some equipment and extra warm clothes into my touring backpack, put on my skins and sprint to the mountain rescue station in my touring boots. In the meantime, I make a phone call to our head of operations. He knows that the cook from our nearest mountain hut has set off alone on a ski tour today and, according to the landlady, has not yet returned.

On the way to the mission, I have to think about the weather of the last few days: strong westerly winds have been raging here and a lot of fresh snow has fallen on a miserable layer of old snow. Under these conditions, an avalanche is the first thing that goes through my mind.

Mountain watch or mountain rescue - a fundamental difference in Austria

The reason why I'm going out that day despite the bad weather: I am a mountain rescuer in Austria. Anyone who is often out and about in the German mountains would probably now call me a "mountain rescuer". What most people don't know: There are two organizations in Austria that are very different. In Austria, the mountain rescue service [Bergrettung] is primarily responsible for terrestrial, alpine rescue operations. Translated, this means: on the ground. Air rescue is provided by the ÖAMTC motorists' club with its Christophorus helicopter fleet and various private providers, who work closely with the mountain rescuers.

From the outside, mountain rescue in Austria is relatively uniform. However, the umbrella organization of mountain rescue is made up of seven groups in the federal states with alpine terrain. The organization is therefore more of a joint "working group" within which the provincial associations operate independently. The "Österreichische Bergrettungsdienst Land Tirol" is therefore an independent, individual association, which is divided into 93 local branches. The local branches are not a separate association and are therefore subject to the provincial association. The rescue techniques used and, above all, the training differ greatly within the federal states. However, they all have the same goal: to rescue missing, injured and even dead people - in some cases also to maintain (climbing) routes and take preventative measures so that accidents do not happen in the first place. There are currently around 4,300 men, 145 women and 65 mountain rescue dogs ready for action in Tyrol.

In contrast, the mountain watch/ mountain ranger service is primarily responsible for nature conservation: mountain ranger monitor nature conservation laws and are involved in the fight against neophytes, for example. Mountain rangers can issue warnings, arrest people, confiscate objects (such as too many collected mushrooms) and impose administrative penalties. The mountain ranger service is a public corporation that is completely independent of the mountain rescue service. In short: Asking someone wearing a green cross with an edelweiss on it on a red and black uniform the question: "Are you a member of the mountain rescue service?" is an absolute no-go in Austria!

On this early evening, a person is missing and every second counts for us mountain rescuers. I can already hear the helicopter at the mountain rescue station. I quickly grab a radio. It's already dusk - not good prospects for a search. I'm the first one ready for action, the helicopter flies me immediately to the rear Gleirschtal valley - without any additional equipment, that can be brought by those who follow. The clock is ticking in the case of an avalanche. The sooner someone is at the scene and can start searching for avalanches, the better. I also have my personal first aid kit in my backpack.

During the flight, the pilot and flight rescuer explain to me where the missing member of staff is thought to be, and then we're already there. The wind is still blowing very strongly from the west. I realize again why I didn't go on a private ski tour today. There are dozens of fresh, huge avalanche cones in the Gleirschtal valley - including in the area of the route where the person we are looking for is suspected to be. The pilot has a hard time landing in the weak, diffuse light, wind and snow. He sets me down on a fresh avalanche cone. There I meet two mountain guides staying at the hut who have set off on foot to provide assistance. I briefly talk to the mountain guides about the area they have already searched and switch my radio from trunk mode (works like a cell phone, needs a radio mast connection for transmission) to direct mode (transmission directly from radio to radio, like a walkie talkie). In Gleirschtal, there is no connection to a radio mast from the "Enge" away, so I will have no reception. Then I start searching the cone with the avalanche transceiver. Shortly afterwards, I am assisted by an avalanche dog handler and his four-legged friend. The helicopter has picked them up directly from home.

Within half an hour, a rescue team of around 20 people is on site with special rescue equipment and Akja. The head of our neighboring local station is also here and takes over the mountain operations management with me because he has much more experience than I do. In the meantime, an alpine police officer has also arrived at the avalanche cone.

The only connection to the outside world is via our radio to the radio at the hut. From there, the landlady can phone the operations control center in the valley. A direct connection is not possible with either a cell phone or a radio. We receive the message that more colleagues are waiting in the valley, but it is 6 p.m. and pitch dark, the helicopters can no longer shuttle and a walk to the search area would take three hours. In addition, the avalanche situation is still tense, there are already far too many people in the area at night and in the storm. However, the risk involved in this mission takes a back seat in our minds, because a human life is at stake. The young man left the hut four hours ago and may have been buried for a long time in the case of an avalanche, but as we all know, hope dies last.

