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I have watched many documentaries about accidents on Everest and what I learned is, that it is impossible to rescue anybody from the death zone. It is simply too hard for the sherpas, or anybody else to carry somebody. So, when a climber is unable to stand on his own feet, he is left there, basically to die. If other groups on the way up or down encounter the individual, they leave them there and continue upwards or downwards.

Now, I realize, that it is hard and dangerous enough to carry your own body weight up and down and attempting to carry someone would result in critical danger for the rescuer.

But are there, or have there been discussions of developing a method to somehow rescue people in these situations?

What I have in mind are the following, probably stupid ideas, sorted from least to most preposterous:

1) Abort ascents, organize a rescue group and bring the person more supplies: oxygen bottles and blankets, maybe even a tent or other way of keeping them warm, until they get better. Maybe even put them in a portable compression chamber. This should be theoretically doable.

2) Put the person on a sleigh or ski and let them take their chances riding down some of the way at least or have multiple people pull them, which should be less impossible, than carrying them.

3) Have the person paraglide down in tandem with a sherpa or alone (after a short instruction). Let's assume, the person is well enough to wait for someone to carry the chute up to them.

4) Put the person on a rebreather with full face mask on. This should be able to eliminate the oxygen starvation or at least give them more time.

5) If the groups is 10 people strong, attach the climber to a hammock or some rope contraption and divide the weight among the group.

6) Have a rope installed on one of the steeper, longer walls or slopes and let the person down, until he reaches a lower point, even if that lower point is not very easily accessible, just to kill some altitude.

What ideas so far have been explored by the community in order to solve this problem? What discussions are there or have there been?

I know that most of these are probably stupid, but somehow I can't believe, that the only option there can ever be is to leave people for dead there. There have been well-known climbers, who criticize the practice of leaving people for dead. However, as far as I know, those well-known climbers haven't provided practical solutions to the problem.

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    Rescue operations are dangerous. There's a fine line between rescuing someone and needing a rescue as well. Two friends of mine died in Fitz Roy last month, and one rescuer almost died trying to get to them. It's better to leave climbers to die instead of losing rescuing teams (whole rescuing teams have died trying to help climbers). It's just risk management. If you want to risk yourself at some places, you must accept that sometimes you'll die if you make a mistake. – QuantumBrick Feb 27 at 21:02
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    In all training and literature, one of the first thing you should assess when detecting someone in need of rescue is if the rescue poses significant risk to the rescuers. If the answer is yes, then the response should be to sit tight until that risk is mitigated. In the case of the death zone, the window during which someone can be saved is so short and the risk for others is so high that it's almost universally accepted that rescuing will fail. Some people disregard this and attempt rescues, but it is on them and many die in the process. – Gabriel C. Feb 27 at 21:54
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    @user1721135 I have to say your research into this can't have been terribly extensive. For one thing your item 1) has been done many times. Notably during the infamous 1996 Everest disaster, several climbers were rescued from the South Col in just this way: a rescue group was organized and raced up to the South Col, at grave risk to their own lives. The South Col is well into the dead zone. Your suggestion (2) seems to indicate that you don't understand the kind of terrain involved. I'd suggest skipping the more sensational documentaries, and read some of the many fine books on Everest. – Charles E. Grant Feb 27 at 23:58
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    'on the other hand everybody always agrees (as seen in the answers and comments here), that it is impossible and a hard rule, that there is 0 chance of rescue and people in the death zone are to be left there.' I don't see that either answer says any such thing! Both answers simply say that such rescues are very difficult and extremely dangerous for the rescuers. If your documentaries are saying that, they aren't very good (see Sturgeon's law). – Charles E. Grant Feb 28 at 0:20
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    @user1721135 One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is that the vast majority of people who will be passing a dying climber in the death zone aren't necessarily skilled rescuers at all. Most are paid customers with (not always, but often) limited mountaineering experience that rely on their guides to reach the summit. They are at the limit of what they can do to support themselves, lack the skill to save someone else, and summit fever might be making them selfish in that instant. – Gabriel C. Mar 4 at 17:18
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The problem with rescuing someone in the death zone is, well, that it is the death zone. Supplemental oxygen helps, but the decreased pressure is also problematic. If you are injured or sick, you are not going to get better no matter what type of supplies could be hauled up to you. The only way to rescue someone is to get them down, and get them down quickly.

Rescuing someone requires a time window of good (or at least reasonable) weather. Above 8000m these weather windows are often short and unpredictable. The first rule of search and rescue is not to put yourself at risk. By definition, going above, or staying, 8000m is putting yourself at risk, even in perfect weather.

