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Foreign climbers risk all for once in a lifetime holiday

Changing weather patterns on the north face of the Matterhorn often catch foreign climbers by surprise Keystone Archive

Cash-strapped foreign climbers are taking unnecessary risks to realise their dreams of scaling the Eiger or Matterhorn.

This content was published on July 16, 2002 - 15:35

Following the death last Friday of a 22-year-old mountaineer from Slovakia, Hans Jaggi of the Swiss Alpine Club's rescue service told swissinfo that many climbers from eastern Europe put their lives at risk by taking to the mountains without the proper preparation.

"They often do not have the appropriate equipment," he said. "They try to save money by sleeping outside overnight rather than staying at one of the manned huts and they ignore advice about the changing weather conditions - particularly in summer."

As a result of bad weather, rescuers were forced to abandon their search for the body of the Slovakian, who fell to his death while trying to climb the Matterhorn.

Rescue costs

Air Zermatt, the local helicopter rescue service, said they would resume their search once the weather improved, but on Monday evening snow and rain were still hampering their efforts.

Diego Larieda, a paramedic at Air Zermatt, said rescuing ill-experienced climbers from the Matterhorn was only part of the problem.

"After we've rescued someone they are sent a bill to cover the costs of the rescue," he told swissinfo.

"In the summer, however, we often encounter problems with Eastern Europeans. These are poor people who save for their whole lives to come to Zermatt and climb the Matterhorn. If they have an accident or are killed on the mountain we have to fly them down, but afterwards it is hard to get money from their insurers, if they have insurance, or their families at home."

Saving money

Cutting the costs of a stay in Switzerland by not buying insurance and not hiring a mountain guide is a major contributory factor to the difficulties in which many foreign climbers find themselves.

"They are often short of time," says Toni Fuchs, president of the Swiss mountain guides association. "They come to Switzerland just for a couple of days and their main goal is to conquer the Matterhorn or the Eiger.

"They do not give themselves enough time to acclimatise and they save money by not using one of the approved and experienced mountain guides."

Jaggi says that climbers also put themselves under pressure because they know they probably will not be able to afford to return to Switzerland.

"It can be expensive to climb here and even if they have two weeks, many foreigners will still try to cut corners and spend as little money as possible," he said.

Ignoring advice

Many foreigners have a different approach to climbing in Switzerland, according to Jacky Michelet, director of canton Valais mountain rescue organisation.

"They come as tourists and want to enjoy themselves at any price," he says. "Sometimes they pay the ultimate price."

He says local climbers are much better at coping with changing weather conditions that may delay them from making an attempt on the summit.

Foreign climbers, he says, will often ignore weather warnings and find themselves climbing in conditions that would challenge even the most experienced mountaineer.

Rising death toll

The latest figures from the Swiss Alpine Club show that 133 people died in the Swiss mountains last year, with 60 of the victims being foreign climbers. It was the highest annual total since 1993 and marked a 43 per cent increase over the previous year.

The proportion of foreigners who died almost doubled, and Jaggi says an increasing number of east European climbers are among the Alpine casualties.

"Ever since east European countries opened their borders there have more and more mountaineers from Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic coming to Switzerland, and much of the increase in the number of deaths can be attributed to that fact."

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