Nobody is forcing us to go on this mission. Unlike the mountain rescue service, the mountain rescue service is not anchored in law and is therefore similar to a sports club, for example. This means that mountain rescuers do not have many rights, but also obligations.

There is no "right" to a rescue in the mountain rescue area - apart from the moral level. Anyone can refuse to go on a mission. Fortunately, this does not happen in practice, on the contrary: as on this day, the team tends to dare too much on most missions, for a variety of psychological reasons: Mission lust, group dynamics like on a joint tour, the awareness that "the faster we get to the top, the more likely the patient will survive".

Who wants to become a mountain rescuer

My colleagues on this search are very different people, but they have all undergone the same training. If you want to become a mountain rescuer, you have to be at least 14 years old - you can only go on missions from the age of 16. The main focus during admission is on mountaineering skills and previous knowledge. Basic mountaineering experience in various types of mountain sports is the primary requirement for a prospective mountain rescuer. Depending on the local station, the focus in the Wilder Kaiser region, for example, is on climbing skills, whereas in Sellrain the focus is on ski mountaineering skills. If the local station accepts an applicant, they are on probation. During this probationary year, each candidate should take part in as many training courses, exercises and comradely activities as possible within the local branch.

After the probationary period, each candidate must pass the standardized entrance examinations of the regional management: A summer part - safe climbing in alpine terrain, route leading with mountain boots at UIAA difficulty level IV to V, rope technique, abseiling, rope pulley, various knots and good first aid knowledge - and a winter part, in which a ski tour of at least 1.000 vertical meters with an ascent speed of at least 500m/hour, solid hairpin technique and safe skiing with parallel turns in all types of snow is tested.

In addition, a 16-hour first aid course and a tour report with several high-altitude tours, alpine climbing tours and ski tours must be submitted before the first exam. The criteria are not demanding for an experienced mountaineer. However, most people don't know this: There is often a lack of skiing and safe climbing in alpine terrain, i.e. walking without ropes up to difficulty level UIAA III. The best sport climber and the best freerider are of no use to mountain rescue if they cannot move around in potentially easy but highly exposed terrain without fear or can ski down with the Akja in broken snow.

What is not tested, however, is the local knowledge of the prospective mountain rescuers: most missions are carried out at night and in bad weather, otherwise the air rescue service usually takes over. As a prospective mountain rescuer, you should know the names of the fields in your area of operation, and the names of all the peaks anyway. In mountain regions, it is well known that every gully, no matter how small, every large rock and every chamber in the terrain has a long-established name.

Within a maximum of four further years, the successfully qualified candidate must complete a one-week winter course at the Tyrol Mountain Rescue Training Center in Jamtal (Silvretta), as well as a nine-day combined rock/ice/first aid course with examinations at the end of the course. The main focus of the basic courses is not on basic mountaineering and rope techniques and rescuing companions, as taught by the Alpine Club, for example - these are regarded as prerequisites. The focus is on planned mountain rescue, which is very different from companion rescue in many aspects and builds on this.

Whoever then becomes a "fully-fledged" mountain rescue member can also take on roles such as local station manager, equipment manager or secretary. You can also develop your skills in specific, three-day voluntary training courses (ice climbing course, alpine medicine, tactics, Dyneema, avalanche rescue, lift evacuation) at the Jamtal training center. There are also training courses for canyoning rescuers and avalanche dog handlers. According to the statutes, regular training courses within the local offices are also mandatory for every member.

Example of the summer course program.

Although we regularly practise searching for missing persons with comrades from the local office, this operation in the dark is not routine. We check one cone after the other with our beepers - at least those that can be reached with "both eyes closed" in terms of danger spots.

In a "planned" avalanche mission, we stick to the so-called grid search: First the rough surface search ("with eye and ear"), then search with the avalanche transceiver, then with the dog. If we don't find anything, we start the Recco search, followed by a chain search and vapor probe, then the dog has to go again. For this night, however, this is too time-consuming, tedious and definitely too dangerous. In addition, we don't know whether the missing person is buried in an avalanche at all. In the meantime, however, this seems very likely. I am in constant contact with the hut warden, who has now called the neighboring huts to rule out the possibility that the person we are looking for has not sought shelter in another hut.

