ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
On Mount Everest, the climbing season is at its peak, and that means that if clear conditions hold, hundreds will attempt to scale the mountain this weekend alone. Suppose you wanted to climb the world's highest peak, Would it alter your decision if you knew that rescue was just a phone call and a helicopter ride away? Well, it turns out that helicopter rescues have been increasingly common in the mountains of Nepal. And that has raised lots of questions about risk-taking, not just for climbers, but for pilots, too.
Nick Heil has written about this in the May issue of Outside magazine. Welcome to the program.
NICK HEIL: Nice to be here.
SIEGEL: You write that helicopters were once a last resort in the Himalayas, but I gather that's not the case anymore.
HEIL: It's not. There's been sort of the recent arrival of some powerful new lightweight helicopters that are able to operate at very high altitudes reliably and they're becoming increasingly common throughout the Himalayas in Nepal.
SIEGEL: You describe a terrible accident in which a helicopter managed to evacuate one of two climbers. The helicopter could only take one climber. Is that typical of these craft?
HEIL: It is at these kinds of altitudes. The accident that I describe in the beginning of the story is on a peak called Ama Dablam and the helicopter flies up to about 19,000 feet and, you know, the air at this altitude is very thin, so it requires a helicopter to utilize more power to stay aloft up there. So, you know, you can imagine, if you add weight, it's going to lose lift. So, in this case, they could only bring one climber at a time and they got one climber off and they crashed attempting to rescue the second man.
SIEGEL: How common is it to see helicopters in the skies around Everest? If you were at base camp, would you see one go by once a day or every hour? How frequently?
HEIL: What I'm hearing now is, at the peak of the climbing season, you might see as many as four or five helicopter flights into Everest base camp in a given day. Now, I don't think that's the standard rule, but they're certainly more and more common up there, you know, flying trekkers in and out, flying climbers in and out.
SIEGEL: Is part of the issue here that these rescue choppers give climbers a false - or at least, a rather expensive - sense of security and that makes them more willing to take risks?
HEIL: If you talk to professional or expert climbers, I think they're quick to sort of dismiss the fact that they might be influenced by the safety net of a helicopter being available for them. But, you know, it's hard not to believe that notion isn't in the back of somebody's mind when they're up there in those mountains.
SIEGEL: You suggest that there might be, at least in part, a profit motive contributing to the increased use of helicopters there. How does that work?
HEIL: Well, the helicopter companies are privately owned and operated, so you know, they have to lay out quite a bit of money. I mean, these machines, the B3s, cost about $2 million apiece and they're quite expensive to operate, so there's a lot of pressure to keep the helicopters flying and working in order to bring in money, you know, both to pay the bill for this machine, but also to make a profit. So they're looking for opportunities to, you know, get people out, fly people in, maybe bring supplies somewhere, that kind of thing.
SIEGEL: What have you heard from pilots about the difficulties of piloting a helicopter that high up?
HEIL: Well, the risks are certainly significant. The rescue operations are using a technique developed in Switzerland called long line or short haul. And, basically, what they're doing is they're attaching a long line from the bottom of the helicopter and they're bringing a technician in at the end of the line and they fly in close to the mountain and they're able to literally pluck a climber off of a ridge or even a mountain face, in some cases.
You know, the skills that are required to operate these machines are quite significant and, you know, the margin for error is quite small and that was evident in the accident that I describe in the beginning of my story.
SIEGEL: Well, Nick Heil, thanks for talking with us today.
HEIL: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Nick Heil is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. He also wrote the book, "Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.