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Swiss Air-Rescue Rega, to home page

Hanging upside down in the rock face

The Rega crew from the Lausanne base rescue a patient whose life is literally hanging by a thread after a fall from the via ferrata. Suspended upside down above a precipice, he is able to alert Rega via the app.

Yves Apothéloz is a sprightly pensioner from the canton of Neuchâtel. The ski instructor has already climbed around 20 via ferratas. On this glorious summer day, he decides to explore the via ferrata in Noiraigue. He packs his climbing harness and helmet and checks the length of the ropes. The 81-year-old has packed his mobile phone with the Rega app installed on it in his cross-body bag. Besides his climbing gear, he is wearing a very special T-shirt on this day: his son, who died in the mountain eight years ago, had brought it for him from Peru.

Climbing harness slips down to his ankles

The via ferrata is 550 metres high and offers a magnificent view of the Val-de-Travers. But at the last obstacle before the finish, the excursion takes an abrupt turn: Yves Apothéloz’s climbing harness slips from his waist down to his ankles. When he tries to pull it back up, he loses his footing and falls into the rope. “Fortunately, the climbing harness withstood the strain, but now it was wrapped just around my ankles, leaving me hanging by my feet from the end of a rope in the rock face,” he recalls. Suspended upside down above the precipice and dazed from the fall, Yves Apothéloz nevertheless manages to take his phone out of his small cross-body bag. He alerts Rega using the Rega app, which automatically transmits his location to the Rega Operations Centre.

Operations Centre mobilises a rescue helicopter

“When I tried to put the phone back in the bag, it slipped out of my hand and fell down over the rocks,” says Yves Apothéloz. Fortunately, after the brief contact, the Operations Centre had already called out the crew from the Rega base in Lausanne. Gaby Wild, the flight coordinator at the Operations Centre at the Rega Centre, explains: “If it’s clear that a person is in distress and needs help and we know the location, we immediately dispatch the nearest rescue helicopter.”

In view of the adverse terrain in the region where Yves Apothéloz is located, Gaby Wild also mobilises a helicopter rescue specialist from the Swiss Alpine Club SAC. These rescuers are mainly used in impassable terrain and are responsible for ensuring the safety of both the patient and the emergency flight physician.

No longer in contact with the patient

While she organises the rescue mission, Gaby Wild tries several times to contact Yves Apothéloz. As she cannot establish a connection, she assumes that he has lost consciousness. And so a race against time begins. Meanwhile, Yves Apothéloz, who is hanging alone in the rock face, is becoming increasingly afraid. “I was very anxious. It was a huge relief when I heard the helicopter,” he says. Gaby Wild has already sent the location coordinates transmitted via the app directly to the cockpit of the Lausanne rescue helicopter, which enable the crew to quickly find the accident site. There it immediately becomes clear that Yves Apothéloz is in an extremely precarious situation: if the helicopter flies too close, there is a danger that the downwash will cause the casualty, who is dangling by his ankles, to swing back and forth and his feet could slip out of the rope loop. In addition, Yves Apothéloz is under a rock overhang, which means that it is impossible to rescue him directly with the rescue hoist.

The crew therefore decide to set down helicopter rescue specialist Nicolas Rouge on the via ferrata around 20 metres to the north. Paramedic Karim Hamdi operates the rescue hoist and lowers the rescue specialist to the ground with pinpoint accuracy. This requires the utmost precision, because the pilot can see neither Nicolas Rouge nor the setdown point directly underneath the helicopter. He has to rely completely on Karim Hamdi’s directional instructions.

Additional support requested

After the helicopter rescue specialist has been set down on the via ferrata, he calls out to Yves Apothéloz to hold out. As soon as he has reached him, Nicolas Rouge secures him around his hips with the rescue triangle and is thus able to pull him up to a sitting position. “Having someone with me was very reassuring,” says Yves Apothéloz. Nicolas Rouge realises, however, that he needs assistance to rappel the casualty down to the ground and informs Karim Hamdi over the radio. The Rega crew therefore request the Operations Centre to call out an additional helicopter rescue specialist.

Because the Lausanne crew want to stay close to Yves Apothéloz so that they can intervene immediately if his state of health deteriorates, the flight coordinator requests a second rescue helicopter. She knows that the Rega crew from the Berne base have just completed a mission in Lausanne and instructs the Berne crew to pick up Yann Seidel, a second helicopter rescue specialist, and fly him to the accident site.

Rescue with the rescue hoist

After Yann Seidel has been set down by the via ferrata and has rappelled down to the two men underneath the overhang, the rescue specialists lower the casualty on the rope around ten metres to an open area where the rescue hoist can be used. From here, the crew evacuate Yves Apothéloz on the rescue hoist, after which he is attended to by the emergency flight physician. “The moment we flew off the rock face was absolutely fantastic,” recalls Yves Apothéloz. He and everyone involved will remember this mission and how Yves Apothéloz’s life hung by the proverbial thread for a long time to come.

In order for a helicopter to be able to fly at all, the helicopter’s main rotor must deflect a large mass of air in a downward direction. This effect is known as “downwash”. The strong airflow can reach speeds of up to 100 km/h and is particularly intense during hovering. The crews must always take the downwash into account during a rescue mission, because in certain situations it can pose a danger for patients, crews, and third parties. For example, in the vicinity of houses, lightweight or unattached objects such as sunshades, garden furniture, etc. can be blown away. Also problematic are situations where unsecured persons in exposed terrain could be thrown off balance by the flow of air. To limit the impact of the downwash, the Rega crew adjust the flight path and during a hoist evacuation maintain as much distance as possible between the helicopter in the air and the rescuers and patients on the ground