22 Summits Stories

Rescue on the Allalinhorn


On 4 April 1992, a group of five mountain climbers from Saas Fee set out on a ski tour. Three of them are experienced, as mountain rescuers and expedition members. One is only in his early twenties. He has little experience in high alpine glacier terrain. But he is a very good skier, races and teaches as a ski instructor.

The group climbs the Allalinhorn and then intends to descend to the Britannia Hut. The conditions are difficult due to the fresh snow that has fallen before and the wind drifts. Crevasses are covered with snow and difficult to see. Suddenly the snow gives way. The young man is in free fall for the first 10m. Then comes the first impact against the slightly bent glacier wall, followed by numerous others. "It hit me on the walls right and left," Jürg Friedli recalls. At a depth of 25m, he comes to a halt, severely trapped in the gap that is only head-width wide, and briefly falls unconscious. His friends inform Air Zermatt.

The mountain rescuers, who cannot get to him at first, instruct the victim to put the rope they are lowering to him around his upper body. However, the rope cannot be passed between his head and the crevasse wall. They shout to him, "We'll get you out, but we have to dig a tunnel." They hammer away with ice picks for three hours, but make little progress. Jürg Friedli calls out to them, "You don't have to keep working. I'm going to sleep now." The rescuers react violently: "You want to leave us hanging? You stay awake now! We can do it!" After four hours, the noise of the helicopter finally sounds again. The compressor could be flown up despite the most adverse conditions. Finally, the rescuers make rapid progress with their canal and reach Friedli. After five hours, Jürg can finally be secured and is slowly pulled up. He says laconically: "It went down faster than it went up." Years later he remembers: "The way I looked over the edge of the crevasse into the distance, that felt extremely good. But I no longer had any feeling from the stomach down. Jürg wondered if he would ever be able to walk again. Shortly afterwards he falls into a coma.

Jürg Friedli has not sustained any damage from his mountain accident. His conclusion: "We must always be aware of what really matters in life and enjoy it. Everything can change from one second to the next. Despite this experience, the joy of the mountains is unbroken."

In 2018, Jürg Friedli, who is now president of Swiss Snowsports, met the head of the 1992 rescue commission, Bruno Jelk. 26 years had passed. They met at a professional conference. "He immediately remembered the rescue. That was extremely impressive for me," Jürg Friedli recounts. "He said to me: 'Based on your information, we adapted the technique a bit for future rescues back then'."


Rescue operations in crevasses have always presented mountain rescuers with major problems. Air Zermatt has made pioneering achievements in this field. As early as the 1980s, under the leadership of Bruno Jelk, rescue chief from 1981 to 2015, they experimented with the use of compressors and pneumatic breakers. Specially shaped chisels were developed to break up the ice better and faster.

 50 Jahre Air Zermatt

Read more: Beat H. Perren: Pioneers of Mountain Rescue. Co-authors: Luzius Theler, Gerold Biner. Rotten Verlag 2018.
Roger Gauderon with Bruno Jelk: Alarm on Everest, Matterhorn Verlag 2014.