A Growing Workload for Alpine Mountain Rescuers
Sometimes, says mountain rescuer Regina Poberschnigg, 55, she'll speak quietly to the dead. "Why did you take such a risk? Why did you walk up here? Why did you ignore all the warnings?"
When recovering the bodies of, say, a climber who has fallen to their death or an avalanche victim, talking to them, Poberschnigg says, is her way of dealing with the situation -- of keeping the images, the tragedy, at arm's length.
Poberschnigg, the head of the mountain rescue team in the Tyrolean village of Ehrwald at the foot of the Zugspitze, is forging a trail through the deep snow, leading a group of snowshoers up from the valley to a mountain inn called the Ganghoferhütte. The tourists from Germany, the Netherlands and France are walking through a fairytale landscape, with the slopes and trees covered in deep snow. Even the strong branches of the surrounding spruce trees are bent almost to the ground under its weight.
To ensure their safety, the group is hiking up only slight inclines; the avalanche danger on slopes of 30 degrees or less is rather low. "We aren't taking any risks," says Poberschnigg.
During the last few weeks, winter arrived in the northern Alps with a bang. After days of snowfall, villages and ski resorts in many parts of the Austrian Alps were completely cut off from the outside world for a time. Roofs threatened to collapse and some areas in the German state of Bavaria declared a disaster. In the area around the Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain located right on the border with Austria, the second-highest avalanche danger alert was in effect.
Poberschnigg stops the group just before a knoll to take a closer look at the slope. The snow cover had vibrated slightly at one spot that the group had passed -- which is not a good sign. Poberschnigg quickly changed course, leading the group straight through a forest to a safer ski run.
For several days in the middle of the month, reports of accidents and large avalanches accumulated rapidly. Just recently, four German skiers were killed in a snowslide near Lech. With the avalanche warning level set at three, which translates to "considerable danger," the group skied out onto a closed-off slope and were buried.
Poberschnigg, a bundle of energy with an easy laugh, grew up in the mountains. She and her two partners run a skiing and mountaineering school in Ehrwald and Poberschnigg was one of the first female members of Tyrol Mountain Rescue. She has now been at it for 20 years -- as a volunteer, like the vast majority of mountain rescuers in Tyrol and Germany.
Last winter, the Ehrwald mountain rescue squad was called out more than 100 times. But the summer workload has increased the most. Whereas Poberschnigg and her team -- made up of masons, carpenters, doctors, bankers and mountain guides -- were called out 40 times in the summer of 2015, last summer it was 80. A rescue helicopter was necessary in about half of those cases.
Each year, more and more people are heading for the hills: hikers, mountain bikers, climbers, backcountry skiers and snowshoers. The search for a mountain adventure away from the secured trails and ski runs has become a new sporting trend, with backcountry skis and snowshoes flying off the shelves of sports stores in Tyrol and Bavaria in recent years.
Poberschnigg is pleased that more people are exploring the mountains to enjoy nature. After all, the Alpine economy relies heavily on tourism, as does Ehrwald, which is packed with pensions and hotels. What worries her and makes her job more difficult, however, are those who ignore the rules or who "shut down their brains" out of excitement.
An icy wind is blowing through central Berlin, but Christoph Oppermann, 22, is wearing just a shirt and a thin sweater, saying he likes to feel the cold on his skin. He orders a salad for breakfast in a café. Oppermann is from the central German city of Göttingen and studies computer science in Berlin, a smart, thoughtful young man who carefully formulates his sentences in a quiet voice. He's not the kind of guy to take unnecessary risks. Usually.
He and two friends decided they wanted to spend New Year's Eve in the Knorrhütte, a mountain cabin on the flanks of the Zugspitze built to provide shelter to hikers caught in bad weather. It has become something of a trend among young mountain-lovers to head for such emergency shelters, heated by wood stove, to spend the night. It doesn't cost anything and feels a bit like an adventure.
Alpine Hike in Poor Weather
At 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 30, the three friends from Berlin headed out into the wilderness from the parking lot at the foot of the Ehrwald Almbahn gondola. In summer, the hike from the parking lot to the Knorrhütte takes around five hours.
Initially, the trio followed paths or walked along the edge of the ski run up to the top of the gondola. From there, the route took them through unregulated terrain across a saddle in the direction of the Knorrhütte. The men were wearing snowshoes to keep them on top of the deep snow and were using maps on their mobile phones to find their way.
They were not inexperienced. The previous summer, they had crossed the Alps on the Traumpfad (Dream Trail) from Lenggries, just south of Munich, to Treviso in Italy. They were well-equipped with the proper clothing, good boots, headlamps, ice axes, sleeping bags, a camping stove and external batteries for their phones.
