Mountain rescuers must be tough to pass avalanche training

|     Susanne Lorenz-Munkler     |

OBERSTDORF, Germany (dpa) – Winds of up to 60 kilometres an hour make an already chilly minus six degrees Celsius feels like Siberia, and Roman Bechter is lying in a pile of deep snow, waiting for help.

It’s pitch black on Nebelhorn mountain near the village of Oberstdorf in southwest Germany, and Bechter’s thigh bone is broken, his knee twisted.

Using his smartphone, he’s managed to alert mountain rescue, and now a team of trainee rescuers, young men and women from the Allgaeu region, are coming to get him.

In fact, Bechter is one of them and is only pretending to be injured. This is one of the exercises that must be completed by the 21 young people on the winter rescue training course for the Allgaeu am Nebelhorn division of the Bavaria Mountain Rescue Service.

The training also covers the basics of emergency medical aid, helicopter rescue and avalanche rescue, as well as risk management and meteorology.

By offering this programme, the mountain rescue service ensures it has a future pipeline of rescuers. Those who take part will be authorised to rescue people in trouble 24 hours a day, sometimes under extreme conditions – and all the work is unpaid.

The area in which Bechter has supposedly fallen is difficult to access, and the seven trainees have to haul the rescue sledge over rocky ground. The wind rules out the use of a helicopter.

But the trainees, all aged between 16 and 31, manage to reach him without one. They administer first aid, putting a splint on his leg, and load him on to the sledge to bring him back down to the valley. Two and a half hours later, Bechter is in hospital.

Bjoern Geide, one of the trainees, says he was inspired to join the mountain rescue service because of a tragic ski accident four years ago. “You can help and you get some really good Alpine training,” says the 18-year-old student.

Laura Mohr, who has lived in the nearby community of Hinterstein for four years, has different reasons for joining. The 31-year-old doctor wants an extra qualification as a mountain rescue doctor.

Lukas helps find people trapped in avalanches. - DPA
Lukas helps find people trapped in avalanches. – DPA

“It makes sense for a rescuer to be able to help with people who have had a heart attack or a stroke,” she says.

“The training is very challenging in every respect,” says Peter Ellmann, who is in charge of training new rescuers in Algaeu. Not everybody is qualified to take part, he adds.

“For example, you have to be able to ski and climb very well,” he says. And not everybody passes the course.

Nevertheless, says Ellmann, the mountain rescue can’t complain about not having enough young people willing to take on the voluntary work.

There are currently 140 people on the course in Allgaeu, in addition to 500 qualified mountain rescuers. In the wider Bavarian region, there are 40,000 volunteer mountain rescuers.

The service says demand for volunteers is rising due to an increase in tourism and changes in how people spend time outdoors.

Climate change is also making weather-related accidents more common.  Some of these are caused by avalanches, for which people and animals train together.

Four-legged rescuers Leila, Amira and Luci wait impatiently for their turn as their human colleagues work with avalanche probes, shovels and other rescue equipment.

Only Basti, an old hand on the dog team, is unimpressed and yawns with boredom.

The Alaskan Malamute has been an avalanche rescue dog for 10 years and he knows what’s important – a nose that’s quick and accurate.

He’s much faster than any electronic detection device.

His Australian Shepherd colleague needs just 30 seconds to find a person buried in an avalanche.

Xaver Hartmann, who has led the dog team in the Allgaeu for 20 years, knows every member of the four-legged team and their strengths and weaknesses.

“Over the past few winters we’ve had an average of five call-outs for avalanches,” says the 58-year-old. “There’ve been other winters when we’ve had eight call-outs just over the Christmas holiday period.”

That has consequences. “We’ve only got a relatively small group of 12 dog handlers who basically have to be on call for the whole winter,” says Hartmann.