(Photos: Menno Boermans)
Richard Lehner and Capt. Daniel Aufdenblatten’s trip in April 2010 to Kathmandu, Nepal, had been fairly undramatic by their standards. The pair, who worked for Swiss mountain-rescue firm Air Zermatt, had spent a few days teaching local rescue group Fishtail Air the “longline method” – Zermatt’s pioneering technique that allows a rescuer dangling underneath a small helicopter to pluck climbers from high-altitude rock faces where the air is too thin to lift large winch helicopters. The two-month training program would be risky – the method requires pilots to control their craft in turbulent conditions. But it made a change from their day job, rescuing injured climbers in the Alps.
Late on the morning of April 28, as the two men returned from a trip to Everest Base Camp with Sabin Basnyat, Fishtail’s captain, a member of the ground crew rushed over to meet their helicopter. Basnyat translated the urgent message. “We’ve received a distress call from a Spanish expedition on Annapurna. They’re stuck and one of them is missing.”
The six-man team had reached the top of the 8,091-metre peak at around 4 p.m. the previous day, but had been plagued by strong winds and blizzards on their way down. Tolo Calafat, a 39-year-old Spanish father of two and the only amateur climber in the group, had fallen behind. And Sonam, the Sherpa who’d initially stayed with him, had been forced to leave him behind at 7,467 metres, when Calafat grew too exhausted to go any farther. The other climbers – Spaniards Carlos Pauner and Juanito Oiarzabal, Romanian Horia Colibasanu and Nepali Dawa Sherpa – had struggled on to their camp at 6,950 metres in fading light, desperate to spend the night as far down the mountain as possible to avoid fatal altitude sickness.
By morning, Oiarzabal’s feet were partially frozen, Pauner’s hands were frostbitten, and they’d lost radio contact with Calafat. The entire group was exhausted and snow-blind, with the Europeans showing early signs of altitude sickness. What’s more, there were reports of avalanches farther down the mountain.
On the ground, details of the men’s situation were sketchy, but Aufdenblatten, 35, realized it must be dire. They knew a chopper rescue had never been done at that height, yet they had called for one anyway.
In addition to the thin air and the resulting loss of lifting power at such altitude, there would be unpredictable currents that could dash a helicopter into the rock face. It could also be dangerous for pilots to rise so high without acclimatization. Even Fishtail’s high-altitude Ecureuil AS350 B3 chopper wasn’t licensed to fly above 7,010 metres. “It’s going to be very hard,” said Lehner. “But we’re here, and in theory, we have the knowledge to do it. Let’s just see.” The two men loaded the helicopter with fuel and rescue equipment, and headed for Annapurna Base Camp, 160 kilometres west.
Time was of the essence. At any moment, the climbers could fall victim to a deadly cerebral or pulmonary edema (an excess accumulation of fluid in the brain or lungs during the later stages of altitude sickness). But by the time Lehner and Aufdenblatten arrived at the camp at around 3 p.m., a thick mist had rolled in, as it usually did by late morning at this time of the year. Flying farther up the mountain was now impossible. The climbing team would have to spend another sleepless night in temperatures below -10°C.
Early the next morning, backed by blue skies, the Spanish expedition’s support team updated the rescuers. Dawa had spent the night looking for Calafat, but he had returned to his companions in tears. Calafat was nowhere to be found, possibly covered by snow and probably dead, Lehner and Aufdenblatten learned. They decided to go look for him anyway. At 7 a.m., with an estimated three-hour rescue window until more mist rolled in, they hopped into the Ecureuil.
As Aufdenblatten took the craft higher, he began to appreciate Annapurna’s terrifying beauty. He noticed it was so steep that if he were to fly out only 45 metres from the rock face, there would be 3,048 metres of nothing to the ground.
Missing: Spanish climber Tolo Calafat.