With the rescue services little more than a phone call away it is hard to imagine how it once was. Recent tragedies in the Himalayas are much closer. Rob Hall once commented that it would be easier to rescue someone from the moon than from Everest. In May 1996, marooned at over 8000 meters, well above the ceiling of helicopters at the time, he found out just how true this was. But he was not alone, able to communicate with base camp via a radio and say his goodbyes to his wife in New Zealand by satellite phone.
Within living memory it was the same in Europe. In France, rescue has traditionally been the responsibility of local communities. In the mountains, guides and fellow climbers were the only people competent to form rescue parties. Even in the 1950s, despite some winter ascents, climbing was viewed as a summer activity. Guides were reluctant to turn out to rescue people who got into difficulties in the winter months. In any case they were often busy with another job, guiding only paying the bills during the summer. The accident of the Malabar Princess, an Indian Airliner that crashed close to the summit of Mont Blanc only hardened these attitudes. The popular Chamonix guide René Payot had perished during the rescue attempt. Why should guides risk their necks, and the well being of their families for imprudent climbers?
Next: Winter on the Brenva