Aiut Alpin Dolomites was officially founded in 1990, although technically, the private association – registered as a non-profit social utility organisation – has been operating since 1987. Its goal is to provide mountain rescue services in the Italian Dolomite mountains, an area that has long been popular among climbers, and more recently for winter and extreme sports enthusiasts. The helicopter rescue service was conceived and implemented by voluntary rescuers of the Ladin valleys – Gardena, Fassa and Badia – as the number of accidents in the region continued to climb. Today, Aiut Alpin Dolomites is formed of 17 different mountain rescue teams situated in the districts of Bolzano, Trento and Belluno.
The techniques used by teams of volunteers rescuing injured climbers underwent rapid evolution in the post-war period. Originally, rescuers would use normal climbing gear, ie ropes, nails and carabiners. In the 1950s, new equipment was made available that had been specially designed for rescues on large rock faces. The most important innovation was the replacement of hemp or manilla cords with thin steel cables. By joining these cables for many hundreds of meters, rescuers could descend along entire walls and perform recoveries that until then had been considered impossible.
These new techniques required the commitment of more people and a better training of the team, which led to a greater unity of the group and a strong bond of solidarity and friendship between the various components. It was this spirit, fostered by the volunteers, which led to the use of the helicopter and the foundation of Aiut Alpin Dolomites.
Towards the end of the 1960s in Italy, the Light Aviation Army group began to operate with various Agusta Bell helicopters. A department (then called ALE-Altair) was also operational in Bolzano at the IV Corps de Armata, located at San Giacomo airport. It is thanks to this military department that helicopters were introduced into the alpine rescue service in Alto Adige in the early 1970s. Since, in peacetime, the main task of the army consists of military training, carrying out rescues in the Dolomite mountains were a great way for the pilots to practise.
In the mid-1980s, a rescue was performed in Val Gardena using a Lama helicopter, which was brought in from an outside company for the occasion. For the first time, a rescue basket was used hanging on the barycentric hook, which brought with it new possibilities and alternatives in mountain rescue.
In the Spring of 1986, a dozen helicopters, all different, were brought in to perform 15 rescue scenarios. These included several civil and military versions from Agusta-Bell, a Lama Aerospatiale and a BK117. A few months later, the first rescue helicopter was leased, and an Alouette III soon joined the team. The rest, as they say, is history.
Aircraft and kit
When the service first began, it was very difficult to secure the necessary resources. Aiut Alpin Dolomites was initially supported by different mountain rescue teams situated in the Dolomites; but gradually, the organisation found sponsors, local associations of ski lifts and cable cars, private citizens, mountain shelters and many other commercial businesses, who helped to cover the costs of the operation. To finance the helicopter itself, a special membership card was created, which offers insurance against the cost of a rescue mission for members.
“The local health department pays part of the cost per flight minute,” explained Adam Holzknecht, President of AIUT ALPIN Dolomites, “but we are still dependent on support. Therefore, special thanks goes to all people who supported – and still support – our activity.”
Rescue missions are co-ordinated firstly by the emergency centre – all calls for help are primarily directed there. The staff then decide which organisation will be necessary for the mission at hand. They can call on the local ambulance, fire department, police, and/or mountain rescue team, and the helicopter, if it is needed and available. All year round, the team undertakes training with other local rescue organisations and emergency teams to ensure readiness and to improve collaborative efforts to enable a seamless response when the time comes.
Adam Holzknecht has been working as a volunteer in the mountain rescue industry for many years – as a rescuer, in fact – since the organisation began. What he has learned throughout that time, he said, is one of the most important safety factors during rescue operations is to have a light helicopter. Starting as a volunteer in Alpine rescue, with a passion for mountains and climbing, his experience in effecting real rescues is key to managing the organisation currently. And there is still progress being made. He told AirMed&Rescue: “The main challenge for the future of the Aiut Alpin Dolomites will be to train the crew on board for night flights (visual flight rules), in order to bring help to the mountaineers in difficulty on our mountains, as we have been doing for more than 30 years during the day.”
Holzknecht added: “Over the years, we have flown a Lama, Alouette III, Ecureuil B2 and Ecureuil B3. Finally, in 2003, we bought our first helicopter – a Eurocopter (Airbus) 135 T2i. The decision to buy our own helicopter was taken due to the fact that in Italy, rescue missions have to be done with twin-engine helicopters.” Since March 2015, Aiut Alpin Dolomites has been the proud owner of an H 135 T3, the first to be sold worldwide by Airbus Helicopters. The aircraft is equipped with a 90-metre-long hoist and a fixed rope attached to a double hook human cargo, vacuum mattress and winch bag.
The medical side of the operation is led by Medical Chief Executive Dr Lydia Rauch. In 2017/18 winter season, Aiut Alpin Dolomites assisted 520 people, nearly all of which were emergency calls, the only exception being secondary transports and training exercises, which form less than 10 per cent of callouts. In the winter season, the typical patient seen by medics are skiers who have suffered an accident on the slopes or a heart attack in their hotel.
We use a special equipment that fits our specific needs in helicopter rescue in the difficult terrain of the Dolomites: light, efficient, resistant and up to date
Dr Rauch is clearly in agreement with Holznecht when it comes to thinking about the medical kit that is taken onboard the helicopter – lighter is better. She explained: “We use a special equipment that fits our specific needs in helicopter rescue in the difficult terrain of the Dolomites: light, efficient, resistant and up to date.”
The H 135 T3 also has the latest medical equipment for resuscitation and stabilision of the patient. The following equipment and supplies are available for use by the medical staff on board:
- Intra-venous infusion sets (drip sets), and comprehensive resuscitation
- Respirator and ventilator (children and adults) also for ground use
- Portable suction units
- Medical kit for critical patients (adult and paediatric use)
- Medical kit with additional medical equipment such as: chest drainage equipment, intubation equipment, amputation set, etc.
- Equipment for immobilising patients when using the winch and double hoist hook for rescue
- Special box for the disposal of used medical equipment and drugs
- Container for medical documents etc.
The team of people working on the helicopters has to have a great experience in out-of-hospital emergency and be specialised in anaesthesiology, said Dr Rauch. “Above that,” she added, “they have to have a basic alpine education and have to be able to complete climbing walls as well as in steep ice and snow.” To this end, the organisation offers two specific courses every year: a winter training, which takes place over four days, and a summer training, which lasts for six days. Both courses include alpine training during the whole day and a theory part in the evening when the team shares care reports, scientific news and do professional skill-training.
By combining the skills of pilots, doctors, winch operators and mountain climbers and rescuers, Aiut Alpin Dolomites effects the rescues of hundreds of adventurers each year.