How to survive an accident on the mountains

Written by Domenico Di Maio

Week 46

Let’s start with the obvious assumption that your average driver would not like to find him or herself in this situation. The ‘situation’ we are referring to can be found in an article in the Daily Mail about a Swedish guy who survived for 44 days in his car, which was bogged down in a ton of snow. After this dramatic story, we started to wonder about the implications of this type of roadside and alpine rescue operation. We exchanged a few words with Mauro Ballerini from the Alpine Rescue Division of Corno alle Scale.

Domenico Di Maio) Hello Mauro, let’s start with a brief presentation: what is your role, what does it involve exactly and where do you operate?

Mauro Ballerini) Actually I am deputy station manager of Corno alle Scale, and I work with the mountain rescue service. I served as station manager for almost 20 years, and I have now passed on the role to a younger boy who can keep up with the pace of our work; I am deputy stationmaster to support him and teach him the trade.

DDM) How long have you practiced this profession?

MB) I’ve been doing this job for over 30 years; I still run operations and rescue missions in the 118 helicopter to support the division.

DDM) In this current issue our theme is motors, and how they operate in the winter season. A subject that is not well discussed is how alpine assistance works in critical weather and road conditions. How does it differ to the service provided in a normal incident?

MB) I can tell you that every meteorological component is very important: from visibility conditions to the wind. It’s a completely different way of operating to traditional rescue divisions, from how the alarm is signalled to how the actual procedure is carried out.

DDM) What are the main reasons for intervention and how do you manage the security on mountain trails?

MB) The causes, as you can imagine, are the climatic conditions. We move from injury due to slipping on ice to the most fatal of avalanches. In the latter case you have to be prepared professionally, with all the relevant tools such as shovel and weather balloon. We run an awareness campaign making sure alpine adventures carry these tools in their backpack. If swept away by an avalanche they can be traced wearing special items, and increase their chances of survival, which dramatically decrease after 15 minutes.

DDM) Are there certain types of transport for this kind of work?

MB) Depending on weather conditions, sometimes, even the helicopter can’t operate because of adverse weather or due to the topography of the area. In that case local teams composed of technical alpine and climbing experts step in. Then we also use land vehicles, framed regularly as ‘special transport’ but legally recognized as Land Rover pickups.

DDM) In addition to maintaining calm, how should you act if experiencing a mountain misfortune?

MB) Self-rescue is what makes the absolute difference. Report the exact location and always move with other people. Often a reporting partner can save your life more so than any means of rescue vehicle.

DDM) What are the procedures for rescue when you receive an alarm?

MB) Depending on the conditions the first vehicles depart, also with the help of a canine unit that in these areas is fundamental; we have one here and other units throughout the area. We group technicians, move the unit closer to the incident, and try to do our best, actually, more than our best.

DDM) Tell us about one of your most important rescue missions?

MB) 15 missing, the wind at 150kmh, visibility to half a meter, we went out in two teams. Unfortunately one of the missing individuals died because of a fall in the difficult conditions, but we were able to rescue the other 14 people.
Last year, two boys were swept away by an avalanche, even here one passed away due to the traumas suffered. I can assure you that often in these cases the place makes a difference, for them we had to use skis. Certain climatic conditions and difficult territory render rescue transportation useless.