Meet the chopper pilot on a mission to save lives

When he’s not climbing 8,000m mountains in winter, Simone Moro is rescuing people off them.
By Tarquin Cooper

Simone Moro is a legend among mountaineers.

The Italian alpinist has made it his calling to climb the world's highest mountains – there are 14 in all over 8,000m, all situated in the Himalayas and Karakorum.

But he climbs with a difference – in winter! But that's not all. Just a few years after taking up helicopter flying lessons, he was behind the highest – and one of the most daring – chopper rescues in the world, plucking a victim off the slopes of Mount Everest at 7,800m. 

We caught up with the fearless Moro to find out more...

Simone Moro enjoying the view at the Nanga Parbat.
Simone Moro on the summit of Nanga Parbat © David Goettler

How did you get into flying?
The desire to be a pilot was born in the Himalayas. It was growing more and more. If you have a problems in these mountains, 90 percent you die. So I tried to do something to change that. Everything starts for that reason.

You learnt pretty quickly right?
In 69 days I became a commerical pilot. Usually, in Italy, it takes 69 days just to do the paperwork! That's why I did it in the US. It's a more efficient system.I was a very fast student. From there I started to build my experience.

In 2013 I bought my own helicopter, Eurocopter AS350B3 and shipped it to Kathmandu and created a team with pilots and technicians. I now spend seasons in rotation, one season flying, one season climbing.

Simone Moro posing for a portrait in front of the helicopter in Nepal.
Simone with his Eurocopter AS350B3 © Simone Moro

Tell us about the rescue
There was a client of a commercial team who was descending Everest and he was completely exhausted. This client was also a double amputee – he had no arms so was being guided by Sherpas. He was completely exhuasted.

The Sherpas asked for rescue and it came to me. When I first heard the altitude of 7,800m, I thought it's impossible. The previous highest was not even close to that, 1,000m below, a Swiss rescue on Annapurna. The difference was massive.

If you have a problems in these mountains, 90 percent you die

In the end I decided to try. The technical limits of the helicopter was 23,000ft or 7,000m. If you decide to fly above this and something happens, the insurance won't give you a single dollar and the manufacturer is not responsible.

The difficulty was so extreme it would have been stupid for me to try, so I co-ordinated the rescue from Camp 2. It was quite complicated to co-ordinate.

Helicopter longline at 7800m.
The world’s highest helicopter rescue at 7,800m © Simone Moro

What happened?
We removed the door, the seats, everything to make it as light as possible. The pilot Maurizio Folini took off with the minimum of fuel. The conditions were just right but it was at the real limit. He was managing the last percentage of power and at the technical limits but was able to hold for 30 seconds, long enough to attach the client and fly to Base Camp.

I don't think anyone will go higher. You need the right conditions, the right pilot and the right owner who allows it! I'm probably the only stupid or good guy would do this. I did think I did a good thing but now I realised what I risked. To risk €2 million when you know the insurance will not pay you back – it was a big heart decision!

Simone Moro Helicopter
Simone’s chopper goes into action on Ama Dablam © Jon Griffith Photography

Any other noteworthy rescues?
In 2012 I recovered the dead body of a Ukrainian alpinist who'd been hanging for two years off the North Face of Teng Kang Poche. I was hanging under the helicopter under a long-line. The pilot was another Italian. I fixed an anchor while I was under and took the body away.

The couple were climbing in fine style but got stuck just below the summit. Their tent was hanging off one anchor. The real story is how his friends went back to the mountain with a telephoto lens and took 1000s of photos of every corner of the face. When they got home they went through them one by one. At the end, they discovered a yellow point that could be a tent.

There was no place to land so the only way was to lower me

I accepted their invitation to take the helicopter. The tent was under a huge dangerous serac and above a 2,000m drop. There was no place to land so the only way was to fly to as close as the face as possible and lower me on a long-line.

The tent was full of ice and the ice was glued to the face so I had to use my axe to break free the tent and the body. I was hanging under the helicopter 30m below. It was the work of two days in all. It was just one body – we never found the girl.

Simone Moro hanging on a longline below the helicopter.
Simone hangs from a long-line on Tengkang Poche © Simone Moro

Why climb in winter?
It's to enter a world that's fast disappearing. The Himalayas are completely white. You're alone with no people around – no trekkers, no climbers. A lot of the 8,000'ers are becoming popular during normal season.

Going in winter, you are returning to a world as it was for explorers.

Here I have the chance to have the Himalayas all to myself, that's why I go in winter. It's a pure form of exploration. But even a normal route in winter becomes a very a difficult proposition.

What's next?
I'm planning to climb Cho Oyu in winter next February. If successful it will be my 4th 8,000er in winter.

Simone Moro is a North Face athlete. His latest book, The Call of the Ice: Climbing 8,000 Meter Peaks in Winter, is published in November.

Simone Moro celebrating on Makalu.
Simone celebrates after climbing Makalu © Simone Moro Archive

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