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To the Rescue

Powerful new helicopters and long-line rescue in the Himalaya are changing the high-altitude game and fueling the booming business of guiding. but will the sport of high-altitude climbing survive?

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 197 (October 2011).

It is a shocking image. Alone on a snowy trail lies the shapeless form of Cleo Weidlich, her body—it appears—on the verge of fatal exhaustion. Hours before, Weidlich had become the first American woman to make the summit of Kangchenjunga—but now her fight to reach basecamp seems almost lost. Her Sherpa guides are nowhere to be seen.

Anselm Murphy, who took the photograph, discovered Weidlich in what he later described as a state of near-total collapse. “If we had not found her,” he blogged, “I believe she would have died. I woke her up and held onto her as I got her to right her position on the slope. She was extremely distressed and crying and didn’t know how she had got there. She started telling me to go down and leave her—I said that’s not going to happen.”

Murphy’s eloquent account of Weidlich’s struggle, and apparent abandonment, has left question marks over the once unassailable reputation of the Sherpas. How could they be so callous? Could Murphy’s further reports of Sherpas profiteering on oxygen bottles urgently needed for Weidlich be true? Why did they seem more interested in rescuing gear from Camp 3, at 7,000 meters, than rescuing one of their clients?

Stories of Western climbers ignoring the plight of those from other teams have become grimly routine on the world’s highest mountains. But these Sherpas were part of the same expedition—Weidlich’s expedition—and paid to help. Was this a new low in the recent, lurid history of high-altitude climbing? That basecamp erupted into violence once Weidlich was safely back in Kathmandu speaks of the frustration felt by some clients at the shortcomings of the Seven Summits Treks expedition. Murphy had paid $12,000 for his climb.

Of course, it’s never that simple. Murphy’s harrowing yarn is just a snapshot of a broad and complex Himalayan mountaineering scene in the throes of rapid change. Guided and Sherpa-supported expeditions of all shapes and sizes are fast becoming the norm in much of the Himalaya, changing the dynamics of climbing—and commerce—on the world’s highest peaks. And if you want a symbol of that change, then look no further than the gleaming red helicopter that arrived to evacuate Weidlich from Camp 2 at 6,400 meters back to Kathmandu.

The Fishtail Air Ecureuil AS350 B3 with its Swiss pilot and rescuer had tried to evacuate Weidlich the day before from Camp 3, at 7,000 meters, right at the helicopter’s operational limit, but weather conditions had forced it to return to Tapeljung and try again the next day. Weidlich, hobbled by serious damage to knee ligaments, would have to descend further. “My heart sank and I felt like I was going to cry,” Murphy recalled in his blog. “To think that everything is going to be OK, then have it fall apart in a matter of minutes was unbelievably depressing.”

In the halcyon days of exploratory mountaineering, the rule was simple: if you got into trouble, then only you and your friends would get you out of it. There was no one to call. You needed deep pockets of self-reliance and a bank of experience to get out of a crisis. The only rescue was self-rescue.

In the halcyon days of exploratory mountaineering, the rule was simple: if you got into trouble, then only you and your friends would get you out of it. There was no one to call. You needed deep pockets of self-reliance and a bank of experience to get out of a crisis. The only rescue was self-rescue.
The apotheosis of this ethic occurred on K2 in 1953, when Charles Houston and his friends attempted to bring the dying Art Gilkey down from their top camp.

With the arrival of the powerful B3 helicopter and easier telecommunications with 3G telephone technology in the Everest region, as long as you’ve got the cash or the insurance, you can call your agent in Kathmandu and soon be chomping pizza in your favorite Thamel restaurant. Even if you find yourself incapable of getting down to an altitude low enough for the helicopter to operate, the chances are, as a high-altitude climber, you will be situated among enough Sherpas, fixed rope and oxygen to sort you out.

Old-school alpinists don’t much care for this style of mountaineering. They fear it undermines the fundamentals of mountaineering. Blogging about the Weidlich incident, top British alpinist Nick Bullock argued that climbers should gain their own experience, that Sherpas are only human and that helping a fellow expeditioner should be considered normal. Mark Twight, a leading American alpinist in the 1990s, posted agreement, saying that standard routes on the high mountains have become “superhighways,” and that climbers following fixed ropes are not learning, yet “can’t be battled or educated.” He advocated that real alpinists should simply ignore commercial climbing: “[L]et the consumers hold the ground they occupy and accept the Outhouse Theory: it keeps all the shit in one place.”


