Best of ExplorersWeb 2010 Awards: Himalaya helicopter rescues

Posted: Dec 29, 2010 10:57 pm EST

Already some days before, a team had sent word from Manaslu that a helicopter had saved seven stranded climbers. On Annapurna, the Fishtail Air/Air Zermatt heroes went even further.

But November 7 one of the pilot rescuers lost his own life, while trying to save yet another mountaineer on Ama Dablam. Today's ExplorersWeb Award goes to Sabin Basnyat and the brave crews of Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt.


"In spite of hurricane-force winds, we reached Annapurna summit," reported Kinga Baranowska on April 27. "We are descending slowly; please, think of us..."

A record number of climbers had topped out but the descents didn't go well. It was an uncontrolled retreat on summit night, with each participant fighting for his own life, according to high-altitude Dr. Morandeira.

Spanish Tolo Calafat sat down in the snow and radioed to his team that he was too tired to go on. All attempts, even from his wife over the radio, to make him move were useless.

A Sherpa searched the slope above camp 4 for Tolo, supposedly at 7,600m. Romanian climber Horia Colibasanu returned up to help from C4. Tolo's climbing mates Juanito and Pauner were still waiting in C4, exhausted. A chopper was called, but bad weather kept it grounded for one day. The following morning though, "the impossible happened".

Already some days before, the Spanish Tente Lagunilla team had sent word from Manaslu that a helicopter had saved seven stranded climbers there.

On Annapurna, the newly founded helicopter rescue team of Nepalese Fishtail Air and Swiss Air Zermatt, went even further, performing the highest longline rescue in history. It was too late for Tolo, but three of the climbers in camp 4, Horia Colibasanu, Juanito Oiarzabal and Carlos Pauner, were evacuated from 6950 meters. Incredibly, the Sherpa refused the lift and walked down.

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

Dhaulagiri inferno
One month later, a 14-member Chinese expedition had set out from Dhaulagiri BC in increasing wind, hoping to summit the peak on the 50th anniversary of its first ascent. Other expeditions reported that the team lost two tents, reached the summit by nightfall and had to force a bivouaq in the stormy night.

In a terryfing inferno that followed, three of the climbers lost their lives. Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt rescued the survivors using two different approaches; human sling operation and hovering.

The last flight of the squirrel

By the post-monsoon season and after a final summer training run in Switzerland, Fishtail's Nepalese team were operating on their own, saving a large number of lives.

That's when the worst possible news broke. On November 7, a Fishtail Air chopper crashed while trying to rescue two climbers on Ama Dablam north face.

The pilots had already airlifted David Göttler, but crashed on their second mission, to pick up Kazuya Hiraide. After the crash, a second chopper was sent to put Kazuya back to safe ground.

One of the pilots in the crash had been part of the rescues on Annapurna: Sabin Basnyat was killed along with his technician Purna Awale.

A team of mountain guides at the crash site recovered the bodies which were flown back to Kathmandu in two helicopters belonging to Fishtail Air.

"I am still mourning for the two Nepalese pilots," wrote David the next day, "I will never forget their bright, proud and happy eyes staring at me as they came to save me."

Fishtail Air helicopters are operating in Nepal Himalaya and 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.

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

Air Zermatt and Fishtail Air are searching for sponsors. ExplorersWeb will donate 5% of the money submitted by subscribers to support this rescue service.

Previous Awards in 2010

3. Himalaya helicopter rescues, Sabin Basnyat, Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt.
4. Mars Ocean Odyssey, Reid Stowe
5. Teen solo world circumnavigation, Jessica Watson
6. Indian Ocean row, Erden Eruc
7. Himalayan Knights, Joao García and Piotr Pustelnik
8. North Pole circumnavigation, Peter 1st and Northern Passage

Special mentions:
Dan Darley and Amelia Russell; North Pole unsupported
Ed Stafford (and Cho); Amazon from source to sea
Valery Rozov; Antarctica BASE jump
Jean-Louis Etienne; North Pole crossing in a rozière balloon.
Special climbs: Denis Urubko's Lhotse, Basque traverse on Broad Peak, Ukraine nMakalu, Ralf and Gerlinde's Everest, Eric Larsen's Everest, Chad Kellogg on Aconcagua.

We have covered hundreds of expeditions in 2010. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.

And yet, there are those who continue to linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2010.

By their performance, these expeditions have proved themselves outstanding in all or most of the following:

- Courage
- Determination
- Persistence
- Self reliance
- Ingenuity
- Pioneering
- Idealism
- Comradeship
- Compassion
- Respect towards competition
- Honesty

#Mountaineering #Air #topstory

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
David Göttler being rescued from Ama Dablam's north ridge by a Fishtail Air chopper, which later crashed while trying to airlift David's mate Kazuya Hiraide.
courtesy David Göttler
A Fishtail Air B3 chopper flying among the ragged peaks of Nepal Himalaya.
courtesy Fishtail Air, SOURCE
Nepalese rescuer Purna Awale just above Col NE on Dhaulagiri.
courtesy Air Zermat t/ Fishtail Air, SOURCE
Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt rescue pilots, during a training seminar in Switzerland, summer 2010.
courtesy Air Zermatt / Firshtail Air

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