Can Helicopters Fly to the Top of Mount Everest?

I was rescued by helicopter from Mount Everest in 2007 but only after I had downclimbed to Base Camp at an altitude of 5,364m on the South side. I asked the Russian pilot, Sergei later if a helicopter could take me to the summit. His answer was “Yes – in theory.”

In theory? Let’s look at the facts.

A specially modified helicopter flew to the summit of Mount Everest on 14 May 2005. One landing skid touched the topmost snow for a few minutes. So, yes, a helicopter can fly to the top of Mount Everest.

Yes indeed, a helicopter has landed – just – on the summit of Mount Everest. On 14 May 2005 a Eurocopter AS350 B3 Squirrel piloted by Frenchman Didier Delsalle landed there, and he held one skid on the summit, nudging the snow around for 3 minutes 50 seconds.

The aircraft didn’t land its full weight on the top of the world. See the video:

Delsalle’s flight broke the record for the highest helicopter landing, previously held by Lt Col Madan Khatri Chhetri of the Nepali Air Force, who in 1996 rescued climbers Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau near Camp I at approximately 20,000ft (6,096m).

Was Delsalle’s feat sacrilege? Probably not. Human ingenuity will always push down the barriers erected by our natural world. David Hahn, who was one of the Mallory searchers in 1999 and who has reached Everest’s summit 14 times, said:

‘I look at it kind of selfishly. It improves the possibility of rescues in the future.’

Desalle himself had no doubts:

“To reach this mythical summit definitely seemed to be a dream, despite the obvious difficulties of the target to be reached.”

Can I Take a Helicopter to the Top of Everest?

You could hop out of a helicopter on the summit of Everest- in theory. But you would leave the helicopter empty, as you would be the pilot! Even the most powerful machine cannot carry a heavily-dressed passenger to the top of the world.

Delsalle’s Eurocopter had been extensively lightened and he flew alone. A heavily-dressed passenger climber with enough oxygen cylinders to get down off the mountain alive would have proved too much for the helicopter’s straining engine.

Also, if you went straight from Lukla airport unacclimatised to the thin air on the summit you would fall unconscious and die if your oxygen mask slipped.

Finally, it’s completely unethical, and you could hardly claim to have climbed the mountain. Not that ethics have anything at all to do with climbing Everest in modern times. Back in 1924 my cousin Howard Somervell very nearly climbed to the summit without oxygen, refusing to use the gas, as he felt it was cheating.

The mountain was finally climbed by another British expedition in 1953. All those climbers used oxygen.

a helicopter flying near Everest

Why Can’t Helicopters Fly to the Top of Mount Everest?

They can! When I stood on the summit of Mount Everest on the morning of 6 October 1993 I removed my oxygen mask and because I was well acclimatised I was able to breathe- just.

But the air pressure was only a third of that at sea level, and three times less dense, and this is the reason that helicopters struggle to get to the height of Everest. The air is just too thin to get a grip.

The Eurocopter’s pilot Delsalle cleverly used strong updraughts to ride his aircraft to 8850 metres, the height of the summit.

On one side of the mountain there was a strong updraft, and the other a strong downdraft, so Delsalle had to balance his aircraft with great skill.

When he had touched the summit for long enough to claim the record a gentle pull back on the control was all that he needed for the powerful updraught to whisk him away again.

How High Can Helicopters Get on Everest? Can You Fly Over Everest?

The record for the highest altitude flight in a helicopter belongs to another French pilot, Jean Boulet, who reached a height of 40,820 feet (12,442 m) in an Aérospatiale SA 315 Lama in 1972. So helicopters can fly well above Everest.

The first man to fly over the summit was the Duke of Hamilton in a Westland biplane in 1933. And the flight was paid for by a woman; Lucy, Lady Houston (see wikipedia).

And a photo-reconnaissance De Havilland Mosquito belonging to RAF 684 Squadron, based at Alipore airfield, Calcutta, made an ‘accidental’ flight over Mount Everest in 1945 (source colonialfilm).

The 400 feet (120 metres) of 35 mm film shot of the mountain helped route-finding on the successful British expedition of 1953. The altitude ceiling of this Merin-powered Mosquito was 37,000 feet (11,278 metres).

Everest on a clear day

Are there Helicopter Rescues on Everest?

My experience of helicopters on Everest was interesting, to say the least. In 1993 a climber killed feet away from me had to be carried down the Western Cwm, down through the treacherous Icefall and taken to Base Camp before we could load the corpse into a French helicopter.

In 2007 I had to down-climb from the scene of my own accident to an altitude where the old Russian warbird could operate. Both pilot Sergei and his Mil Mi-17 chopper looked like veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

He was dressed in polyester slacks and shirt as if he were ready for a bit of gardening, but he controlled a monster of amazing power and violence – the down-draft was enough to send stones spinning in all directions.

We took off and in minutes we had retraced the path that had taken us weeks to ascend. There was another passenger on this enormous brute, Usha Bista, a 22-year-old Nepali girl climber who had been found unconscious and alone at 8400 m.

Usha slept through the flight, and when we arrived at Jiri we were off-loaded into the hot sun in our down suits to wait for a Nepalese Army helicopter. Its pilot was under instruction, so we were treated to aerial versions of a three-point turn and an emergency stop.

So you can’t rely on helicopter rescue much above the height of Everest Base Camp – and that’s only on the Nepali side of the mountain. No aircraft at all are allowed to approach the northern, Tibetan side, and when my BBC expedition attempted to fly a hot air balloon over Everest’s summit on 11 September 2001, we were told that the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) would shoot us down.

You certainly won’t get insurance for helicopter rescue much above the altitude of Base Camp: it’s just too risky for pilots and machine.

But watch this space: I predict tourists in pressure suits will be flown to the summit of Mount Everest on helicopters before the end of the century, if they’re not carried there by a railway spiraling up inside the mountain, as they have been inside the Eiger since 1903 (see wikipedia).

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.