Mountain Rescue

On the Matterhorn, Air Zermatt Can Be the Difference Between Life and Death

The Matterhorn is hugely popular with skiers and climbers, but this beautiful mountain can also be deadly. We spent some time with Air Zermatt, a rescue team dedicated to saving lives on 'the Horn'.

by Nathan Copelin
12 May 2017, 10:59am

Photo by Red Bull


When you're living an entitled life updating social media from an air-conditioned office in East London, it's easy to get stuck in a millennial bubble and not consider that other people might have things just a little harder than yourself.

I've been reminded of this a lot over the years, mainly when I head home to visit my parents. Both work in the medical services: my mum is a nurse and my dad's a paramedic. They've patiently listened as I moan about the burning issues in my life – a free bar tab running out too fast, not getting on the guestlist for some shitty gig – when they've just got in from a 12-hour shift dealing with road traffic accidents, drunken injuries, and even deaths.

On a recent procrastinating internet trawl, I found myself watching the first episode (and subsequently every episode) of a web series called The Horn . It follows the lives of a helicopter rescue team that look after the Swiss town of Zermatt. Located at the heart of the Swiss Alps, it's a favourite for skiers, snowboarders and climbers. It's also known for being in the shadow of the Matterhorn, a mountain that is as beautiful as it is terrifying.

Known as 'the mountain of mountains', the Matterhorn has claimed hundreds of lives over the years. Climbers from across the globe visit Zermatt to attempt to reach its peak; that, coupled with the amount of skiers and snowboarders visiting, means that accidents and fatalities are commonplace.

This is where the paramedics, doctors, pilots and mountaineers of Air Zermatt come in.

Photo by Nathan Copelin

So with that I packed up my laptop, exited my open-plan Shoreditch office, and jumped on a plane to Switzerland.

After a four-hour train from Geneva, I trudge through the thick snow of a picturesque town and make my way towards the Air Zermatt hanger. It's a huge red structure that sits at the base of one of the many steep, snowy hillsides that surround Zermatt. As I enter the building I meet with Sam Summermatter, the flight operations manager and chief pilot, who introduces me to the crew. For such an important and vital service, this is a surprisingly small team: a couple of administrators to answer the phones, a few people sat at computers in an office, and then the crew of pilots, paramedics, doctors and engineers. All in all there's around 10 people here.

We walk from the main office into the hanger and I'm introduced to Patrick Wenger, a jolly red-haired paramedic who gives me a quick demonstration of how to get in and out of a helicopter. "It's important to remember to never walk near the back of the helicopter," he says. "Many people forget that the rear propeller is just as dangerous as the main one."

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After perfecting the art of jumping in and out of a stationary helicopter, I notice that Simon Anthamatten, a trainee pilot and mountaineer, is looking through equipment. I feel a slightly nervous around Simon having watched him the night before on The Horn, in which he performs a rescue that's among the most enthralling and terrifying pieces of TV I've seen.

A skier had fallen though a crevasse (a huge crack in a glacier), so Simon had to be slowly lowered in with the help of a huge tripod, which balances somewhat precariously between the cracks of the mountain. While being lowered down, he came across the man hanging lifelessly, the usually stark white ice surrounding him splattered with blood. Somehow, Simon and the crew got him out and revived him. After a lengthy spell in hospital the man recovered. Seeing it through the eyes of Simon is a truly harrowing watch.

"When I watched the footage back for the first time, I was like, 'Fuck that actually looks really scary," he tells me, leaning on the helicopter. "But we just have to be realistic; we think about our own safety, then we think about our patients. There's no point in being scared."

Simon is one of the many climbers that Air Zermatt has recruited as mountain specialists. With the hundreds of rescues that the crew undertake each year, these mountaineers – usually professional climbers or ski instructors – are employed for both their knowledge of the area and their ability to access hard to reach places.

Mountain specialist Simon Anthamatten // Photo by Nathan Copelin

The most important parts of Simon's job are risk management and judging the best way to rescue someone without putting his own life in danger. "This gets very hard when it comes to avalanches," he explains. "In Switzerland, two years ago, there was an accident where they were searching for people caught up in an avalanche. Then a second avalanche hit which buried the crew, and two guys died – a paramedic and I think a doctor. So you always have to try to judge the risk correctly, but you're never 100 per cent sure."

