THE HARDEST PART of flying to the top of Everest: finding a pilot dumb enough to try it. "Step out of an aircraft up there and you might be dead in 30 seconds," says Trevor Rogers, owner of Auckland, New Zealandbased helicopter manufacturer TGR Helicorp. His solution? Lose the pilot.
EVEREST EXPEDITIONS 2007
SuperSherpas: Apa Sherpa, who holds the all-time summit record with 16, and Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa, who counts among his 12 summits a personal speed record of 10 hours 56 minutes 46 seconds, lead a rare all-Sherpa expedition.
The Olympic Torch: Climbers will carry the torch to the summit in a rehearsal for the 2008 Olympic relay, which will go over the top of Everest.
The Double Traverse: In an Everest first, British climber David Tait will summit from the Tibetan side, descend to Base Camp on the Nepalese side, then return to Tibet via the summit.
In Mallory's Footsteps: Conrad Anker, who found George Mallory's body on Everest in 1999, returns to re-create Mallory's planned 1924 route up the North Face, ...
Rogers hopes his new Alpine Wasp, a $5 million unmanned craft, will one day whisk climbers off the Hillary Step with greater ease than a Chinook on Mount Hood. The 40-foot-long craft boasts a revolutionary diesel engine and carbon-and-Kevlar rotor that allow it to hover at 31,000 feet. It also carries an array of cameras and infrared sensors that will supposedly enable it to fly through high winds and blinding clouds.
During future rescues, a "pilot" at a hangar in Namche Bazaar, 17 miles from Everest Base Camp, would sit in a cockpit simulator using images from the Wasp's 16 infrared and high-def cameras to fly via remote control, while onboard computers constantly adjusted for turbulence. As the helicopter approached a climber, it would extend a proboscis with another camera, a microphone and speaker, and a Kevlar rope with a harness. "Strap the thing up tight, pray to your gods, and we yank you straight off the mountain," says Rogers.
If test flights this year on New Zealand's Mount Cook go well, TGR hopes to put the Wasp into service by next spring. But some Everest hands wonder whether it belongs there. "In combat, a rescue drone is fine," says mountaineer Conrad Anker. "On Everest, I think it's out of place. Up there, the risk is part of the allure."