American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Preface, Here Come the Helicopters

  • Editorials And Prefaces
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  • Publication Year: 2011

Here come the helicopters

Last summer I was 10 days into a 100-day circumnavigation of the borders of Switzerland when a body-sized block of rock slid off its perch and took me down with it. My fall was stopped after 50 feet when the rope fortuitously caught on a flake, but by then I’d fractured both feet. Out came the cell phone. An hour later a helicopter circled in with my rescuers; an hour after that a long-line cable whisked me off to the hospital, then came back to pick up my partner. It felt wonderfully civilized, at least until the bill arrived.

Helicopter rescues in the Alps are a marvel of efficiency. If you’re properly insured (as most Europeans are) you take them for granted. If you survive your fall, weather permitting, you’ll be in the hospital that afternoon. Of course this leads to abuse; I’ve seen people lifted off the north face of the Eiger because they were tired and the weather looked discouraging. While there are style and ethical issues about when it’s acceptable to call for a “rescue,” many people expect a helicopter in the Alps like they’d expect an ambulance in a city.

But what about the Himalaya or the Karakoram or the Andes? We don’t go to these mountain ranges to find the First World life. We go, or at least we used to, in large part to experience ancient ways, to feel remote, cast off in time, in touch with a more traditional way of being. And to climb peaks that are so big and wild that we’re on our own up there, reliant entirely and exclusively on ourselves and our partners. We don’t, or didn’t, even want the safety net of the Alps. It was supposed to be serious.

The editors of the AAJ have been discussing whether to publish an article about helicopter use in the Himalaya ever since 2005, when Tomaz Humar called for a rescue from Nanga Parbat. Some people were grumbling that if you’re going to solo in the Himalaya and get in trouble, maybe you should just “suck it up and die.”

We editors dithered, not least because we realized that modernity is coming to the big mountains. Still, there’s much to think about, and this year we were enraged and engaged afresh by developments in Nepal, which Elizabeth Hawley summarizes on pages 312 and 334. And consider Simone Moro’s comments in an interview on “Many of these [rescue] calls come from people who perhaps could avoid getting into trouble in the first place, people who shouldn’t really be on these gigantic mountains. I see people who are simply too close to their limits.... I don’t want to sound arrogant, but unfortunately that’s the way things are.” And then consider that Moro, both a top-notch Himalayan veteran and a helicopter pilot himself, plans to help develop an efficient rescue service for Nepal.

I dislike the Alpification of the Himalaya and other remote ranges. But if I were dangling from one of its peaks with broken feet and Moro’s chopper-ride-to-life was a mere phone call away?

John Harlin III


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