As some people will know Rene Desmaison died on the 28 September 2007. I recently read his book 342 hours on the Grandes Jorasses. The account of his epic climb and eventual rescue on this formidable route which saw the death of his climbing buddy Serge Gousseault.
February 1971. Rene Desmaison and Belgium trainee guide Serge Gousseault and a rising star of the climbing scene decided to attempt a winter on the Jorasse - 1200 meters of vertical rock and snow. They set out on the 8th from the Aiguille du Midi on skis. The weather was settled but extremely cold. The climbing difficulties started almost at the beginning with poor holds on rocks almost completely covered with ice. Desmaison fixed pitons while Serge had the difficult task of recovering the protection. In order to climb light they had kept equipment to a strict minimum. They climbed at a reasonable speed until the 14th when the weather closed in. Climbing got progressive hard with holds that had to be cleared of snow and ice. They were progressing at 100 vertical meters per day. They were now just 300 meters from the summit but with only two days of food remaining. Rockfall had cut a rope and snow had stopped Desmaison’s radio from working. They were cut off from the world.
The next day Gousseault had to remove his gloves repeatedly to recover climbing protection. He was now suffering from frostbite and found the process increasing difficult. On the 17th his condition rapidly deteriorated. It was a race against time. On the 20th, just 80 meters from the summit the team finally ground to a definitive halt. French TV was following the climb and the journalists contacted the rescue services with their concerns about the pair who were no longer moving. Gousseault was now in a near coma. Desmaison rigged an uncomfortable bivouac suspended over a 1000 meters of thin air. He couldn’t have imagined that he would spend nearly a week clinging to life by his fingertips. As with Vincendon and Henry in 1956 the French public were now following the suffering of the pair live on prime time TV.
A helicopter flight in difficult weather reported that the pair seemed to be okay. Desmaison’s wife was not reassured. On the 21st a new reconnaissance flight, this time the waving red anorak of Desmaison was a clear sign. The pair were in serious difficulty. The pilot returned to the Base des Bois where there was a long debate about the meaning of the signal. Desmaison’s wife, knowing they were out of food, insisted on a rescue. Maurice Herzog, mayor of Chamonix, declared to the press that no risks would be taken to rescue the pair. Desmaison claimed that Herzog wanted to make him pay for his unsanctioned and heavily publicized rescue of two German climbers in 1966.
On the 25th two pilots from Chamonix attempted to reach the pair, suspended on a vertical rock face. At the time winched rescue was extremely rare despite the excellent capacity of the 850 horsepower Alouette III, introduced in 1963. The pilots reported that it was not even possible to drop a rescue team on the summit due to the violent winds and updrafts. The prefect of the Isere was contacted to ask if the Security Civil, based at le Versoud could spare a helicopter to help inspect the area between the points Walker and Whymper. The pilot, Alain Frebault, had never flow in the area but had carried out a number of serious rescue operations in the high mountains of the Ecrins. His commander told him “to fly over to help, but try to see where the climbers are located before you land at Chamonix”. During the flight Frebault came across a Puma helicopter, he spoke to the pilot by radio who told him it was impossible to land in the sector. Arriving at Mont Blanc he called the rescue services on the col du Geant to help guide him to the Jorasses.
Arriving at the location he made a first attempt but an updraft on the face lifted his aircraft into the air. A second attempt with the same result. The aircraft was lifted into the air like a ball on a waterjet. He then turned his attention to a small, snow covered col, the Hirondelles, 100 meters below the summit. He approached without difficulty and even managed to touch down. His winchman came on the intercom “what more do they need?”. He radioed Chamonix to report he had landed near the summit.
Frebault flew down the valley to pick up three rescue workers. Despite instructions not to drop the men immediately he landed at the first pass over the zone then went to fetch a second team. By the time he had returned the first trio were already on the summit and setting up a winch. Frebault’s actions caused anger in Chamonix and in the press. Questions were asked. How come the locals were unable to land when a pilot who had never before visited Mont-Blanc was able to find a site on his first pass? By the end of his career in 1986, Frebault had completed 2200 rescue missions and had been dubbed “The pilot of the Grandes Jorasses”.
Gerard Devouassoud was the first to reach the pair. Gousseault was dead and Desmaison semi conscious. He remembered that of the 80 meters to the summit only the first 40 seemed really difficult. “how did we fail, so close to the end?”. The headline the next day in the local paper read “Desmaison resists, Gousseault dead for 3 days”. The journalist compared it to Henry Guillaumet’s epic account of survival after crashing in the Cordillera of the Andes. what I have done, I swear to you, no animal would have survived .
René Desmaison, alpinist: born Bourdeilles, France 14 April 1930; married (four children); died Marseilles, France 28 September 2007.