Fight or flight? Often in the backcountry, the circumstances can come down to this, perhaps you were ill-prepared, perhaps you had a near miss with a potentially dangerous situation, or maybe the elements were against you. But for those of whom live in the mountains, know every peak and every rock like the back of their hand, life on the side of one of Europe's most notorious, fearsome and undeniably stunning mountains must be intense.
Never underestimate the mountain and never overestimate yourself!
The Thrillism team have a near locals knowledge of Zermatt with Angelica having lived on the Italian side for 8 years and spending a lot of that in Zermatt, the Thrillism team have always wondered about the work that goes on "behind the slopes". If we are interested. . . We know that you adventurers must be too. If you spend any time it the backcountry, anywhere in the world, skiing, hiking, climbing etc then you need to read this article.
That's why we wanted to touch base (pun intended) with the incredible folks at Air Zermatt, where their unmissable red helicopters are flown over our favourite mountain with a knowing and watchful eye, leading us to a massive amount of curiosity about the work they do and how meaningful it is to all of us who are passionate about the mountains.
Q.1 Introduce yourselves a little, who are Air Zermatt and how important is the company to the local community.
Air Zermatt is a helicopter company located in the Swiss Alps. With three bases, located in Zermatt, Raron and Gampel, roughly 70 employees and 10 helicopters, we carry out aerial work in different working fields. We provide a 365-day, 24/7 rescue service, with helicopters and ambulances. Additionally, we carry out all kinds of transport, passenger and commercial flights.
For Air Zermatt, it’s essential to maintain a close cooperation with clients and partners. Since we live in the Alps, there are some things that are much more efficient, cost-saving and easier to achieve by helicopter. For example, in the summertime, the SAC mountain huts are supplied with food and high alpine construction sites such as the one on Klein Matterhorn for the new 3S Gondola, show how important collaboration between local partners and Air Zermatt is. Of course, the high-quality rescue service that prevails in our region is important and indispensable for the local communities and all those who visit our beautiful canton.
Q.2 How important was the Netflix documentary in helping educate people about the vital work that Air Zermatt do?
Due to the fact that Air Zermatt did amazing pioneering work in their founding years as well as in recent years, there’s always been a general knowledge about the work we do, and how important it is, especially in Switzerland. As an example, in 1972, former Air Zermatt pilot Günther Amann has been rewarded with the Robert E. Trimble Memorial Award in Las Vegas for his heroic performance in the Eiger North Face, where he managed the first direct helicopter rescue of mountaineers with the use of a 25-metre winch.
Over the years several revolutionary methods and tools have been developed especially due to the pioneering spirit of Air Zermatt’s unique founder Mr Perren, which made our company known in the field of mountain rescue at a very early stage.
Furthermore, SRF (Swiss national TV) created several documentaries between 2007 and 2013, which already gave extensive insights into our work. Nevertheless, the Red Bull series on Netflix certainly has an enormous reach all around the world and thus, definitely increased the international attention, especially in America but also Australia and large parts of Europe.
Air Zermatt has always been like a big family since it’s a rather small company, and therefore, it’s also important to enjoy the times together outside working hours. Sometimes, you’ll more probably find a solution to a problem over a beer, than in a formal meeting.
Q.3 How does the company ensure that every member of staff works as a cohesive unit, from the pilot to the paramedics to the doctor + mountain rescue?
First of all, it’s important to be professional. That sounds like the most logical thing to do, but it requires a lot of work from the side of the company and on a personal level. Crew Resource Management (CRM) training offers an important tool to improve air safety, interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making in the helicopter and on the ground.
It’s important that each department has a compatible, strong and professional leadership, which supports, advice but also supervises the employees. On a personal level, employees have to be able to communicate, to make use of common sense, set aside any personal differences and act in the most professional way possible and surely. Air Zermatt has always been like a big family since it’s a rather small company, and therefore, it’s also important to enjoy the times together outside working hours. Sometimes, you’ll more probably find a solution to a problem over a beer, than in a formal meeting.
Q.4 What are the 3 most important traits of the crew, whether they are a pilot, mountain rescue or the paramedic or even the emergency responders in the office?
There are many different people and depending on which field you’re working; some traits are more important than others. However, in general, those traits help in each department.
Empathy: You have to be able to empathize with others in certain situations. This is especially important during rescue operations but also in everyday flight operations. Since you don’t always work with visible contact only per voice over radio, you should be able to properly express yourself but also understand what the other person is telling you and what he needs from you. If a pilot doesn’t seem to be too positive about doing something, you should never put him under pressure to still do it. Here we are in a very close working environment and there’s so much inter-dependency between the different parts of our job, therefore it’s important to understand each other, even without words.
Critical ability: In order to be able to improve yourself and your skills, you should be able to handle constructive criticism well. This will not only help yourself but also increase the quality and efficiency of our work.
Sensitivity: There are situations, where it’s important to be sensitive. Especially when you are in contact with patients, family members of patients or diseased ones.
As our CEO, Gerold Biner says, one of the most important things is, to have the ability to use common sense.
Q.5 How does the team deal with death? The job must be tough they must also see some things that are hard to forget, how do they stay motivated?
That’s different from person to person. Everyone has its own way to deal with tragedies like that. One thing our crew does is sit together and talk about the rescue mission after the recovery of the body. It’s not a strict and formal debriefing, it’s more a chat between working colleagues. It’s a big part of this job and there are many stories that are still coming up, even years after the tragedies happened. It’s especially hard if children or people you know are involved. However, the amount of successful rescue missions is by far higher and therefore you really have to concentrate on this part of the job.
Q.6 What are the top 3 most important things to remember for extreme skiers, climbers, hikers to know when spending time in the backcountry?
Simon Anthamatten, one of our young pilots and a very experienced mountain guide and mountain rescuer said: Never underestimate the mountain and never overestimate yourself!
You should always have the proper equipment and weather protective clothes, a device that lets you communicate in case of emergency, a necessary respect of the mountains and nature and experience.
Q.7 In that case. . . what are the top 5 things that every extreme skier, climber, hiker, mountaineer carry in their adventure backpack at all times?
The most important part, when going out into the backcountry is preparation. You should always be perfectly prepared (check weather conditions, routes, snow conditions….), that you wouldn’t need any of the “emergency” equipment (Shovel, detector and so forth). However, you should always have the proper equipment and weather protective clothes, a device that lets you communicate in case of emergency, a necessary respect of the mountains and nature and experience. In case of uncertainty, turn to a local mountain guide or someone else, who has the necessary information. Even the best equipment cannot protect you if you didn’t prepare well enough.
Visit Air Zermatt's Website, on Instagram and Facebook.
We have so much love and respect for all the staff at Air Zermatt so we just wanted to say thanks to them for answering our questions and spreading some knowledge.
That's it for this week, stay tuned for our next article, we have some incredible things in store this Winter season, stories, interviews and more.