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Helicopter Rescue – My Experience

Helicopter
Helicopter

Helicopter Rescue: My Experience

Helicopter rescue has always been a big deal. The costs involved are huge. Rescue takes a lot of effort, and it is time-consuming. Before trekkers hit the trail, especially on a long trek to remote and high-altitude areas, trek operators must inform them of the consequences of emergency rescue requests.  Most trekkers understand and know what it takes. They are usually well-prepared for such incidents. However, once in the mountains, there are many reasons to ask for helicopter rescue. Apart from dire illness due to altitude sickness, which is most often the main cause of rescue, there are other causes due to extreme environments and exhausting physical conditions.

Getting a helicopter to a remote mountain area is a challenging task: The pilot has to navigate through a narrow valley and bad terrain. He has to consider wind, snow conditions, and high altitude. Besides that, he has to find the right person who is supposed to be rescued. There are instances of getting the wrong person on board, and sometimes helicopters have to return without finding the person on the spot they are supposed to be. It is always possible that the person may have moved because the helicopter failed to reach the expected time and they were terrified that it may not come at all. There are instances when the person to be rescued was left behind because the helicopter where it had hovered found someone who said it was their rescue flight; at that stage of the long trek, they too are exhausted and want to get a quick ride to a safe place. This had happened once behind Mera La.  At 5000 meters plus elevation and in soft snow conditions, the helicopter has no choice but to hover on the spot, instead of landing, to get the sick person on board. So, we had to send the helicopter back again to pick it up. You can imagine the amount of tension this mistake created on both sides. The most important thing is time. If the rescue cannot take place in time, the chances of death and disaster could increase. If such an occasion happens, the ongoing consequences cannot be imagined.

Smirik Air

I still remember when a big group of 15 trekkers, 20 trek staff, and porters had to be rescued near Shanda La (3700m). This must be the second-largest group that we have rescued from the mountain. This pass is closer to Kagbeni and Jomsom in the Mustang district of Nepal. The group was on their long trek from Juphal (Dolpa) to Jomsom. They had crossed several high passes and traveled at more than 5000 meters of elevation for about two weeks. The weather went very bad as they approached the finishing line. Because of the snow and tough trial conditions, all members, staff, and porters were very exhausted. So a rescue helicopter was requested by the trip leader, as was some quick food to nourish the tired porters. A big Russian M1-17 helicopter was the only option to haul them out.

As usual with helicopter rescue, the Nepalese bureaucracy and procedures get in the way of getting the flight quickly. Considerable time also elapses in communication about payment guarantee, location, condition, etc. Numerous phone calls are made between the requester, operator, helicopter, and insurance agent. Normally, it doesn’t happen very quickly unless the rescued passenger pays the helicopter upfront (upon arrival in Kathmandu) or payment is guaranteed. In my experience, the quickest time is three hours from the time the message is received. If it is received at 8 a.m., the helicopter can fly at 11 am if helicopters are available.  Normally, the rescue spots in remote mountains take not less than an hour to reach. However, I have never experienced the flight taking place earlier than 1 pm. In the autumn and winter seasons, time constraints are another matter that we have to consider because the sun sets very early in autumn. In such a situation, the helicopter has to be in the air no later than 4 pm. If the helicopter has to return to Kathmandu airport, it must reach the rescue sport no later than 4 pm. So, getting the MI-17 helicopter off the ground took considerable time because we had to buy food and arrange blankets and first aid for porters. The helicopter has to fly to Jomsom first and then to the rescue spot at Sangda la. Finally, all were rescued at Jomsom before sunset. Another day at the pass would have been a disaster.

The other situation was in the spring of 2014. This was the time of a big hurricane named ‘Hud-Hud’ that engulfed the whole western region of Nepal and covered Annapurna and the Far West as far as Dolpa. At that time, we had a group of 16 people near Charkha in Inner Dolpo. On that day, it was perfect. There was no visible sign of a disaster that was to unfold later. This was the time when the maximum number of trekkers in Manang ((3351m) and Thorang Pass (5416m) fell victim. It was unprecedented in the history of trekking in Annapurna. Most of the casualties happened because of ill-prepared trekkers – not enough support staff, and they were poorly equipped.

