Spring Climbing Fever: Global Rescue Anticipates Record Climbers – and Rescues – on Mount Everest This Season
March 16, 2023
Categories: Destinations, In Action, Safety, Travel Tips, Weather,
Thousands of mountaineers and trekkers will descend upon the Himalayas for the 2023 spring Mount Everest climbing season, eager to summit the tallest mountain in the world, as well as K2, Kanchenjunga, and Annapurna, some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas and the world.
It’s not easy. Frostbite, twisted ankles, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), gastrointestinal trouble, high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), snow blindness and many other ailments will challenge climbers and trekkers at every step, uphill and down. Ignoring symptoms of altitude sickness during climbs and a general lack of preparation are the major avoidable blunders mountaineers and trekkers make during this time, according to Dan Stretch, a Global Rescue operations manager who is based in Nepal during the Mount Everest climbing season and has coordinated hundreds of evacuations and crisis response operations.
“Ascending higher with symptoms of altitude sickness in the hopes of getting better is unwise. Generally, they won’t get better. Everyone needs to heed the warning signs and build extra acclimatizing days into their itinerary. This can mean the difference between a successful summit and cutting your expedition in half and potentially ending up hospitalized,” he said.
Over-the-counter medications including antidiarrheal tablets, oral rehydration salts and paracetamol can manage many high-altitude conditions. If these are not on hand, then an illness can go from bad to worse, potentially causing a medical emergency and possibly requiring a field rescue. “Trekkers and climbers should ask their expedition organizer what is available to them, carry their first aid pack, and have a communications device they can use to contact Global Rescue for medical guidance before deteriorating to the point of needing hospitalization,” Stretch said.
Last year, there were a record-breaking number of climbing permits issued and Global Rescue conducted a record-breaking number of rescue operations. Stretch and other experts agree 2023 will set more records.
“There will be more people in the region adventuring, partly from the COVID backlog but also due to increased demand to go trekking and climbing,” said legendary mountaineer and a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council Ed Viesturs.
Lukas Furtenbach, owner of Furtenbach Adventures based in Innsbruck, Austria, and a Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner, agrees. “I expect a busy season on Everest’s south side with no permit limit.”
On the Ground in Nepal
Global Rescue will deploy a team to Nepal to arrange rescue operations including helicopter and ambulance transports, hospital admissions and looking after members who are admitted to a hospital for care.
Stretch, an experienced high-altitude mountaineer with ascents in the Himalayas, Europe, South America and Africa, will be part of the on-the-ground operations team. He handles about 200 high-altitude rescues each year and has managed more than 500 high-altitude rescues in the Himalayas.
Joining Stretch as part of the Global Rescue operations center medical team is wilderness and altitude sickness expert Dr. Eric Johnson, Global Rescue’s associate medical director. He is the past president of the Wilderness Medical Society, spent two seasons at the Pheriche Himalaya Rescue Association (HRA), three seasons at HRA-USA (Everest ER), and helped build the new hospital in the SoluKhumbu region.
A Day in the Life
An “average day” for the Global Rescue deployment team is anything but normal. During the two-month Mount Everest spring climbing season, there will usually be several rescue operations performed each day, keeping the deployment team busy from 5 am until 11 pm. Resting whenever possible, the on-the-ground team prepares for the two-week Mount Everest summit window when the medical and rescue operations team perform up to 25 rescues a day.
Before dawn, the deployment team is already up and actively checking with the Global Rescue operations centers to follow up on any rescue requests that arrived overnight. “As helicopters cannot fly outside of clear daylight hours, there may be several rescues pending and the team, with the help of oversight from the operations center, will triage the most emergent rescues for first transport,” Stretch said.
Recovering member climbers and trekkers is much more than a mountain chopper rescue. The deployment team locates in multiple areas to support individual members throughout their rescue, transport, recovery and safe return home.
“One deployment team member is stationed at the Kathmandu airport coordinating helicopter operations. Another is in Lukla preparing to receive rescued members from the mountains and to assist with their medical needs. Other on-the-ground operations teammates visit and support hospitalized Global Rescue members in local medical facilities assisting them on the next steps in getting home safely,” Stretch said.
