Followers of Everest know that rescues are difficult and sometimes impossible above base camp or 17,500′. In his book, Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer details the daring rescue of climbers at the top of the Icefall at 19,800′.
Nepal pilot and army captain, KC Madan, became a hero with his daring rescue of Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau via a stripped down helicopter, a B-2 Squirrel A-Star Ecuriel helicopter, that barely flew in the thin air of the Western Cwm.
In 14 years, things have changed.
Now a new service is underway that designers are confident can rescue climbers deep in the Western Cwm, well above 19,500′. While an experiment this season, it has already proven to save lives on other high peaks.
Fishtail air is training with Air Zermatt’s rescue operations who have saved many lives in Europe. Air Zermatt is known as an expert in conducting Human Sling Operations (a difficult aerial rescue maneuver involving dropping an expert mountain guide at an inaccessible point to lift stranded people using ropes).
It is hoped that the transfer of this special skill from Swiss Alps to the Nepal Himalayas will not only help in saving lives at risk on the high mountains, but also enhance level of safety in adventurers.
The Fishtail approach has already been used this year on the high Himalayan peaks of Annapurna and Manaslu. Fishtail recently announced:
Fishtail Air & Air Zermatt’s team made a record breaking rescue on 29th April, 2010 using ‘human sling operation’, on Mt. Annapurna I (8091m/26,545ft). Three Spanish climbers were evacuated from 6900m by Fishtail Air’s AS 350 B3, using human sling operation. The climbers were stranded in the mountain due to bad weather for 36 hours.
The rescue operation was carried out by Capt. Daniel Aufdenblatten from Air Zermatt, Switzerland, while Swiss Mountain Guide, Richard Lenner hung on the sling and lifted the stranded climbers. The three Spanish climbers were evacuated with the longline, one by one and flown to base camp at 4000 meter. This was the highest longline rescue in history.
Fishtail Air has been carrying out special rescue missions this season, together with Air Zermatt’s assistance, using it’s newly acquired AS 350 B3. Recently the team had rescued 4 Korean Climbers and 3 Nepalese Sherpas from 6,500m at Mt. Manaslu on 26th April.
Jamie McGuiness, of Project Himalaya and a Kathmandu resident attended an announcement event by Fishtail air earlier this year. He spoke with the staff including pilots and was curious if they could land the helicopter in the Western Cwm in addition to their longline approach.
Jamie told me that Fishtail are sure they can land at 21,0000 feet or 6400m, no problem. He raised the question if turning in flight in the Western Cwm might be a problem, but nobody seemed to think this would be an issue. He also asked what was better, flat terrain for landing – or a place with a drop off in front (for forward speed), i.e. the last flat bits before the Icefall drops off. While he didn’t get a definitive answer, both seemed fine.
He said they did some filming around Ama Dablam (22,349) and said hovering (no forward speed) for a shot of the climbers on the summit was no problem. Jamie noted that Fishtail has permission to fly to 23,000ft in Nepal and can LAND at 23,000ft but special permission required. Jamie finally went on to say:
I did talk over the safety aspects of high rescues, obviously wind-visibility conditions have to be good. I specifically questioned them about air temp etc, and they might look into it, but they seemed basically unconcerned and seem to have full faith in the B3.
Fishtail is welcome news because there have been other attempts and plans over the years.
In 2005, Eurocopter claimed a helicopter landing on the summit of Everest. It was a serial Ecureuil/AStar AS 350 B3 piloted by the Eurocopter X test pilot Didier Delsalle. They reported the pilot landed on the summit for 2 minutes before returning to Lukla.
But as all things Everest, there was controversy and some doubted the actual landing but not the helicopter flight itself. Interestingly, in a post flight interview with National Geographic Adventure, the pilot said he did not want to see helicopters used for tourism and that a more powerful helicopter would be needed for rescues.
Tourism is unthinkable. You’d need safety standards comparable to passenger flights on an airliner. Personally, I’d like to see the Tibet and Nepal governments make rules to ensure that tourist flights never happen.
