Everest’s Helicopters Could’ve Been Used Elsewhere

Once again, a natural disaster has ravaged one of the poorest areas in the world. Sorry, Nepal, but this time, it’s you.

It seems deeply unfair, if cruel, that those who already have the least always seem to be the ones who end up suffering the most. Meanwhile, those with the most not only suffer the least, but also seem to be the ones who are given the most help.

This ugly disparity played out this week on Mt. Everest, when, on Monday, at least 160 people—guides, clients, and their hired Sherpas—received helicopter rides off of the mountain, diverting a significant portion of crucial life-saving helicopters away from assisting with search and rescue efforts elsewhere in the country.

Early Monday morning, the “great Everest Air Show” began, as David Hahn, a mountain guide for RMI Expeditions, described it in his blog. Five high-altitude helicopters—about a quarter of all the helicopters in Nepal—ran throughout the morning. Pilots for the private helicopter companies Fishtail Air, Manang Air, and Simrick Air made a cumulative total of over 90 flights over several hours, bringing the 160 climbers that were stranded at Camp 1 back down to basecamp.

Alan Arnette, a prominent Everest blogger who was one of the guided clients rescued on Monday, clarified the situation of that day: “The stories of ‘climbers stranded’ in the Western Cwm are simply untrue or a matter of exaggeration. We were the highest team on Everest at Camp 2. Others were below us at Camp 1. All had sufficient food, fuel, water and shelter to survive for days.”

If that’s the case—that the climbers up on Everest had enough food, fuel, water and shelter to comfortably live for days—then there’s no doubt that these helicopters could’ve been better used elsewhere.

The BBC reported that various local government officials are frustrated by the lack of helicopter support that has been promised to them by Kathmandu, but has yet to arrive, and which is greatly needed to access the remote areas of the country that have been most heavily affected by the earthquake.

According to this BBC article, Jitendra Poudel, the assistant chief district officer of Gorkha, said: “Many of the affected villages are quite remote in our district. We should have been given most of the helicopter rescue and reliefs, but we have received the least.”

Dr. Prince Matthew, who works with Doctors Without Borders, has pleaded repeatedly on Twitter for additional helicopter support from the Lantang Valley, a location in the foothills just beyond Everest that has been literally entirely buried.

So why did an estimated one-quarter of all the helicopters in Nepal spend Monday and part of Tuesday shuttling climbers, who faced no immediate danger, off of Everest?

“They’re following the money,” says Mark Richey, a world-class mountain climber from Massachusetts who climbed Everest in 1991, and is also the former president of the American Alpine Club. “A lot of these guys are private operators. But they’re not just being greedy, they are obligated. When the climbers called in the rescue, [those helicopter operators] are obligated to go pick up them up.”

Carrying rescue insurance is mandatory for climbers on Everest. And those obligations are passed down through an incredibly cloudy and confusing network of insurance companies, rescue-service providers, and middle men who facilitate making it all happen. Most American climbers, for example, might be covered through a standard annual membership with the American Alpine Club, which provides up to $5,000 of coverage under Global Rescue, a service that works with a network of local companies and individuals across the globe to get its members out of bad situations.

“If you’re on Mt. Everest with the AAC and you want out, and you call and convince them that it’s a life-threatening situation, they gotta come get you,” said Richey. “I’m sure what’s happening is that people are freaked out. Twenty people are dead in base camp. They’re saying, ‘Fuck this. I want to get out of here. I got Global Rescue. Come and get me. Call the bat phone!’

“It’s not that rescue insurance or rescue services are a bad thing,” Richey says, “but it’s wrong when they’re abused, especially when it diverts vital resources like helicopters from saving real lives elsewhere. ”

While the helicopter operators are obligated, it’s worth mentioning that they are also guaranteed to be fully paid for rescuing those Everest climbers. Compensation for humanitarian work, however, is not such a sure thing. It’s not a leap to assume that people in the most heavily affected areas of Nepal could have used that helicopter support on Monday and Tuesday. Nor do is it a leap to say that people likely died because that support wasn’t there.

To recap: a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal on April 25. As of April 30, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports 5,582 deaths, while Max Weiss, a respected analyst of seismic hazards at the International Center for Earth Simulation in Geneva, Switzerland, has released his chilling, death-total prediction at over 10 times the current report: 57,700.

