Over the past couple of years, drones have become as important a piece of climbing gear as crampons and down suits. The growing need for professional climbers and would-be climbers to document their ascents has made them a vital tool. Now every mountain documentary relies heavily on these high-tech devices. For example, for the filming of the documentary “The Ghosts Above”, director Renan Ozturk (Renan Ozturk) used such UAVs at unimaginable heights to film climbers climbing Everest and the upper parts of the north side.
Also, in addition to shooting the landscape and extreme shots, drones act as the main tool for preliminary acquaintance with the route, which has helped in several successful rescue operations.
Rescue at Broad Peak and Nanga Parbat
We have already talked about this incredible salvation. In the summer of 2018, drone pilot Bartek Bargiel came to Karakoram to film his brother Andrzej’s ski slope from K2. But Bartek Bargel’s piloting skills accidentally helped save the life of climber Rick Allen, who was at that moment on nearby Broad Peak. While trying to open a new route, Allen fell off an ice cliff. Helicopters would not have reached him quickly, and searching from the ground would have forced rescuers to grope through unknown dangerous terrain. Ultimately, Bartek’s drone soon found the injured climber and brought rescuers to him.
As far as K2 is concerned, the Bargil brothers fulfilled their ambition in one of the best expeditions Wild Mountain has ever seen. Three of Bartek’s drones filmed the ascent and descent – one of them even went up to the very top. Since he didn’t have the strength to go down again, poor Andrzej had to put the drone in his backpack during his historic ski descent. In order for the drones to be able to conquer such peaks, Bartek turned off the electronic restrictions, which allowed them to fly at an altitude of 8000 meters, which, by the way, is considered the airspace for jet aircraft. In the climber’s case, Bartek even adapted his Mavic Pro to deliver medicine (see photo below).
A few months later, Alex Txikon and his team were airlifted to K2 on Nanga Parbat, where Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard had recently gone missing on the Mummery Spur, a very difficult route, constantly covered by avalanches, as shown in the video below. Txikon also used Mummery Spur reconnaissance drones, but this time without success.
It is known that then Alex lost one of his drones, corny because of a dead battery, as a result of which the drone landed irretrievably with a large error somewhere away from the route. This case just emphasizes the main drawback of unmanned aerial vehicles in the highlands – their short flight time, since the batteries are discharged very quickly at altitude and in cold weather.
Why couldn’t the climbers on K2 be rescued?
This was the main reason why the drones were not deployed during the missing persons search on K2 on 5 February. It would require powerful drones and very experienced pilots, Moira Ahmad (Sadpar Family Spokesperson) explained to ExplorersWeb. In any case, winter conditions would not allow drones to work normally. “The reason is not only in negative temperatures,” Moira Ahmad explained, “the rescue operation was complicated by a strong wind that did not allow even helicopters to fly.”
Permit to fly in the mountains
In addition to technological restrictions, drones are subject to local airspace regulations. The two search operations mentioned above, in which drones played a major role, took place in Pakistan, where the climbers originally brought their UAVs for filming. In Pakistan, regulations on drones have been relaxed as the devices are only used for recreation in isolated mountainous areas and, above all, away from military bases. There were no complaints from the Pakistan Tourism Authority regarding their use, however, it would be advisable to clarify in advance the possibility of launching UAVs from tour operators or the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan.
Drone launch at Lungden (4375 m) on the Everest route, 2014.
There are many more restrictions in Nepal. According to the Civil Aviation Administration, small drones (lighter than two kilograms) are usually not restricted by the rules unless they fly more than 120 meters above the ground and 500 meters from the pilot. They should also avoid crowded places, private and military areas. Those who intend to use larger models and fly further than 500 km – for example, when climbing large peaks – must obtain filming permission from various government agencies. Specialist websites such as UAV Coach point out that even small drones need a permit in certain areas such as the Annapurna Game Reserve.
According to travel forums, the permit process takes at least three days and is best done in advance through forwarding agencies.
What about flying over Everest?
Yet even such agencies struggle with rapidly changing regulations as drones skyrocket in popularity. Lukas Furtenbach has used drones on several expeditions, including Mount Everest over five years ago. “Nepal has since changed the rules,” Furtenbach told ExplorersWeb. “Currently, the permit costs about $5,000 and drones are no longer allowed on the border with China, including in the Everest area!” This fact clearly explains the reason for the abandonment of the use of UAVs by the teams of Alex Chikon and Jost Kobusch on their winter expeditions to Everest in early 2020.
Despite these challenges, Lukas Furtenbach still hopes to expand the use of drones in the future. “We are currently working on a project to use large-capacity unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver oxygen and other materials to high-mountain camps,” he said. “The idea is not to replace the Sherpas, but to make their job easier and safer.”
What are you preparing for this year?
For those looking to use drones when returning to Nepal post-COVID, Asian Trekking’s Dawa Steven Sherpa offers an update: “They are not banned at this time,” he told ExplorersWeb. “They are limited, but you can get permission for them. The problem is that the permit application process can take 45 days and cost up to $18,000 because nine different ministries and government departments are involved in the process.” These ministries include: the Ministry of Information and Communications, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Forestry, Interior and Defense, the Ministry of Archaeology, the Ministry of National Parks, the Motion Picture Development Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority.
“If you know how to navigate this, then you can get permission,” Dava Stephen added. “It’s a normal part of my job, but it’s a big pain in the ass and takes two to three hours a day for one full-time employee for 45 days.”
About trying to smuggle a drone
As for trying to smuggle in a drone hidden in your personal bag, think twice about it! “On expeditions, you will be checked by military signalmen and SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee),” said Dawa Steven. “In the villages, you will also be checked by the Nepalese police, demanding to show a drone and permission to film. Foresters, scouts and even the army will also join them. Therefore, we have little chance of getting away with unregistered flights over Everest.”