What it takes to work mountain search and rescue on Mount Everest

Last week, the Travel Channel premiered its new series “Everest Air,” which follows Jeff Evans and 11 other rescue workers who operate the highest helicopter-based search and rescue team in the world on Mount Everest.

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The show profiles the harrowing mountain rescues performed by Evans — chief high altitude medic and team lead — and his team as they rush into action to save the lives of climbers stuck on the world’s tallest mountain.

To hear Evans tell it, his job is equal parts daring and rewarding. And, lest you think any mountaineer can operate rescue missions in the Himalayas, Evans says his job is the culmination of a life devoted to climbing.

“I was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,” Evans told GrindTV. “It was rugged and fun; inviting for a restless kid to cut his teeth. And that’s all I was: Just some restless punk kid.”

Evans grew up climbing and exploring the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains until the desire for bigger, more challenging mountains overcame him, and he packed up his truck at age 19 to drive out to Colorado.

“I was 19 and had no idea what I was doing, but I moved out to Boulder to try my hand at bigger mountains,” Evans told GrindTV. “At that point I started climbing basically every day.”

After living in Colorado for some time, Evans had a chance encounter that would change his life: He met Erik Weihenmayer.

Jeff Evans mountain search and rescue
Evans spent two months operating in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth to keep locals and visiting climbers safe. Photo: Courtesy of BCII

Weihenmayer is a blind man with a passion for mountain climbing.

Given Evans’ desire to travel and tackle the biggest mountains across the globe, Weihenmayer asked Evans if he would work as his guide as Weihenmayer attempted to become the first blind person to reach the “Seven Summits” — the highest peaks on each continent.

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Over a 25-year relationship, Evans has led Weihenmayer on countless mountain expeditions. In 2001, he helped Wiehenmayer become the first blind person to summit Everest and in 2008 the duo finished the Seven Summits.

In between all those trips, Evans performed search and rescue missions on Denali for a few seasons and even carved out some time to go to school to become a physician assistant.

“Those were a brutal few years,” Evans told GrindTV. “For a guy who moved to Colorado to live out of his truck and climb, sitting in a classroom everyday in Philadelphia and really buckling down and studying was painful.”

Evans completed his schooling and started devoting his life to practicing what he calls “mountain medicine.”

“I came up with this idea to blend my two loves — the mountains and medicine — together,” said Evans. “I began guiding a lot more expeditions all over the world after getting out of school, as a way to keep climbing but also keep others safe.”

Jeff Evans mountain search and rescue
Evans’ team (above) are proud their show allowed them to provide better care for local Nepali citizens. Photo: Courtesy of BCII

And that’s how the idea of “Everest Air” was born.

“A couple years ago, a pretty astute Sherpa identified the fact that there was a void in having a dedicated full-time rescue team on Everest,” said Evans.

“So I wanted to figure out a way to fund a team like that,” Evans continued. “I told the Travel Channel if we attached cameras to ourselves during our rescue operations, we can share the stories of the rescuers and fund the mission. And to their credit the Travel Channel stepped up and said, ‘We want to help something that saves lives.'”

So Evans and his team of Sherpas and helicopter pilots spent all of April and May performing search and rescue operations on the mountain and surrounding villages. The team performed 38 rescue missions during that period — all of which were successful.

But just because they were successful, that doesn’t mean they were routine.

“When you’re at 20,000 feet and you’re missing oxygen, everyone starts to get a little wacky, and you have to keep them calm otherwise they can harm themselves,” said Evans.

Jef Evans mountain search and rescue
Evans (above) wants to spread the message of how easily things can go wrong when on big mountain expeditions. Photo: Courtesy of BCII

“One day we did 11 operations and it was hectic,” he continued. “It was just a frenetic pace. We were dealing with people suffering from ruptured achilles tendons and cerebral edemas and other potentially fatal injuries. We had to keep our cool while piloting the helicopters and working at that elevation or it would be a disaster.”

Now that the first season is airing, Evans is hoping the Travel Channel will sign on for a second season so he can continue saving lives on Everest.

And he’s hoping he can get his message of preparedness in mountain climbing out to a wider audience.

“If you’re thinking of climbing a bigger mountain, don’t try to take a shortcut,” said Evans. “Put in the time and practice and work your way up. Otherwise something can go seriously wrong.”

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