Take a look at where things go wrong on Everest and the support systems in place when they do.
EARLY ON NOVEMBER 7, 2010, Sabin Basnyat, 34, one of Nepal’s most skilled helicopter pilots, lifted off in a Eurocopter AS350 B3 from the small airport in Lukla. Two climbers were stranded high on the north ridge of Ama Dablam, a 22,494-foot peak about 12 miles southeast of Mount Everest, and Basnyat had been dispatched to rescue them.
It was a good morning to fly—light winds, clear skies—and Basnyat and his mountain paramedic, Purna Awale, both employees of Kathmandu-based Fishtail Air, one of Nepal’s largest private helicopter companies, rose toward the sawtooth skyline. The professional climbers, a German named David Gottler and his Japanese teammate, Kazuya Hiraide, had been attempting a new route on the mountain’s steep north face, intending to cross the summit and make a quick descent of the more traditional, and easier, southwest ridge. But upon reaching the north ridge, at 19,000 feet, they discovered that it was studded with giant mushroom-shaped formations of snow and ice, blocking their progress. The climbers had brought minimal gear, and retreating back down the north face was impossible. Recently, Gottler had heard of Himalayan climbers being rescued by helicopters at extraordinary heights, and because cell phones now worked quite well throughout the Khumbu, the region surrounding Everest, he was able to call his expedition outfitter and arrange an airlift for the next morning.
By 9 A.M., Basnyat was guiding the B3 steadily toward the two men in their frozen bird’s nest. Because the air at 19,000 feet is so thin, requiring deft piloting skills to maneuver a helicopter, Basnyat inched in slowly, the landing runners nearly touching the snow. At this altitude, he and Awale could carry only one passenger; the climbers had done schnick-schnack-schnuck, or rock-paper-scissors, and Gottler had won. Once Awale helped him aboard, the B3 swooped down to the nearby village of Chukhung, deposited the German, and then took off again to retrieve his partner.
Gottler could see the ridge from where he’d been dropped, and he filmed as the helicopter returned to fetch Hiraide. Basnyat approached as he had before, from the east, arcing slowly up toward the ridge until he was only a few feet from where Hiraide waited. The B3 was just above the climber’s head when Hiraide heard a loud report and was suddenly showered with snow and ice.
Basnyat had clipped the ridge with the chopper’s main rotor. In a flash, the blade disintegrated. Miraculously, Hiraide was unscathed, but he watched in horror as the machine shuddered and rocked to one side before plunging down the mountain. The chassis ricocheted off the massive rock wall several times, then came to rest nearly 5,000 feet below. By the time a second rescue team reached the scene later that day, they found Basnyat and Awale dead. Hiraide spent another night on the ridge, and Fishtail rescued him the next morning with another B3.
THE TRAGEDY STUNNED the Himalayan climbing community. Ever since the infamous 1996 Everest disaster, which left eight climbers dead in a single day, mountaineering accidents had prompted tough questions about risk and responsibility on the world’s highest peaks. This time, however, the reaction was intensified by the fact that the deaths were caused by the very machine that is supposed to be saving lives. By most accounts, efforts to improve safety in the Himalayas, and on Everest in particular, have improved measurably over the past 15 years. On Everest, where several hundred climbers go for the summit each year, fixed lines are stitched nearly the length of the route; a seasonal emergency clinic has been established at Base Camp; training and equipment for Sherpas, Nepal’s indigenous mountain workforce, have improved dramatically; and commercial operators, climbers, and guides now communicate—and cooperate—better than ever.
With the growing use of B3 helicopters—light, powerful aircraft designed to operate at up to 23,000 feet—both search-and-rescue and commercialization in the region are taking another large, if lurching, step forward. B3s have been a fixture for decades in other mountain destinations, especially the Alps, where they have saved hundreds of lives. But in Nepal, B3s had until recently seen limited use, including a 2005 stunt flight in which a French pilot landed a stripped-down model on Everest’s summit. Over the past several years, Fishtail Air, in partnership with venerable Swiss helicopter company Air Zermatt, has deployed a small fleet of the machines to complete hundreds of successful evacuations in the country, including the 2010 rescue of a three-person Spanish team from 23,000 feet on Annapurna, the highest heli rescue in history, and the plucking of injured American climber Cleo Weidlich from 20,997 feet on Kanchenjunga last May.
But as the incident on Ama Dablam illustrates, the helicopters have also introduced a frightening new dimension of risk. Extreme altitude plus the unpredictable and sometimes violent weather of the Himalayas exacerbates even the smallest pilot errors. Nepal has a grim civil-aviation history: at least five helicopters have wrecked in the mountains since 1997 (none were B3s), and a 2009 report details 43 fixed-wing and helicopter accidents since 1990, resulting in 338 deaths. One recent analysis, by a group called Initiative for Aviation Safety, in Nepal, places a good deal of blame on the country’s airline companies, which have displayed “rampant disregard for rules and regulations.”