On Everest, the earthquake triggered a major avalanche that tore through the infamous Khumbu Ice Fall—part of the climbing route known as the South Col route—and went on to demolish half of Everest Base Camp with a blast of debris. Those climbers who were inside of their tents fared worse than those out in the open, as tents were picked up and carried by the blast upwards of a quarter-mile. Ultimately, 18 people died in the event, making it the deadliest day in Everest’s history—but also a relatively minor, if lucky, outcome compared to what happened elsewhere in Nepal

The need for helicopters on Everest this week can be explained by what happened in the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is the heavily crevassed section located at the head of the Khumbu Glacier. The avalanche reportedly wiped out most of the infrastructure—ropes and ladders, etc.—that climbers use to navigate through it. This explains why over 160 climbers were “stranded” at Camps 1 and 2 in the Western Cwm. With the Ice Fall’s ropes and ladders demolished from the avalanche, they couldn’t simply walk back down the way that they had come up.

“We also hoped the Ice Fall would be fixed,” wrote Alan Arnette, “but after the third major aftershock in 24 hours it became clear the entire area was unstable and the safest decision was to get out as quickly and safely as possible.”

The climbers called in the choppers rather than waiting several days to see if the Sherpa would be able to fix the route for them to be able to walk out.

When climbing Everest via the South Col route, the Ice Fall is the first obstacle, and by far the most dangerous one of all. It is an extremely volatile place in which you walk beneath shifting towers of ice as tall as buildings, and cross over bottomless crevasses thanks to a series of ladders that have been pre-installed by a team of Sherpas that have come to be known as the “Ice Fall Doctors.”

The treacherous job of “Ice Fall Doctor,” by the way, has 1.2% mortality rate, according to an article in Outside Magazine, statistically making it the deadliest profession on earth. A majority of Everest deaths occur in the Khumbu Ice Fall, most of those deaths being Sherpa. For this line of work, these Sherpas can expect to receive upwards of $2,500, a shit-ton of money for any average Nepali, but a pittance when you remember the fact that most Westerners who climb Everest typically pay between $60,000 and $120,000 to be guided up the mountain.

Last year, 16 Sherpa died while establishing the Ice Fall route when another avalanche crushed them. After two successive years of tragedy on Mt. Everest, both of which have involved the Khumbu Ice Fall, it’s apparent that climbing Everest from the south side is an irresponsible route at best, and should no longer be considered a viable way to climb, or, to be more precise, to guide this mountain.

Choosing to climb/guide through the Khumbu Ice Fall is indefensible considering that Everest can be climbed via the north (Tibetan) side of the mountain with far less risk. The northern route is much, much safer as there is no major ice fall to cross—but the route is also technically a bit harder, requiring slightly more skill and fitness out of its climbers. Also, the politics of securing permits for the northern side are much more challenging, as you need to deal with the Beijing government, as opposed to Kathmandu, which is much more climber-friendly.

In case you’re not a climber, here’s the deal with Everest today: Ever since the Into Thin Air tragedy, Everest has gotten more popular. The guiding industry has catered to this increased demand by making practices that are completely out of sync with traditional mountaineering ethics the status quo all so that when rich Westerners show up in base camp with little to no climbing experience, they not only expect special treatment, they demand it.

Alan Arnette, the Everest blogger, is a good example of the type of dude who is drawn to the slopes of “The Big E” these days. On the one hand, he does incredible things like raise money for Alzheimer’s by climbing mountains. On the other hand, he writes stuff like this, describing the situation with the Ice Fall:

“The Icefall Doctors retreated to Gorak Shep after their camp was destroyed. … It is disappointing to the climbing community here that the Doctors did little to assist those in the Cwm.”

In other words, the climbers up on Everest were reportedly miffed because a bunch of guys who are paid to take all the risk for them, all for a pittance salary, didn’t want to go back up and risk their lives in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated their own country, affecting their families, friends and villages. Poor climbers. Instead, they had to take helicopters instead of doing what they could to fix the Ice Fall route themselves.

Each and every year, Everest’s biggest critics like to point out that guided clients on Everest don’t belong there. Climbing and mountaineering is a game of self-reliance and balancing one’s skills with the natural risks presented by the vertical challenge. Guiding eliminates most risk, lowers the skills needed to be there, and all but removes the element of self-reliance from the equation.

The thing about guiding is that, when it all works out, it’s great. People get the enjoyment of climbing in wild places and having life-altering experiences that they can bring home.