Statistics show that Twight’s “outhouse” is a lot more crowded these days than the main building. Most climbers in the Himalaya are attempting a standard route up a very narrow choice of peaks, usually relying on fixed ropes and Sherpas. There were 373 foreign climbers on Everest this spring season, as many as on all the other peaks in Nepal controlled by the tourism ministry put together. And two-thirds of the remaining climbers were either on Nepal’s other 8,000-meter peaks or Ama Dablam. That’s a list of just eight mountains.

The Nepal Mountaineering Association, a separate organization issuing permits for 33 specified “trekking” peaks, reported 2,015 climbers this spring. A staggering 1,662, or 82 percent, climbed just three peaks: Pisang in the Annapurna region, and Mera and Island Peak in Khumbu, which together saw 344 separate “expeditions.” Thirty years ago, most climbers heading for the Himalaya were climbing new routes. Exploration these days is the rare exception.

Does this matter? The same process happened in the Alps and Alaska, and nobody imagines that climbing in these areas is now worthless just because most mountaineers are on Mont Blanc or Denali. If thousands of climbers, most of them relying more or less on fixed ropes, guides and Sherpas, can’t climb big mountains in as elegant and convincing a style as Reinhold Messner, does that mean they shouldn’t be there

However much the old guard bemoans the erosion of climbing self-sufficiency, a crucial aspect of these expeditions, aside from allowing climbers who love the mountains a way to earn a living, is that they make a huge economic contribution to once remote and economically disadvantaged mountain people. Khumbu has become an economic engine in impoverished Nepal. According to Ang Tsering of Asian Trekking, the Everest spring climbing season alone is worth more than $9 million to the local economy. That puts a lot of Sherpa children through school. If you rely on the money that client-climbers bring, then the debate is over already.

Of course, greater numbers of less experienced climbers means more accidents. That’s one of the reasons a Himalayan helicopter-rescue service is currently emerging. But it’s not as though climbers in the past didn’t get into trouble. Study the numbers and it’s clear the fatality rate on big mountains has actually dropped in the last decade—significantly. (Early statistics for Everest, for example, show 18 ascents and 6 fatalities in the 1960s, 78/28 in the 1970s, and 182/59 in the 1980s. The first decade of 2000 gave 2943/45.)

According to Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience, who has guided in the Himalaya since 1974, that’s not despite commercial climbing—it’s because of it, and non-guided climbers have benefited. Brice, in some parts of the media at least, became a controversial figure following the death of the British climber David Sharp in 2006.

“A lot of their outrage is levelled at the commercial operators but it’s often commercial operators who are sorting out the mess,” he says. “We’ve done over 30 rescues of varying degrees and we’ve never said anything about it. It’s not my position to say anything about someone else’s misfortune. I’m changing my view now, [after being] criticized for trying to help David Sharp and getting called a murderer.”

When I speak to him, Brice is still smarting after assisting in the rescue of seven Spanish climbers—not part of a guided team—who were this season climbing Lhotse without oxygen, and collapsed on the descent. “For years now they’ve been coming to try these mountains without paying for [fixed] ropes, without having Sherpas or gas, and are constantly having these accidents. They get picked up by other teams and looked after but no one’s talking
about it.”

Italy’s Simone Moro has notched landmark alpine climbs all over the world, including most recently the first winter ascents of Makalu and Gasherbrum II. He flies extensively as a volunteer. Photo: Simone Moro.

One of the Spanish climbers rescued in a concerted effort by several ground teams was the Basque veteran Juanito Oiarzabal. “This is the third time I’ve helped rescue him,” Brice says, “once on Everest, once on Manaslu and now on Lhotse. We willingly give away food and gas and medicine, and then we have to re-stock. That extends my expedition by a day. We’ve got 30 staff, so that’s cost me a huge amount in wages, let alone anything else. But they get on a helicopter paid for by insurance and go. They don’t then come back and say, ‘There must be other expenses.’”

