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The Swiss Tradition of Extreme Rescue

Beatrice Lessi

Why I heard about it

Last week I was offered a wonderful helicopter tour to Jungfrau, one of the primary summits of the Swiss Alps. My friend Marc Domenig (who, I later discovered, is involved with some of the aspects of pilots training) took me there from Zurich and I am still wondering how it was possible to transfer from the city summer backdrop to that magical snowy landscape so quickly. A helicopter, for a beginner like me, is a magical experience for many reasons; one of them being how fast the scenery changes in front of your eyes. I don’t think one can fly over mountain peaks and glaciers without feeling a deep stupor and marvel at the grand scenery. It is absolutely awesome.


A private helicopter flight can teach you more than you think!

Glacier Landing

I always regarded helicopter flying as something either for rich people, or for tourists visiting special landmarks. Glacier landing, in particular, was for me, simply, a luxury tourist attraction. Marc opened a new world to me when he explained the importance of mountain training and landing on glaciers for the helicopter rescue teams all over the world. This kind of training is the best preparation for extreme rescues and in general for any medical emergency that needs a helicopter transport. Switzerland has a longstanding tradition for helicopter rescue and has set the modern international standards.


Incredible glacier landscape. Photo: anchoragetour.com

Training Excellence

In 2008 a hugely popular TV documentary, Die Bergretter(The Mountain Rescuers) showed the public for the first time how mountain rescuers were training, and in real action. Before that, all the material about the subject was staged. Swiss TV went along for months and showed everything that was going on; the result is pretty emotional and the images are absolutely stunning. A Swiss rescue team flies up to almost 7000 meters int he Himalayas, teaching a newly established team of Himalayas/Everest rescue pilots. At that altitude, one cannot afford a single mistake. Everything has to be done with surgical precision and could mean the difference between life and death.
One of the documentary’s core topics is the pilots responsibility in the midst of the action. They come to a point where they need to ask: “can I now take the risk without causing a second accident, or will I have to abandon the mission?” To be able to take such decisions, pilots need a lot of experience, technical know-how and practical training.


A Rega team at work – helping in every condition. Photo: tagesanzeiger.ch

Rega – My Favorite Swiss Organisation

The history of air rescue – both mountain rescue and of services like the one offered from Rega (the famous Swiss Emergency Medical Assistance by Air, a non-profit, privately run foundation working in accordance with the principles of the Red Cross) is relatively young, and can be traced back to 1968.
In his interview about extreme rescues, Beat Perren, founder of Air Zermatt, describes how, at that time, the mountain resort of Zermatt had no access road or ambulances. The last train left at eight o’clock at night. For a patient having an unexpected heart attack, for example, there was no immediate help available. A heliport was planned , but initially met with political opposition. Finally a popular vote was needed to clear the path, and a helicopter was purchased. One pilot and one mechanic composed the first team. Air rescuing was in its infancy and pioneering interventions started. Air Zermatt was the first to use the tripod, to have a doctor on the base, to test and develop a number of instruments and techniques that are now the top-level standard of medical service all over the world.
I was particularly struck by one of Mr. Perren’s sentences summarising his memories of years of rescues: “you have a lot of good experiences, but what is surprising is that very few people you save thank you afterwards. Even if you have saved their life”. I guess many people take assistance for granted and expect a top service in case of emergency. Obviously, though, behind any top service there is a teamwork made by people; there is hard training; there are emotions.

Get Free Training – Aim At Excellence

If anybody is interested in having a deeper look into the challenges of helicopter flights in the mountains and glacier landing, Marc and his instructor Guido Brun (a professional pilot with more than 25 000 hours of flight) have written it all up. Their website is a guide for other pilots (or anybody who is interested in helicopter flight) and was created for the sole purpose of enhancing the latter’s know-how for advanced flying techniques, thereby increasing safety for everybody. The website isn’t intended for profit and is accessible free of charge for everybody to read. For more information, click here.


Glacier Landing to the next level at glacierlandings.com