Helicopters have been assisting in rescue efforts in the aftermath of Nepal's earthquake.
Helicopters have been assisting in rescue efforts in the aftermath of Nepal's earthquake.

Saving lives on the world's highest peaks

Some of the helicopter pilots who participated in the recent Nepal earthquake rescue effort have been trained in an innovative recovery technique taught by Air Zermatt CEO and pilot Gerold Biner. 

The idea for Biner’s approach germinated 10 years ago, after a Pakistani helicopter and crew rescued Slovenian climber Tomasz Humar on Nepal’s Nanga Perbat, the world’s ninth-highest mountain. A rope snapped, and Humar’s head hit the skid, fortunately without any consequence. 

Biner, who met with Humar after the accident, immediately thought he should export a technique that is well known in the Swiss Alps and called the external human cargo. It employs a rope that’s attached to the cargo hook under the rescue helicopter’s belly. The technique requires accurate communication between the pilot and the mountain rescue guide.

Unlike many other helicopter rescue operations, Biner’s method does not employ a hoist, as it has a major drawback at high altitude. “A hoist and its operator can weigh more than 250 pounds,” Biner explains, and when the air gets thinner, a helicopter’s allowable payload decreases.

Training of pilots, which started in 2010 in Switzerland and Nepal, is complex and essential. One of the first Nepalese pilots who participated in the project died in 2010 because he used his new skills before having completed the training, Biner says.

Since 2011, four pilots and six guides have regularly performed rescue operations in Nepal using Biner’s technique. In 2014, after the major avalanche that buried entire base camps in snow and took 16 lives, his team employed the method to rescue nine injured mountaineers.

Unfortunately, Biner and his team cannot help directly with the earthquake rescue because helicopters are in short supply. “The process ofbringing a light helicopter, even from India, would take at least one month,” Biner says. As of April 30, there was still no coordination of efforts at the airport. Thierry Dubois