Background: High-altitude mountaineering has become more and more popular. While many enjoy the beauty of the highest parts of Switzerland, there are considerable risks, which can even result in death. This study analyzed fatal events while high-altitude mountaineering in the Swiss Alps.
Materials and methods: In this study, cases of emergencies while high-altitude mountaineering in the Swiss Alps were analyzed in the period from 2009 to 2021 from the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) emergency registry. Fatal emergencies were identified and analyzed in detail.
Results: In total, 5020 emergency cases were analyzed, and among them 303 deathly events where detected. Of the fatal emergencies, 261 cases (86.1%) were male and 42 (13.9%) were female. The average age was 53.2 ± 19.1 years. More than half of the emergencies were on a route to a classic four-thousander. Fatal events were most common on the Matterhorn, with 40 cases (13.2%); on the Mönch, with 18 cases (5.9%); and on the Piz Bernina, with 10 cases (3.3%). In 245 of the fatal emergencies (80.9%), a fall was the cause. The second most prominent cause was rockfalls, with 16 cases (5.3%), followed by stranding, with 10 cases (3.3%), and avalanches, with 9 cases (3%). Illnesses and crevasse accidents counted together for less than 5% of the fatal cases. Almost two-thirds of fatal falls occurred while descending. Concerning nationality, 30% were from Switzerland and more than three-fourths of victims were from the countries of the Alps.
Discussion: We found that falls were the most common cause of fatal emergencies in the Swiss Alps. Concerning the fact that most of these emergencies occurred during descents, fatigue and inadequate focus (forgetting the risks of the descent after successfully reaching the peak) are potential reasons for the fatal events. This potentially resulted from a lack of acclimatization, insufficient physical fitness, and inadequate tour planning. Since most victims were from the countries of the Alps, training tours may be possible as a recommended preparation for more difficult four-thousander peaks.
Keywords: acute mountain sickness; sudden cardiac death.