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True Stories: Rescue At the Roof of the World

A team of climbers was trapped on one of the world’s highest mountains. With the outlook increasingly grim, could a never-before-attempted helicopter mission save them?

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(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.

Next: Aufdenblatten tries guiding his
partner,
swinging 30 metres below,
to the rescue location.

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(Photos: Menno Boermans)

After 20 minutes in the air, there was no sign of Calafat. But they spotted the climbers’ camp in the distance. It was on a steep slope, where there was no chance of landing the helicopter. To make matters worse, strong winds had started buffeting it violently. “We’re like a punching bag up here,” said Aufdenblatten. They’d have to turn back.

At Base Camp, Sherpas brought tea for the two men as they discussed their options. Perhaps they could drop oxygen and medicine to help the climbers overcome their altitude sickness. Maybe some Sherpas could go up and help them down. But both options required time the climbers probably didn’t have. 

Aufdenblatten paused. “I think the wind has died down,” he said. Then it came to him: If they stripped the helicopter to make it as light as possible, they might be able to attempt a long-line rescue – the technique they’d come here to teach. It would be very risky – no one had ever performed it at this altitude. But Aufdenblatten felt they should go out and try. Lehner, who would be dangling on a rope 27 metres below the helicopter, agreed.

It was 8 a.m. now and the mist was no more than a couple of hours away, so Lehner and Aufdenblatten emptied charts, spare oil, headsets and even screwdrivers from the helicopter, and quickly took off. The pair agreed to maintain constant radio contact to check each other’s safety, but there were no guarantees.

Rotating slowly in his harness far below the helicopter, Lehner took in a 360-degree view – and the ever-growing drop beneath. Breathing through an oxygen tube to stave off altitude sickness, he could feel the sub-zero winds knifing through his clothes. After just ten minutes in the air, his tight harness began cutting off the circulation to his lower body, and he had to swing his legs to keep his blood flowing. He tried to keep his eyes peeled to relocate the camp.

Suddenly, the huddle of tents swam into view. They were framed on the left by a steep rock face and a sheer cliff on the right. There was little room for error if Aufdenblatten was to steer Lehner safely onto the slope.

One of the climbers stood outside the tents, staring at the helicopter, but the other men stayed in the relative warmth. Their backup team had told them the Swiss were in the area, but the climbers weren’t sure they would be able to reach them. Besides, the probable loss of their friend Calafat curtailed any possible euphoria.

Lehner began directing Aufdenblatten towards the slope. Swinging 30 metres from the mountainside, he could only trust that his pilot was skilled enough in the gales to keep him from smashing into the rock.

At first, the wind bounced the helicopter around, but then it held off long enough for Lehner to touch down with his feet. As Lehner started to survey his surroundings, Aufdenblatten suddenly felt uneasy. “I don’t like it,” he said. “I’m going to lift you up again.” Aufdenblatten always felt you had to rely on your instincts when flying – and, within seconds, he was proved right.

“I have only ten minutes of oxygen left,” said Lehner. There was no way he could stay on the mountain – he’d soon be totally disorientated.

Next: With time quickly running out, the rescuers turn to a
new strategy – something straight out an action movie.

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(Photos: Menno Boermans)

They returned to Base Camp and replaced the oxygen bottle. There was now less than an hour and a half before the mist rolled in, so they immediately flew back up Annapurna. But the wind was blowing so forcefully in Lehner’s face that the air was escaping from his breathing tube faster than he could inhale it. “I’m not feeling good,” he gulped.

“This is going nowhere,” replied Aufdenblatten, and tilted the helicopter back towards Base Camp once more. The two men realized they were wasting too much time making failed attempts. If the clouds overtook them, the climbers would probably have to spend a third night on the mountain, and what were the odds they’d survive that?

Aufdenblatten had another idea. What if he flew up alone and the climbers clipped themselves onto the line? It wasn’t a terribly promising plan – he’d never performed a rescue like this before – and the climbers were exhausted and ill with frostbitten fingers.

“Even so, these are experienced mountaineers, not tourists on a hiking trail,” Aufdenblatten reasoned. And anyway, there was little choice. So the ground team relayed instructions to the climbers, and Aufdenblatten set off. Ten minutes later, he was hovering over the camp again. He slowly aimed the carabiner hook on the end of the rope towards Oiarzabal’s outstretched hand, checking his power readings and battling the wind all the while. The pressure was intense. Without Lehner guiding him from below the aircraft, the heavy carabiner swung from side to side – one wrong move and it could hit Oiarzabal.

But Aufdenblatten told himself to focus, and a few seconds later, the climber was clipped in. Oiarzabal had climbed all 14 of the world’s highest mountains a world-record total of 26 times, and he never thought he’d have to descend dangling in the air like this. Exhausted and freezing, he surrendered himself to Aufdenblatten’s expertise, and ten minutes later, he was back at Base Camp, where he was whisked off by doctors.

Aufdenblatten set off again, with the mist now less than 40 minutes away. The Sherpas were refusing to leave without their equipment and were too scared to go on the rope, but Aufdenblatten had no time to argue. He picked up Colibasanu and Pauner and took them back to Base Camp. Then he saw the clouds encircling Annapurna. The two Sherpas would have to climb down the next day. But they were far less prone to altitude sickness, he reasoned. They’d probably be okay.

Aufdenblatten sat down to more tea. He’d just done something extraordinary: The highest ever helicopter rescue in history, at 6,950 metres. “Don’t get the wrong idea about it,” he reflects now, modestly. “We were asked to do something that was our job, basically.”
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The two Sherpas returned safely the next day, and the three European climbers made a full recovery from the effects of altitude sickness and frostbite. Tolo Calafat was declared dead on April 29, probably from a cerebral edema.