But when things go wrong, then it becomes much harder to justify bringing inexperienced people into the big mountains.

This past week on Everest, we have witnessed a situation in which almost two hundred people found themselves in a climbing situation that they couldn’t get out of without a rescue. They were either unable or unwilling to descend under their own power partly because they lacked the skills needed to do so, partly because it was an extraordinary and dangerous situation, and mostly because when you go to climb Everest these days, you expect the royal treatment, including on-demand helicopter rides off the mountain when things get a little bit uncomfortable.

The climbers prematurely called in a rescue and diverted Nepal’s limited helicopters away from other potential humanitarian and rescue work because they didn’t want to sit around on a mountain whose summit they would no longer be reaching.

People like to proclaim that Everest is “easy” and no big deal. The reality, of course, is that Everest would be one of the toughest mountains in the world, if it were actually approached and climbed in its natural state—meaning, without oxygen, without fixed ropes, without a network of ladders, and also with the knowledge, perhaps even the expectation, that anything could happen, even an 80-year earthquake, and that in the game of mountaineering, one should ultimately be self-reliant and equipped to handle those challenges.

It’s widely known that the climbers who are guided up Everest’s trade routes don’t have the climbing skills needed to be there by themselves. But the more important thing that they are lacking—as we have seen this week—is that they lack the self-reliant mentality that climbing mountains demands. And, once again, they have proven that they are willing to put their own interests above others.

I suggest donating what you can to these groups. Thoughts and prayers to all those affected.

Doctors Without Borders

Red Cross


DZI Foundation

The Juniper Fund

  • Cristian

    Andrew, at least 3 of those on C1 were experienced high altitude, no O2 mounaineers, with 8k peaks made on their own skills. If they, or if, let’s say, Simone Moro was there and tried the route downhill and perished instead of or together with a sherpa on the icefall, would it have been meritorious? Would it have been worth it? They’d had the skills, that’s for sure. Do avalanches or ice walls falls or land slides consider one’s skills?

  • Leigh

    I am glad you wrote this article because I was thinking the same thing when I saw coverage of the earthquake. It is a sad fact that those with money are first priority for resources.

  • Roberto Duhamel

    Many of the climbers were still hoping to summit in the aftermath of the quake. That level of selfishness and narcissism is really quite nausiating.

    • Matt Holland

      I haven’t heard that, do you have a source? I wonder if that was before the level of devastation was understood. And in any case, the climbing season is over, at this point the helicopters are bringing people down.

  • Lets not forget that the helicopters nor any other means of communication would not be there at all if it were not for the climbers. This is a direct impact on the economy of Nepal. Lots of the charities you can give money to are also a result of so many climbers over the years trying to help. I think we need to take a step back on this article…

    • Matt Holland

      I agree. Not to mention that the climbers are a known quantity. A flight up to C1 that picks up 3 people is 3 people safe. You can’t rely on that sort of success rate flying other SAR missions. Get the climbers and sherpa off and then send the helicopters elsewhere as needed.

  • Sonia Maria

    Great article. Thank you for posting.

  • “Without question, getting through the Khumbu Ice Fall without the aid of ladders and fixed ropes pre-established by the Ice Fall Doctors would be tough.” … Just, tough? … Are you kidding? … And, by the same logic, should guides for everything be eliminated? … This is ludicrous.

    • KeeseTL

      If you don’t ride your bike from your house in Sweden to Everest with all your gear, then climb without support you’re not doing it right.

      • BetalerEgentligSkattMedGlede

        It is long since been fairly impossible to climb everest without support. Ladders, fixed ropes, etc are always in place by other teams, i.e. their sherpas. Even if you should avoid using these, the bare fact that they – and tents and bottles of oxygen etc – are available as backup in case of emergency, excludes defining your climb as ‘without support’. The late solo expedition swede I guess you are refering to, also operated in a grey zone.

        • KeeseTL

          And Goran addressed that issue pretty well. But his bar still remains, high.

    • Damien Gildea

      The icefall used to be climbed and fixed by the climbers and the Sherpas ‘just’ used to ferry the loads. In the last 20 years this changed, to the Sherpas doing all the work. In 1988 an Australian team fixed the icefall without Sherpas, though by the end of the season other teams and Sherpas had come in to maintain it.

