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Hard to spot, impossible to lift

Daunting task of peak rescue

Picture taken by Everester Basanta Singha Roy on May 20, 2011, from the summit of Kanchenjungha Main, which fellow Everester Chanda Gayen scaled last Sunday. The climber from Howrah went missing during an avalanche on Tuesday while attempting to summit Kanchenjungha West

A helicopter flew up to the upper reaches of Kanchenjungha West for the third time on Friday but could not airdrop sherpas to search for Everester Chanda Gayen, missing since being caught in an avalanche on Tuesday afternoon.

As on the previous two days, inclement weather forced the rescue bid to be called off on Friday, said Mingma Sherpa of the private agency that had organised the expedition and is co-ordinating the rescue.

Chanda ran into an avalanche on her way to Kanchenjungha West with three sherpas after climbing Kanchenjungha Main (8,586 metres) with three other mountaineers from the city on Sunday.

The rescue helicopter flew at an altitude of 7,000 metres and as close to the 8,505-metre-high mountain as it could get but could not spot Chanda or the two sherpas missing with her, Mingma Temba and Dawa Wangchu. Whiteouts and blizzards further reduced visibility.

“A helicopter generally can’t fly above 6,000 metres. For a rescue mission at a higher altitude, we send special helicopters. It is impossible to airlift anyone, let alone an injured mountaineer, from that altitude. So rescuers are airdropped on the mountain once they locate the missing mountaineers and then reach them on foot,” said Mingma Sherpa, among the few who have scaled all 14 peaks above 8,000 metres.

Turbulence and poor visibility because of clouds often make it impossible for a pilot to fly close enough to a mountain to make an airdrop. “Air rescue is mostly carried out in the morning because turbulence is less early in the day. Downdrafts may also prove dangerous at a high altitude because of reduced engine power,” Mingma Sherpa said.

If poor weather is an impediment in the air, it is a bigger hurdle on the steep slopes of Kanchenjungha West, which presents almost every possible challenge a mountain can pose: crevasses, avalanches, rockfalls, blizzards and thunderstorms, to name a few.

The rescuers have to negotiate all these to carry incapacitated mountaineers down at least 1,000 metres to a point from where they can be airlifted to a hospital. Only the very best mountaineers can become rescuers.

“We cannot rely on weather forecasts at that altitude. The weather can change in a minute and the rescuers have to modify their plan accordingly. They have to constantly keep an eye on the sky. Clouds getting lower and darker mean a storm is brewing,” he said.

Pasang Sherpa, who had climbed up the summit camp of Kanchenjungha West in 2004, mentioned some other difficulties in a rescue attempt. “Lightning is common. Someone can be electrocuted even if there is a lightning strike several hundred feet away since ice acts as a conductor,” Pasang said.

City-based Everester Basanta Singh Roy said the most essential skill for a rescue mountaineer was the ability to recognise and evaluate risks. One of the sherpas missing with Chanda, Dawa Wangchu, had a hand in rescuing Singha Roy when he was taken ill on Mount Dhaulagiri (8,167 metres) in May last year.

“At an altitude of around 7,900 metres on Dhaulagiri, I fell sick. I could not breathe properly and just had a rock to sit on. My oxygen cylinder went almost empty. Acting on an alert sent through walkie-talkie, Wangchu set off from Camp III at 7,400 metres. He reached me in a few hours. He entirely controlled my descent to the camp, and at times, even lifted me up and negotiated quite a few dangerous stretches,” recounted Singha Roy, who was airlifted from Camp III.

The veteran mountaineer, whom Chanda had consulted before her latest expedition, said he had advised the rescuers to take Tashi Sherpa, who was climbing with the 32-year-old from Howrah and survived the avalanche, along with them for the next rescue bid. “Since he was at the spot when the avalanche occurred, he will be able to say where she can be found,” said Singha Roy, governing body member of the West Bengal Mountaineering and Adventure Sports Foundation.

Tashi is now at the base camp (5,143 metres).

Rescue teams generally approach the subjects from above rather than from below as this reduces the risk of rocks falling on the rescuer. Carrying out a rescue mission is far more dangerous on ice than on rock, according to mountaineers. The stretch between the base camp and Kanchenjungha West peak comprises hard ice and rocks.

“For Chanda’s rescue, the fear of an avalanche or rockfall will haunt the team of sherpas throughout the mission,” Singha Roy said.

Mountain rescue missions are also very expensive. Singha Roy said his rescue from Dhaulagiri cost “around Rs 14 lakh after a lot of bargaining”. If a mountaineer is insured, the insurance company takes care of the expenditure. In Chanda’s case, the state government will bear the cost of the rescue mission, official sources said.

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