Helicopter rescuer saves hundreds of lives in mountainous Nepal

Chhirring Dhenduk Bhote woke up feeling strange because in his dream he was flying.

The Nepali rescuer lit incense sticks and prayed to the gods, hoping his premonition was a false alarm. Then his phone rang, and helicopter pilot Siddhartha Gurung told him a group of 16 Sherpa climbers on Everest had been trapped under an avalanche.

The pair immediately flew to the Khumbu Icefall, where they found 13 bodies under the glacial ice and no survivors. The year 2014 became one of the deadliest in Nepal's climbing history, with all Everest expeditions ultimately being suspended.

"I have these dreams that I’m flying and they often coincide with rescue operations," Bhote told dpa. “It’s like an inner voice or something. Like a call.”

Since he began working as a long-line rescuer in 2012, Bhote has saved hundreds of people who were stranded on mountains or injured in earthquakes, or who became sick in remote areas of the Himalayas.

As a long-line rescuer, Bhote is clipped into a harness and suspended from a helicopter on a rope. He helps lift victims off the mountain and whisk them away to safety.

Earlier this year, he rescued 20 Nepali workers who were stranded near Saribung peak without proper climbing gear. He spent the day at high altitude, harnessing the workers one-by-one to the long lines.

"It was physically draining because I had to take care of so many people at once,” Bhote said.

The 24-year-old, who works for rescue agency Simrik Air, is the most active of Nepal's four long-line rescue workers and has earned the nickname "Rescue Chhirring" to differentiate him from other Nepalis with the common first name.

Born to a minority ethnic group in the eastern district of Sankhuwasabha, Bhote grew up wanting to be an agriculturalist, but at 13 he found a job in India ferrying goods in the mountains of Kashmir and Ladakh.

"That struggle made me strong physically, even though my mental state was not great then," he said.

His uncle Tshering Pandey Bhote later introduced him to his life's "calling," he said.

“He got me a job as a supporting climber on small peaks. It was after my successful ascent of Everest in 2012 that I got trained in Switzerland for long-line rescue operations,” Bhote said.

He learned how to safely reach people who were trapped in places where helicopters could not land. Many of Nepal’s steep mountainous areas lack open clearings or accessible roads.

"We’ve lost able pilots in the past because the choppers couldn’t land and they crashed during a rescue mission. Long-line rescue is the answer because it’s less risky for the pilots,” he said.

Still, the work is not without risks, and when Bhote departs on a rescue mission he keeps it a secret from his parents.

"I only tell them when I’ve come back safely,” he said.

Bhote's first-ever operation was on Mount Ama Dablam, where he lifted an Austrian climber who suffered a spinal injury at 6,200 metres.

In addition to rescue operations, he also assists in the search for missing climbers and retrieves bodies.

With spring climbing season over, Bhote is still searching Mount Dhaulagiri for a Dutch climber who went missing last month, he said.

"Even when I'm picking up bodies, I feel like I'm helping people unite with their families, instead of being left in isolation on the mountains," he said.

He wants to expand the rescue programme, training more people to do the work and adding rescue choppers in more locations.

And he said he still receives emails from survivors, thanking him for giving them a "second life."

Last update: Fri, 17/06/2016 - 12:13
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