Until the last two Himalayan spring seasons, this kind of concerted effort by other expeditions has been pretty much the only option for rescue. Helicopters had been restricted to evacuations from Everest basecamp with a few dramatic exceptions higher on the mountain, like the rescue of Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau from the top of the Icefall in 1996. A series of helicopter crashes at basecamps including on Everest—some of them fatal and often involving Russian Mi17 aircraft—left those climbers present in no doubt of just how precarious high-altitude rescues can be.

The helicopter that rescued Weathers and Gau was the Ecureuil B2 working at the limits of its operation. The latest versions of the B3, however, are more powerful and certified to fly at altitudes up to 7,000 meters. An earlier version of the B3, stripped of all its excess weight and flying with limited fuel, even managed to land on the summit of Everest in 2005.

The other critical piece of this new rescue mosaic was the co-operation between the Swiss rescue specialists Air Zermatt and the Nepali helicopter-charter outfit Fishtail Air in the search for the Slovenian ace Tomaz Humar on Langtang Lirung in 2009. Last year the Air Zermatt crew provided the first stand-by rescue service in Nepal while also training local pilots in rescue techniques. Back in Switzerland, Air Zermatt personnel gave two Sherpas, Namgyal Sherpa and Tsering Pande Bhote, both aspirant guides, training in long-line or “sling” rescue methods, by which someone can hang from helicopters to reach climbers in distress and whisk them off.

Air Zermatt’s Gerold Biner, one of the instigators of the project, has spent two spring seasons in Nepal. “The [Nepali] pilots are highly skilled,” he
says. “These guys have been flying in the mountains for 10 or 15 years. The only things they needed to learn were some flight-preparation issues and human-cargo techniques.” The Air Zermatt crews made some impressive interventions in the pre-monsoon season of 2010, including the highest long-line rescue in history. Daniel Aufdenblatten, the Swiss pilot, and the Swiss mountain guide Richard Lenner pulled three Spanish climbers—including Juanito Oiarzabal—off Annapurna at an altitude of 6,900 meters.

In November 2010 the value of long-line rescues on technical Himalayan routes was again proven, this time in more tragic circumstances. Two climbers, Japan’s Kazuya Hiraide and David Göttler of Germany, became stranded after climbing Ama Dablam’s North Face. Fishtail’s Nepali pilots had been impressed with what could be done with the sling technique but had been cautioned not to use it yet. Biner says, “You need good communication between the rescuer on the rope and the pilot. They did not have the necessary installed equipment.”

Even if Fishtail had fitted the necessary radio equipment, Air Zermatt was still training the two Sherpas who would take over the role Lenner and other Swiss guides had performed at the end of the rope. So instead of using a long line, Captain Sabin Basnyat, who had flown on the Humar mission, went in the old-fashioned way, hovering close to the North Ridge as Göttler climbed aboard.

He was returning for Hiraide, with engineer Purna Awale on board, when something went catastrophically wrong. Most likely, says Biner, would be that “he touched a rotor on the left-hand backside of the chopper where the pilot can’t see anything. The helicopter twisted to the left and then fell 2,000 meters down a couloir. With the use of the rope this accident wouldn’t have happened.” A second Fishtail chopper completed the mission and recovered the bodies of their colleagues.

Biner is full of praise for the dead pilot. “Sabin did so many of these interventions. He was excellent, the most advanced in that group.” Basnyat had 4,500 flying hours in different kinds of helicopters when he died at age 34. His wife Poonam traveled to Florida this spring to collect an award from Helicopter Association International for his bravery in saving so many lives throughout his career. Basnyat’s loss seems even greater when you consider how exceptional the rescue situation in Nepal is.

In India the army controls the Himalayan skies. In the Karakoram the Pakistani military has formed a private company called Askari to process rescues—and collect lucrative insurance income. China doesn’t offer any kind of helicopter rescue at all. Only in Nepal, where private airlines are at work in the mountains, has there been the possibility of an innovative rescue service with specialist training from experts like Air Zermatt.

Yet Nepal’s energetic aviation sector has a notoriously mixed safety record. In 2006 a Shree Airlines Mi17 helicopter crashed at Ghunsa in eastern Nepal, killing all 24 people, including senior conservationists working for WWF, on board. Bereaved colleagues and relatives established a pressure group, Aviation Safety Nepal, and commissioned journalist Toya Dahal to report on the record of airline safety in the country.