During quiet periods, the deployment team visits local medical facilities to check on their service levels, build local relationships, and spend time with the helicopter providers.
Mountaineers and trekkers spend thousands of dollars to take part in such a significant expedition. Many of them dedicate years to preparing for such a monumental experience. Not everyone is successful. Illness or injury, or both, can scuttle everything. Disappointment is natural but Stretch reports rescues are usually met with gratitude. “Most climbers are thankful to be in a safe, warm environment after quickly going from illness or injury in a sub-zero, high-altitude, dangerous environment to a warm hospital bed. They are highly appreciative,” he said.
Avalanches and Bad Weather
In October 2022, a massive avalanche swept down Mount Manaslu striking the mountain’s Base Camp. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. Later that day, another avalanche on the same mountain took the life of a Nepali guide. A few days later, a deadly avalanche struck a group of mountaineers training on Mount Draupadi ka Danda II.
Unfortunately, avalanches are a dangerous reality in the snowy high mountains. So, too, is the brutal weather.
Mount Everest, K2, Ama Dablam and many of the Himalayan Mountains have the fiercest weather conditions on Earth, with temperatures plunging to minus 40 degrees F (minus 40 degrees C) and winds blasting at more than 100 mph (161 kph).
Preparing for them is a key element of the Global Rescue operations team activity.
“Avalanche risk is a factor when we determine the safety of ground rescue. We receive reports from local expedition groups. Climbers must communicate with their expedition provider to make them aware of the avalanche risk during a climb. Ascents and descents are attempted during the time of day when avalanche risk is lowest. All climbers should carry personal locator beacons and basic rescue tools whenever possible,” Stretch said.
The on-the-ground Global Rescue team monitors weather and receives daily reports from their helicopter providers to help establish the efficacy and safety of any helicopter rescues. “There are times when adverse weather can prevent or delay helicopter flight. At these times we rely on ground rescue or have members shelter in place until the weather clears,” he said.
The Global Rescue operations team has performed thousands of mountain rescues during the past two decades. With so many rescues, they can become routine as the years of organizational and practical experience mount. Nevertheless, some of them stand out.
Stretch recalls one example when Global Rescue coordinated a rescue from extreme altitude on the Tibet side of Mount Everest where helicopter rescue was unavailable. “We coordinated a ground rescue with a team of Sherpas who met up with a 4×4 vehicle from the Tibet base camp to travel over the border into Nepal where a helicopter flew the injured member to a Kathmandu hospital,” he said.
After several days of stabilization in the hospital, the member was able to complete medically supervised fixed-wing transport back home. “Ultimately, someone making it home, relatively unscathed, who would have succumbed to their injuries and been left on the mountain is what it’s all about. It would not have happened without high-level logistical planning and fine-tuned relationships with local partners,” Stretch said.
Mountaineering and Trekking Growth
Participation in mountaineering, trekking and other high-altitude activities has seen rapid increases in recent years. There were record-breaking numbers of both climbers and rescues in 2022 and indications point to those numbers increasing in 2023.
Expedition leaders have noted that many climbers are avoiding Mount Everest and focusing on other 8,000+ meter mountains to avoid the crowds. Stretch said the increasing number of climbers on Mount Everest is mirrored across the Himalayas with multiple busy mountains in Nepal and Pakistan.
More women are climbing and trekking, too. “There are several high-profile female climbers, like Kristin Harila. The popularity of the sport among women seems to grow each year,” Stretch said.
Global Rescue is expanding and enhancing its services for this community by increasing its capabilities to provide emergency services in more regions, committing to longer deployments of medical operations personnel, and extending in-field rescue operational durations.
Implementing the High-Altitude Evacuation Package enables Global Rescue to continue enhancing its current service capabilities for the climbing and trekking community worldwide. Any member planning to travel above 15,000 feet or 4,600 meters at any point during their trip, excluding airplane travel, should purchase the High-Altitude Evacuation Package.
“High-altitude outdoor activity worldwide is reaching unprecedented heights of participation and Global Rescue’s High-Altitude Evacuation Package supports this expanding interest with greater depth and breadth of services,” said Viesturs, the only American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks and the fifth person to do so without supplemental oxygen.
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