Angels of Mont Blanc
Francis Claudon, of the Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne (PGHM) in Chamonix, France, was on second call that July evening. With one team already out on a rescue, he was kitted up and ready for the next mission, boots on and rucksack packed. When the alert came, he was relaxing in the Dropzone lounge next to the helipad with his rescue partner. The room was spacious but sparsely decorated, with a TV, a couple of sofas, and a coffee machine. A loudspeaker relayed the message from the control room, and the pair listened before heading downstairs, shouldering their packs, and striding out to the helicopter, where a mechanic was filling the tank with enough kerosene for the job ahead.
The powerful twin-motor Eurocopter 145 took off vertically before pivoting and climbing steeply up toward the nearby Mer de Glace. Five minutes after take-off, the pilot was passing between the towering needles of the Drus and the Grands Charmoz, hugging the ice as he followed the snaking glacier up toward the north face of the Grandes Jorasses.
For many rescue specialists, getting dropped onto the ice-draped, nearly vertical walls of a peak like the Grandes Jorasses might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but for Francis and the other members of the PGHM, which does many hundreds of rescue missions a year, mostly by helicopter, it’s all in a day’s work.
The Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses is one of the most sought-after climbs in the Alps. A striking, 1,200-meter- high pillar of rock leading straight to the highest point on the mountain, it is as pure an alpine line as you could wish for, and on the rare summer days when it is in prime condition, it draws climbers like wasps to a jam jar. As with many other alpine classics, its length and difficulty are often underestimated by aspirant ascensionists. When it is clear of snow, a fast party climbing light will manage it in a long day, but many still spend a cold night out on the mountain. If an evening storm catches a team high on the route, the situation suddenly becomes very serious.
Marcel and Marcus, two experienced alpinists from Switzerland, were well aware of the dangers when they set out to claim their prize. Their strategy was atypical. Rather than stay in the Leschaux Hut and leave early the next morning to attempt a one-day ascent, they decided to walk in directly from the Montenvers train station above the Mer de Glace, start climbing around noon, bivouac at halfheight, and then—hopefully—top out the following day. Their plan would leave them more exposed to stonefall on the approach, but would help them avoid other parties on the route and allow them time to reach the summit before the arrival of the bad weather that was forecast for the next day.
Everything went according to plan until late in the afternoon of the second day. The team had moved as fast as they could, but 700 feet of technical climbing still separated them from the summit when the predicted storm rolled in. It was of rare violence: torrential rain accompanied by incessant lightning strikes. With the Swiss already exhausted after two long days of effort and a testing bivouac, the downpour proved to be the final straw. Soaking wet and with signs of hypothermia setting in, they called the PGHM on their mobile phone and requested a rescue.
The PGHM helicopter stopped briefly at the Leschaux Hut to drop off Francis’ rescue partner; air conditions were turbulent, and the pilot wanted to be as light as possible for the maneuvers to come. The weather was clearing after the storm, but cloud still clung to the face and gusts of wind blasted the summit from the south, creating difficult flying conditions. At seven p.m., after several failed attempts to position the helicopter, Francis was finally lowered to the stranded alpinists. He clipped himself into the belay and detached from the winch cable. With his man off the line, the pilot swung away from the rock wall in a wide arc and flew westward along the ridge to the vertical south face of the Dent du Géant, where another PGHM team was in action.
On the ledge, Francis checked that Marcel and Marcus were uninjured and went through the standard procedure before an evacuation: verifying the belay, packing away any unnecessary items of gear, and making sure the two alpinists were prepared to be lifted off. With an earpiece and a microphone radio link, he was in constant contact with the ground crew and the pilot, and when the group was ready to go, he called for the helicopter. Up until this moment, the whole operation had been very routine, and Francis assumed he’d be back down in Chamonix in minutes. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Before the pilot could return, the three men disappeared behind a swirling mass of cloud. Flying a helicopter a few feet away from a rock wall is hazardous at the best of times, but without a visual reference it becomes unjustifiable. With the visibility changing continuously, the pilot circled at a safe distance, hoping for a chance clearing. Every attempt to move in was cut short by returning cloud. Eventually, with fuel running low, the pilot was forced back to Chamonix. By 8:30 p.m., the weather hadn’t improved, and Francis realized he would have to finish the job on his own. The circumstances were daunting. Less than two hours earlier, he had been lounging on the sofa at the Dropzone and drinking coffee; now he was to lead two exhausted climbers off the Walker Spur in worsening weather and fading light.
