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  SummitClimb Everest - Lhotse International Expedition 2005: Personal account of the helicopter accident


2 June, 2005, 08:30 am: Statement made by Shane Edmonds, leader, 2005 SummitClimb Lhotse expedition.


I awoke in the 5300 metre Lhotse basecamp at 06:30 am to the roar of helicopter engines. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and out of my tent and watched as a large Russian helicopter landed on the helicopter pad about 150 metres away.


I would like to stress that this helicopter was not one of those little 2 seater glass-bubble traffic helicopters you see buzzing over big-city motorways at rush-hour, sending back live traffic reports for the

channel 9 news.


If you have never seen one before, these Russian helicopters are big, freight hauling cargo ships made for flying heavy loads at high altitude through high mountain passes. Some of them can hold 22 passengers and luggage. They are about 15 metres long, by 8 metres tall from landing gear to the top of the rotor; and 6 metres wide. The paint job on this particular ship was blue and white. The main body of the helicopter could probably hold about 40 people standing up (it wouldn't be able to take off with this much weight though). The pilots' cabin is pretty much all glass in the front, and it takes at least three pilots to run this huge aircraft. There is an enormous engine on top of the craft, which turns the giant top rotor which must be about 12 metres across, and the tail rotor, which whirs along at such blinding speed that its virtually invisible on the tail of the ship, about 7 metres behind the main rotor. When the engine is going full blast, the thing sounds something like a cross between a bulldozer and a LeMans racing car on a tight turn. On each side of the helicopter, just above the landing wheels, is a 3 metre long torpedo-shaped fuel tank which must be at least 700 millimeters in diameter. The main body of these helicopters opens in two places. In the back of the body, the doors split the tail open like the wings of a huge beetle. On the front-left-side of the helicopter, there is a passenger door, with retractable steps, so passengers can more easily scramble up the 1.5 metre climb into the helicopter. So, all in all, this helicopter is a very huge contraption, and in my opinion, has the massive and clumsy look of a strangly crafted piece of crudely engineered metal that could not fly.


This early morning helicopter landed and was quickly loaded with some duffle bags, 7 people hurried up the steps on the side of the ship and then it took off. I guess 7 people and their bags was all it could hold at the altitude of basecamp, 5300 metres.


An hour later another helicopter came in, and again it was quickly unloaded and loaded, then took off again.


I didn't think much of these two helicopter flights in rapid succession, except that these people were lucky to be leaving basecamp so quickly, and that in a few hours they would be sitting in a comfortable Kathmandu cafe sipping fresh squeezed orange juice and eating omlettes and toast.


At 08:30, again a helicopter appeared on the horizon, and I stood outside our dining tent together with some of our basecamp staff and sherpas, watching as yet another big Russian copter approached. As the helicopter was coming in fast and low over basecamp, our staff members Jai Bahadur, Temba Sherpa, Dorje Lama, Mingma Sherpa and Sapte Sherpa walked over to the helicopter pad to get a closer look at this giant dragonfly-looking beast coming in for a landing.


The helicopter began to reduce speed as it approached. It was now approximately 60 metres above basecamp, flying blimplike down to the far end of basecamp, then back over basecamp, slowing down over the helicopter pad. The ship started to hover, partially over the pad and about 2 metres above it.


The pad is located 150 metres from our basecamp on a flat area on top of the very jumbled rock-covered Khumbu Glacier and is surrounded by boulders, ice pinnacles, and crevasses. The pad is made of boulders piled up about 3 metres high. It has a flat top, with gravel scattered on the upper surface, to make it sort of smooth. The pad itself is 9 metres by 15 metres. When a big Russian helicopter lands on the center of the pad, quite a bit of the ship is hanging over the sides of the pad, with only the landing wheels

being on the flat top of the pad.


I watched as the helicopter prepared to land. The front of the ship was over the pad, while the rear landing gear was off the pad. I saw right away that the ship was not in a good position to land, but I assumed that the pilots would lift the ship up and recenter it on the landing pad. However, the ship kept going down. As the helicopter slowly sank down onto the pad, only the front of the ship was on the pad, so, as the helicopter was setting down, the rear main body of the helicopter actually touched onto the helicopter pad, because the rear wheel was hanging into thin air. I watched, horrified, as the fuel tanks hit the landing pad. Before my disbelieving eyes, a hole the size of a climber's helmet ripped into the tank on my side of the ship and fuel gushed out the bottom of the tank in a green tinted waterfall.


At that point I felt shocked and couldn't believe I was seeing this happen, and I thought to myself: "Oh Shit, they better land that machine before all the fuel spills out and the engine dies and it really crashes hard."


