Nepal’s only female helicopter rescue pilot, Priya Adhikari, says she has seen enough death and destruction on the mountains to rid her of any desire to climb them. “I don’t climb, I land,” she laughs.
Flying is a male-dominated profession, and Nepal is a conservative country where women are expected to stay at home, or work in a narrow range of occupations. Ms Adhikari started off in one of them, working as an airline cabin attendant before a joyride in a helicopter set her on a different path.
At any moment, Ms Adhikari could be re-routed from tourist flights or medicine resupply runs deep in the Himalayas to rescue an injured trekker — or to remove the frozen body of a dead climber.
Recently, she rescued a 16-year-old Australian girl who was suffering from acute mountain sickness in the Khumbu region. The teenager could barely breathe when she was loaded into the helicopter at more than 4,000 metres above sea level.
Flying in a single-pilot, single-engine Squirrel, Ms Adhikari hooks herself up to a cylinder of oxygen to stave off hypoxia — deprivation of oxygen to the tissues — as she cruises through the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.
In remote outposts, she will do all the work herself, refuelling her helicopter by lifting and pouring jerrycans, and climbing on top of her aircraft to manually check the rotors.
Sometimes she will dump passengers’ luggage if she is required to fly a little higher in weather that is a little warmer.
The world’s highest recorded helicopter rescue was at 7,010 metres in Nepal, and aviators who fly at such high altitudes are considered to be highly specialised operators.