Max went first, he was the best skier
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