In our case, the disaster took place when the group reached the middle of the high mountain, where quick access to rescue was impossible. On the previous day, the leader of this group called me through his satellite phone to check if all situations were all right. It was not: the storm was building up in the Bay of Bengal, and the hurricane was quickly swiping across the Indian State of Orissa, then heading toward Nepal. The weather forecast was on the air for some time. It was a fortunate moment that I was able to get this bad news across so the group stayed there when the hurricane hit the mountain area. Had they traveled onward, it would have been a disaster.  After the storm calmed down, we were able to get the big MI-17 helicopter after two days.  Because of the catastrophe and havoc caused by Hud-Hud in Annapurna, all helicopters were desperately engaged for rescue, including the only MI-17 that was available. Somehow we have been able to send it after some emergency rescue in Manang.

The story did not end there. Before getting the helicopter, we went through seemingly endless to-and-fro communication between the office in the Netherlands, the insurance company, the helicopter’s staff, and us here in Kathmandu. Some members had their insurance in different places, and again, we were involved in separate communication with that insurance company before we made an understanding with the helicopter operator that their payment was guaranteed. There was no firm guarantee from the insurance company, but we relied on the foreign operator’s assurance to fulfill our commitment to the helicopter.

In all these rescues, often the delay is due to lengthy communications between the rescue party, us, and the insurance company: and sometimes a foreign tour operator is involved in trying to sort out payment guarantees. In all these years, we have not experienced any failure to send help on time. In such a life-and-death situation, we cannot afford to fail; they have given their trust to us. We are always first in line as first responders.

In the past, we always had payment guarantees from insurance companies before the flight took place. Though it took time to sort out the insurance details and the logistics involved, there was no occasion that the insurance company declined to guarantee payment before getting the person out of the danger zone. We are always in a critical situation because, if we do not start rescue immediately, the life of the person remains in jeopardy, and if we do, the cost of helicopter rescue is so high that if the insurance company decides to dishonor our request that we do on behalf of the person, then we get into boiling soup. Most importantly, it becomes our moral obligation to do everything possible to bring the person safely to Kathmandu. We got into this trap for the first time in my 37 years of adventure travel this year in October 2019 due to a halfhearted response from Global Response, UK.

Dingboche (4410m), in the Everest region, is a remote place, but rescue can be done without a helicopter unless death is imminent or the situation is critical without a helicopter. In most cases, it is always very difficult to judge the physical condition of Kathmandu. We always have to rely on the person who gives us the medical condition of the person who is to be rescued. After the rescue was done, Global Response refused to pay the full bill the helicopter company had charged, against our assurance. They agreed to pay only what they thought was the best price. This has put us in a difficult position. Instead of giving us a service charge for the work we did on their behalf, we were instead panelized by Global Response, UK. Moreover, it took them a long time—about five hours—to make an indecisive decision. This has created a situation for the first time where we should undertake such rescue work on behalf of Global Response, UK.

A few years ago, there was big international news about a big scam in helicopter rescue in Nepal. Even the government formed a proof committee to dig up the dirt that has been there for a long time. The news was correct. Some scruple companies were scamming international insurance companies by producing fake rescues, fake bills, and, on top of that, enormous charges for rescue. In this scam, some trekking operators and rescue companies were conniving with local hospitals and helicopter companies to scam the insurance companies. Some of the lodge owners on the trekking trail in the Everest region were more interested in getting sick people as their customers because the helicopter companies give them handsome kickbacks. The hospitals, in turn, were jacking up their medical costs by producing fake bills. In such a scam, even the insurance holders join the game unknowingly. The worst case scenario was, as the story goes, that the trekkers were given food at some point in the trek that made them too sick to continue their trek, and they were rescued by helicopter. The trekker becomes a victim of scamming trek operators, scruples of trek guides, business-hungry helicopter companies, and lucrative profit-making hospitals. Even today, the practice of putting the rescued person in bondage continues. They become bonds until the insurance company gives them a guarantee of payment. In most cases, the rescued person due to high altitude sickness usually becomes normal as they land in Kathmandu. But insurance companies require the person to get a medical report, so the insurance company again gets into the hospital’s trap.

The proof committee found these allegations true. The tourism minister promised to take action against those who were found guilty. He even announced the declaration of the proof report to the public. But after he died in a helicopter accident, all these issues remained suppressed due to reasons only the minister and politicians knew. Honesty doesn’t pay.

These incidents must have caused a lot of concern for insurance companies. In such conditions, it is natural for insurance companies to become cautious. But such a conservative attitude doesn’t bode well in the business they rely on. In such a situation, next time and in the future, with other parties, if and when rescue was not done due to non-guaranteed payment, ultimate damage would fall on the insurance company itself. For international insurance companies, their cautious approach may be valid, but not providing a guarantee may invite non-cooperation. Taking longer than 2 hours to decide about rescue permission can also imperil the life of a person stranded in a remote mountain.

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