Assuming you can get rescuers to the scene, you now need to get the injured party down. Littering someone out under ideal conditions is really hard (even with a team of 10). On steep snow and ice in extreme conditions, it is probably just not possible. Giving them a paraglider or sled has essentially zero chance of working and likely will cause more injury. While it is sad, comfortably freezing to death may be more desirable than a short sled ride resulting in broken bones only to then freeze to death.

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This sort of hard decision happens at lower elevations. In some ways harder: The Death Zone scenarios obliges you to abandon the victim to save the rest of the party. At lower elevations it's often less clearcut.

The difference usually amounts to

  • better weather
  • shorter distances to more moderate terrain.
  • easier access to machine assistance (skidoo, helicopter)
  • shorter travel to good medical facilities.
  • Usually altitude sickness not an issue. (All of my outdoor stuff has been below 10,000 feet)

Because of the mitigating circumstances, it's not usually as cut and dried. But:

Mountain sickness (altitude sickness) you need to descend. Not now. Right NOW. I think it was in Freedom of the Hills, or Mountaineering Medicine mentioned that sometimes as little as 300 feet can make a difference.

Hypothermia once you get cold enough that shivering is starting to taper off, is very hard to deal with in any outdoor situation, let alone above timberline.

Once you have a person who is no longer mobile you have a compound problem:

  • Keeping a person who cannot walk warm is difficult. His heat production is dropping to something like 1/3 of what an active person is using. He is likely at least damp from sweating. Lying on the ground is a good heat sink. This becomes more pronounced if he is going into shock.

  • You also have to worry about everyone who is standing around getting cold. People donate their parka as ground insulation under the victim. In the excitement (panic?) of the moment people aren't monitoring each other for signs of hypothermia. It is very easy to end up with the smaller, thinner members of the expedition to get shivering cold and no one notices. (This is a particular problem with day trips -- you usually don't have the extra gear you need to make an emergency camp.)

I talked to a Search and Rescue organization. "How many people does it take to rescue someone who can't walk?" His response was that it took 12. 4 people with the stretcher at any given time. 8 people who carried some of the stretcher bearer's gear and would swap off with them. In rough terrain it would take 6 or 8 on the stretcher, with lots of scrambling to get to the next position.

The stretcher bearers were slow. Sometimes it made more sense to have some of the party shuttle with packs, making several trips. (Two pack trips = 3 times the distance -- there, back, there, Three pack trips = 5 times the distance.)

I've yet to have someone who can't walk, but I had one case where a young man tore ligaments in his ankle. He could put zero weight on his foot. To get him the fairly short distance (somewhere under a km) to a clearing where a helicopter could land:

  • Two sturdy people to be his human crutches.
  • four people moving ahead of the trio trying to reduct the amount of dead fall that interfered with walking. Two of these stayed behind to help the victim party across non-movable deadfall.
  • Various other people took their own gear to the clearing, then went back for the gear of the victim and his aides.

Normally you stretcher someone only to a clearing where you can get a helicopter, or a road where you can get a 4WD. But not many choppers have operational ceilings above 12,000 feet. And in wilderness settings most of our roads are there for logging or are remnants from previous eras. There are few above timberline unless it was a pass.

There is a reason that first aid manuals say, "transport victim to medical facility" A big part of wilderness first aid is really 'second aid' -- how to deal with the problem until you can get help. Most of this simplifies to keep the blood inside, keep warm and quiet -- while his clock runs out. Meanwhile communicating with someone that you need help, and preparing a place for it to arrive, if by air. Often even doing this much is difficult.

Good leaders know this: Accidents kill. The same sort of thing that is no big deal when you are a ten minute drive or even an hour drive from the nearest hospital become a big deal indeed when help is a day or two away. So you take extra care to keep them from happening.

Steps you should take:

  • Game out scenarios where you have an non-walking incident, and how you will respond for the current situation. I did a lot of trips with kids -- mostly 14-18. Boys who had been on multiple trips had usually taken at least Saint John's Emergency First Aid (4 hr), and many had SJ Standard (16 hour) Staff were required to take Wilderness FA (40 hour) or Wilderness EMT (80 hour)

Anyway, one of the things I would do around the campfire after we'd done a hefty pass, is to set up a scenario of an injury accident at that location. The point here, wasn't to tell them how to do a rescue, but to see how hard a rescue is. With teens this is the best way I've found to get them to listen when I say, "Be careful" On senior trips, I would coach a 'victim' ahead of time, and they would have to get the victim to a place to camp. Since they were also in charge of picking camp spots this put them in a dilemma -- camp soon at an awful spot, or keep going to a better spot. My favorite spot for this was a skinny ravine on the north side of Mumm pass in Willmore Wilderness. The trail crosses the creek (or IS the creek) 67 times in 4 km. Everything that isn't cliff or scree is wet or covered in 10 foot alder and willow. Two hours of moving someone with a 'broken ankle' is very convincing case for "don't do that!"

