A partnership between Swiss and Nepalese helicopter companies is for the first time making daring, high-altitude rescues possible on Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks.
The service, now in a trial phase, could mark a milestone in Himalayan rescue but is not welcome by all members of the climbing community.
Until June, a crew from the Swiss company, Air Zermatt, is on standby in the Khumbu region with a helicopter from Nepal’s Fishtail Air. If called upon, the team can fly up to 7,000m to come to the aid of an injured climber.
What the Swiss pilot and the mountaineer in his crew can do that Nepalese teams cannot: pluck a climber in need from a steep slope with no landing zone.
They accomplish this by lowering the mountaineer on a cable – a so-called “long line” or “human sling” – to the injured climber. The rescuer attaches the climber to the line and then both are whisked away while dangling under the helicopter to the nearest landing spot where medical aid is available.
Air Zermatt was among the pioneers of this type of rescue when it was first used in the 1970s to lift mountaineers off of one of Switzerland’s most challenging near-vertical walls, the Eiger North Face.
Gerold Biner of Air Zermatt told swissinfo.ch that of the 1,500 rescue missions it carries out each year in Switzerland about a third are “human-cargo sling operations”.
The partnership with Fishtail Air was sparked in part by Air Zermatt’s successful effort last November to recover the body of leading Slovenian climber Tomaz Humar who died high up on the slopes of Nepal’s Langtang Lirung.
Five people from Nepal’s Fishtail Air visited Zermatt last month and were able to fly missions with Air Zermatt to learn how the system works. While Biner has no doubts about the ability of the Nepalese pilots, he said long-line missions require special training.
“Flying around with a cable under the helicopter with a human on the end of the line makes piloting the aircraft a bit more difficult,” Biner said.
If sponsors are found, the first Nepalese pilots could take a long-line course this summer in the Swiss Alps.
But Biner thinks the presence of the Air Zermatt crew in Nepal could already begin to create a demand among expedition and trekking companies active in the Himalayan nation.
Save more lives
“This type of rescue will certainly save more lives, because people with minor injuries or health problems like altitude sickness can be assisted,” Kari Kobler, the Swiss leader of an expedition now on Everest, wrote in an email sent from 6,400m.
He thinks, however, that this type of rescue will never be carried out on the same scale as it is in the Alps due to the greater distances between heliports and climbing areas. Added to that, he said many clients do not have insurance that would cover the cost of calling in a helicopter.
But veteran mountaineer, doctor and author, Oswald Oelz, is wary of the new development.
“You are in part killing the adventure,” Oelz told swissinfo.ch. “In a few years it could be as it is now on the Eiger North Face. If you get into trouble you just call in the helicopter. In the past, you either had to fight your way out or you died.”
Oelz is a leading researcher on acute mountain sickness and has many first ascents and challenging climbs to his credit. In 1978 he was one of two expedition doctors who took part in the first-ever Everest ascent without supplementary oxygen, accomplished by Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler.
Oelz said the idea that a helicopter can come to the rescue may give a “false sense of security” since the aircraft cannot fly in all weather conditions.
He added that the increased use of helicopters could make Everest so popular that it could become a “Disneyland”, the same fate he says that has befallen Switzerland’s Matterhorn.
Biner agrees with Oelz that helicopters could soon be a regular feature on the top of Everest.
The Air Zermatt pilot says helicopters are already able to hover at around 9,000m (Everest is 8,840m) even though they are not yet certified to go above 7,000m.
Dale Bechtel, swissinfo.ch
First rescue missions
On April 29, the Swiss helicopter crew stationed in Nepal used a long line to rescue three Spanish climbers from camp IV at 6,950m on Annapurna. According to Alpinist magazine, it was the highest human-sling mission ever performed. A fourth Spanish member of the expedition went missing at 7,500m and was later found dead.
Only three days earlier, the Swiss airlifted three Koreans and four Sherpas from Manaslu at 6,200 and 6,400m respectively.