"You should stay at home and play tiddlywinks” ... is what my grandfather would tell me after I’d show off my latest grazed elbow or cut knee - a trophy in my eyes. The fact is that I have itchy feet, and I need to be outside to feel the elements. Life tastes better after a day in the mountains, backcountry skiing down virgin lines. But that said, things can go wrong. Conditions can change in the blink of an eye, and the snowpack can also take you by surprise.
This is what happened to me earlier this season, when I unexpectedly hit a nasty patch of crusty snow, and broke my ankle while ski-touring in the Val d’Anniviers. I was lucky to have just signed up to Air Glaciers’ insurance days before, and within 20 minutes, three men jumped out of a helicopter, and I was whisked away to the nearest hospital. Service like that for just 35 francs a year (about $37) should not be taken for granted, and the impressive history and accomplishments of the Swiss pilots are worth knowing more about.
About 60 years ago, the Swiss started using helicopters for alpine rescue, construction, stocking mountain huts, and even moving cheese. Though the first light aircrafts were limited to a maximum flying altitude of 2500m, later investment in a 1.5 million franc Alouette III helicopter inspired the pioneers of Swiss helicopter aviation to focus primarily on mountain rescue, and form the company Air Glaciers. In their first year, there was practically no work in the Alps, so they helped install hydro-electric dams in Senegal.
But tiny Switzerland doesn’t have just one rescue helicopter operation, it has three: La Rega and Air Zermatt are also active all over the Alps - and even in the Himalayas. In 2010, Air Zermatt teamed up with Fishtail Air, a Nepalese company, to provide the first helicopter rescue service on standby in the world’s highest and most demanding peaks, as well as ARF, a foundation for mountain rescue training. Air Zermatt pilots have been given the US Heroism Award for the highest alpine rescue ever - they successfully airlifted three climbers from nearly 7000m in the Himalayas, also in 2010 (the same award given to the pilot who landed the Airbus on the Hudson River outside New York City).
Since then, Nepalese pilots have come to Switzerland for training in the spectacular “human sling operation,” whereby a specialist is dangled from a 200-meter cable, and flown to the rescue site. Longline operations are a tricky maneuver developed by the Swiss in the 1970’s, and first used on the North Face of the Eiger.
Today Switzerland has over 360 registered helicopters, used for everything from air dropping provisions to mountain huts, detonating avalanches, dam construction, and agriculture. Even the wine-makers of the Rhone Valley can hire helicopter assistance for spraying their vineyards. And don’t forget about heli-skiing, our favorite use of these magical machines.
At Epic Europe, we purchase helicopter rescue coverage with Air-Glaciers for all of our clients. We are also the only tour operator in the Valais fully insured for helicopter skiing. It’s that extra reassurance that makes all the difference, especially when the best pilots in the world take the controls.