For anyone flying regularly in Nepal, Dahal’s report makes grim reading. He detailed 43 major incidents since 1990. Every one prompted an accident report from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), but the reports weren’t shared with other government departments, like the tourism ministry, let alone made public.

“In most cases,” Dahal reported, “Civil Aviation Authority officials who were in the investigation commission do not know where those reports are.” Gerold Biner does not expect to see the accident inquiry report into Sabin Basnyat’s death.

Yet Nepal’s energetic aviation sector has a notoriously mixed safety record. In 2006 a Shree Airlines Mi17 helicopter crashed at Ghunsa in eastern Nepal, killing all 24 people, including senior conservationists working for WWF, on board.

Aircraft in Nepal are often old and improperly maintained, and lack equipment demanded by Nepali aviation officials, whose authority and dedication have been weakened by years of civil war and political infighting. Airline executives are allowed to sit on CAAN’s board. Pilots fly in bad weather without the necessary instrumentation, and with too much weight. “There is rampant disregard for rules and regulations,” Dahal concluded.

It’s hardly an encouraging background for developing an effective helicopter-rescue service. “On the fixed-wing side,” says Gerold Biner, “[safety] has been a major issue. There’s a lot of competition going on up there. If the first pilot is able to land at Lukla, then there’s pressure for the other pilots to fulfill the mission. [But] with the [B3] helicopters it’s completely different. They are more or less new and we figure the maintenance is pretty good. The engineers have a good knowledge and are used to working in the open. I never had any technical problems while flying in Nepal.”

At 7,200 meters between Camp 2 and Camp 3 on Dhauligiri last year, two Sherpas descend to save their lives. Three Chinese climbers are lost in the windstorm, but seven are saved by Fishtail Air and Air Zermatt. Photo: Gerold Biner.

Biner is more concerned about communication on the ground and the need for expedition organizers and helicopter operators to agree on procedures, especially with the density of traffic now operating in the Everest region. “The landing site is small at Everest basecamp and everybody rushes over asking which [agency] you’ve come from, and you have to shout because you can’t shut down the chopper up there. It’s chaos.” He adds that installation of high-frequency radios, like those used by the police, will allow communication from the air to basecamps and accident sites. “We just have to publish the frequencies so that all the expeditions know when Fishtail is coming.”

Biner cites the role Simone Moro has played in overcoming some of the problems. A qualified pilot and mountaineering star in his native Italy after a long mountaineering career that includes the first winter ascents of Gasherbrum II and Makalu, Moro, working as a volunteer pilot, has been able to phone friends at various basecamps to smooth rescue operations. But even he is cautious about what climbers should expect from Nepal’s emerging helicopter-rescue service.

“Many climbers believe that we can land easily at 6,000 meters or above, but this is completely false,” Moro says. “Very few pilots have the skills and mental preparation to achieve such flights, and it’s important to train continuously. It’s not enough to have an AS350 B3. It’s necessary to know how to manage the power, which is often not enough in rescues above 6,300 meters.”

He rejects complaints that helicopter companies will try to cash in on tourist flights into the Western Cwm, once known as “the Silent Valley.” “Of course these flights mustn’t become a circus for tourists,” he says, “but it won’t happen because of cost. I don’t care too much about stupid comments from some climbers that declare [themselves] to be pure and then use oxygen and hang on the sat phone when they need rescue.”

Even so, the same competition that has undermined aviation safety elsewhere in Nepal could pose a threat to helicopter operations in the mountains. “I’ve tried to convince them they should have rules,” Biner says. “That they should never go above basecamp except for emergencies. That only one designated person is asking for helicopters.”

Tourists flying as far as basecamp is another, more complex matter. Volunteers at the not-for-profit medical clinic Everest ER have over the last few years taken responsibility for clearing a helipad at basecamp. The clinic, which provides health care to climbers on Everest, barely survives on a voluntary $100 donation from those climbers at basecamp willing to pay. (The clinic provides a free service to Sherpas working on the mountain.)