Marcus and Marcel were not keen on the idea at all, and Francis had to use his best English to persuade them that climbing out was their only option. He tied into the ropes, made sure he was being belayed correctly, and started climbing up the steep, loose 5.9 ground that lay above. With crampons on his feet, a 30-pound sack on his back, and darkness now closing in, it was going to be challenging to reach the summit— but that would be easy compared to navigating down the complex terrain on the other side of the mountain. As he made his way slowly up the wall, Francis suddenly became aware that he was enjoying himself.
Even by European standards, Chamonix has a unique vibe. For 50 bucks, you can ride a tram that will whisk you up 9,000 vertical feet from the tourist-filled streets to a world of jagged peaks and chaotic glaciers. Push open a small, spring-loaded gate, and you step off a walkway out onto an icy, knife-edged ridge with a searing drop on either side. In winter you can (legally) duck under a rope at the local ski resort and suddenly find yourself dodging 100-foot-deep crevasses. Drive a short distance down the valley, stroll through a gentle woodland, and you can be on the edge of a 1,500-foot cliff, ready to throw yourself off some of the most popular BASE jumps on the planet.
There is no need to register… or hire a guide… or apply for a permit… or prove your experience… or dodge guys in uniform. The world’s greatest mountain playground is open to everyone, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Of course, this freedom comes at cost. Such an accessible high-mountain environment with unregulated access would be a potent mix anywhere, but place it bang in the middle of a heavily populated, affluent, and leisure-obsessed continent, and you have a recipe for disaster—or, rather, multiple disasters. The mountains here kill 30 people in a good year, and in a bad year twice that number. Mark Twight, a former resident, called Chamonix “the death-sport capital of the world.” So what exactly happens when the crampons rip, the snowbridge collapses, or the parachute hits the wall? Well, that’s when the guys in uniform suddenly appear from the sky and do their damnedest to pull you out of the mess you got yourself into.
Chamonix’s Peleton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne is the busiest and perhaps the most highly skilled mountain rescue team in the world. The Chamonix branch is one of 15 PGHM units based in the mountainous regions of France. Le PG (pronounced pay-jay), as it is known locally, comprises 36 rescuers supported by a helicopter crew and a team of medics. Members must complete the standard gendarme (military police) training before applying, then go through an arduous selection process to evaluate their climbing and skiing skills, as well as their overall physical condition. Successful candidates go to Chamonix to be trained in mountain-rescue techniques before being dispatched to one of the regional units. In all, the PGHM employs around 250 rescue specialists. Each unit has access to helicopter transport and medical support, and mountain rescues are also carried out by police teams and the fire service, so it’s clear that rescue in France is a costly business. Outside of the ski areas, however, despite the cost, rescues are financed entirely by the state.
Whether they are rescuers, medics, or heli-crew, the men and women of the Chamonix rescue service recount their missions like a climber would a difficult route. It is almost as if they consider mountain rescue to be an alpine discipline in its own right. A beau secours, or “beautiful rescue,” involves bringing the victims back alive, first and foremost, but the complexity and difficulty of the operation are also appreciable factors. The steeper the terrain and the worse the conditions, the bigger the rewards.
On the Grandes Jorasses rescue that night in July, Francis Claudon managed to tick all the boxes. After reaching the summit at around midnight, he led Marcel and Marcus down 1,000 meters of steep glacial terrain on the south side of the mountain, now in Italy, where they eventually dropped beneath cloud level. At dawn the next morning, a short break in the weather allowed an Italian helicopter to pick them up. They were exhausted but relieved that their adventure was finally over. Francis had pulled off a beau secours: both an extraordinary rescue and a very impressive feat of mountaineering.
Michel Gonzales, one of the longest-serving members of the Chamonix team, credits its success to the fact that each component of the service is constantly striving to excel in its role. The helicopter crew are among the elite of the French Gendarmerie’s air wing, capable of piloting in heavy turbulence and poor visibility, and able to perform a winching operation with rotor blades mere feet from a rock wall. The medics are all self-reliant mountaineers, while the rescuers themselves are mostly internationally certified mountain guides. They take great pride in inventing new equipment and rescue techniques, and regular training days are organized with the PG’s Swiss and Italian counterparts to exchange ideas and methods. With the Mont Blanc range straddling the three countries, the teams have to communicate closely and sometimes cooperate on rescues.