As I step outside and look at the helipad, one of the pilots asks if I'd like to jump in for a flight around the area. So I strap myself in, pull on a big pair of headphones, and we're off. Rising up through the mountains, we fly over the beautiful scenery and circle around the Matterhorn. The sheer size of the area is hard to comprehend until you're in the air and realise just how much open space there is. You can see how easy it would be to get lost – and also how royally fucked you'd be if you did so.

After 20 or so minutes in the air, we gracefully touch back down and head inside to join the rest of the team for lunch. After hearing that chief pilot Sam Summermatter once had a near-death experience when his helicopter engine died shortly after landing, I ask him if he's even wanted to quit his job.

"Actually, no." He says as he grabs his coffee, "There are parts of the job, like tricky rescues with a bad outcome for the person that [aren't] nice, but it's all part of what we do. It's never got to the point where I've said, 'That's enough, I can't do this anymore.'"

With any kind of job in the emergency services, especially one as unpredictable and frequently harrowing as air rescue, it doesn't take long for people new to the industry to work out whether they're cut out for it or not.

Air Zermatt perform a rescue operation // Photo by Nathan Copelin

"You soon realise if you're made for this job. New guys quit early if they can't handle it. I don't think you can train that, it's either in you or it's not. You find out a lot about the person when it comes to the debriefing after a big accident. Some people like to talk to the crew, and some guys don't need to talk. There are guys that spend time alone getting over some of the things they have seen, and some need to read a book or do something mundane. I think it's just as important as a company for us to offer to our crews anything they need to get over things. A lot of people I know, they take it as a job, they think about it, but they can handle it because it's part of their nature. Everyone copes with things in different ways."

With a father that's worked for 30 years as a paramedic, I've witnessed first-hand how different each day can be. I remember times growing up when he would come home from work having done nothing but sit in the response car all day listening to the radio, and others where he would return at midnight covered in blood. There's no job quite as unpredictable as that of someone in the emergency services.

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"It's not like an office job when you go in and you know what to expect," Summermatter says in agreement, as he guides us up some stairs to show us the rest of the hanger. "When you're working here, the rescues are always different. You never know how the day comes. The good thing is, though, in all these years I've never had a day where I've checked my watch. I talk to friends who work in offices and they're already bored by the time they turn up for work. 99% of the people here feel the same as me."

As Sam finishes showing us the hanger, a small helicopter lands outside. Paramedic Patrick Wenger steps out with his crew and walks across the forecourt and into the offices. As I walk down the stairs, he asks if I want to join him and physician Jürgen Knapp as they have some late lunch. Jürgen is a highly respected medical professional from the local hospital who works hand-in-hand with Patrick. I ask how he finds working in a helicopter perched on the side of a mountain compared with his regular job.

Chief pilot Sam Summermatter // Photo by Nathan Copelin

"It's completely different." Jürgen says, taking a seat next to Patrick. "You don't have as much monitoring here as you would in a hospital, and you have to rely on your senses and trust your experience. This is not a job that could be done with interns who are in training. Another big difference is the environment we're in – it's cold outside. We have to be prepared to work in very difficult conditions like steep slopes."

The common theme of working at Air Zermatt seems to be unpredictability. When the phone rings, the crew could be flying out to pick up a skier with a fractured wrist or rescuing 10 tourists trapped beneath an avalanche.

"We spend a lot of time doing very basic medicine, as a lot of our missions are basic ski injuries, but we have quite a lot of severely injured people who have multiple injuries. That can get difficult with limited resources, and usually just a team of two," he laughs, looking at his wingman Patrick. "In a hospital setting you have three or four doctors and four to five nurses, plus [many] more instruments; you're prepared for anything that could happen. That is not the case here, so that's why you need years of experience from a hospital setting."

Patrick Wenger // Photo by Nathan Copelin

"There's no part of my mind that asks why they've decided to do something," says Patrick. "I don't have space in that moment to ask the question 'why?'. For me, I don't care. If it's safe for me, then I'll go and help them; if it's not safe, then I won't, simple as that."

"We are not judges," Jürgen interjects. "We are medics and we want to help. It's not our job to decide if it's too dangerous or not, or if they took a risk that we wouldn't take."

As the evening draws in and the sun disappears behind the brutal spike of the Matterhorn, I hang around watching the crew come and go. It's been a relatively quiet day, with just a few emergencies coming through. As I say my goodbyes to Patrick, a question pops into my mind that I've always been interested in when it comes to the emergency services: is it hard to actually enjoy this job?

"For me, even if I have a bad job where we have to recover a body or something, at least I get a nice scenic journey back home. For me, that journey makes even the hardest missions easier."

@NathanCopelin