AT 23,000 FEET. AT NIGHT. AGAINST THE CLOCK.
The most dangerous mission of mountain rescue pilot Tom Pfammatter’s career to date took place in the summer of 2005— and all because of a windbreaker. Pfammatter, then 35, was rescuing a hiker who had fallen at the base of the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps. When the SOS call came in, he was having dinner at the helicopter squadron hangar in Zermatt, a Swiss mountain village about 150 miles east of Geneva. It was already dark as Pfammatter climbed into the cockpit of his crimson Eurocopter EC135. The emergency doctor and paramedics squeezed in behind him. Pfammatter started the engines, then put on his night-vision goggles.
Ambulance flights in the mountains are extremely dangerous. Every gust of wind makes the helicopter shake. Falling rocks could put the lives of the crew at risk. At night, the pilot has to maneuver the helicopter in the toughest terrain without any points of reference, due to the limited light. Such missions, says Pfammatter, are “uncool.”
“Just as we reached the entrance to the valley, the night-vision goggles gave up the ghost,” he recounts. “There was no moonlight at all that night, meaning that the goggles didn’t get enough residual light. All I could see was this green and black mish-mash.”
Pfammatter hovered his helicopter above the valley entrance. Without night vision, he could go no further. But there was a person freezing up on the glacier.
“Then I remembered the power supply line, which goes through the Rhône Valley and leads up to the glacier.”
Pfammatter switched on the onboard headlights. The beam of light was too narrow to brighten up the valley and enable him to carry on flying. But it was wide enough for him to be able to feel his way along a power cable about the thickness of his finger. Pfammatter kept the helicopter 10 feet above the cable, then edged his way toward the glacier, foot by foot. The power line served as his guide, the helicopter headlights his torch.
Thirty minutes later the medics pulled the shivering hiker onboard. Pfammatter turned the helicopter around, and he flew them all safely to the hospital on his last drop of fuel.
“The next day, the guy we’d rescued told us he’d wanted to take photos on the mountain pass and that his jacket, which had cost him $285, had fallen over the safety barrier. When he climbed over the barrier to fetch it, he fell. That was why we flew this mission.”
Do the causes of the rescues often make him despair?
“No,” replies Pfammatter. “Because I never ask what it was that caused an accident. I’m a pilot and my job is to fly the rescue team from A to B.
Zermatt, one cold morning in March. The heliport is on a promontory at the edge of town. Air Zermatt’s conference room, with its well-worn sofa and a narrow kitchen unit, smells of dishwashing liquid and coffee.
Air Zermatt in numbers
are flown each year, on average, by the nine Air Zermatt helicopters. Around 700 of these take the rescue team away from hiking paths and ski slopes and into dangerous territory.
fly full-time for Air Zermatt. There are also eight rescue medics, 15 mechanics and a pool of 60 freelance doctors. The squadron is based at the heliport in the Swiss town.
was the altitude of the highest-ever helicopter rescue mission, carried out by Air Zermatt pilot Daniel Aufdenblatten on Annapurna in the Himalayas in April 2010.
was the body temperature of one man rescued by Air Zermatt’s senior doctor, Axel Mann, from a crevice— the lowest he’s seen. “He went on to marry his nurse,” Mann says.
“Mountain flying is a complex system,” explains Pfammatter, 45, who has been flying rescue missions for 20 years. “It’s not just about knowledge. Intuition and joined-up thinking are vital. And you need decades of experience for that.”
When Air Zermatt launched in 1968, its first helicopter was parked in a wooden shed, and it was in 1971 that its first rescue mission was flown off the north face of the Eiger. In 2010, Pfammatter’s colleague Daniel Aufdenblatten flew the highest-ever helicopter rescue mission— 23,000 feet up on Annapurna in Nepal. He and mountain guide Richard Lehner, who worked with him on the rescue, were presented with the Heroism Award by industry publication Aviation Week.