      Eliminate guides? No, of course not. But firstly, nearly all the Sherpas and workers there are not ‘guides’ in the traditional mountain sense. Secondly, how many industries put their guides so blatantly in the way of such random objective danger? Almost none. And for such a relative pittance compared to what the trip cost?

  • KeeseTL

    The helicopters in question are owned by private companies that were already contracted to rescue climbers in case of an emergency. This is that emergency. Additionally those helicopters were prepositioned to pull people off Everest.

    I agree 100% with your sentiment and felt the same. The above information comes from talking to people who guide in the area and are familiar with the situation. It seems outrages that climbers weren’t asked to spend a couple days waiting while the rescue resources were used to help locals. Maybe we should look for clauses in rescue insurance that asks the companies to prioritize in case of natural disaster, or develop better access to the rescue networks by the Redcross etc?

  • Kathryn

    This “article” is extremely short sighted and presumptuous using terms such as “leap”, “assume”, “speculate”… The short answer is that the helos were used to rescue those stranded on the mountain because they are alive. That’s 100+ lives that can be saved. There might be rescue opportunities available on the ground, but it sounds like it is more of a recovery operation at this point, or at best a possible rescue situation, where the lives on the mountain are guaranteed saves. Also, most (all?) climbers are required to purchase emergency evacuation insurance policies of $200K +. So perhaps the pilots/ companies had a legal obligation or were liable for rescuing the climbers who had purchased policies prior to their expeditions. There are a lot of unknown variables that have little if anything to do with giving preferential treatment to “those with money”. The climbing community drives the Nepalese economy and provides countless jobs to local citizens. “People like to proclaim that Everest is “easy” and no big deal…” Really? I have never heard anyone say that. My heart breaks for all of the people who have been affected by this disaster, but this piece is ridiculous. I do agree that the best way to help is by donating money to once of the listed charities, and there are many more than those listed who are accepting donations.

    • SithRose

      It’s also important to remember that 2/3rds of the people on Everest at the time of the earthquake and avalanche were Sherpas – not “wealthy tourists” in any sense of the word. Should those Sherpas have been left to die on the mountain? Make no mistake – leaving them up there with the conditions that the Khumbu Icefall was in would have been a death sentence by slow freezing. Rescue triage indicates that you rescue people who *will* die without evacuation first, then rescue people at risk/injured next. Everest has very uncertain weather, and everyone in Camp 1 and 2 was trapped without the supplies necessary to make their way across the Khumbu Icefall. Several attempts to cross the Icefall were made, but continuing aftershocks and damage made the route impassible and deadly dangerous even for experienced climbers. There were people *on* the Icefall when the avalanche hit – Some of them are among the missing. They are probably dead.

      Another point to keep in mind is that the Everest Camp 1 and 2 rescue was, according to the reports of Base Camp climbers, done by a grand total of 3 helicopters on the first day – when the vast majority of people were rescued – and between 3 and 5 on the second day, when only 17 people remained in Camp 1. Everest’s weather is notoriously uncertain, and the helicopters had a *very* limited window of rescue for those trapped Sherpas and climbers. Those helicopters also have a 2 passenger limit, and a very small landing footprint – effectively, they’re specced for high mountain rescue. In areas like Langtang, many of the villages can (and have) constructed helipads for larger choppers that can evacuate more people. Rescue operations are moving actively there – and were *badly* hampered by the fact that the villages were utterly destroyed in many cases, rendering landmarks that pilots normally use unrecognizable. They’ve had to resort to GPS coordinates to rescue a number of people in Langtang because the pilots *couldn’t find them* otherwise. And these were groups of 30+ people.

      As it is, the Sherpas have lost the equipment they require for their jobs, much of what they own, many of them have lost their homes, and some of them have lost other family members in the quake. Most of the confirmed fatalities from Base Camp are Sherpas. I’m of the opinion that the climbers whose lives were saved by the help of those Sherpas should use some of their money to replace that gear and help them rebuild their homes. I’m also of the opinion that it is the height of arrogance and stupidity to even attempt to summit Everest this year, and that the Sherpas should refuse to assist anyone who is idiotic enough to try it after this. But it is ALSO the height of arrogance to assume that the helicopters were only for the rich tourists. To be blunt, the Nepal government could not afford the PR hit of leaving so many Sherpas and tourists on one of the world’s most popular mountains.

