A recent Swiss study looked at the reasons behind the many rescues that take place every year in the Alps. Jeremy Windsor lays out the key findings and what they tell us about safety in the mountains.
Photo: Kevin Schmid
In the 12 years between 2009 and 2020, the Swiss Alpine Club Registry documented a total of 4,687 high altitude emergencies that required a rescue. Given that the vast majority took place in the months of July and August, that averaged out at no fewer than 7 emergencies per day.
What do you think was the commonest reason for a rescue? Injury? Illness? It was neither. The most common cause of a high altitude emergency was being stranded - 42% of those who contacted the Swiss mountain rescue services between 2009 and 2020 were unable to reach a place of safety and, as a result, requested help.
Were they injured or ill? No, the vast majority were unharmed. The most common reason for getting stranded was exhaustion (60%). In a small number of cases, the weather made a contribution, with fresh snow, thunderstorms and fog all being mentioned in reports.
More than half (55%) of those stranded were located on mountains over 4,000m. The two most common peaks were the Matterhorn (21%) and Piz Bernina (13%).
The second most common reason for contacting the Swiss mountain rescue services was following a fall (29%). However it's not clear from the study what injuries were sustained. High altitude emergencies were also triggered by rockslide (6%), crevasse (4%) and avalanche (1%). Unfortunately, the exact pattern of injury was not available for these groups either.
Illness accounted for 8% of high altitude emergencies. Whilst details of the exact nature of these illnesses were sparse, earlier research suggests that a number of different conditions would have likely been responsible. These would include - high altitude illness, acute infection and exacerbations of chronic disease.
Photo: Marco Meyer
What should we make of these results? The author of the study, Benedikt Gasser, argues that they need to be seen in a wider context. In the years before the Covid pandemic, the number of people visiting the Swiss Alps had been increasing. However, high altitude emergencies increased at a slower rate than the increase in visitors. During the same time, the number of deaths had fallen. Seen together, the author strikes a note of optimism, suggesting that the proportion of mountaineers who get stranded or die in the Swiss Alps is actually falling. This may be true, but from the results it’s also clear that there are a significant number of mountaineers out there who are choosing routes that are not appropriate for their levels of fitness, skill or experience. As a result, they're becoming stranded at high altitude and placing themselves and members of the rescue services at considerable risk. It’s also important to note that while the proportion of climbers requiring a rescue may be falling, in absolute numbers callouts are increasing, meaning more risk for rescuers.
Here’s John Ellerton, AC member and President of the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR) with the final word:
“At a forensic level, the Swiss Alpine Club Registry has some limitations - colleagues that work in the system acknowledge that this is not a full picture of mountaineering accidents in the Alps. However, this does not detract from the large numbers of ’stranded’, ‘crag fast’, ‘lost’ or ‘exhausted’ clients that impact upon organised mountain rescue teams in many parts of the world. Ask Keswick and Wasdale MRT’s about Scafell Pike and the ‘3 Peaks Challenge’! It would be interesting if evidence from 'honey pots' could show that 'stranded' is a new or increasing problem fuelled by a reduction in the experience, skills or resilience of clientele rather than an increase in the absolute number of participants.
In the UK, regional reports show that the categories ‘lost/disorientated, missing or reports of shouts’ account for 22% of incidents with a further 8% being triggered by those who are ‘benighted or crag fast’. Certainly, an increase in rescue requests in some areas is something that organisations are trying to address. For example, Adventure Smart in the UK gives out simple messages with the aim of reducing the number of avoidable callouts. In addition, modern technology is increasingly used to guide the ‘stranded’ down without deploying a rescue team to the hill."
Jeremy Windsor is a healthcare professional, AC member and part of the team behind the Mountain Medeicine Blog.