In April this year, Chin Wui Kin, a 48-year-old Malaysian climber made headlines when he was spotted waving at the rescue helicopter from the snowy slopes of Mount Annapurna situated in Nepal. A team of Sherpas was then dropped to search for him. After four hours of searching and climbing, this team of four finally spotted him in a semi-conscious state.
Earlier this month, in yet another rescue mission, the Indian authorities had started the recovery of the bodies of the climbers who went missing while they were on an expedition to Nanda Devi East peak. Mount Everest, arguably the most glamorous peak to scale, also saw many deaths and rescues of climbers. In all these high altitude rescue missions helicopters have played a major role.
But for places where the helicopters cannot land safely, the Sherpa teams do not think twice before venturing out on foot to help the mountaineers.
“Generally above 6000 metres, instead of the helicopter, the Sherpa teams climb and retrieve the mountaineer. It can either be an unwell or injured climber, or a dead body. The distressed climbers are brought to the helicopters by these rescuers, which then take them to the nearest medical camp,” says Maya Sherpa, the President of the Everest Summiteers Association in Kathmandu, Nepal. She further adds that every year, more than 30 rescues are carried out by the Sherpas on the high altitude peaks of Nepal. This, says Maya Sherpa, is excluding the bodies that are retrieved.
Just to talk about Everest, 11 deaths have occurred on this mountain as climbers made a beeline for the summit. This number has marked out 2019 as one of the deadliest years for the mountain since 2015, when an avalanche killed 21 at the base camp. Besides that, eight climbers went missing on the Nanda Devi peak a few days ago. Not just these two but, like any other year, climbers had to be rescued from other high altitude peaks in Nepal, as they fell ill with altitude sickness or lack of oxygen in these treacherous mountains.
“Rescue is not a one man job. The Sherpas have to go in teams. At least one of us needs to be technically trained to carry out the rescue. This includes training in climbing, rescuing and transporting the person safely to the place where help awaits,” Maya says. The others in the team support the exercise by helping carry the necessary supplies, she adds.
Even though Sherpas are generally stronger and better equipped to survive these mighty mountains, any rescue is a task riddled with challenges. “Time, weather, terrain and above all the sensitivity of the situation makes it a difficult task,” says Dawa Ongju Sherpa, who works with the company, Himalayan Global Expedition Pvt. Ltd. Since 2004, he has been involved in 15 high altitude missions. Of these, six concerned mountaineers who had died. While two of these missions were carried out between 7000-8000 metres altitude others were carried out at altitudes above 8000 metres. These include some of the most challenging mountains in the world, such as Mount Gaya, Mount Cho Oyu, Mount Makalu, Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga. Climbing these mountains is extremely dangerous and usually deaths and other accidents occur every year. Many times, climbers even buy special insurance before ascending such mountains.
“We need to be extra responsible while carrying out the live rescues, as they come with time constraints. The rapidly deteriorating health condition of the mountaineer as well as the altitude descent needs to be taken into consideration,” says Dawa Ongju Sherpa. But in doing so, it is a threefold task for him. He has to ensure the well-being of the distressed climber, his team as well as himself. “Sometimes, even live rescues turn into fatalities on the way to the base camp where medical facilities await,” he adds.
Rescuing a climber in need is a physically demanding, very stressful job. While most of these are live rescues, carrying back dead mountaineers comes with added psychological baggage. “We need to give them due respect even as we carry the body under the extreme circumstances. Hundreds of things can go wrong and a lot depends on the difficulty of the terrain - which is extremely remote and comes with weather unpredictability. For instance, if our safety line breaks, we could lose the body or even a team member into the Himalayan abyss,” Dawa Ongiu Sherpa says..
Despite such impending dangers and psychological burdens, what keeps Dawa Ongju Sherpa going? He answers, “These Himalayas are our homeland and as the Sanskrit phrase suggests, Atithi Devo Bhava, (treat the guest as a god). The guests coming to visit us are treated as gods. We feel duty bound to try and help and attempt rescues to the best of our abilities.” He further adds there are times when the rescue may appear to be a remote possibility – be it due to the unforgiving weather or tricky terrain. But the Sherpas do not give up. “The call to rescue someone in need comes from within,” he says.
How are Sherpas better equipped to handle the difficult terrain?
Though Maya Sherpa hails from Kathmandu, she says only a few Sherpas are natives of this capital city. “70% of the Sherpas visit Kathmandu during the trekking seasons. Other times, they reside in their home villages, most of which are situated at an altitude as high as 3000 meters. At these levels of altitude, even carrying out everyday activities is a physically challenging task, acclimatising them enough to scale higher altitudes,” she says. Maya further states, that those hailing from the city make special efforts to become mountain ready.