Everest climber Mark Inglis who as a double amputee summited Everest in 2007 championed another effort. Upon his return, he announced an effort to fly unmanned copters on rescue missions with New Zealand-based TGR Helicorp who were developing and donating the vehicle to the cause.
The helicopter, dubbed the Alpine Wasp was to be remotely-controlled at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, and be able to lower a lifeline that climbers can latch onto. However, they never got off the ground and went into receivership in mid 2008. Today the website for TRGCorp is in Russian and no news has been published in over a year.
But now that we have a viable helicopter rescue technique in the Himalaya, climbers have expressed concerns that Fishtails’s new capability might usher in an era of flight-seeing that disrupts the mountain environment. Several times this season, helicopters have arrived at base camp appearing to be more tourist flights than medical evacs.
Tim Rippel of Peak Freaks made this post once the B3 caused a stir at BC:
As a result a meeting was called today among leaders at the HRA -Everest ER tent to engage in talks about what to do about it. The idea of bringing these helicopters into Nepal for high mountain tours and rescues comes with the potential for accidents. Tim says, “It’s not like we have air traffic controllers up here” Fish Tail Air, a Swiss owned company has brought a second AS 350 B3 to Nepal, a multi-million dollar helicopter. One of them recently performed a long line rescue of a climber at 7000m on Annapurna. In order to afford these high tech machines they need an ongoing revenue stream.
As a result, they have positioned themselves at Everest Base Camp this spring looking for climbers with deep pockets who can afford the luxury of a ride out to Kathmandu, check into a 5-Star hotel, oxygenate and fly back up for their summit push. I don’t have the price yet but we are looking into it. You can be sure it will be well over the 10k mark. Right now a helicopter lift out of Pheriche for sick climbers and trekkers is 6k one way and about 8k one-way out of EBC. The consequences of this luxury is causing some concern in air safety.
Today the leaders talked about building a second landing pad for civilians further back from the glacier keeping the air space clear from the HRA-Everest ER heli-pad location that is prepared each season as the glacier moves. It is closest to the teams and icefall. Right now both helicopters are sharing this space, noisy, dangerous and debris getting tossed around. Don’t be surprised if there will be fly in tours offered in the future complete with oxygen bottles for when you arrive, because you will need them!!!… and then what would you do if weather or mechanical issues came into play? Be prepared to sleep on o’s all night at a price of $400US per hour plus shipping till things clear- yikes!!!
Tim was not far off as elite climber Simone Moro used the Fishtail Air service to take his client back to Kathmandu then piloted the craft himself back to base camp once his client ended his effort.The good people at EverestER put it this way:
The other technological advance in base camp: the Eurocopter B3. Powerful and fast, and certainly safer than other ships we’ve landed in base camp in the past. But make no mistake, uncertain weather and wind combined with thin air and shifting/melting landing zones can’t be considered pedestrian travel, even for the biggest latest heli. Our camp hosted an expedition leaders’ meeting regarding what some see as the increasingly frivolous use of the helipad we constructed for RESCUE purposes. (We’ve seen tourists landing on our carefully crafted rescue landing zone, jumping out to take photos, then taking off again.
None of us can forget the several deadly crashes we’ve seen over the past few years, and each landing grates on most of us … hence the meeting. All agreed that analogous to many things here, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, no matter how wealthy the client. Secondly, it’s up to the expedition leaders, on this matter, to educate clients as to how things are done and what constitutes acceptable helicopter use at 17,600ft. Some volunteered to contact the heli operators, especially the ones w/ the B3’s, about funding a second helipad further down glacier…away from settlement at base camp. If someone wants to take the risk of landing at high altitude, at least they can do it without endangering all of us who live in the tents below.
There have been multiple deadly helicopter crashes at Everest Base Camp including 1997, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Even with the concerns, the service is adding value today. Over the next few days, a body recovery will take place on Lhotse supported from the ground by the Extreme Everest team.
The Alpinist website has two excellent articles on Fishtail Air. Finally, note, that China currently does not allow helicopter rescues or even flights to base camps of the 8000m mountains; obviously including Everest.
Overall this is a good advancement that will definitely save lives but hopefully will not encourage unnecessary risks from climbers counting on a rescue anywhere on the mountain.