Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mont Blanc deaths revive tragic memories of 1957

Les Droites, Mont Blanc
My chalet guests often ask me to point out Mont Blanc (4810m), which you can see clearly from most of the Les Arcs ski area. I explain: you are looking at the Italian side, and it's actually only 15km away as the crow flies.

However, last Sunday as I was once again gazing at the rounded dome of Europe's highest mountain  I couldn't help thinking of the tragic plight of the two Lithuanian climbers trapped on the rocky north face of Les Droites, below the peak at 3900m.

They had sent a text message on Friday saying that one had tried to set off on skis back to Chamonix and the other was managing to "keep warm in his bivouac using his gas stove". Several attempts were made over the next 48 hours to reach the climbers by helicopter, but with high winds and  heavy snowfall  they were unable to get lower than 4300m, or closer than 300m to the stricken pair.  Finally, on Sunday afternoon a helicopter with heat-seeking equipment was able to ascertain that they were both dead, the one who set off on skis having fallen in the Lagarde couloir. Their bodies will be recuperated when the weather permits.

The local paper mentions a similar tragedy that befell two British climbers in 1999. One was eventually brought out alive after being heroically rescued on the end of a winch line,  lowered several hundred meters from a helicopter in atrocious conditions (apparently the wind was blowing the snow vertically up the mountain and high above it). This surviving climber lost both feet and hands through frostbite.

Vincendon and Henry
However, I was reminded of the extraordinary drama that took place on the Brenva Glacier (south side of Mont Blanc, visible from the ski area of Brévent, above Chamonix), some 57 years ago. The appalling failure of various attempts to rescue the climbers Jean Vincendon and François Henry (both in there early 20s)  led to structural changes in the way that mountain rescue in France is carried out. 

On 22nd December 1956 the two men, experienced winter climbers, set out from the Torino refuge to climb the Brenva. By chance they came across the celebrated Italian mountaineer Walter Bonnatti and his climbing partner, who encouraged the two young men in their planned ascent. The four climbers slept at the Fourche refuge and setting off in different directions early the following morning. However, soon the Bonatti cordée found conditions worsening and decided to change their plans and to rejoin the others on the Brenva route. By the time they met up the weather was considerably worse and the four climbers had to spend that Christmas night in improvised snow holes. The following day they decided to head for the safety of the Vallot Observatory refuge. Vincendon and Henry fell behind and the groups became separated; they never made it to the refuge.  

Down in Chamonix friends and associates of the climbers were getting worried (no mobile phones in those days). The Chamonix Mountain rescue service arranged for Sikorsky helicopter to overfly the area. The crew spotted Vincendon and Henry. They were unable to land but they did drop parcels of food and blankets (in fact their fingers were already so badly frostbitten they were unable to undo the knots of the string around these packages).   

Having established they were alive another rescue mission was launched, using one of the biggest Sikorski helicopters possessed by the French army (known as 'The Elephant') to drop a rescue team close to the the two young men.They would then assist them to the Vallot refuge, which was only 400m away. 

The crashed Sikorsky S-55, "The Elephant"
Incredibly, the helicopter crashed, the snow and wind proving too much the for The Elephant, but even more unbelievably none of the four occupants of the aircraft were injured. Seeing the extremely poor condition Vincendon and Henry were now in, the senior rescuer, Commander Legall, had to take a tough desicion; the two helicopter pilots being only lightly equipped were in danger. He decided to place Vincendon and Henry in the crashed carcass of the helicopter, to give them a bit of shelter, and to get the pilots to the Vallot refuge as quickly as possible. He would then return with his colleague to rescue the climbers.

The climb to the refuge with the inexperienced pilots took a long time. One fell in to a crevasse and it took an hour and a half to get him out. By the time the party reach Vallot they were exhausted and it was nearly dark. There was no question of Legall returning to the men in the wreck of The Elephant. 

The following day, 1st January 1957 saw a further worsening of the weather and no further rescue attempts on the mountain or from the ground could be attempted. It was only on 3rd January, after mounting media interest and government pressure that two state-of-the-art, lightweight Aloutte helicopters were able to land near the refuge and rescue Legall and his party (why hadn''t they been used earlier?). One Aloutte overflew the wreck of the Elephant, and saw no sign of life from Vincendon and Henry. 

In Chamonix Vincendon's father, himself an experienced mountaineer, pleaded with the authorities to abandon the rescue in order not to risk further loss of life.  It was not until 20th March that Vincendon and Henry's bodies we able to be brought down, by a team of 28 guides. A chilling epilogue to the drama was that Henry's body was found outside the wreck of the helicopter, probably indicating that we was still alive when the Aloutte flew over them.

There were huge repercussions, in the press and among the different groups of guides, rescue services, police and military about how such missions should be organised and who should have responsibility for the difficult decisions that have to be taken. As a result the Pelotons de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne was founded , based on integrated military mountain rescue systems established in the Soviet Union.

However, even the best resources and organisation isn't always enough to save lives on the mountains, their power being perhaps greater then human  endeavour. 

There is an excellent, detailed account of the Vincendon and Henri tragedy in,

Our thoughts are with the friends and families of the two Lithuanian men who perished last weekend.

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