Powerful new helicopters are changing mountain rescue in Nepal. But as Ed Douglas explains, the surge in helicopter evacuations is bringing sharp practice, fraud and higher insurance premiums for your next adventure.
With additional reporting in Kathmandu by Richard Bull.
Rescue in the Himalaya is changing. The extraordinary escape of three climbers stricken with frostbite and altitude sickness at almost 7,000m on Annapurna in 2010 is a great example. In the past, they would probably have not survived, yet a powerful Ecureuil B3 helicopter plucked the three men to safety in the nick of time. The Swiss team – pilot Daniel Aufdenblatten and rescuer Richard Lehner from Air Zermatt – were in Nepal to train local helicopter crews in rescue techniques when they got the call. “Until then,” Aufdenblatten said, “helicopter rescues at those altitudes had been regarded as impossible.”
Not so long ago, this kind of rescue in the Himalaya was pure fantasy. Climbers went to the mountains knowing that only they could get themselves off. But it’s in the trekking business that rescue is changing most. Twenty years ago, if you got altitude sickness on the way to Everest Base Camp, then you descended on the back of yak. Now there’s a competitive helicopter industry eager to fl y you straight back to Kathmandu.
Civil aviation has boomed in Nepal since the civil war ended in 2006. Tourism has also boomed, with numbers on the Everest trek pretty much doubling. Some 100,000 trekkers visit Nepal each year and new helicopters have an important role to play in the inevitable rise in trekkers requiring medical evacuation. That’s unquestionably a good thing.
But weak regulation and the chance to tap into insurance premiums have made the rescue business tempting to a new network of middlemen and agents. Charter companies have sprung up, earning commissions as they play different helicopter operators off against each other. Trekking guides and agents are doing the same.
It’s easy to see the attraction. Soon after the Annapurna rescue, David Hamilton – a guide for Jagged Globe with long experience of Nepal – observed: “Imagine you’re a local guide leading a trek of six people for a fairly low-budget outfit. The agent will only be making $500 out of the whole deal. You’ve got someone who’s going a bit slow and it’s a pain waiting for them, you tell them they’ve got altitude sickness, you call in a helicopter and your company gets ten or 15 per cent of what, $10,000? In a couple of years, when the insurance companies start looking at the books, there’s going to be a massive price hike.”