So it’s not surprising that the frequent use of the helipad for non-emergency flights is causing frustration. Having witnessed increasing helicopter traffic, and several accidents, Dr. Luanne Freer of Everest ER says she is “intensely concerned about helicopter use in the area,” for what she terms “frivolous reasons.” She’s particularly worried about unnecessary flights called in to evacuate climbers from Camp 2. “Climbers don’t realize they’re putting lives at risk.”

People on the ground at basecamp have, according to Freer, been injured during previous helicopter crashes, not all of which involved aircraft on rescue missions, but the suggestion of building a second helipad for non-emergency use away from basecamp has gotten nowhere. “People have talked about it,” she says, “but nobody has come up with the money to pay for it.”

Russell Brice shares Freer’s concerns about climbers hitching an easy ride home from Camp 2 but he defends the use of helicopters to take climbers out of basecamp. “Mountaineers cannot expect helicopter operators to spend huge amounts of money on machinery, pilots and training, and only expect them to do rescues.” He says he offered helicopter companies a second helipad, if they paid a modest landing fee and staffed it, only for the plan to be nixed by the national park authorities wanting a fee.

David Hamilton, working regularly on Everest as a guide for Jagged Globe, sees the use of helicopters from both sides. “On the one hand, I’d prefer it if the helicopters weren’t there,” he says, “but one day I, or a member of my party, will break a leg and it will be pretty nice getting back
to Kathmandu in two hours rather than two weeks. It’s an inevitable development.”

David Hamilton, working regularly on Everest as a guide for Jagged Globe, sees the use of helicopters from both sides. “On the one hand, I’d prefer it if the helicopters weren’t there,” he says, “but one day I, or a member of my party, will break a leg and it will be pretty nice getting back to Kathmandu in two hours rather than two weeks. It’s an inevitable development.”

He stresses that the real impetus for helicopter-rescue operations in the Himalaya is trekking—which presents an opportunity many Nepali trekking agencies can’t ignore. Hamilton and several other guides I spoke to say that trekking agencies take advantage of commission paid by the helicopter companies for calling them with injured clients. It’s a system open to abuse. As Hamilton explains it: “Imagine you’re a local guide leading a trek of five or 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 10 or 15 percent of what, $10,000? In a couple of years, when the insurance companies start looking at the books and see what’s going on, there’s going to be a massive hike in the price for [heli-rescue] coverage.”

The above kind of sharp practice also happens on Everest, according to Freer, who says she has evidence of insurance schemes being abused in this way. “We’ve talked to insurance companies about consulting us,” she says. “They’re interested.” Freer says Everest ER staff also talked to Global Rescue, the American Alpine Club’s partner in providing rescue, about a cooperative system in which medivacs would only be authorized in consultation with an Everest ER doctor. “We see it as a way to get leverage in making the Everest ER levy mandatory,” she says. If climbers needed clearance from Everest ER to get evacuated, then they would have to pay the voluntary levy for treatment.

Air Dynasty helicopter on a Dhaulagiri mission, as seen from basecamp. Air Dynasty, Fishtail and Mountain Air fly the B3s. Photo: Prem Kahtri,

In this complex mosaic of voluntary regulation, mountaineering ethics, commercial integrity and profiteering, the role of Sherpas is arguably the most difficult to define. “It’s almost impossible to talk in a unified way about Sherpas and the way they work,” says Hamilton. “Some will do what they need to do to get paid and no more, whereas others, like those working for Russell [Brice], will do whatever it takes” to keep clients safe.

Partly as a result of bad publicity following the David Sharp controversy, bargain-basement expeditions on Everest, costing a few thousand dollars, have disappeared. (Sharp, who collapsed alone, was with a bargain-priced group that fed clients at basecamp and ABC, then charged for optional further services.) But there’s still a difference of at least $20,000 between the most expensive operators and their cheaper competitors.

“There are probably half a dozen expedition models on Everest now,” says Hamilton. “You’ve got the top-end operators with a lot of resources, who view it as part of the deal of being there that they offer a rescue service. The cheaper guys are mimicking what the expensive guys do, and there are more people going on these cheaper trips. As the expensive guys become a smaller part of the market, that resource to help others will be reduced.”

