In the avalanche winter of 1999, Othmar Zangerl came to a decision: he resolved to become a mountain rescuer. This means rescue missions which can last late into the night and be dangerous for him, too – but above all, it means helping people in need.
There are thousands of things which you can do without risking your life. Why exactly did you become a mountain rescuer?
I was always in the mountains, and was convinced from a very young age that the mountain rescue was a great idea. As a machine fitter, I was away for long periods on installations, so I started relatively late with it. In the avalanche winter of 1999 we realised here in See that it would be good not to be dependent on the mountain rescue from Kappl. It isn’t far away, but when the road is blocked, they simply can’t help us. So here in See we began first of all to cooperate with the mountain rescuers from Kappl, so we could all be trained. Then we founded our own local group.
So you wanted to help when help was needed very quickly near here?
I wanted to be able to help when someone got into difficulties on the mountain. You know just how quickly that can happen when you yourself are often out on the mountains. As a mountain rescuer, you have to love the mountains, you have to be prepared to go out on those mountains at night and also in all kinds of weather conditions, and your rope technique has to be perfect. You have to be able to make yourself, your partner and the person you are rescuing perfectly secure. You have no other choice; you have to be an idealist.
And fit and fearless?
Physical fitness is of course a prerequisite. We are often out for a long time, after all, and unfortunately, often when it is already dark and very cold. The emergency call for our first rescue mission as a local group came in at 20.30. It was the end of October and already freezing cold. It was two o’clock in the morning before we had found the missing people. But we were incredibly proud that we’d been able to help.
How many people do you have to, or are able to, help in a year?
This year we had 5 rescue missions. This included unfortunately one of the most difficult which we’ve had to face to date. Two locals came off a road in their car up in the high alpine pasture and crashed. The older one was seriously injured, the 16 year-old could sadly only be recovered dead.
Did the rescue team already know as they set out that someone had died
No, we actually always set off in the hope that we can help. In the other rescue missions, this was luckily the case. After this difficult rescue, we needed professional help, we had a crisis intervention team here. It’s just something else when you have known the person who has died in the accident for a long time. We are a small village, we all know each other here.
How does a rescue mission like that work? Where do you start to search?
The emergency call for our most recent rescue came at just after 22.00. Two people were reported missing. We only knew that they had gone up with the cable car at 9.30. No one knew where they were planning to go. We put together teams of at least two people. We also have two dogs in our local group. Then first of all we go round all the ski routes and look to see if anyone is out or if we can find any traces. The next step is to go along the hiking paths and other footpaths. In parallel we telephone through to the hut wardens and other people who could have seen the missing people in the course of the day.
How do you coordinate everything?
We are in touch with each other over mobile phones and radio communications. New technologies are also a great help for us. We have a GPS system at our disposal which is also tracked. That means we can all see where we have already been and searched. That’s incredibly helpful. We have to rely on ourselves, after all, as we are generally out at night and in bad weather, and we can’t count on a helicopter service.
Have you ever also been in danger yourself during a rescue mission?
We had a very difficult rescue with a level 5 avalanche warning. That’s the highest warning level. We had to find two young people who were trapped in a channel in a valley. Because of the acute danger of an avalanche, we had to proceed even more carefully than usual. And at night. Luckily, everything turned out well.
Why are you actually always out at night?
Because many people make the emergency call extremely late, or else someone is missing, but you want to wait a bit before calling as maybe the issue will resolve itself. People get into trouble for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s as simple as the mobile phone battery being empty, which means the route they’ve been following on an app is gone. Then they’re left standing on the mountain and don’t know where they are.
Does that really happen?
Yes, unfortunately we rely too often on these things, even if they are extremely helpful in our work as mountain rescuers.
How do you actually become a mountain rescuer?
You sign up with the local mountain rescue group, work with them and can then do different exams and courses, which you have to pass. It is fairly laborious because the training is very important, of course, if you want to help other people in extreme situations without putting yourself in danger in the process. We take it very seriously in our local group. For example, we also have teams which can carry out a cable railway rescue.
These teams can bring us down from the chairlift if all else fails?
Yes, they know how to climb up a support pole, attach themselves with a piece of kit to the cable up there and then move bit by bit towards the people they want to rescue. We have a practice exercise for the whole local group on the first Monday of the month. From time to time we join up with neighbouring groups for avalanche exercises and the like. And we do cable railway duty at the weekends too with the mountain railways.
To help out there too?
Yes, and to improve by helping out. To be able to deal with injured people, it’s a good idea to often be around injured people. You need experience. By the way, being on the mountain also calls for experience, and as many people don’t seem to understand this, more and more accidents happen. If you don’t know your way around the mountain very well, if you don’t know alpine techniques, don’t have the proper gear and overestimate your own ability as well, you are quite simply in danger on the mountain. It would be good if people who are out on the mountain were really well informed, and if in doubt, decided it was better to take a guide with them. That’s just as true in summer as in winter.
Othmar Zangerl is 59, comes from See, where he still lives today, and works for Ischgl-Paznaun Tourism Association. He has been part of the mountain rescue team since 2000.