L Elephant Crashes

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Early in the afternoon of the 31st the clouds finally cleared. It was too late to follow Legall’s initial plan. Instead S58, nicknamed The Elephant, would drop the guides Honoré Bonnet and Charles Germain as close as possible to the climbers. It should only take a moment. If possible Bonnet would take some pictures, the profits would help fund a new photo laboratory for mountain rescue services. In the thin mountain air the helicopter slowly gained height to reach the Grand Plateau. It made a first pass over the drop zone, wheels almost touching the ground. Down below the events were relayed by radio to the press, across the valley on the Brévent skiers watched the action, transfixed. The S58 made a second pass, the pilot asking for all 600 horsepower from the piston engine, the rotor blades grasping for lift in the thin mountain air. The ground approached quickly, suddenly a huge cloud of snow, the helicopter had hit the mountain “Get out Get out it’s going to blow up!”, screamed Santini, the pilot. In the end the helicopter didn’t explode and the crew and guides found themselves on the snow with minor injuries but without a radio. Despite not having eaten for nearly a week François Henry still managed to smile a welcome for the rescue team.

Sikorsky S58 crash on Mont Blanc

The wreckage of the Sikorsky S58

For Legall the priorities had suddenly hanged. Firstly he had to save his two pilots who were not properly equipped for the mountains and then Vincendon and Henry. With astonishing speed, given the delays over the previous days, he sent the second helicopter to the Dome du Gouter with a team of four guides. To the public at large it seemed that only the lives of the pilots could finally motivate the rescue efforts. At the crash site the guides decided to make the two climbers as comfortable as possible in the wreck of the Sikorsky. With severely frozen limbs it would be impossible to help both them, and the two pilots, to safety. They set out for the Col du Dome and the safety of the Vallot Observatory but en-route Blanc, the co-pilot Blanc, fell into a crevasse. It took over half an hour to rescue him. Badly shocked and already hypothermic the decision was made to return to the wreck.

Back at the helicopter François Henry forgot his own injuries and did his best to raise Blanc’s spirits. “Tomorrow we’ll be in Chamonix” he promised. At 16h30 the other guides reached the helicopter. A decision was made; they would take the pilots with them to the Vallot but leave the climbers. They knew this would probably prove fatal to the two men but attempting to save them would be dangerous for everyone. Blanc remembered Henry’s last words as they left the wreck “Good Luck”.

On the 3rd of January an Alouette took off from Chamonix. The helicopter was ideally adapted to rescue work in the mountains had been requisitioned by Legall. It made three passes over the wreckage of the Sikorsky. The helicopter was covered with snow, there was no sign of life. The parents of the two climbers asked Legall to bring the rescue attempt to a halt. They didn’t want any more lives to be lost. Fighting back tears Legall announced the decision to the waiting press.

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