But none of them had ever been on an alpine hike in poor weather. They had never participated in a mountaineering course nor had they ever received avalanche training. By the time they reached the Feldernjoch summit at an altitude of 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) at 9 p.m., they found themselves in the middle of a snow storm. Despite their strong headlamps, visibility was essentially nothing. Oppermann suddenly found himself on an extremely steep slope and slid down a few meters before fighting his way back up to his companions.
Because of the deep snow, the men couldn't make any headway and couldn't turn back either. The temperature was -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) with the wind and snowfall picking up. "We were on the verge of a mental collapse," says Oppermann. They called the emergency number, but the mobile phone connection broke off, so the students sent a WhatsApp message with the coordinates of their position to friends.
Coming to Get You
Poberschnigg received the emergency call from the Tyrol control station at 9:29 p.m.: "Three people, somewhere in the Zugspitze region, no telephone contact." She immediately notified her people. The Ehrwald mountain rescue chapter includes 60 men and women and 30 of them, along with avalanche dogs, set off. First, they headed up to the top of the Ehrwald Almbahn gondola with a snow cat before heading out on backcountry skis through the snowstorm to the Feldernjoch.
In the meantime, headquarters in Ehrwald had established contact with the three men via iMessage, and they received a consistent stream of messages.
We're coming to get you.
A team is on the way.
They're almost there.
"It gave us the feeling that we weren't alone," says Oppermann.
The three men dug a snow cave to protect themselves from the wind and they attached a light to a metal pole sticking out of the snow not far from their location. Just after midnight, the mountain-rescue team reached a nearby rise from which they could see the light.
The rescuers continued fighting their way through the deep snow when suddenly, an avalanche thundered down the hillside and they had to break off the mission. Despite having almost reached the trio from Berlin, it was too dangerous to continue.
Headquarters notified the students that the team couldn't make it that night because of the danger and that they would have to spend the night there. The three were gripped by fear, but they expanded their cave and lined it with sleeping pads. One of them jogged in place from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. to stay warm.
Back in the valley, Poberschnigg contacted a helicopter pilot in nearby Reutte who had the reputation for being one of the best in the region. He promised to get them out as soon as there was a break in the weather, and at 12:50 p.m., he gently landed his chopper on the snow on top of Feldernjoch. A short time later, the Berlin students found themselves in the heated rooms of the mountain rescue service with tears in their eyes.
Ashamed By His Foolishness
In the café in central Berlin, Oppermann says he feels ashamed by his foolishness. "Ultimately, we even put the lives of the rescuers in danger. That's what bothers me the most," he says.
In part because of the technical innovations on offer today, many mountain tourists can lose sight of the dangers they expose themselves to. Expensive outdoor clothing can stand up to almost any weather, avalanche transceivers and beacons provide a feeling of safety and extra-wide skis make it possible for non-expert skiers to navigate the deep snow. Smartphones help outdoor enthusiasts find their way and can also be used to call for help in case of emergency.
Everything seems so easy. But the reality is more sobering. Earlier this month, a snowboarder who crashed in the deep snow next to a ski run was unable to free herself and suffocated. The men who lost their lives in Lech the weekend before last were wearing avalanche airbags and three of them were even inflated -- but it didn't help.
In front of the mountain rescue headquarters in the southern German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, not far from the ski jump, there are a few cars covered in snow. "The avalanche doesn't know that you are professionally equipped," team leader Johannes Zollner says drily as he rolls a cigarette.
He and his team are responsible for a huge area stretching from Neuschwanstein Castle in south-central Germany to the Kampenwand in the southeast. In 2017, they went out on a total of 3,100 calls and had to recover 30 dead bodies. Zollner says there are likely a few other bodies in the area of the Zugspitze and Karwendel massif that haven't yet been found. Around New Year's for example, a woman called the mountain rescuers to report her husband as missing. He had headed out to hike up a mountain near Garmisch but never came back. The search was abandoned after a few days.
Bad Luck or Carelessness
Zollner is one of the very few in Garmisch who earns his living as a mountain rescuer and he understands perfectly well why people are drawn to the mountains. He, himself, loves to strap on the skins and head out for some backcountry skiing. He elects not to share his opinion about the risky behavior some hobby mountaineers display. Zollner merely says that it is his job to help people who get into trouble and to save their lives if necessary. How they got into that situation, whether it was bad luck or carelessness, does not factor into his job, he says.
In Germany, everybody has the right to use public lands. Still, a call to the mountain rescuers can be expensive. If a helicopter is required, the costs can spike to several thousand euros, though members of the mountaineering club Deutscher Alpenverein (DAV) are insured up to €25,000. One team leader in Garmisch says that sometimes, people even pull out their DAV card upon being rescued to prove that they don't have to pay. Sometimes, those needing help even have the audacity to complain, he says. "Why did you only get here now? Why didn't you hurry?"