A split second after I saw the fuel tanks rip open, I heard the motor hesitate and stall and the helicopter lurched backward onto the tail section which was hanging off of the pad. As the helicopter went over backwards, the tail rotor suddenly smashed into the boulders at the base of the helicopter pad.


I realized that this was now an official helicopter crash. Suddenly debris from the shredding tail propeller flew everywhere into the air, and I saw pieces of shrapnel hurtling into our camp. When I saw the flying debris I took cover behind some large boulders, and I looked around for our staff, and abruptly realized that they had been standing near the helicopter pad, watching the landing. I feared for their safety.


From behind the boulders, I was startled to see Jai Bahadur, one of our cooks, sprinting past me with his mouth wide open and deep fear across his face. As he passed me I thought to myself: "Oh my God, the helicopter is going to explode." A burst of adrenaline took hold of me and I instinctively fell in behind him and together we sprinted out of camp together, away from the helicopter. After running blindly over boulders and crevasses for a few minutes, we stopped and breathlessly looked behind us.


The engine noise had stopped, the terrifying rotors had stilled, and I saw a group of about 30 people scattered around the helicopter, hiding behind boulders, ice pinnacles, and in crevasses. Somehow; I guess while I was hunched behind the boulders, the helicopter had spun around 180 degrees and the nose was now exactly where the tail had been a few seconds before. I guess Jai Bahadur had witnessed this frightening 180 degree turn and this was what had made him run so hard towards me, away from the crashing copter.


Jai Bahadur and I started walking back toward the helicopter. It seemed safe now that the engines had stopped. We wanted to see if our friends who had been standing around the pad were ok, and to see if there was anything we could do to help.


A large group of people were now standing in front of the helicopter, and above it on top of the pad. A group of passengers who had escaped from the helicopter were holding large television cameras and sound equipment, and were filming the crash scene. I later found out that this flight had been organised by a television news program to film some famous Everest climbers who had just returned to basecamp. While the passengers were filming, expedition leaders from other teams were telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they should grab oxygen masks and run down to the nearest village and call for another helicopter before they died here on the helicopter pad of altitude sickness.


Their immediate evacuation was a matter of great urgency because only a few minutes before the crash, they had been in the low elevations of 1200 metre Kathmandu, and up here at 5300 metres, someone who is unacclimatised can die very quickly of pulmonary or cerebral oedema. Fortunately, they heeded this message, because in a few minutes they were starting to run down to Gorak Shep, the nearest village, escourted by some very kind and caring climbers,

guides and expedition leaders.


Obviously, it would have been better if another helicopter was summoned to come and pick them up directly from our basecamp heli-pad, but, this was definitely out of the question because the tail of the helicopter was jutting up into mid-air right above the helicopter pad, preventing another ship from landing, and this is the only helicopter landing place for many kilometres, the nearest one being 7 kilometres away in Gorak Shep.


As I walked around the crash site, I saw the basecamp hospital doctor and I asked him if everybody was ok. He said he thought they were. We discussed the possibility of the helicopter exploding, but he said the pilot had assured him that it could not explode. I was still concerned however, so I organized all of the people I saw in the crash vicinity and brought them back to the shelter of our basecamp.


As we walked the 150 metres back to our camp I saw pieces of helicopter debris strewn around our camp. Some were the size of potato chips, and one was two metres long and weighed 17 kilos.


After a careful check of all of the people who were inside and outside the helicopter, we have determined that apparently no one was seriously injured, and it seems an amazing miracle. This could have been a much worse accident. For example, if the helicopter had been a few metres closer to our tents, our team could have been seriously injured by flying debris, or if the helicopter had exploded, some of us would have been seriously burned by the exploding aviation fuel tanks.


Still, its sad to see the helicopter sitting there, and its certainly worrisome to think that Everest basecamp has no helicopter service, and that if a climber is injured and needs emergency evacuation, they will have to be carried the 2-6 hours down the rough trail to Gorak Shep. Also, the crash of this million dollar helicopter is a very tragic loss for all of Nepal, a country that certainly does not need this kind of negativity right now.


Thanks for listening to my story. Yours Sincerely, Shane Edmonds, Leader, SummitClimb.com Lhotse Expedition


The Team Update: The SummitClimb Everest climbers are headed for the summit right now!!! The live dispatch is here.

Dan's North side team is one of the few to summit Everest this year. His north side team is leaving the mountain after summiting 8. Joao Garcia, ran up Lhotse for the only known summit of Lhotse this year... It was Joao Garcia's sixth 8000 meter peak, after Cho Oyu in 1993, Dhaulagiri in 1994, Everest in 1999, Gasherbrum II in 2004 and Gasherbrum I in 2004, all without supplemental oxygen.




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