The Stream

Reality TV at 29,000 Feet

'Everest Rescue' is an inside look at a very risky job: performing high-altitude helicopter rescues on the tallest mountain in the world

Reality TV at 29,000 Feet
Manang Air helicopter pilot Ryan Skorecki flying to the village of Pheriche, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal. (Discovery Communications)

Even in seasons immediately following disasters, climbers have flocked to Mt. Everest, undeterred. And on a mountain where it's been estimated that one person dies for every ten who summit, drama and action are high consequence. Discovery Channel has been packaging those ingredients into television specials for over a decade. 

The first foray was the 2006 reality show Everest: Beyond the Limit, which followed Russell Brice’s operation, Himalayan Experience. In 2014, when 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, a crew from Discovery was on location planning to film a live broadcast of wingsuiter Joby Ogwyn flying off the summit (the jump was canceled). Now, on January 8, Discovery will launch a six-part series called Everest Rescue, which follows a group of helicopter pilots as they execute emergency missions for climbers on Everest’s south side and people living in nearby villages. 

When helicopter rescue is needed up high, danger compounds. Just as it gets exponentially more difficult for climbers to ascend from Base Camp at 17,500 feet to Everest’s summit at 29,305 feet, it’s tough for these pilots to maneuver their single engine B3 helicopters at those elevations, mainly because the rotos don't work as well in the decreased air density.

Everest Rescue follows several helicopter pilots, some of whom are rookies, through these challenges. The star is veteran pilot Jason Laing, a New Zealander who flies for Nepal’s Simrik Airlines. In 2014, Laing was responsible for the emergency flights following the massive serac avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall that killed 16 Sherpas; they were mainly body recoveries. The following year, in 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 8,500 people and causing widespread destruction. Again, Laing flew rescue flights to evacuate stranded climbers from Everest. 

The series was filmed during Nepal’s 2016 climbing season, which was the first normal season in years. Though a few people died during summit attempts on various peaks in the region, no major catastrophes struck. Still, drama ensues as it must in the first episode of Everest Rescue. The pilots come to the aide of a climber who's feared to be having a heart attack due to altitude sickness and a Nepali woman who’d just given birth and required immediate medical attention. When Laing is called to rescue 20 climbers stranded in a storm at 21,000 feet, he must fly with almost no visibility, and later, with no good place to land, a colleague dangles from the helicopter and plucks each person from the mountain one by one.

Two side stories in the episode seem intended for viewers who are unfamiliar with Everest, giving some context to the risks of high-altitude helicoptering and the tragedies of the previous two years. Pilot Ryan Skorecki completes his first flight above 14,000 feet, and viewers ride along as he navigates new territory and attempts a landing at Base Camp. We also hear from Laing about his experience during the 2015 earthquake and get a glimpse of his life in Kathmandu. 

The show feels a bit over dramatic at times ("Up here, the smallest mistake only adds to the body count," a narrator says over the opening sequence). But given how challenging it is to operate helicopters in such treacherous terrain and conditions, the risks are not obscenely exaggerated. Besides, the risks are the point of the show. There are none of the standard reality TV surprises or controversies, just compelling characters against a harsh backdrop. You’ll enjoy this series if you liked The Horn, Red Bull TV’s recent series on the Matterhorn rescue team, Air Zermatt—or if, like the climbers that return year after year, you can’t get enough of Everest.

The series kicks off Sunday January 8th at 10 p.m. ET.

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