The train ride from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Ehrwald takes about 30 minutes, a route that was closed in recent weeks due to the massive amounts of snow. Regina Poberschnigg's mountaineering school is located right on the central square, next to the church, and has a view of the Zugspitze. On a recent Tuesday, school employees were sharing videos and images of various avalanches that had occurred in the region in recent days. In Ischgl, a powder avalanche plunged hundreds of meters into the valley. In Flachau, a snowboarder even triggered a snowslide in a forested area, the type of terrain that is generally considered to be safe.
The avalanche warning service had set the danger at four for the Tyrol side of the Zugspitze, but there were some mountain rescuers in Ehrwald who thought it should have been five on some recent days given the instability of the snow cover. "But they don't like to issue five," one of them says, adding that such a rating would lead to the closure of entire ski areas, resulting in significant financial losses for both the ski-lift operators and the surrounding hotels.
The avalanche warning authorities in Innsbruck deny that such considerations are taken into account. And level five was in effect in many areas of Tyrol in recent days, though it has since dropped to lower levels. "We are incorruptible," says authority head Rudi Mair. "If it's necessary, we'll set the danger at the highest level, otherwise we would destroy our reputation."
'That's What They All Think'
Still, not everyone heeds such warnings. Sebastian Hein, a 26-year-old from Grainau with broad shoulders and powerful quads, works in a ski rental shop in winter. He's a freestyle skier who enjoys doing flips off of huge ski jumps and going backcountry skiing with friends. Together, they ski down slopes so steep that you can hardly stand on them. And he says that avalanche warning levels of three or four are of little concern to him. He says he and his friends grew up in the mountains and know what they're doing.
"That's what they all think," Regina Poberschnigg says as she switches on the radio hanging from her ski parka. That afternoon, she drives a black, four-wheel-drive truck up to the valley station of the cable car that heads up the Austrian side of the Zugspitze. The cable car is not in operation and the ski area at the top of the mountain is closed. A stiff wind is battering the surrounding mountains, sending streams of snow off of their peaks.
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Sabine Gundolf, 55, a friend of Poberschnigg's, is getting ready for a short ski tour. She grew up in Ehrwald and is an experienced mountaineer, having even climbed peaks in the Himalayas. Despite her experience, though, Gundolf herself was caught in an avalanche a few years ago. She was with friends and they skied out onto a slope. Gundolf heard a muffled noise and just a moment later, the snow under her skies began sliding down the mountain. As she tumbled along, she says her mind was briefly filled with images of her children and her parents. And then it went dark.
"It was a near-death experience," Gundolf says. Luckily, though, she wasn't buried deeply, and her friends were able to quickly find her and dig her out. But the experience hasn't left her. Whenever she sees the slope during her many trips into the mountains, she shudders.
'Then It All Comes Out'
The science of predicting avalanches is rather complex and even experts aren't able to definitively analyze how a specific slope will behave on a certain day. The Swiss city of Davos is home to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, where meteorologists, climate researchers, geographers, glaciologists, physicists and mathematicians all collaborate to learn more about avalanches. They even have their own area where they can trigger avalanches and then analyze the behavior of the snow, including its speed and energy.
They know a lot about avalanches in Davos, but certainly not everything. One thing, though, is certain: A huge number of avalanche accidents involving winter sports enthusiasts end fatally. The institute's database includes dozens of deadly incidents from the last several decades. One of the columns notes how many victims died in each incident. Sometimes, it's just one person, but often enough, entire groups are buried.
Those who do get trapped and cannot free themselves, or aren't quickly found by companions, have a very low rate of survival because of the lack of oxygen under the packed snow. The chances for survival plunge to just 30 percent after 35 minutes -- and to virtually nothing after 90. By the time mountain rescuers find their way up to them from the valley, it is often too late. Poberschnigg has never counted all of the dead bodies she has recovered over the years. For much of her career, she was part of a helicopter team -- and saw a lot.
Mountain rescuers are courageous, altruistic people. When the call comes, they drop what they are doing -- even if they are at work -- and head out. For many decades, it was said that the work was too strenuous for women, but by now, Poberschnigg has earned a significant degree of respect among her colleagues.
She looks up toward the peak of the Zugspitze as the sun breaks through the clouds. In Ehrwald, she has founded a crisis intervention team to help the families of victims -- and the rescuers themselves. Frequently, colleagues turn to Poberschnigg after a particularly difficult mission to talk about their awful experiences.
"We sit together, drink a couple of beers and chat," she says. It used to be, she says, that mountain rescuers wouldn't talk about such things. But today, even the strongest men share the emotions that weigh on them, Poberschnigg says. "Some of them cry. And then it all comes out."