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Himalayan First: Standby Rescue Helicopters

Swiss rescuer Simon Anthamatten lifts off to recover the dead body of Tomaz Humar on Langtang Lirung in Nepal, November 2009. Longline rescues like this one are uncommon in the Himalayas, but this spring a new standby rescue partnership between Air Zermatt of Switzerland and Fishtail Air of Nepal will employ the technique up to 7000 meters. [Photo] Fishtail Air

This spring season, Air Zermatt of Switzerland and Fishtail Air of Nepal will join forces to provide the first Himalayan standby helicopter rescue service in history.

From April 24 until June 2, 2010, a Fishtail Air helicopter in the Khumbu area will be manned by a rescue pilot and mountain rescue specialist from Air Zermatt. A second helicopter, flying transport missions in the Dhaulagiri region, also will be on call if needed. In case of an emergency, the team will be able to initiate high-altitude rescue attempts up to 7000 meters within hours of receiving a call.

These professionals will be able to fly a so-called “human sling operation.” Upon arriving at a rescue scene, one specialist will hang from the helicopter on a longline, a rope that can be extended up to 200 meters. After building an anchor and unclipping from the longline, the specialist will examine the patient. The rescuer will maintain contact with the pilot by headset, directing the longline back to his position, then will clip himself and the patient onto the line. Then the helicopter, still dangling the longline, will fly to a level area where a paramedic or doctor is waiting.

This kind of aerial maneuver originated in the Swiss Alps. In 1970, a mountain guide with Air Zermatt performed the first longline mountain rescue on north face of the Eiger. This mission forever changed mountain rescue operations.

But because of an absence of proper helicopters and skilled pilots in the Himalayas, local rescue missions generally do not use longlines. Instead, pilots must land or hover, a challenge for many high-altitude mountainside rescues. There have been only a handful of Himalayan longline rescue attempts, and most were performed by specialized teams from faraway locations.

In 2005, the Pakistan Army successfully plucked Slovenian alpinist Tomaz Humar off Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face by longline with help from a distance by Air Zermatt. But no rescuer was hanging on the longline to assist him. In his exhausted state, Humar forgot to unclip his ice screw, which nearly caused the helicopter to crash. The new program hopes to increase safety by ensuring that a longline rescue specialist is available at all times to support the pilot and patient(s).

A Lama helicopter with a longline rescues a climber on the Mattertal in the Swiss Alps. [Photo] Menno Boermans

After last year’s failed attempts to rescue Spanish alpinist Oscar Perez on Latok in August (read Alpinist 30‘s Mountain Profile for the full story) and Humar on Langtang Lirung in November (read the November 14, 2009 NewsWire), Air Zermatt discussed options for improving rescue systems and reaction times in the Himalayas.

They hope the new program not only improves these issues, but also supports education for Nepalese pilots who want to learn how to fly longline rescues.

“Last march we invited five members from Nepal to see our operation here in the European Alps,” Swiss pilot Gerold Biner said. “The Nepalese pilots could fly real missions in the Matterhorn area, and at the end we did a rescue exercise with a longline.”

Operations this spring will commence as a trial period. Climbers in need, or their insurance, will pay operating costs as usual. But because of training costs, Air Zermatt and Fishtail Air are searching for sponsors. If all goes well this year and enough money is raised, they will continue high-altitude, on-call rescue services in future seasons.

The team will pilot one AS 350 B3 helicopter, also known as a Squirrel, which can perform longline rescues up to 7000 meters.

Learn more about Air Zermatt at and Fishtail Air at