  • We often would do a day trip as part of a trek. Something out of the way of our route. Usually spectacular scenery, but also a chance for party members with bad feet or stomach issues to heal for a day.

Take a good look at required gear for day trips. In my latter days running trips, I had the boys in effect bring a reduced backpack. They could leave all their food behind, and depending on weather much of their spare clothing. I required sleeping bag each, and 1 tarp per two people, a layer of clothing, rain gear, and toque. This amounted to about 12 pounds. Since most of them had been carrying 30-40 pounds, this was still light enough to keep spirits high, but eased my mind about having to spend the night away from camp.

  • Rule #1 for first responders - look out for number 1 (yourself). If it is dangerous to proceed with rescue/treatment do not proceed. – Jon Custer Mar 5 at 20:32
  • Good points about how much labor rescue involves even in more moderate conditions. – Karen Jun 22 at 2:05
  • Like your idea for "scout" groups to do scenario after the day's hiking. How extensive would you take that so they could get the feel for how hard it was? – topshot Jun 24 at 12:25
  • Usually just making a stretcher, and handling it across a creek. I coached the victim to scream whenever the injury was bumped. Some were really unnerving. Other times we just gamed it as a verbal -- what's next, what's the problems, what else. – Sherwood Botsford Jun 24 at 13:59
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Assuming weather conditions were perfect, and the condition you were treating was mostly oedema, then a hot air balloon with a hyperbaric chamber may be possible.

However, conditions are rarely perfect, and the risk, and expense would simply be too much to keep such a toy on constant standby near the major climbs.

The manoeuvrability of such a vehicle in mountains would make it limited in application. I can't imagine someone outlaying the cost, unless climbers were willing to heavily invest in some kind of rescue. Human nature is to assume it's someone else who will need to be rescued, so I suspect this kind of solution isn't going to fly (pun intended).

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If you can get to the person, a rescue operation is 90% done. A danger zone is a danger zone because spotting someone is often impossible, let alone getting near them.

I never heard of anyone passing near someone that was dying and ignoring it, even in the massive scam Everest is.

Edit: I didn't know about the case of David Sharp, mentioned in the comments. The Wikipedia page about it mentions lots of other attempts to rescue people from above apx 8000m, most of them failing miserably and killing rescuers. In Patagonia it's almost impossible to even recover bodies, let alone rescuing people. I can't imagine how strenuous it must be to carry someone from 8000m down, but I'm absolutely sure the experts have thought of it and it's not due to lack of ideas: it's just not practical. Helicopter rescues depend on extremely good weather, and are most often than not unfeasible, almost always risking the aircraft, the pilot and the crew.

Everything resumes to: Rescuing people creates a huge margin for more casualties, and experience shows this is pretty much absolutely true.

  • Yeah I get it, if you can't get to them there is no way to rescue them. But in one case in particular, the case of David Sharp, this seems to have been the case. And as far as I know, in the death zone, you are supposed to pass people who can't walk and there is nothing to be done. Or are there examples of rescues in the death zone of people who can't walk? If yes, how did they do it? – user1721135 Feb 27 at 21:18
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    I quote wikipedia: "However, other rescue attempts of stricken climbers high on Everest who were not mobile have resulted in not only the death of the stricken climber, but also resulted in the death of those attempting to rescue them." So, as I said, rescue operations usually present risks to the rescue crew, and sometimes are not justified. For a crazy risky rescue on Everest, see thebmc.co.uk/everest-worlds-highest-helicopter-rescue. – QuantumBrick Feb 27 at 21:22
  • It seems before the helicopter rescue, they somehow managed to lower the person from 8500m to 7950m. Now, I don't know any of the details, maybe the climber could walk or at least stand. That it is sometimes not justified is pretty clear to me. But I was under the impression that it is never attempted, under no circumstances, if the person can't walk and is in the death zone. Maybe its not like that. – user1721135 Feb 27 at 21:28
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    It's not. Check my edit to the answer. Many people were rescued from quite high, but most rescue operations were failures. I think everyone knows what to do, but doing it is most of the times an heroic act on itself. – QuantumBrick Feb 27 at 21:30
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    I reiterate that trying to rescue someone from the death zone usually leads to not only the person dying, but also the rescue team. I advise you to ponder about how this is not a case of help lacking, but about help usually failing and being worst than nothing. – QuantumBrick Feb 27 at 21:45

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