Climbers hanging from a sling near C4 (7,400m) on Annapurna in the highest chopper rescue ever performed.
Image by Air Zermatt Switzerland/Fishtail Air Nepal courtesy Air Zermatt Switzerland/Fishtail Air Nepal Menno Boermans, SOURCE

Image by Air Zermatt/Fishtail Air courtesy Air Zermatt Switzerland/Fishtail Air Nepal Menno Boermans, SOURCE
Fishtail/Zermatt on Annapurna: the highest longline rescue in history

Posted: Apr 30, 2010 12:01 am EDT
(Story edited May 02, 2010 11:01 am EST, few minor errors corrected in report) "The Impossible happened today" reported a Spanish team on Manaslu about the aerial rescue operation earlier this week involving two missing Korean climbers and their seven stranded mates.

Today the newly founded helicopter rescue team of Nepalese Fishtail Air and Swiss Air Zermatt carried out the highest longline rescue in history. Three climbers were evacuated from 6950 meter on Annapurna in Nepal.

Here goes the report by Menno:

On april 28th the rescue team of Fishtail/Air Zermatt was asked to come to the Annapurna mountain where a Spanish expedition was in need. One climber was exhausted after summiting the 8091 meter peak. He said he was snowblind and could not move his hands or legs. It was not clear at what altitude he was located.

The rescue team at once started the mission from Kathmandu but could not reach base camp of Annapurna because of the bad weather. They went to Pokhara and spent the night there. The next morning at 6.00 hour in the morning the team started out again and flew to base camp without further problems.

After a short meeting with the Spanish expedition leader it became clear that the missing climber was at around 7500 meter altitude. He was not answering the radio anymore. One Sherpa started in the night from camp 4, to try to reach the climber in need. In camp 4 (at 6950 meter altitude) there were three other climbers of the Spanish team, said to have High Altitude Sickness and frostbites.

In a reconnaissance flight, carried out by pilots Sabin Basnyat and Dani Aufdenblatten and an expedition doctor, the team found that the climber was dead.

The three Spanish climbers in camp 4 were evacuated with a sling operation, one by one flown to base camp at 4000 meter. Because of the high altitude, pilot Dani Aufdenblatten removed the doors and chairs of the heli.

The Sherpa who went up in the night, came safe back in camp 4 but did not want to be rescued with the helicopter. He walked down by him self.

The goal of the Nepal Air Rescue Project is that the Swiss and Nepalese pilots and rescuers train together, so in the future the Nepalese team can carry out missions by themselves.

Menno Boermans
Air Zermatt Switzerland

(Ed note: Spanish climber Tolo Calafat, 40, vanished on Annapurna about 500 meters above C4, following a difficult summit descent that left him immobilized. Tolo's Sherpa returned to the dying climber with supplies from camp 4 but was unable to locate him. The helicopter picked up MD climber Jorge Egocheaga in BC for a search. Following the mission, injured/ailing climbers Horia Colibasanu, Juanito Oiarzabal and Carlos Pauner were airlifted from C4 back to BC.)

From April 24 until June 2, 2010, a Fishtail Air helicopter in the Khumbu area is manned by a rescue pilot and mountain rescue specialist from Air Zermatt. A second helicopter, flying transport missions in the Dhaulagiri region, is also on call if needed. In case of an emergency, the team is able to initiate high-altitude rescue attempts up to 7000 meters within hours of receiving a call.

These professionals fly a so-called human sling operation. Upon arriving at a rescue scene, one specialist will hang from the helicopter on a longline, a rope that can be extended up to 200 meters. After building an anchor and unclipping from the longline, the specialist will examine the patient.

The rescuer maintains contact with the pilot by headset, directing the longline back to his position, then clips himself and the patient onto the line. Dangling the longline, the helicopter flies to a level area where a paramedic or doctor is waiting.

This kind of aerial maneuver originated in the Swiss Alps. In 1970, a mountain guide with Air Zermatt performed the first longline mountain rescue on north face of the Eiger. This mission forever changed mountain rescue operations.

Because of the absence of proper helicopters and skilled pilots in the Himalayas, local rescue missions generally do not use longlines. Instead, pilots must land or hover, a challenge for many high-altitude mountainside rescues. There have been only a handful of Himalayan longline rescue attempts, and most were performed by specialized teams from faraway locations.

In 2005, the Pakistan Army successfully plucked Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar off Nanga Parbats Rupal Face by longline with help from a distance by Air Zermatt. No rescuer was hanging on the longline to assist him. In his exhausted state, Humar forgot to unclip his ice screw, which nearly caused the helicopter to crash. The new program hopes to increase safety by ensuring that a longline rescue specialist is available at all times to support the pilot and patient(s).

After last years failed attempts to rescue Spanish alpinist Oscar Perez on Latok in August and Tomaz Humar on Langtang Lirung in November, Air Zermatt discussed options for improving rescue systems and reaction times in the Himalayas.

They hope the new program not only improves these issues, but also supports education for Nepalese pilots who want to learn how to fly longline rescues.

Last March we invited five members from Nepal to see our operation here in the European Alps, Swiss pilot Gerold Biner said. The Nepalese pilots could fly real missions in the Matterhorn area, and at the end we did a rescue exercise with a longline.

Operations this spring are a trial period. Climbers in need, or their insurance, pay operating costs as usual. Due to training costs, Air Zermatt and Fishtail Air are searching for sponsors. If all goes well this year and enough money is raised, they will continue high-altitude, on-call rescue services in future seasons.

The team pilots one AS 350 B3 helicopter, also known as a Squirrel, which can perform longline rescues up to 7000 meters.


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