The tactics employed by the PGHM are a bit unorthodox in the world of mountain rescue, but they mirror the general ethos of the Chamonix valley: fast, light, and bold. Whereas other rescue services typically use larger teams, a typical PG mission involves a helicopter crew, two rescuers, and perhaps a medic. The self-sufficiency of each unit enables the PG to deal with multiple alerts with a relatively small number of personnel on call. On a quiet day, one pair of rescuers might be enough to cover the whole valley, but when things really heat up and alerts start coming in simultaneously, three or even four teams may be active on different peaks at the same time.
Due to the complexity of the terrain and the sheer number of rescue missions being carried out, the helicopter is used in 97 percent of all interventions in Chamonix. Obviously, a high degree of coordination is required between each unit and the pilot, and during their weekly rotation, each rescuer spends time in the control room, coordinating missions and prioritizing alerts. Things start getting frantic when multiple rescue missions are on the go. “It’s like war,” says rescue worker Amyot Tripard, describing the atmosphere in the control room at these times.
The weather dishes out the PGHM’s most unpredictable challenges, but even when conditions are good, the steep terrain around Chamonix can still turn rescue missions into dramas. Sonia Popoff, one of the medical team, recounted one such incident on the Grand Capucin, a 500-meter-high monolith of vertical granite perched high on the flanks of Mont Blanc. A climber had fallen and was lying injured on a small ledge in the middle of the face. The only helicopter available was an Allouette, a model that is less powerful than the newer EC 145, and which, critically, carries a 40-meter winch cable compared to the EC 145’s 80-meter cable. This means the pilot has to fly closer to the wall to drop rescuers to the victim.
The extraction team, lowered first, decided that the climber’s injuries required immediate medical aid, and radioed up for Popoff to join them on the ledge. She clipped into the cable, swung out of the cabin, and was descending toward the victim when she heard a loud clattering noise. A thick smell of cordite suddenly filled the air. At the same instant, the helicopter veered abruptly away from the face and Sonia swung out into space. Looking down, she was alarmed to see the glacier approaching fast. In his effort to get her onto the ledge, the pilot had maneuvered too close, and the rotor blades had clipped the rock. He was now fighting to control his damaged machine in the thin air while the winchman worked desperately to reel Popoff back into the cabin before the inevitable crash landing. The rescuers on the ledge could only watch helplessly as the helicopter veered out of sight around the corner of the wall and descended rapidly toward the glacier. Popoff made it back inside before the crippled helicopter impacted the snow with a hard bump.
After everybody involved had been rescued by another PGHM crew, Popoff returned to on-call duty, and she carried out other missions that day before being relieved of her nightshift by a sympathetic colleague. Popoff was happy to be able to relax at home in return for a night on call a few days later, but it proved to be a poor deal. On her next shift, a serac fall triggered a huge slab avalanche on one of Mont Blanc’s most frequented routes. Dozens of people were swept away, and many were buried or injured. Despite a massive 24-hour effort from the Chamonix rescue team and their Italian colleagues, eight people were killed, their bodies never recovered. Popoff spent all day on the mountain administering first aid to the victims.
I have asked many members of the PG over the years whether they get frustrated with some of the people they rescue. Historically, the alpine ideal has been one of self-reliance in the mountains. You leave prepared for the worst, and calling for a rescue is a last resort, the most abject form of failure. Climbers coming to Chamonix, on the other hand, sometimes have an expectation of immediate assistance, and this can lead to people attempting routes without the necessary skills or experience. The PGHM helicopter has been called in for incidents as minor as a broken ski boot on the crowded Vallée Blanche ski tour, and the PG regularly intervenes to rescue exhausted climbers who have simply overestimated their abilities. Recently, rescuers were even called to pick up a tourist who, dressed in casual clothes, had attempted to walk between the Italian and French cable-car stations. After crossing the heavily crevassed glaciers unroped, he found himself stranded at the foot of the steep snow ridge leading to the Aiguille du Midi station, unable to continue in his street shoes.