      Now, let’s stop talking about Everest, where everyone in immediate danger is safe, and start focusing on getting GPS coordinates for the people stranded on the Annapurna circuit and the Langtang area, as well as other hard to reach areas of Nepal. Those same helicopters that were used for Everest couldn’t get out to Annapurna yesterday due to weather. They need critical information on the location of trapped climbers that we’re still trying to get to them so those climbers can be rescued. Their window isn’t as limited as the one for Everest was, but they still need help rather urgently.

  • Seth Hyman


    Hopefully you meant 18k peaks, and although the great utilitarian debate never gets old, I question the ethics of the journalist who pitches it. Why would we assume that those machines are there for any reason other than to support the outfitters and their Everest clientele? And shouldn’t we assume that their clients signed agreements that guaranteed air support in the event of any MCE? think of it this way… When your parents die and their assets are willed to you, do you keep it or give it to charity? Maybe your parents should think about it and iron out a clause for the will that stipulates you can keep it as long as there isn’t an earthquake that wipes out their favorite school or church house before you have a chance to spend it? Lots of people at base walked for a week straight to get off the apron. More to the point I’d suspect some of the people who perished there would actually agree with what you are saying, but did anyone have the foresight to predict this would happen at the same time Everest mountaineers are taking their shot at the summit? And Regarding guiding, those who do so on Everest are a rare and gifted breed of men and women who do with poise and precision those things that make marine snipers giggle and piss themselves like slap-happy school children. Their clients to are pretty bad ass too BTW. Not at all the time place or forum to be criticising guides and expedition company’s that are the sole reason we have live video feed of seismic waves at 20k ft. Now how about what FOX is saying!!!

    • David Wellcome

      No. He meant 8k…
      8000 meters,
      That is apx 24,000 foot plus peaks…

    • SithRose

      There actually is a company called Fishtail Air which is contracted with both private people and with the Nepal government for helicopter tours and high mountain rescue in the entire Everest/Annapurna mountain area – they’ve done many of the rescues on Everest in the past years. It is unclear, but some of my sources indicate that the 3 helicopters used on the first day were Fishtail helicopters – that is still unconfirmed. And no, he really meant 8K *metre* peaks. In contrast, Pikes Peak, a 14,112 foot tall mountain, is only 4K metres tall. *Half* of the height that they’re talking about here. Everest is at the very top of the lightest model helicopter’s flight ceiling – They had to use the small choppers because larger ones can’t fly that high with passengers.

  • SirRantsAlot

    Helicopters are of limited utility in this type of a disaster anyway. Air transport needs will likely be provided by military assets.

  • Teresa

    While I cannot speak for when and how the helicopters should have been used, it is important to understand that the climbers can not simply climb back down through the icefall without ladders and lines. The video uploaded by Alan Arnette this morning shows the condition of the icefall between Camp 1 and EBC. http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2015/04/29/everest-2015-north-closed-south-retreats-a-full-recap/

    • This is true, and it highlights one of the many reasons why the South Col route is an irresponsible, dangerous and bad route to guide–and climb. You’d have to be a top alpinist to get through the Ice Fall self-supported, without ladders, and as a team of two/three climbers–it would be tough, dangerous, and you might likely die. But is it impossible? Hardly

      What is “status quo” for Everest–the Ice Fall ladders, for example– is so, so far gone from fundamental principles of mountaineering and responsible climbing practices that it’s easy to say, “well, they can’t get down because the ladders are gone,” when we should really be saying, “well, that’s because they should have never been there in the first place.” That’s the real take-away to me

      • Y A

        Where does that argument end? If my 70 year old parents were hiking to
        Nevada Falls and rockfall took out the bridge across the Merced,
        they’d be just as stranded as those folks at Everest Camp 1. My parents
        have no ability to scramble through fresh talus. Does that mean they
        have no business hiking trails in the Valley?

        When we go places, we often rely on the presence of certain infrastructure like trails to get there and back. The Ice Fall is a fancy trail. Nothing more.

  • elchivoloco

    It’s obvious (and totally appropriate) that the helicopter operators are catering to the clients who will pay them, but I think you might be overstating a helicopter’s value in an earthquake rescue. If this had been a tsunami or flood helicopters could be put to work rescuing stranded civilians, but they’re not going to be much help digging through earthquake rubble. I guess there are probably folks in remote areas that could use transport to medical aid, but all the urban medical resources where they would go are probably overwhelmed right now.