The Mount Everest spring climbing season is looming and experts, like Alan Arnette, are predicting record crowds made up from a mix of mountaineering skill levels—despite the pandemic. Big crowds and varying skill levels will mean heavy traffic on the tallest mountain in the world—as well as other popular Himalayan mountains. This combination of factors likely will lead to a higher demand for rescue operations for climbers in distress from altitude sickness, frostbite or any number of other injuries that can occur during an expedition.
Mountaineering above the 6,000 m (nearly 20,000 ft) elevations is risky in its own right. Getting stuck at those altitudes, or higher, can be deadly. If conditions like the weather, imminent nightfall, exhaustion or limited resources prevent your climbing team from assisting you to safety then your rescue options dwindle. Sometimes, in addition to all those factors, a climber needs rescue after reaching a section of the mountain that’s challenging due to exposure, high degree pitches or uneven terrain. At that point one of the only options available is a long line helicopter rescue.
Mingma Sherpa (who goes by Mingma) agrees. He holds the record for a high-altitude, long line rescue. “There are technical areas of a mountain that make landing a rescue helicopter impossible. In that case, a long line rescue is needed,” he said.
Long lining rescue with helicopters has been utilized for quite some time in areas such as the European alps, but it’s relatively new to Himalayan peaks. It’s uncertain if climbers might tend to push their limits beyond normal, knowing that this option is available.
The formal name for long line helicopter rescue is Helicopter Flight Rescue System (HFRS) or Helicopter External Transport System—both referring to a helicopter insertion and extraction tool used in rescue missions as well as forest fire fighting and law enforcement operations.
The ability to extend a rescue line, with or without a rescuer attached, allows the helicopter to remain clear of obstacles or avoid landing on uneven, unstable terrain while a rescue is performed.
There are five key pieces of equipment needed for a long line helicopter rescue system.
- A belly band is a strap fitted through the cabin of the aircraft, encircling the aircraft structure and providing a secondary point of attachment and release.
- A Y-lanyard connects the belly band and the aircraft electric release hook to the main load line.
- The main load line is a high visibility, low-stretch, aeronautically approved rope used to suspend the load under the aircraft. For example, one long line rescue rope is “safety yellow” with integrated reflective tracers for visibility. It’s a 9/16” braid on braid kern-mantle construction with a minimum break strength of 25,500 lbs.
- The rescue harness is the point of attachment for rescuers and rescues to the system.
- An aerial rescue platform is used to carry an injured patient (if needed).
People often incorrectly assume that the person in the harness at the end of the long line rescue rope is hoisted into the helicopter before flying away. Mingma was quick to point out that the person dangles at the end of at the end of the long line until a safe landing zone is identified. “We fly to a good place, touchdown, bring the injured climber into the cabin, and then fly to the hospital,” he said.
Depending on the type of helicopter used and the weather conditions, the maximum altitude for rotorcraft rescue operations can vary. If a distressed climber needs rescue from elevations above a helicopter’s altitude limit then a two-person, pilot and rescuer, hybrid operation gets underway. The rescuer will use the long line to descend to the ground and then make their way to where the injured climber is to initiate the extraction.
“They drop me at the highest safe altitude for a helicopter and then I climb overnight to the lost or injured climber and bring them down far enough for a helicopter long line extraction the next morning,” Mingma said. “In Mount Everest, if something happens in Camp 3 we can send rescuers to bring them down to Camp 2 and from there we can load them onto the helicopter and fly them to safety.”
Long line rescue flights can last a few minutes, or longer, depending on the rescue requirements. Direct flights from the mountain to a hospital take up to 30 minutes, but going from the rescue site to a lower, safer camp or base camp may only take a few minutes. Mingma said typical flight times are about 15 minutes but he adds that wind and cloud conditions make a difference.
“The pilot may have to re-route his flight path to avoid bad weather,” he said.
Long line rescues are not a guarantee but they are undoubtedly lifesavers. It’s what Satyarup Siddhanta needed—and likely saved his life—during his Ama Dablam (22,349 ft/ 6,812 m) summit attempt.
“If it was not a timely rescue then I could have been in big, big trouble and perhaps my mountaineering career would have ended,” he said.
Ed Viesturs is a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and the only American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks, and the fifth person to do so without using supplemental oxygen.