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Rescue Helicopters Already at Work

An AS 350 B3 helicopter performs the highest-ever longline rescue at Camp 4 (6950m) on Annapurna (8091m) in Nepalese Himalaya, April 29, 2010. The standby helicopter rescue service, a collaboration between Fishtail Air of Nepal and Air Zermatt of Switzerland, began last week and has already performed numerous missions. [Photo] Air Zermatt/Fishtail Air

As first reported in the April 22, 2010 NewsWire, Air Zermatt of Switzerland and Fishtail Air of Nepal have collaborated to form the Nepal Rescue Team: the first Himalayan standby helicopter rescue service in history. Recently they made more history.

On April 26, the rescue team plucked three Koreans and four Sherpas from Manaslu after what has been perceived as an imprudent summit attempt. The rescues, at 6200 and 6400 meters, were conducted without a longline at some of the highest altitudes in rescue history. And today, the same service evacuated three Spanish climbers from Camp 4 (6950m) on Annapurna–the highest human sling rescue ever performed.

To discover more about the rescue of the Koreans, interviewed Tente Lagunilla and Carlos Soria, both members of a Spanish team on Manaslu. The Spaniards retreated to base camp before the rescue due to bad weather but had knowledge of the Koreans’ plans. According to Lagunilla, six Koreans and four Sherpas began their attempt on April 20 and shot for the summit from Camp 3 in poor conditions on April 23. It seemed to the Spanish team and others on the mountain that the Koreans had a set objective and summit window and would not be deterred for any reason.

Details of the summit bid and descent are still murky. Regardless, only one Korean made it back to base camp on April 25. He reported that the other members of his team were at Camp 2 (ca. 6500m) badly frostbitten and too exhausted to descend.

A Nepal Rescue Team standby AS 350 B3 helicopter arrived from Kathmandu that same day in hopes of rescuing the climbers. However, poor weather conditions forced the helicopter to retreat back to Kathmandu. With a break in weather the following day, the helicopter returned and made four consecutive flights to Camp 2 in high winds, picking up the climbers in batches and bringing them to base camp.

“All of them were exhausted, and one was suffering from mountain sickness,” reported Menno Boermans of Air Zermatt. “Some had second-degree frostbite on their hands, feet and faces. On another helicopter, they were flown to the hospital in Kathmandu.”

Rescued climbers en route to Manaslu’s base camp in a Nepal Rescue Team helicopter. Three Koreans and four Sherpas were lifted from near Camp 2 at 6200 and 6400 meters on April 26 after a failed summit bid three days earlier. [Photo] Air Zermatt/Fishtail Air

Camp 2 is located on a wide plateau that helped expedite the rescue, Lagunilla said, adding that unpredictable conditions made it “an amazing feat.” The rescue helicopter then flew to an altitude of ca. 7000 meters to discover one of the two remaining climbers frozen and dead.

“Because the terrain was quite dangerous and there was no request to recover the body, the team returned without taking the corpse,” Boermans said.

Three days before, the same rescue team performed a body recovery mission on Kyajo Ri (6186m), in the Khumbu valley, with a 45-meter longline. Danish mountaineer Philip Ulrich had fallen to his death on the peak; he landed in an inaccessible spot, and the Danish embassy requested recovery support. This was the first human sling operation performed by Nepalese Capt. Sabin Basnyat and Technician Purna Awale, who both trained at Air Zermatt in Switzerland last month.

And today on Annapurna (8091m), the Nepal Rescue Team successfully carried out the highest human sling operation in history. On the morning of April 28, a climber on a Spanish expedition had reached the summit and started descending when he found himself exhausted, snowblind and incapable of moving his hands and legs. Nepal Rescue received a call for help but did not know his location. Again, the service came to aid, and again the rescue team was turned back by bad weather. Rather than return to Kathmandu, they spent the night in Pokhara, Boermans reported, and “after a short meeting with the Spanish expedition leader, it became clear that the missing climber was at around 7500 meters. 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 (6950m) there were three other climbers of the Spanish team, said to have High Altitude Sickness and frostbite.”

Capt. Basnyat, Dani Aufdenblatten and an expedition doctor flew a reconnaissance flight and discovered that the lone climber above was dead. The three Spanish climbers at Camp 4 were rescued by longline in three consecutive flights to base camp. The Sherpa who had climbed up to help with the rescue refused air support and walked down alone.

Sources: Menno Boermans,,,,

The rescue helicopter approaches Manaslu’s Camp 2 at ca. 6250 meters. [Photo] Air Zermatt/Fishtail Air