Saving Lives On Mount Everest

For two months every year, Mount Everest Base Camp becomes home to 1,000 people. This year that included the mountain's first ever dedicated Sherpa rescue team.

Following two years of tragedy on Everest that saw climbing seasons cut short, a dedicated rescue team has been stationed on the mountain for the very first time.

Many mountain ranges around the world have dedicated rescue teams, but until this year expeditions on Everest had to be entirely self-supporting, providing their own doctors and enough Sherpas—Nepalese locals who act as guides and porters—to support each paying client. 

This year, in a project inspired by a production company and funded by a television network, the Everest Air rescue team was also on hand to help out all the climbing teams on the mountain.

The group consisted of five elite climbing Sherpas, who had summitted the mountain 20 times between them; two helicopters; three pilots; an American medic who had previously climbed Everest; a production team based at Lukla and a ground crew at Base Camp made up of Australians Ben Southall, Mike Whyte, Anthony Gordon and Rohan Weir.

'We had an open radio channel and if anybody got into any problems from any of the expeditions they just had to call the radio channel or contact one of our Sherpas on the ground,' high altitude cameraman Ben Southall says.

'We had a big network of Sherpas on the ground who were there bringing information together about potential problems and potential situations, and our rescue team was there then to go up the mountain and bring people down from the problems or call in helicopter support.'

When things go wrong on Everest

The five rescue Sherpas brought 50 people down from the mountain who were suffering everything from snow blindness and broken legs to high altitude cerebral oedemas—along with the bodies of some of the six people who died on the mountain this year.

While the Sherpas have years of experience on Everest and at high altitudes, they are also at risk.

'They still go there bearing the risk every day of being hit by an avalanche,' Southall says.

'If the weather changes they're going to get caught as much as the people that need to be rescued themselves.

'The rescue teams are there to help but they're not going to put themselves in massive danger and cause more death to go and pull someone down.'

Two episodes were particularly difficult, Southall says: aiding an Indian woman who was separated from her Sherpa in a storm, and rescuing a pair of Slovakians who went up the south-west face rather than one of the established routes.

'These Slovakian climbers got into trouble about 1,500 metres up from camp two,' he says.

'They got hit by an avalanche overnight and they both had their eyes open in the pitch black looking at the noise that was coming towards them.

'They both suffered from snow blindness and our team managed to climb up from camp two about four hours later. They got to the Slovakian climbers; they managed to bring them down within about six hours. So that was probably one of the most dangerous because it was a route that none of the Sherpas had taken before.'

The Sherpas on the Everest Air rescue team are highly trained in first aid and are accomplished climbers. While the obvious challenges of conducting rescues on Everest are the altitude and the cold, the Sherpas also have to be assertive and mentally strong.

'A lack of oxygen means that you don't think properly, your brain swells and you make some pretty erratic decisions,' Southall says.

'Those Sherpas that escort the mountaineers up the top have really got to be very firm and very strong mentally to be able to deal with these guys and girls that have basically decided "I am going to climb Everest, I am going to pay $60,000 to do it and by hook or by crook I will get there. And if you tell me to turn around because I'm not doing very well, I'll probably keep going to the top."

'Our rescue team got up to some of these higher altitudes where the climbers were basically fighting against the Sherpas ... these guys had to draw on years worth of knowledge to say, "No, listen, we're going to have to, by hook or by crook, get you down to the bottom of this mountain because otherwise you're going to die up here."'

Life at the bottom of the roof of the world

With the exception of the ground crew at Lukla, the rescue team and support crew lived at Base Camp for two and a half months.

Base Camp is at an elevation of almost 5,400 metres, and is reached by a seven-day trek from Lukla through the Khumbu Valley. The last two days are spent trekking across huge rocks atop a moving ice fall. The team's camp was tucked at the bottom of 6,500-7,000 metre peaks.

This is a huge contrast to Southall's life in Australia — in 2009 he was chosen to be an island caretaker on the Great Barrier Reef for 'The Best Job in the World' tourism campaign.

'[Base Camp is] a scary, exciting, very engaging place to be,' he says.

'Life on a glacier is extremely interesting because it moves at about a meter to a meter and a half a day. Throughout the day and throughout the night you're hearing avalanches and rockfalls and cracks of the glacier and you're in this tiny little tent at minus 25 degrees at night tucked into your sleeping bag. It's a pretty claustrophobic place to be.'

Base Camp is home to about 1,000 people during climbing season including 10-12 international teams and four Nepali climbing teams. The mood is pensive but excited as they patiently wait on the seven-day weather window in which the climbers will attempt the pinnacle achievement of their lives.

'There's a lot of excitement because you've got a lot of A-plus personalities out there,' Southall says.

'You've got real high achievers in the world whether its people that earn a lot of money and decide they want to climb Everest or if it's the top mountaineers in the world.'

Everest's Future

Six people died on Mount Everest this year, including 34-year-old Australian Maria Strydom.

Southall says it can be very traumatic on the mountain when news arrives of people's deaths.

'There was certainly a couple of very tragic incidents this year with people that became friends of ours while we were up there,' he says.

'When someone has passed away or died it's not like they arrive straight away back at base camp as a body—it takes three or four days, it then takes another team of Sherpas to go out and pick up and collect a body. It's a very dangerous job to bring somebody down off the mountain, and quite often people are left [up there].

'It's a very curious environment to start off with and then when people come down or don't make it down the atmosphere is either one of jubilation or of great sadness.'

Southall says there's been a positive response to the rescue team's work, not only on Everest but in the communities below the mountain.

The team was able to help Nepalese locals as well, in one case flying a woman who'd fallen off her roof to hospital.

They are already looking at a second series and Southall hopes they may be able to expand team—they want Everest Air to be there for the long term, rather than a once-off for television. 

Original Article: Kathleen Calderwood

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