Expensive mountain rescue

Despite our limited search, the operation incurs costs. Donations and subsidies cover the majority of the costs for training, administration and emergency equipment. As a stronghold of tourism and sport, the province of Tyrol is the biggest supporter of Tyrolean Mountain Rescue. In addition, there are individual tourism associations as well as other organizations, companies and private sponsors who maintain operations through subsidies. The Tyrolean Mountain Rescue Service also charges deployment costs and expense allowances, for example for piste rescue services. However, the 4,400 "normal" mountain rescuers in Tyrol work on a voluntary basis. We can purchase our personal equipment directly from the manufacturers at a discount, but we have to pay for it ourselves.

Like the air rescue organizations, the mountain rescue service normally bills every patient. Because health insurance and certain accident insurances often do not cover the rescue costs in alpine terrain at all or only partially, every outdoor sportsperson should have rescue cost insurance. Even a small operation can cost thousands of euros due to the duration of the ascent and descent and the technical effort involved, although only the cost price is charged without any profit being made. The Alpine associations, for example, but also the Tyrolean mountain rescue service itself, offer rescue cost insurance.

No one thinks about costs or insurance when the first colleagues at the last avalanche cone shout "Find!" loudly into the radio. Everyone interrupts their work and heads off to the site. It is now almost 23:00. In a very short time, we have freed the missing man's head and upper body from a burial depth of 1.2 meters. But it's too late: certain signs of death such as death marks and the onset of rigor mortis mean that even we mountain rescuers with our basic medical knowledge can be certain that we can neither resuscitate nor start any other treatment. Within seconds, the atmosphere changes from hectic and a mega-stressful situation to eerie silence. Anyone who has never experienced a situation like this cannot imagine the atmosphere.

From now on, we continue to dig at a leisurely pace and in awe of the lifeless body. Those who can't help due to lack of space assemble the akja and the vacuum mattress or stand quietly and thoughtfully next to it. After the alpine policeman has done his job, we unbuckle the skis from the casualty and free him from his poles. We put him in the Akja and head for the hut. After the landlady and her team have said goodbye to their colleague, we start the descent into the valley at 00:30. There are a few avalanche-prone spots, which we cross one by one. The powder is deep and really hinders the descent through the flat, over seven-kilometre-long valley with the Akja.

After well over an hour, we are finally back in St. Sigmund at the parking lot. We count off the crew to make sure everyone has made it back safely. The mortician is already waiting. Before he takes over the casualty, we gather around the deceased and pray an Our Father. Some of us knew him personally. Now we have to put the equipment away and report the operation to the control center as completed. We postpone the debriefing until one evening in the next few days. It's now Wednesday and most of us have to go to work in a few hours, but some of us can't sleep now anyway.

It wasn't just comrades from my local station who were involved in the operation. As only the administrative posts at state level are full-time members of the mountain rescue service, operations are often carried out jointly with neighboring local stations due to a lack of personnel. People who commute a long way to their workplace or do not receive time off work from their employer for missions cannot be deployed during working hours. The alarm is raised via SMS from the control center that receives the emergency calls (mountain rescue emergency call in Austria: 140). The frequency and type of operations at the local stations varies greatly depending on the area, season, size and frequency of use of the area: local stations in air sports centers regularly experience tree rescues from paragliders, others almost exclusively avalanche operations. Locations with glacier ski areas have an above-average number of crevasse rescues, especially in the fall. Others rescue exhausted climbers from long moderate routes almost daily for most of the year or only have to deal with one or two search missions for missing hikers every year.

Voluntary work and professionalism - a contradiction?

Although most mountain rescuers work on a voluntary basis, Tyrolean mountain rescue teams are constantly developing and improving existing mountain systems, rescue techniques and operational tactics and procedures. Some of these developments are regularly adopted by full-time rescue organizations. The training, equipment and techniques are therefore at a very high level, not least due to a management and training level that is driven by passion. Nevertheless, no operation is perfect and mistakes on a human level happen en masse. Climbers who believe that they will be treated like an emergency doctor are living in an illusory world. First and foremost, the aim is to transport the victim as gently and quickly as possible to a safe valley and the nearest hospital - on the mountain, we work with very limited resources and medical basics in a mostly dangerous environment, just like in war medicine. Even after years, volunteer mountain rescuers are not as experienced as full-time professionals could be in a very short space of time. Nevertheless, everyone does their best for the benefit of the patient and works professionally.

Two days after the mission, I am on site with the avalanche warning service to analyze the accident. The crack that we mountain rescuers couldn't make out in the dark was enormous in places. This mission will remain in my memory, whether I like it or not.

More information:
Avalanche analysis by LWD Tirol
Training guidelines
Mountain Rescue Tyrol homepage
Training center homepage

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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