Max went first, he was the best skier

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - ELLEN WHINNETT ST AN­TON, AUS­TRIA

SYD­NEY school­boy Max Meyer told res­cuers “we need some help’’ in a phone call just min­utes be­fore he was swept away in an avalanche.

The 16-year-old Syd­ney In­ter­na­tional Gram­mar School stu­dent died on Wed­nes­day af­ter be­ing swept into a river and buried un­der me­tres of snow at the St An­ton am Arl­berg ski re­sort in Aus­tria.

His dis­traught par­ents and 14year-old brother, who were trapped with him in a steep val­ley when the avalanche came rush­ing to­wards them, re­main in Aus­tria, and are fi­nal­is­ing plans to bring Max’s body home.

The po­lice­man who is han­dling the in­quiry into the tragedy, Moun­tain Po­lice Of­fi­cer Pa­trick Wech­ner, told The Sun­day Tele­graph that Max had phoned the ski pa­trol res­cue team at St An­ton on his mo­bile just min­utes be­fore the avalanche struck.

The fam­ily had be­come trapped in the bot­tom of a deep val­ley known as the Steiss­bach just above the town, and called for help af­ter be­ing un­able to ski back up, or get out through heavy snow.

“The boy called on his mo­bile phone to the res­cue team at Galzig, the main res­cue sta­tion,’’

Mr Wech­ner said. “He (Max) said ‘we skied into the val­ley and we can’t get up or down and we need some help’.’’

The ski pa­trol and vol­un­teer moun­tain res­cue teams scram­bled im­me­di­ately to find the fam­ily, but tragedy struck be­fore they ar­rived.

Mr Wech­ner said Wed­nes­day had been “a good day’’ for ski­ing at St An­ton.

De­spite wind at the top of the moun­tain and grey skies, vis­i­bil­ity was good and the Meyer fam­ily had been en­joy­ing the slopes on the Gam­pen Moun­tain di­rectly be­hind the vil­lage of St An­ton, a busy ski vil­lage known as one of the best in the world.

Like many other skiers, they were at­tracted to the pris­tine snow “off­piste” — off the groomed ski slopes.

“The fam­ily had taken the Gam­pen (chair) lift and they made some runs on the off-piste runs, out­side of the or­gan­ised ski area,’’ Mr Wech­ner said. “The pistes are safe from avalanches and other dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. But they took the off-piste runs, so there was no safety.’’

The fam­ily made sev­eral runs with­out mishap, join­ing up with the groomed slopes at the base of the moun­tain, and em­barked in the late af­ter­noon on an­other off-piste de­scent.

“The prob­lem at this time is that the young boy who died, Max, he was the first to ski down, and he goes too far to the right side and they can’t get back up to the ski area, they have to ski down the val­ley,’’ Mr Wech­ner said. “They are in­ter­me­di­ate skiers and Max was a good skier, the best in the fam­ily, that’s the rea­son he went first.’’

Mr Wech­ner said the val­ley to the west of the Gam­pen ski run was known as a “V-Tal’’ — a deep Vshaped val­ley with very steep sides.

“They stayed at the bot­tom of the val­ley. They can’t get over the very high snow and the ter­rain is very dif­fi­cult. It is not pos­si­ble for them to get out.’’

Mr Wech­ner said Max then made the call from his mo­bile phone and search teams headed out to help the fam­ily.

But at 4.38pm (lo­cal time), dis­as­ter struck. Above them, on the western slope of the val­ley, an avalanche 50m wide and 150m long be­gan rum­bling to­wards them.

The fam­ily would have heard it, and prob­a­bly seen it, as it rushed to­wards them down a 45-de­gree slope.

“The avalanche breaks from at the top of the hill di­rectly on to the per­sons,’’ Mr Wech­ner said.

“The young per­son (Max) was caught, also the mother was in­volved but only a lit­tle bit and for her it was pos­si­ble to get out.

“The fa­ther and brother were stand­ing a lit­tle fur­ther up on the hill and did not get caught.’’

Trapped in the bot­tom of the val­ley, Max was cov­ered in snow.

The fam­ily did not have probes, shov­els or avalanche lo­ca­tion de­vices, but res­cue work­ers turned up very shortly af­ter­wards and be­gan search­ing for Max by plung­ing long probes into the snow.

They lo­cated him just 10m from where he had been stand­ing, un­der 2m of snow.

“When they picked him up out of the snow they started with the CPR,’’ Mr Wech­ner said.

“There was also a doc­tor from the res­cue he­li­copter.

“It was not pos­si­ble for the he­li­copter to fly be­cause it was foggy so the doc­tor came first in a car then there was a walk.

“The doc­tor tried to save Max but it was not pos­si­ble. He was too long un­der the avalanche.

“The other prob­lem is there’s a river and the snow had held the wa­ter back. The skier Max was also in the wa­ter.

“They tried a long time to bring him back to life but it was not pos­si­ble.’’

Max’s dis­traught fam­ily wit­nessed the avalanche, and the des­per­ate at­tempts by res­cuers to save his life.

Even­tu­ally, as dark­ness fell and it be­gan to snow, res­cuers led the Meyer fam­ily out on skis on a dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous trek over rocks and through trees, back to St An­ton.

Max was taken up­hill on a res­cue sled. His body was later trans­ferred to the nearby city of Inns­bruck, where the Aus­trian pub­lic prose­cu­tor’s of­fice opened an in­quiry into his death.

The fam­ily were taken to the po­lice sta­tion, where a trained sup­port per­son was called to com­fort and as­sist them.

“They were very dis­tressed,’’ Mr Wech­ner said.

He said the pub­lic prose­cu­tor had au­tho­rised for Max to be taken back to Aus­tralia, and ar­range­ments were now be­ing made for him to be repa­tri­ated, along with his fam­ily.

The avalanche was small by St An­ton stan­dards — the area is prone to dev­as­tat­ing avalanches, in­clud­ing one that killed seven peo­ple and in­jured 20 in 1988, while two men were killed last year, and an Aus­tralian woman died nearby in an avalanche in 2015.

Sev­eral busi­ness own­ers in the pretty town — made up of hun­dreds of chalets, ritzy cloth­ing stores and res­tau­rants — had no idea it had even oc­curred.

Avalanche vic­tim Max Meyer (left), and ski pa­trol res­cuers on the snow atSt An­ton in Aus­tria. Pic­ture: Ella Pel­le­grini

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