The craziest mountain rescue stories

Over the past two months, earthquakes in Nepal and Malaysia have left hundreds of mountain climbers stranded on Mount Everest and Mount Kinabalu, respectively, and kicked off massive search-and-rescue missions. With so many people focusing on the success of those efforts, we thought we’d add to the positive energy by highlighting three of the most daring (and triumphant) mountain rescue missions ever.

Crashed helicopter, Mount Rainier

Dave Hahn is well known in the mountaineering world. He’s summited Everest 15 times, more than any non-Sherpa climber in the world, and received wide praise for his 2007 rescue of a climber who was left for dead at 27,000 feet on that formidable rock.

Of all Hahn’s rescue missions, perhaps his most daring came in 2002, when the helicopter that was taking him to rescue an injured climber on Washington’s Mount Rainier crashed — and Hahn decided to continue the rescue mission anyway.

The helicopter was carrying both Hahn and local climbing ranger Chris Olson to a climber who had been injured badly by a falling boulder at 9,400 feet when the chopper suddenly crashed into a glacier at 8,800 feet. Olson and Hahn’s response was to help evacuate the helicopter pilot before continuing up the mountain on foot to finish the rescue. Once Hahn and Olson reached the climber, they met up with four other rangers to carry the victim down the mountain on a stretcher until they reached a spot where an evacuation helicopter could safely land.

“The helicopter started spinning faster and harder, and it was obvious we were going down,” Hahn told the News Tribune a day after the rescue. “There was a moment or two when I thought I was dead.”

For their efforts, Olson and Hahn were awarded the Valor Award and a Citizen’s Award for Bravery by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2009.

Double amputee at 23,000 feet, Mount Everest

Simone Moro is another mountaineer who has achieved a certain level of notoriety for his rescue missions, perhaps none more so than the time he rescued a double amputee who was stranded at 23,000 feet on Mount Everest.

Moro, who is also an experienced helicopter pilot, bought his own helicopter and shipped it out to Kathmandu in 2013 to begin running search-and-rescue missions in the Nepalese Himalayas with a team of pilots he assembled. Shortly thereafter, he set the world record for the highest longline helicopter rescue mission ever.

“When I first heard the altitude was 7,800 meters, I thought it was impossible,” Moro told Red Bull. “The previous highest was not even close to that height … In the end, I decided to try. The technical limits of the helicopter was 23,000 feet, or 7,000 meters. If you decide to fly above this and something happens, the insurance won’t give you a single dollar and the manufacturer is not responsible.”

To make the helicopter as light as possible in order to fly through the thin air at 23,000 feet, Moro had to remove all the doors and seats from the chopper and take off with the minimum amount of fuel. Even with the reduced weight, Moro could make the helicopter hover for only 30 seconds — just enough time to hook up the stranded climber and head back to base camp.

“The Belay,” K2

No other rescue effort may be as familiar to the mountain climbing community than the one simply known as “The Belay.”

In 1953, legendary American mountaineer Pete Schoening and a team of six other American climbers set out to summit K2. After seven days of relatively easy climbing, a storm trapped the team at an elevation of more than 25,000 feet, and one of the team members, Art Gilkey, collapsed from a pulmonary embolism.

Despite the immense risk of trying to transport a disabled Gilkey down from that altitude in the middle of a storm, the team decided to attempt it anyway. They wrapped Gilkey in his sleeping bag, attached him to the climbing rope and Schoening began lowering him down the steep mountain face.

But while attempting to cross a 45-degree slope that led to a massive cliff, one of the climbers lost his footing on an ice patch and began falling toward the drop-off. His rope got tangled with the rest of the team and began to pull everyone except for Schoening down the slope with him. Schoening was behind the rest of the group, belaying the injured Gilkey down the mountain.

Thinking quickly, Schoening wedged the team’s climbing rope between his ice ax and a boulder in the mountain face, put all of his weight into the ax handle and managed to stop the free-fall of all six members of the climbing team, the weight of his fellow teammates stretching the climbing rope pencil-thin in the process.

Ultimately, Gilkey would die before the team made it back to base camp, and a memorial at the base of K2 would go up in his name to honor all the climbers who have lost their lives on the mountain. But it was Schoening’s heroic feat that ultimately saved the lives of the rest of his team.

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