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Alpine Rescuer Touts Respect for Mountains, and Caution

September 28, 2003|Clare Nullis | Associated Press Writer

ZERMATT, Switzerland — Bruno Jelk has lost count of the lives he has saved.

It probably runs into the hundreds, says the soft-spoken man who has spent nearly a quarter of a century crawling down Alpine crevasses, wriggling over rocks and dangling from helicopter hoists to rescue people.

The doyen of Swiss mountain rescuers, Jelk has been involved in about 3,000 missions to aid climbers and skiers who have become trapped, usually from a mix of unpredictable nature and their own foolhardiness.

He also has brought back 600 corpses. "But I don't count recovering bodies as a rescue," he said grimly. "That's just work that we have to do."

Jelk will be 60 on Thursday, but harbors no thoughts about retirement because he finds his work fun. He has been chief of the rescue service for the Zermatt area since 1980, overseeing a closely knit team of 120 mountain guides, doctors, avalanche experts and helicopter pilots.

They're responsible for a mountaineers' mecca, a rugged region about 20 by 25 miles that has 30 peaks of more than 13,200 feet -- including the Matterhorn outside Zermatt. The operation is financed by the state and local governments as well as by fees charged to rescued people or their insurance companies.

This year has been an exceptionally busy one, Jelk said in an interview punctuated by the drone of rescue helicopters and crackle of radio messages. He has rescued three people since morning, one with a head injury and two with injured legs -- an "average" day, he says.

"There have been very many accidents this year and, I fear, there will be very many more," Jelk said. In just the first eight months, the rescue helicopters were called out 1,200 times, compared to 1,170 for all of last year.

About 60 people have lost their lives so far this year throughout the Swiss Alps, 25 of them in the Zermatt region. The Swiss Alpine Club, which collects the statistics, says the overall toll is no worse than average, but the Zermatt region has seen more trouble than usual.

Europe's summer heat wave pushed Swiss temperatures to an abnormal 95 degrees. The result was a partial melting of the permafrost that binds much of the surface of the 14,780-foot Matterhorn and its neighbors, causing rockslides and falls by climbers whose rope spikes failed to get a firm grip because the ice wasn't hard enough.

In the most dramatic rescue, 90 people were flown off the Matterhorn after a huge rockslide thundered down the mountain July 15. Amazingly, nobody was injured, but the main climbing route was closed for two days until geologists declared it safe.

A master of understatement, Jelk is modest about his role in coordinating the evacuation.

"It was just an organizational question of bringing everyone down. Nobody was in any danger. The weather was good and there was no real emergency," he said with a shrug.

During the busiest climbing season, in July and August, as many as 150 people a day attempt to reach the top of the Matterhorn, lured by the challenge of its famous pyramid form. With the rush over for the year, Jelk can relax a bit and devote more time to his hobby -- inventing rescue equipment.

But not for long.

"I am worried about an autumn with fresh snow," he said. He fears the permafrost will not recover quickly enough, increasing the risk of slides for skiers and snowboarders, who begin showing up as early as October.

Snowboarders are especially reckless, Jelk says, tending to ignore warnings and go off marked trials in search of purer snow and a higher adrenaline rush.

The trend toward more extreme sports and risk-taking is a growing headache for rescue services throughout the Alps. The Swiss Alpine Club cites base-jumping -- leaping off high cliffs with a parachute -- as the most dangerous. Jelk estimates that 40% of all accidents result from bad judgment and puts the rest down to bad luck.

"It's like driving a car," he said. "If I drive safely, there is no guarantee that I won't have an accident. But if I am constantly over the speed limit, then it's a matter of time before I have a crash."

Jelk says the problems have come in waves.

In the early days of his career, he was constantly called out to rescue people with inadequate equipment. Then came people with too much equipment, which they didn't know how to use anyway.

The spread of mobile phones is a mixed blessing. They make it easier to locate someone who is injured or trapped, but they have also led to an upsurge in unnecessary calls by people who would be capable of making their way back down. Jelk estimates that he gets around 100 such false alarms a year.

Although people who are rescued have to pay the costs, which can easily reach $7,100, the fee is often covered by an insurance policy that climbers can buy for just 30 francs ($21).

"This encourages people to phone us at the drop of a hat because 30 francs is nothing," Jelk said.

He recalls four climbers phoning at 1 a.m. to say they were cold and wanted to be helped down the mountain. Rescuers refused, saying the nighttime operation would be too risky, and the party descended without help the next morning.

The perils to mountaineers and rescuers alike are evident amid the flowers and candles in Zermatt's immaculate cemetery, which nestles in the heart of the village. Tombstone after tombstone is engraved with names of people -- often heartbreakingly young -- who traveled to Zermatt from all around the world and never left. There is also a large memorial to all the guides who were "victims of their profession."

Asked whether he has ever felt afraid, Jelk paused only briefly: "Fear, no. Respect for the mountain, yes."

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