From Horu to the Himalayas

On the way to Gornergrat, Bruno Jelk proudly shows a photo of the Matterhorn which he took at home with his phone. ‘Check out this cloud formation: isn't it gorgeous?’ Every day for almost fifty years now, the Zermatt rescue chief and grand old man of mountain rescues has been looking at the Matterhorn, nicknamed ‘Horu,’ and falling in love over and over again.

Always go out

Bruno Jelk is greeted warmly by everyone. People know and appreciate him, and not just since the SRF documentary about his time as a mountain rescuer in the Himalayas. Does he feel like a hero? He dismisses the suggestion. ‘The mountains are no place for heroes. I just do what I can.’ It's the modesty of a man who has nothing to prove to anyone, because he's already seen it all.

Being a mountain rescuer is very demanding work, and it takes a psychological toll as well. Not everyone can be rescued. How does he deal with it? ‘That's something which can't be learned. You either have the ability to process it, or you don't. If you let it get to you, this isn't the right line of work for you.’ No sleepless nights? ‘I have a principle which helps me sleep well at night: always go out. We get out there in all weathers. Even if we can see that a rescue is unfeasible, we still do everything we can. And we come back as soon as it becomes possible to do so.’

Zermatt, Sotchi und Nepal

Bruno Jelk is a man who's in demand. He served as an avalanche expert at the Sochi Olympics. Will new winter sports destinations like Sochi be competing with Zermatt? ‘We are here, more than 3,100 meters above sea level, surrounded by 29 mountains 4,000 metres or higher.’ Bruno Jelk's view sweeps over the panorama on Gornergrat. ‘I've seen a lot, and there's nothing like this.’ But he also knows that the unique view is not enough. ‘The railway that brought us here was built more than 100 years ago. We must never lose that pioneering spirit, since that's what made Switzerland and Valais what they are today.’

Pioneering spirit is what Bruno Jelk has, and his inventions have proved indispensable for mountain rescues. These include devices like the ‘Jelk stretcher’ and the ‘tripod,’ which he uses to climb into deep chasms in order to rescue those in trouble. Bruno Jelk helps out wherever he's needed. He talks excitedly about his new project in the Himalayas. ‘On our last mission with Air Zermatt in Nepal, we built the mountain rescue operation there. Now we want to do something for the people who received us so warmly.’ The plan is to provide medical care for remote villages by helicopter.

Gornergrat, Panorama with Matterhorn, Zermatt, Valais
29 mountains 4,000 metres or higher: the panorama in Zermatt

Rescuer in trouble

Bruno Jelk grew up in the canton of Freiburg, the son of alpine shepherds. From his father Kanis, he learned to step up and take responsibility. As a border guard, Jelk was stationed on Testa Grigia near Zermatt in 1972. It was the beginning of a big career. Jelk made a name for himself as a mountain guide. He has been rescue chief in Zermatt since 1980. A Freiburger serving as rescue chief in Valais? ‘It's very simple: you have to adapt to the locals and do your work well. If you do, you'll be accepted very quickly.’ Bruno Jelk enjoys the utmost respect – from everyone.

Jelk has passed on his passion to his three children. ‘All of them have their Swiss ski instructor's certificate; that's like an elementary school diploma in our family.’ His children have inherited their father's talents – and mother Madeleine is always there for everyone: Thomas is an engineer at Depuy Synthes in Raron, Bernadette is a nurse and Fabienne is a public prosecutor in Valais. After all, Valais is more than just a tourist area: it offers professional opportunities for young people in the industrial and service sectors as well. Fabienne wrote her master's thesis on the assessment of criminal responsibility for avalanche events. Just like her father. On the way down to the top station, Bruno Jelk meets a group of people on a day trip. The path is icy, and two women slip and hang on to the rails. Bruno Jelk extends his hand to them gallantly. ‘Thanks, you saved us,’ they say glowingly. How right they are.

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