The Chamonix High Mountain Police based in Chamonix have been celebrating their 50th anniversary this weekend. The Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne (PGHM) or more simply “le PG” was born out of tragedy. In 1956 two young climbers, Jean Vincendon and François Henry, were stranded on Mont Blanc in terrible conditions in full view of skiers and the world media opposite on the Brevent. Poorly equipped with unclear chains of command the rescue services consisting of guides and the army (EHM) proved powerless to help. The men were left to an agonising fate in atrocious conditions. The era of none-professional mountain rescue was over.
In June 1957 the Gendarmerie proposed creating a small unit to coordinate mountain rescue. An inquiry into the Vincendon and Henry affair lead the government to instruct Préfets in the summer of 1958 to take overall responsibility for organising mountain rescue. In Chamonix the Groupe Spécialisé de Haute Montagne (GSHM) was established on the 1st November 1958. Today the PGHM in Chamonix runs 1300 rescue operations each year in the Mont Blanc range and Haute-Savoie. A second unit is based in Annecy. Around half the operations are during the summer, the main climbing season in the Mont-Blanc range. Units of the PGHM and PGM can be found in all the French mountain ranges. A dangerous profession, 46 members of these elite units have been killed in service.