Swiss want "Yeti" to take wing again

Leo Caminada (left) hopes the Yeti will fly again as it did during Max Eiselin's Himalayan expedition

A group of Swiss men is planning a most unusual and ambitious Himalayan expedition. They want to bring back to Switzerland the remains of "Yeti" - a single engine aircraft, which has lain in a Himalayan snowfield 40 years.

This content was published on May 4, 2001 - 10:22

The importance of the recovery expedition is being presented to the public for the first time at the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne. Twisted pieces of metal from Yeti's body and recovered bits of its engine are on display beside a small Swiss flag tied to a mountaineer's ice pick.

They are pieces to the puzzle of the first successful conquest of the 8,222 metre high Dhaulagiri peak - the sixth tallest mountain in the world - and the decisive first use of an aircraft in a Himalayan expedition.

Max Eiselin is the best person to piece the puzzle together. The story began in 1960, two years after his first expedition to conquer the Dhaulagiri failed.

High altitude airstrips

An avid pilot as well as mountain climber, Eiselin hit upon the idea that the relatively flat glaciers and snowfields at the base of the Dhaulagiri could be used as airstrips in case a rescue at high altitude was required.

"Flights with single engine planes at high altitudes had just begun," Eiselin explains. "When I saw that they were successful in the Alps, I thought about asking a manufacturer of specialised aircraft to rent us an airplane."

The use of an aircraft to ferry tonnes of supplies and the mountaineering party to base camps above 5,000 metres would also save a lot of valuable time for such a costly undertaking and allow the climbers to save energy for the difficult ascent.

Back in Switzerland following the failed attempt, he was surprised to find that the Pilatus aircraft company was willing to sponsor the 1960 expedition. It wasn't long before Eiselin found himself on board a prototype of the Pilatus Porter PC-6 for the long journey to Nepal.

The trip across the Orient took more than a week in March of that year and the pilots had to make several refuelling stops in exotic locations. On one occasion, the crew was offered an African slave. But the real test for the crew and plane came once it arrived in the Himalayan kingdom.

The aircraft would be required to fly up to 5,000 metres above sea level where it could land using mounted skis on snowfields or glaciers. Such a feat had never before been attempted.

But the Porter PC-6, dubbed Yeti by Eiselin, proved more than up to the job. It was robust, easy to convert from transport aircraft to passenger plane, could fly slowly and needed little room to land.

Most important attribute

But its most important attribute, according to Leo Caminada, who is spearheading efforts to recover the aircraft and rebuild it, was that its engine was made to perform at high altitudes.

"The high altitude and extreme temperatures means that engines can't perform efficiently. One has to calculate whether one can land or not."

It also wasn't known at the time whether humans could withstand such a fast ascent and rapid change in altitude.

At the beginning, everything went better than planned. The pilots of the aircraft flew several missions transporting expedition members and their equipment to base camps between 5,200 and 5,700 metres above sea level - still a record to this day.

But on April 12, a defective engine grounded the aircraft, and Eiselin was eventually called back to the valley by the plane's crew, just as he and his team were making final preparations for the assault on the Dhaulagiri summit.

"That was a very difficult decision," remembers Eiselin. "The pilot rushed up to the camp. He asked me to return to the village because it was impossible to get the replacement engine through customs without my presence. At that time in Nepal, the authorities always asked to see the leader of the expedition."

As he headed down to the village, his team, now lead by Ernst Forrer, began what was to prove the first successful ascent of the Dhaulagiri, and to cap the achievement, became the first humans to climb to such an altitude without needing to bring their own oxygen.

Forrer credits the long acclimatisation period at the 5,700 metre base camp for part of the climb's success, thanks in no small part to Yeti.

Eiselin regrets decision

Eiselin still regrets returning to the village. By the time he got there, the replacement engine had already arrived and to make matters worse, the plane crashed only three days later in soft snow near the Dambusch Pass at 5,200 metres. The pilots escaped unscathed, but the plane was a write off.

Eiselin never did get to the top of the Dhaulagiri, or any other 8,000-metre peak. He is credited though with the success of the climb as leader of the expedition and recognised for his pioneering efforts in the deployment of an aircraft.

A new chapter in the Dhaulagiri story was opened last year when Caminada and his Porter Vintage Association made the trek to the Dambusch Pass to recover parts of the aircraft.

"We realised when we were up there that we can't bring it down alone," he says. Unlike in 1960, he explains, no one is willing to risk a flight to the high snowfield, so the parts have to be taken down to the valley on people's backs.

"We have to employ local people, and that will be very expensive."

The ultimate goal is to rebuild Yeti, possibly in front of the public at the museum, and to make it fly again.

"We want to make sightseeing flights and glacier flights with the Pilatus Porter," says Caminada. "Our biggest goal is to fly back to the Dhaulagiri. It would be in the best interest of any sponsor for us to fly to Kathmandu and then back up to the original base camps!"

by Dale Bechtel

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