Training to be an Air Zermatt pilot takes five years, says Pfammatter. “You start with panoramic flights around the Matterhorn, then you practice load-bearing flights: tree trunks, pipes, cows. By the time a medic puts your first injured party on the winch, you’re more experienced than most other rescue pilots anywhere in the world.”
Pfammatter can deposit a 650-foot-long rescue rope onto a piece of land the size of a towel and align the helicopter’s angle of flight to tufts of grass in a field. What he can’t do is make life-or-death decisions.
“At the end of a good day, you look at yourself in the mirror and you’ve saved 10 people’s lives. On a bad day, mission control tells you there are fatalities and you’re flying body bags to the mountain.” Pfammatter has had many good days as a pilot but also some very bad ones. He has recovered the bodies of dead children and cried in the cockpit of his helicopter. How does one get over the very bad days?
“By running,” says Pfammatter. “Slowly at first. Then I sprint until I’m exhausted and collapse into bed. The next day, you get up and climb back into the cockpit.
Air Zermatt’s operational area, the Valais Alps, has 41 peaks over 13,000 feet high. The team flies 1,500 missions a year. If a mountaineer has an accident away from the hiking trails, the mountain guides are called in. Down in the valley, Anjan Truffer’s cell phone rings. Air Zermatt’s most senior mountain guide is a giant of a man who grew up in the village and has climbed the Matterhorn 150 times. In an emergency, the helicopter lands in the garden behind his house. The 40-year-old is flown to the mountains armed with crampons, pitons and slings.
“I can get from the couch in my living room to the north face of the Matterhorn in seven minutes,” he explains.
Often the first person on the scene, Truffer says rescues from crevices are particularly challenging. “People fall into a V-shaped shaft and get stuck. Because of their body heat, they melt into the glacier. Then they’re caught in an icy suit of armor and their temperature drops.”
If Air Zermatt has a crevasse rescue mission, they fly out generators. Rescuers are lowered into the crevices on a rope, then they chisel people out of the ice. Drills from the home improvement store are ideal for the job. Truffer rappels into crevices about 40 times a year. What’s been his most dangerous mission to date?
“It was in 1999 on the Theodul Glacier. A snowboarder had crashed. As I [rappelled] into the crevice, I spotted huge icicles on the sides. If you stepped on one, several tons of ice would break off. I had to work my way around them like I was in a maze. At one point, the shaft of light overhead vanished.”
Truffer reached the unconscious man 230 feet below ground. “He’d hit his head against the crevice wall. I only found him because of the blood trail.”
The mountain guide tied a triangular sling around his patient’s hips, then radioed to the surface. Colleagues gently lifted the snowboarder above ground.
The man survived the fall. He never got in touch with his rescuer.
“This job changes your view of life,” says Truffer. “You get less annoyed about everyday things. OK, so your neighbor has a bigger car, and you woke up to discover there was no milk. But once you’ve been inside a crevasse, you know what’s a real problem and what isn’t.
The office of Gerold Biner, the head of Air Zermatt, nestles beneath the roof of the hangar like a bird’s nest. Biner, a wiry man with pointy eyebrows, has been flying mountain rescue missions for 25 years. He also exports Swiss expertise to the highest ranges on the planet.
Air Zermatt has been training rescue pilots in Nepal since 2010. Biner, 51, and his team flew the first pioneering practice sessions: On YouTube, you can see him hovering over the Himalayas with an oxygen tank strapped to the seat next to him.
“Helicopters are flying at their limit above 19,600 feet,” Biner explains. “The air is thin. The rotor blades have less resistance. When landing, you can’t pull back up if something goes wrong. The helicopter lacks power at that height.”
Biner flew missions in the Himalayas at just under 23,000 feet. On Everest, he retrieved the bodies of two mountaineers from Camp 2 at 21,325 feet. He winched five climbers to safety on Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest mountain.
Back in Zermatt, Biner gets hundreds of job applications each year. He must select pilots he can trust with his teammates’ lives, and there’s one question he always asks: “How often did you volunteer to clean the kitchen in your last job?”
Biner knows that mountain rescuers must always be able to rely on their colleagues, after all.