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Parachuting on Mount Everest

The majority of Everest’s visitors reach Everest Base Camp by trekking along the classic trails through Nepal. This month however, there was an unconventional approach to the mountain from the sky, as part of a bid for the high-altitude parachute landing world record.

The world’s highest mountain was the setting for a dramatic record-breaking attempt in September 2009 as three men jumped from a helicopter at an altitude of 6,154m, which is twice the exit altitude of an average recreational jump. Their aim was to land on a plateau called Gorak Shep (5,164m), a narrow, sandy area of open ground close to Everest Base Camp. To do this they were in free-fall for only four seconds, during which they fell more than a thousand metres; they had this brief time to steady themselves before opening their chutes, after which they had to steer to safety. The whole event was over in three minutes.

It was not a feat to be attempted by the inexperienced, but the trio have accumulated more than 13,000 jumps between them. Two of the sky divers are British; veteran sky diver and cameraman Leo Dickinson and skydiving instructor Ralph Mitchell, and they were joined by Air Commodore Ramesh Tripathi from the Indian Air Force.

Ramesh commented on how the jump was challenging because of the high winds and freezing temperatures. At one point he was taken away on the wind. Their landing was also a risky prospect, having to avoid the glaciers, crevasses and ridges around Everest Base Camp. Leo Dickinson confirmed that it was a dangerous landing, suggesting that overshooting the plateau could mean death or ending up ‘with something important broken.’

They were rewarded for their nerve with a perspective of the Everest Base Camp trekking landscape that few people have seen before now. “It was not just Everest” said Dickinson, “I could see the whole panorama of fantastic mountains and it was just amazing.” He added: “The view of the mountain range was beyond my wildest dreams.”

An outdoor adventure cameraman, Leo Dickinson is no stranger to Mount Everest (8,848 m), having filmed Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler’s trek to the summit without supplementary oxygen. He has made a film about a team of canoeists who started 800 metres below Everest Base Camp and rode a freezing river down the mountain. Leo has also had airborne adventures around Everest prior to this record bid. In October 1991 he filmed the first successful balloon ride over the summit of Mount Everest, propelled over the peak by the powerful and volatile jet stream.

The three skydivers are waiting for confirmation from Guinness that they have beaten the existing the high-altitude landing world record. Last year, sky divers successfully landed on a drop zone near Everest at 3,765 metres, way below the altitude of this month’s jump.

The Nepal government permitted the daredevil record attempt and are considering proposals to run regular parachute jumps in the air space around Mount Everest. It is part of a scheme to expand tourism to Nepal for Visit Nepal 2011, building upon the visitors brought by the popular Everest Base Camp Trek experience.

By Maite Burn

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