Location: Zermatt, Switzerland
Date: April 4, 1991
Twenty-year-old Jurg Friedli joined five other friends on April 4, 1991, for a day of ski touring on the glaciated mountains high above Zermatt, Switzerland. Jurg, a downhill skier, had never been ski touring, so he followed the lead of his friends, Christian Brunner and Daniel Weber, who were experienced in back country skiing. It was a magnificent day as the group climbed to the summit of the 13,000 foot glacier. At the top, the men rested and enjoyed the spectacular view before beginning their descent behind a larger group led by a mountain guide.
It was important for the skiers to stay on the trail to avoid falling into crevasses--deadly, invisible cracks in the surface of the ice. But while making a turn, Jurg inadvertently veered off the trail and skied over a crevasse. He grabbed to the edges of the crack as he fell, but the snow gave way and he slipped before the surface.
Two friends saw Jurg disappear from sight and yelled to a third friend to get to the mountain guide who was leading the group ahead. The mountain guide radioed the Air Zermatt Rescue Team, who dispatched a helicopter to the scene. Daniel figured that Jurg had fallen a short distance and expected a problem-free rescue. "But we looked into the hole, and it was so deep!" recalls Daniel. "It was a shock. We thought, maybe he's dead." Jurg had fallen seventy-five below the surface between two narrow walls of ice. His friends wasted no time hauling out their ice-climbing gear, but Daniel worried that Jurg might become hypothermic.
It took a half-hour for Jens Zollhofer, using ropes, to lower Christian down to Jurg. Jurg was still alive, but he was firmly wedged between sheets of ice in a space so narrow that he had difficulty breathing. Christian was panicked--he couldn't see any way of raising Jurg out of the crevasse. "I had a picture in my mind," recalls Christian, "seeing Jurg's mother. And I told myself I could no longer look into her eyes if I didn't bring her son back to her."
Until the helicopter's arrival, which was slowed by strong winds, the only thing Jurg's friends could do was chip away at the ice with a pick. More than one hour later, the Air Zermatt Rescue Team arrived on the scene. Because Jurg's boots, skis, and hands were frozen into the ice, Alpine ski guide and rescuer Kurt Lauber realized a powerful ice air hammer was needed to chip away large chunks of ice.
By the time the air hammer was flown in, Jurg had been lodged in the crevasse for two hours. He was feeling faint and sleepy, and talked about giving up. "C'mon, Jurg!" Behave yourself!" shouted Daniel, hoping to shake up Jurg. "You can't go to sleep. You must fight!" But Jurg teetered on the brink of unconsciousness and was in danger of losing his life as the rescue crew chipped away at the ice slowly and carefully, so as not to further jeopardize his safety. Finally, five hours after he had first slipped into the crevasse, Jurg was lifted out. "He was pale as death," recalls Christian. "His eyes were half-closed, his lips were deep purple. The freezing was taking control."
The group heaved a sight of relief as the helicopter departed with Jurg for a hospital in Visp. There Jurg was treated for hypothermia and released three days later with no lasting effects. "You have to be really lucky to survive falling into a crevasse," says rescuer Kurt Lauber. "Even if you fall a couple of feet, you can die." Lauber praises Jurg's friends for remaining calm, which enabled them to think clearly and work together. According to Daniel teamwork is key in mountaineering.
"They constantly encouraged me," says Jurg. "They inspired me not to give up. They actually risked their lives for me. Without these people, I wouldn't be here today." "We had no thought about being heroes. It was just the right thing--and afterward, I felt like Clint Eastwood," laughs Daniel. Jurg isn't sure he'll go ski touring again in the near future, but Christian doesn't want people to get the wrong impression about the sport. "All in all," he says, "a ski tour is surely less dangerous than driving a car."