Overcrowded Everest transit routes are facing a new threat – avalanches triggered by rogue tourist helicopters. “These sightseeing helicopters are hovering above the Khumbu Icefall,” said mountain guide Pasang Kaji Sherpa to BBC. “We worry that helicopters can crack ice blocks and snow packs on mountains overlooking the Khumbu Icefall. There is a deep-seated fear among Sherpa porters that they may be hit by avalances this year as well and these helicopters are increasing fears.”
This new fear may have been caused by good intention. Helicopters have been recently authorized to ferry equipment between Everest Base Camp (17,700ft) and Camp I (19,900ft), a practice that began in late April of 2016.
This logistical leapfrog theoretically reduces the risk to Sherpas by reducing their transits through the avalanche-prone Khumbu Icefall. Early data suggests each helicopter flight can save upwards of 15 trips by an individual porter.
There is good reason to limit trips through the icefall. One 2014 Khumbu avalanche alone claimed the lives of 16 porters.
However, it appears that some tour operators have now begun to treat confusion between logistical and sightseeing helicopters as a potential opportunity, bringing sightseers and tourists closer than ever to the famed mountain. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal admits that it has not yet cracked down on the practice, though their regulations do prohibit sightseeing flights above Base Camp.
Helicopters on Everest have a decidedly mixed track record. One flight crashed in 2010 while trying to save two climbers stranded at 22,494 feet. The pilot and onboard paramedic were killed. Other crashes have occurred at Everest base camp, including a 2003 incident that claimed two lives. A controversial record was set in 2005 when french pilot Didier Desalle landed a Eurocopter AS350 atop the summit.
The Airlines Operators Association of Nepal (AOAN) has publicly defended the practice against their detractors.
“We fly 2,340 feet from above the ground and maintain at least 1km distance from the mountains so there is no way the vibration can cause avalanche,” said Pabitra Karki, chairman of Airlines Operators Association Nepal.
Perhaps he is correct, only time will tell. In the meantime, these sightseeing flights will continue to gamble with the lives of porters and climbers alike.