The Mount Everest spring climbing season is looming and experts, like Alan Arnette, are predicting record crowds.
Despite the pandemic, Arnette expects these crowds to include a mix of mountaineering skill levels. The result of this will be heavy traffic on Mount Everest and other popular Himalayan mountains.
This combination of factors will lead to a higher demand for rescue operations such as long line rescue. Climbers may be in distress from altitude sickness, frostbite or other injuries that can occur during an expedition.
When will a climber need a long line rescue?
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 such as the weather, imminent nightfall, exhaustion or limited resources prevent your climbing team from assisting you to safety then your rescue options dwindle.
A climber will often need 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 the highest-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 line rescue with helicopters has been utilised in places like the European Alps, for quite some time, but it’s relatively new to the 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 refer to a helicopter insertion and extraction tool used in rescue missions, forest fire fighting and law enforcement operations.
Extending a rescue line allows the helicopter to remain clear of obstacles. It also enables the helicopter to avoid landing on unstable or uneven terrain.
The 5 pieces of equipment a long line helicopter rescue system needs
- A belly band is a strap that is fitted through the cabin of the aircraft. The belly band encircles the aircraft structure and provides 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. It suspends the load under the aircraft. For example, one long line rescue rope is safety yellow with integrated reflective tracers for visibility. It’s a 14mm braid on braid kern-mantle construction with a minimum break strength of 11.5 tonnes.
- The rescue harness is the point of attachment for rescuers and rescues to the system.
- An aerial rescue platform carries injured patients (if needed).
How does a long line rescue work?
You would be wrong to think that they hoist a rescuee straight into the helicopter and then fly away. Mingma quickly pointed out that the rescuee dangles 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 uses the long line to descend to the ground. Then they 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 flight times
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. 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.