Mountain rescue facilities in Nepal need to be built up from scratch.
When considering ‘mountain rescue infrastructure in Nepal and the institutions dealing with accidents in the Nepal Himalaya, the name that immediately springs to mind is the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA), in existence for more than 20 years.
This, despite the word ‘rescue’ in the Association’s name being problematic. ‘Preventive rescue’ is more in its line, concerned as the HRA is with the health of tourists and with dispelling their ignorance about mountain sickness. Running two health posts during the peak trekking seasons at Pheriche in Khumbu and in Manang, plus an information centre in Kathmandu, the HRA is hardly a pan-Nepal Himalaya rescue association.
The Association’s outposts serve more to complement the nominal government health services in their areas of operation. Manned wholly by volunteer doctors from the West (no Nepali has served a full season), the HRA posts do fulfil one essential need. Radio contacts are made by them on a daily basis with the Kathmandu office. As a result, the HRA has often helped in getting SOS’s across to the concerned agencies and authorities.
Acting on the notice of accident received through the HRA, the police wireless network, or other mediums, the host trek agency in Kathmandu generally activates the evacuation. The expensive choppers are paid for through insurance. In the case of individual trekkers, the concerned embassy is contacted, and the ensuing paperwork and helicopter dispatch is a messier process. The Nepali staff of trekking and climbing expeditions generally have nothing to fall back upon, and have to rely on the benevolence of the trekker/climber sahibs.
One outfit that can claim to be a rescue team is the Himalayan Rescue Dog Squad (HRDS). Based in the Sundarijal locality of Kathmandu Valley and with four base camps in the hills, HRDS has a team of eight German shepherds as well as paramedics trained by volunteer doctors. The outfit has made a name for itself over the years by seeking out people both lost or dead in the mountains.
Besides dogs, helicopters are the other prominent feature of the rescue business in Nepal. It all began in 1962 when an American expedition had to abandon its illegal attempt to climb Chomolongma and had to be ferried out to Kathmandu (by heavy Russian helicopters that were flying then).
Western trekkers certainly prefer helicopters to porter-back as the mode of mountain rescue, even if they are only simple case of headaches or heart flutter, exacerbated by a sense of discomfort and remoteness up some high valley. While it is true that some of the undeserving do manage to hitch a chopper ride back to Kathmandu, helicopter evacuation has saved many lives over the decades. The Royal Nepal Army’s Alouette choppers have been the mainstay of mountain rescue since the early 1970s.
But “helicopter rescue” in Nepal means nothing more than the evacuation of an injured climber to Kathmandu. There is no stand-by rescue facility, and the helicopters do not carry trained paramedics qualified to treat trauma. These are not flying ambulances, they are more like ferries. There is no record of anyone having been winched off a mountain in the Nepal Himalaya.
Even so, with the advent of private helicopter operators in Nepal the last couple of years, rescue by chopper seems to have become more efficient. There are more helicopters available at any given time, and there is also more variety in the machines. The French-made Ecureuils, for example, are faster than the trusty Alouettes, with a rotor system said to be designed to withstand severe air turbulence. The Russian MI-17, meanwhile, is certified to land at 20,000 feet, and the ability to maneuver and hover somewhat up to 23,000 feet.
There are some problems in using these versatile additions to Nepal’s chopper fleet, however. New regulations brought out by the Department of Civil Aviation in February 1995 state that only if army helicopters are unavailable may private ones be commissioned for rescue. The regulations also make it inconvenient to mount swift evacuations because even rescue flights are required to present their flight plans in writing before take-off.
Such incongruous situations arise because those who are mandated to look after the development of the trekking and mountaineering industry, even after decades on the job, fail to understand the need for visibly efficient rescue facilities. It is quite interesting that 45 years after mountaineering began in Nepal, the Ministries of Tourism, Home and Health together, the HRA, and the Nepal Mountaineering Association have yet to come up with even a blueprint for an emergency medical rescue unit.
The one ‘professional’ organisation which does exist, the HRDS, has no legitimacy to speak of, in that its Director of Operations has not had his visa extended and has been living in Nepal ‘illegally’ for the past two and a half years.
Amidst all this inaction, there is still some hope for a change for the better. One positive development is the reduced cost of helicopter rentals. Till not so long ago, you could not get a helicopter for less than U$ 1500 an hour. The rental costs have plummeted in the last couple of years, and the actual operating costs (which should be the asking price for rescue flights) are much lower. The Ecureuil, for example, can fly at operating costs of as low as U$ 600 per hour.
Provided there is some interest on the part of the government, an emergency helicopter service along the lines of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia is hardly unfeasible. And we may even look forward to the day when helicopter rescue in Nepal is not only the preserve of insurance-paying Western tourists. One day, the sight of a chopper with the trademark red cross painted on its belly may bring hope to a dangerously ill or seriously injured Nepali as well.