There exists no silver bullet in the world of mountain rescue, period. There is no perfect helicopter, there is no flawless team, and there is no ultimate piece of equipment.
Recently in the Himalayan Mountains, there have been ample discussions regarding the use of helicopters for rescues. Any climbers or trekkers who have traveled to this region in recent years may have noticed the dramatic increase in overhead air traffic. This has become the norm due to several factors, but mainly in response to the increased availability of high altitude machines based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The Euro-copters that have become prevalent in this mighty range are an incredible option for flying at these extreme altitudes. But like all machines they have their limitations—altitude, weather, visibility, and passenger weight can all ground a ship. Do not get me wrong; they are amazing tools and when the conditions exist, helicopters can dramatically increase the efficiency of high altitude rescue. However, helicopters are similar to all other aspects of a rescue in that they do not provide the ultimate answer.
A highly coordinated effort is required to effect mountain rescue operations. Unfortunately, this point has not been the center of the discussion lately in the Khumbu Region. The dialogue-taking place has failed to recognize the need for a skilled ground team to reach, stabilize, and transport a patient prior to air operations. Air resources are able to execute rescues but the risk to passenger and crew is great, especially without a competent ground crew to manage the hazards of extrication from technical terrain. All too often the world reads of the resulting disasters when the haste of a rescue took the lives of those involved when these aircraft fail.
I have been a part of operations that have relied heavily on air support and those that did not. I can speak from experience when I say that operations tend to take on a much more controlled and calculated response when it is known that capable ground rescuers are taking care of the patient. Those technical rescue teams can endure the weather that halts air evacuation while maintaining the health of both the patients and of themselves. This fact takes an immense amount of pressure off of these extraordinary pilots and their crews, knowing that they can wait for optimal conditions to fly.
A highly trained ground base rescue team and a skilled air support service when working in tandem moves us much closer to the illusive silver bullet. Operations will never be perfect, patients will continue to perish, and rescuers will be put in harms way. Taking calculated steps toward a coordinated rescue approach between terrestrial and helicopter resources in the Himalaya will greatly assist in the mitigation of the risks taken in order to save the lives of others.
AUTHOR: David Weber , WEMT-I
Gregarious and full of hair-raising stories, David Weber has worked as a guide, instructor, and rescue specialist around the world for the past 10 years. David currently divides his year working as the mountaineering ranger for Denali National Park and as an instructor at various medical wilderness centers such as the Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal. During Denali’s climbing season, he lives on the mountain leading the rescue teams.