Part of the problem comes down to what climbers expect Sherpas to do. Following the situation on Kangchenjunga, Murphy’s blog excoriated the Sherpas working for Seven Summits Treks, but the company’s owner denies those charges of abandonment and profiteering. The agency is run by Mingma Sherpa, whose summit of Kangchenjunga this spring made him the first Nepali to complete the 14 8,000-meter peaks. Mingma is a popular figure in the Himalayan climbing scene and not regarded as unscrupulous. His Sherpas, he claims, were suffering themselves after 10 days at high altitude. The fight at basecamp, he adds, was not related to Cleo Weidlich’s problems.

The missing voice in this rescue example is that of Weidlich herself. In an e-mail shared by Mingma, Weidlich wrote that she wasn’t abandoned, and said she told her Sherpa to go down because she was moving so slowly, a consequence of the knee injury for which she later underwent surgery. She says she didn’t have cerebral edema, and wasn’t unconscious when Murphy found her, asking him to hold her arm while she got to her feet.

In reply to an e-mail request for an interview, Weidlich (who asked not to be quoted directly) told Rock and Ice that Murphy’s account wasn’t factual, although she acknowledged there had been problems with the Sherpas, and that the pictures Murphy posted on his blog—without her knowledge—had distressed her family.

In reply to an e-mail request for an interview, Weidlich (who asked not to be quoted directly) told Rock and Ice that Murphy’s account wasn’t factual, although she acknowledged there had been problems with the Sherpas, and that the pictures Murphy posted on his blog—without her knowledge—had distressed her family.

Exactly what happened on Kangchenjunga may well remain concealed behind thick clouds of ill feeling. But it’s reasonable to assume from this and the increasing number of stories like it that there is regular misunderstanding among expedition clients about how much help you can expect if you get into trouble—and what kind of expedition you are on in the first place.

Everest, with its extensive system of fixed ropes and network of experienced Western guides, has a more secure safety net than a team of Sherpas on Kangchenjunga with no Western guide to bridge the cultural gap and judge when a rescue is necessary. Murphy says that Seven Summits Trekking had no protocols in place to deal with a climber in distress. Western guides understand that there are limits on what many Sherpas can do, for all kinds of reasons—technical, cultural and financial.

“There’s only a limited number of good leaders among the Sherpas,” Russell Brice says, adding that the situation is now changing. One development is the winter training camps organized by the Khumbu Climbing School, led by Conrad Anker, which have raised standards. Brice also points to the co-operation between the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association and the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, which has trained the best young Sherpas so they can in turn run IFMGA-approved courses for their peers in Nepal.

“These better trained Sherpas will be helpful for rescues in the future,” Brice says, “and might be able to take control of some circumstances, but you still need Western advice at the moment, especially when dealing with helicopters.” Can he see a permanent Sherpa rescue team? “No. Not at all. Who is going to pay for them and where are they going to be positioned?”

David Hamilton agrees with Brice—for now. “About two or three years ago Alex Abramov made the suggestion of a permanent paid Sherpa rescue service and I just burst out laughing. The responsible expeditions take enough resources to sort out any problems they have [for themselves].”

Air Zermatt’s role in training Nepalis for helicopter rescue is largely finished, says Gerold Biner. “Our goal was always to support the locals. Whenever there is a difficult rescue mission, they can call us and then we can do the intervention if necessary.” Two of the crew he trained, a pilot and a rescuer, as well as a Fishtail director, have recently quit the airline, prompting speculation that there will be competition next season in performing long-line rescues.

Despite the arrival of helicopter rescue, most of the half dozen guides I spoke to for this article believe the situation in Khumbu will deteriorate. All agree the average ability of climbers on Everest and other commercialized peaks has fallen. They all anticipate another major incident like the one described by Jon Krakauer in his book “Into Thin Air”.

“Not if,” says one, “but when.”

“The mountaineering community works quite well and efficiently in doing rescues,” Brice says. What leaves a sour taste, he says, is that those rescued often don’t seem willing to take responsibility for themselves. “The world doesn’t want to take responsibility for anything anymore. How do we get back to that?”

Ed Douglas has been writing and reporting on Khumbu in Nepal for 15 years, beginning with his book Chomolungma Sings the Blues.

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