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"Summits & Community"

Interview with two young mountain rescuers

Christoph (25) and Philipp (23) Schäfer are both passionate mountain rescuers. In the summer, Christoph manages the treetop adventure park in Damüls, while Philipp works independently as a photographer. During the winter, they contribute to the family's sports store, specializing in ski services and sales. In an interview, they provide us with insights into their world as volunteer alpine lifesavers in Damüls. The brothers share stories of thrilling rescue missions and discuss the significance of community, as well as the preparation for emergencies.

How did you get into mountain rescue?

Christoph: When we were little, our father ignited our passion for mountain rescue with his own enthusiasm. He was part of the alpine police and a rescue pilot. Even as kids, we were fascinated by the yellow rescue helicopter. Later, we joined the youth mountain rescue team and then completed the training course to become mountain rescuers and rescue paramedics. I am also an emergency paramedic with the Red Cross, and Philipp is part of the fire department. We are well-equipped to handle any kind of emergency.

Can you describe your training in more detail?

Philipp: After being part of the youth mountain rescue, we were able to take the aspirant course at the age of 16. It included three technical courses covering theory and practice – winter, summer, and ice. In these courses, we acquired skills in ski touring, learned to assess snow situations, received training in avalanche interventions, and perfected climbing and rope techniques. Additionally, we underwent medical training, including a 16-hour first aid course and a basic alpine medical course.

Christoph: The training sessions spanned over weekends and took place in various alpine terrain areas. After completing the training, according to regional regulations, one becomes a mountain rescuer and can pursue further education. Almost every municipality situated in alpine regions has its own local station, tactically responsible for a specific area. We operate throughout Damüls and somewhat higher towards Furkapass.

Both of you are also active in the board of mountain rescue.

Christoph: Yes, we are both alpine instructors and now train new mountain rescuers ourselves. I serve as the vice chairman and equipment manager, while Philipp is the secretary. In total, we have a team of around 19 mountain rescuers. Some of them are over 50 years old and have transitioned to the passive status, meaning they are no longer required to undergo further training. This year, eight youngsters are part of our youth mountain rescue. Like us, they meet once a month, practicing medical procedures, climbing, map reading, or venturing into the mountains with instructors.

Philipp: Active members in mountain rescue have a mandatory ongoing training obligation to stay current. Even our older members remain active – our leader in the operational statistics is 60 years old. We also have a rescue pilot on the team who flies in the helicopter, providing support to the pilot and doctor. We are a highly trained and motivated group, where everyone is dedicated with passion.

How ist the coordination of rescue missions handled?

Philipp: We are always on duty as soon as the pager is activated. Depending on the situation, we then decide whether the entire rescue team needs to respond. Our responsibilities extend beyond mountain rescue missions, including rescue operations on behalf of the Red Cross. This pilot project was introduced in Damüls over 30 years ago. In medical emergencies, we act as "First Responders" and are the first on the scene to provide assistance until the rescue teams from Au arrive.

Christoph: We always have the complete emergency equipment in the car – defibrillator, medications, ropes, carabiners, etc. If someone is injured on a hiking trail and the helicopter cannot land, we walk down with special stretchers and transport the person up. Our missions range from cuts or children with fever to heart attacks requiring resuscitation. This applies to both locals and tourists. It's just essential for us that there is always someone available to provide prompt assistance.

What challenges do you face in your operational area?

Philipp: The mountains are inherently unpredictable, and the weather can change at any time. During avalanche interventions, we need to coordinate and communicate effectively, as these missions can last up to eight hours or even longer. Incidents involving inexperienced hikers or skiers who overestimate their abilities also contribute to our callouts. To avoid such situations, having the right equipment and proper preparation is crucial.

Christoph: Unfortunately, avalanches can never be completely ruled out. These are the largest missions, involving up to 100 mountain rescuers from different local stations working together. Fortunately, in recent years, it has been quiet, and we haven't had to rescue anyone from the snow masses. It has happened before; death is a part of our work. We learn to handle these situations, bringing in experts or discussing them as a team. When someone dies, it's always a strange feeling, so we need to maintain a certain distance. However, humanity must not be lost, especially in dealing with the relatives.

How many call-outs do you usually have?

Christoph: It varies, but typically around 60 incidents per year. The majority of these involve the Red Cross. With mountain rescue, we had to respond approximately 15 times last year. These are usually more significant operations. During winter, the ski patrol handles skiing or snowboarding accidents within operating hours. In the summer, however, we are responsible for rescuing all injured individuals.

Does the pager often waken you up at night?

Philipp: Yes, with rescue operations, it can happen at any time of day or night. With mountain rescue, though, it usually rings during the day when people are out and about. (Philipp smiles) But we've also been called when a husband went missing, and we found him drinking beer in a bar or with someone else. It's happened before, and while you shouldn't laugh, it's just part of the job.

What motivates you to be in mountain rescue?

Christoph: The sense of unity that has developed within our team is incomparable. It's like being in a big family. When we encounter someone from mountain rescue on the ski slope, we go for a drink together. If someone is building a house, the whole crew shows up on Sunday to help with the roofing. The idea of helping others is our main motivation.

Philipp: In mountain rescue, we feel like part of a close-knit community. Camaraderie and the sense of being needed take precedence here. We all enjoy being in the mountains and learn a lot about dealing with stress and dangerous situations, which are valuable experiences for our own lives.

How do you maintain cohesion within your unit?

Christoph: We not only undertake rescue operations together but also have home evenings, outings, and tours. These activities serve not only for further education but also strengthen our team spirit. From city trips with our partners to expeditions to Kilimanjaro in South Africa or the Himalayas, we've done it all. Last year, we were with the mountain rescue in Switzerland on a 4,000-meter peak – those are simply memories for a lifetime.