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A 30-metre fall into the depths

During a ski tour, a woman loses her balance and falls over a rocky ledge onto the glacier below. Such a fall does not bode well. Now swift action and precision are required when using the rescue hoist.

The weather on this Easter Sunday is excellent: lots of sun, mild temperatures and good snow conditions, which lure many people into the mountains. This is also the case with a young teacher from the canton of Berne who, together with a friend, sets out on a ski tour to the Giglistock (Canton Berne) in the Uri Alps. But then, during the ascent, it happens: the woman slips, loses her balance and falls around 30 metres over a rocky ledge onto the Steinlimi Glacier below. At the time of the accident, many other ski tourers are out and about and witness the accident. Some of them, together with her friend, administer first aid to the casualty and alert Rega.

Landing at the accident site is not possible

It is shortly before half past ten when the emergency call comes in at Rega’s Operations Centre. Flight coordinator Conny Hirt is on duty that day and immediately dispatches the crew from the Wilderswil base. The crew, comprising emergency flight physician Selina Hauser, paramedic Andrea Crivelli and pilot Rick Maurer, are just pushing the helicopter out of the hangar when their mobile phones start beeping. A glance at the map on the display shows the crew, who are familiar with the area, that it will hardly be possible to land at the accident site. While pilot Maurer starts up the helicopter’s engines, emergency flight physician Hauser already pulls on the harness that she will need for the mission with the rescue hoist. Paramedic Crivelli takes her place on the swivel seat in the cabin instead of her usual seat in the front left of the cockpit, from where she will operate the hoist. This way, on arrival at the accident site, the crew do not waste any time and can immediately begin with the hoist rescue. For a fall from a height of 30 metres does not bode well – every minute counts. “On every mission, we consider different scenarios and try to anticipate what might await us. Nevertheless, it’s important not to get fixed ideas about anything and to remain open to the unexpected. In this particular case, we were prepared for the worst,” explains pilot and base manager Rick Maurer.

Preparing the landing site

The helicopter takes off just a few minutes after the alarm call comes in. On the way to the accident site, there is another stopover: the experienced mountain guide, Simon Flückiger, boards the helicopter in Meiringen. Today he is on stand-by duty as a helicopter rescue specialist (RSH) from the Swiss Alpine Club SAC and will support the crew in the difficult terrain. On the short flight from Meiringen to the accident site, the members of the crew receive additional information about the mission on their mobile phones and tablets from flight coordinator Conny Hirt. The patient appears to have had a stroke of luck: she is moving and responsive. The crew in the helicopter breathe a collective sigh of relief. Nevertheless, they have to work quickly, because the patient must be taken to hospital urgently. Accordingly, the Rega 10 crew plan the next steps: they need to find a temporary landing site, where the patient can be transferred into the cabin. The Tierbergli mountain hut is located near the accident site. Flight coordinator Conny Hirt informs the hut warden that the Rega helicopter will shortly be landing close by. This advance information is important because it allows the landing site to be “prepared”; sunshades need to be closed, shutters shut and any guests asked to move away from the landing site. “During the entire mission, I am, as it were, the fourth crew member. I support the crew – for example, by mobilising and coordinating the mission partners or registering the patient at the hospital,” is how Conny Hirt describes her tasks as a flight coordinator.

Meanwhile, the helicopter is approaching the scene of the accident. A short reconnaissance flight over the site confirms the crew’s assumption that the helicopter cannot land next to the patient. However, a one-sided landing is possible: pilot Rick Maurer hovers just above the glacier and sets the helicopter down on the ground with the front and one rear wheel. Hovering in this position, he allows the emergency flight physician, the paramedic and the helicopter rescue specialist to disembark. While the three crew members make their way to the casualty, Maurer flies to the perfectly prepared temporary landing site at the Tierbergli hut, where he waits for a report from his colleagues and the radio call with instructions to start the operation with the rescue hoist.

Good and bad luck go hand in hand 

At the accident scene, the emergency flight physician and the paramedic attend to the patient. The initial medical examination shows that the ski tourer has been very lucky. Besides a fracture of the elbow, various abrasions and severe bruising, there do not appear to be any major injuries – despite falling 30 metres over a rocky ledge onto a glacier. While the emergency flight physician and the paramedic administer painkillers to the woman and put the rescue triangle on her for evacuation with the rescue hoist, RSH Simon Flückiger collects her touring equipment that is lying around and informs the first responders about the further course of the rescue. In the meantime, the patient is ready for transport and Selina Hauser radios the pilot to tell him that they are ready to be picked up. The first to board the hovering helicopter is paramedic Andrea Crivelli. The helicopter gains altitude, makes a turn and returns to the accident site. For the last few metres, pilot Maurer is guided by short, concise commands from the paramedic, who guides the hoist hook precisely into the flight physician’s hand. “Communication between the pilot and myself is crucial during a mission with the rescue hoist. The pilot can’t see the hoist hook at the end of the 90-metre cable. I have to take many things into account when giving my commands: for example, the wind, the downwash of the helicopter and the swaying movement of the cable. It’s very challenging,” explains Andrea Crivelli. 

Selina Hauser attaches herself and her patient to the hoist hook, and the powerful, twin-engine Da Vinci helicopter flies them both safely to the temporary landing site by the SAC mountain hut. Here the patient is gently transferred to the helicopter and flown to hospital. On arrival, Selina Hauser hands her over to the hospital staff for further medical treatment. However, the mission is not yet over for the crew: Simon Flückiger is dropped off at home, while back at the base it is necessary to refuel and replenish the medical supplies. Then Rega 10 is ready again for its next mission.


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