Although rescue is of course dangerous work—46 members of the French alpine-rescue gendarmerie have been killed in the line of duty—Jean Claudon, a veteran of countless missions, says that it’s pointless to judge people in these situations. “What starts as a benign incident can quickly degenerate into a lifethreatening situation,” he says. “We’d rather pick up people before they get into real trouble than go up later to collect their bodies.” One of the pilots assured me that I shouldn’t be concerned about putting him at risk. “Flying helicopters in the mountains is what I do,” he said. “It’s like climbing mountains for you.”
Occasionally, however, patience wears thin. During the weekend I spent with the team, there was an 11 p.m. alert from climbers who had witnessed a headlamp fall high on the Frontier Ridge of Mont Maudit. Despite turbulent air conditions, a team made a reconnaissance flight, using night-vision goggles, worried that an alpinist might have been attached to the lamp. After ascertaining that the two climbers involved were unhurt, the PG headed back down to base, only to get woken 30 minutes later by the same pair, asking for a rescue because they were cold and tired. An exasperated rescuer explained to them that being cold and tired was all part of mountaineering, and that they should keep moving through the night and get down by themselves.
On most days, however, the French national motto—“Libérté, Egalité, Fraternité”— could have been invented to describe the PGHM, its rescuers, and their attitude toward people in trouble in their mountains. Overweight tourists on forest trails, badly equipped novices on Mont Blanc, mountain guides with their clients on classic ridges, the fast-and-furious brigade on technical north walls—all get exactly the same treatment, irrespective of nationality, ability, or the size of their wallets. “The mountains are actually very forgiving most of the time,” says Jean Claudon, “but unfortunately, when they decide to punish, you don’t always get a second chance.”
Neil Brodie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but has lived in France for 20 years and has guided in the Alps since 1996.
The Cable Channel
A Rescuee’s View
By Cam Burns
We were high in the Aiguilles Rouges du Mont Dolent, on the Swiss side of the border, a stone’s throw from France, the loosest part of that area of the Alps, I later learned. My partner, John, had taken a long, upside-down fall, bouncing against the not particularly steep cliff as he dropped headfi rst into the rubble. Inexplicably, John didn’t break his neck, but did bust both his feet. Deflated, we called for a rescue.
Within an hour, three men in a glass bulb were pointing at us from 150 feet out. Then the chopper was gone, buzzing away through the valleys below. Forty-five minutes later, a smaller chopper appeared above. It moved close to the cliff, its blades perilously close to the rocks. The pilot paid no attention to his coworkers. He held the joystick and watched the cliff, his eyes darting left and right, appraising every feature for fractions of a second.
A man, dressed like a climber but wearing a headset, lowered out. He grabbed the loose rocks below John and unleashed the cable. He immediately started placing gear in the jumble. Another man lowered. The two roped together and climbed up to John, placing at least a half dozen pieces in the rocks around him. After an hour, they had him strapped into what looked like a sitting version of a back brace. The helicopter returned and lowered the inch-thick, plastic-covered cable. One man attached himself, then clipped John’s throne in, and whoosh, they were airborne, flying thousands of feet above the cliffs and glaciers. The whoop-whoop-whoop faded into the distance.
Meanwhile, the man who remained on the face worked his way along our second rope to me and my single-Friend anchor. Then the chopper was back. Suddenly, I was clipped into the massive cable. The rescue guy shouted something in French, and we were off.
I thought the instantaneous rush of adrenaline would make me sick, make me pass out, make me yell, and make me whoop-whoop-whoop my trousers into oblivion. But as soon as we were airborne, I realized that the rescue chap was, essentially, sitting on my lap, the warmth of his thighs weirdly distracting as we swung into space. “Uh, well, this is quite cozy,” I breathed into the man’s face, inches away. I held out my hand: “I should introduce myself. Je suis Cam.” The man looked at me, smiled, and shook my hand. “Yes, I am Thierry.”
With that, Thierry turned his attention to the helicopter, the cable, and the extraordinary views—as if sitting on another man’s lap 3,000 feet in the air was an everyday occurrence—which for him, it probably was.
The helicopter sped toward a flat area of glacier, landing about a kilometer from the accident site. A half dozen men repacked gear and wound up the cables. Then, suddenly, John and his ride were gone, headed for a hospital in Sion. For my flight out, I sat down next to the pilot, who wore shorts and a T-shirt. He smiled a horror-movie-villain smile, then thumbed the joystick. Whoosh!
Cam Burns, a writer based in Colorado, recently purchased new bib pants.