Winched rescues only really began in the late 1960s. Before it had been common to use helicopters as a kind of air ambulance, landing teams as close as possible to accidents then letting a ground crew pick up the injured.
On the 24th of August 1972 two British climbers were trapped on the west face of the Drus. One was in a bad way, he had been hit by rocks, his left foot crushed and a broken tibia.
JJ Mollaret, head of the PGHM at Chamonix had flown on a reconnaissance and decided that a direct winched rescue was impossible. A ground based rescue would have to be organized. By mutual consent they decided to reach the pair by the west face as Hemmings and Desmaison had done in similar circumstances five years previously. The next day the PGHM team went off shift to be replaced by the Civilian Rescue Services. Their pilot, Rene Romet, was already a legend. He’d served in both the wars in Vietnam and Algeria and had accomplished a number of daring rescue missions with considerable flair. He had only been in Chamonix for a year but had already made a name for himself, not least for his outspoken opinions (he would remain a fan of the Allouette despite the introduction of the more powerful EC145 in 2002). With him was his favourite mechanic Gilbert Mezureux.
On the morning of the 26th they took off with the aim of localizing the stricken climbers and the ground based rescue team. He radioed the ground crew and was informed that the climbers were in a very serious condition.
Romet remembers “The boys were on the cliff face in front of me, one of them was no longer moving, we had to do something and quick, by the time the ground crew would get there it would be too late. I asked the ground team if there was a danger of rockfall, No they replied, It is fine, the conditions are very good. I didn’t know what we could do but I wanted to get in closer. We were just ten meters away and I said to Gilbert ‘try and throw them the winch’.
No time to think about it, we would give it a go. I turned the Alouette lengthwise to the face so the door was facing the climbers and Gilbert threw the winch to the climber who was still able to move. He missed! I was following the operations from the corner of my eye but had to stay concentrated on flying, the rotors were almost touching the rock face. The slightest gust of wind and the Alouette would crash into the Drus. Second try, this time the climber caught the hook. We then realised that the injured climber didn’t have a harness, Gilbert sent a rescue belt over. We had to be quick, our incredible stationary flight couldn’t last for ever. The climber fixed the cable to his friend. Now my helicopter was attached to the rock wall by the cable and the pitons holding the pair to the face. If something went wrong now I would be unable to manoeuvre. I started to climb slowly, Gilbert paid out the cable and gestured to the climber to unclip his friend from the face, we were now at 45 degrees to the pair. I pulled up and the climber swung below me suspended on the cable with 1000 meters of space to the Mer de Glace. What a feeling he must have had. Gilbert winched him onto the aircraft.”
The team had just saved Nigel Anthony Lyle, 19 years old. He would lose a foot but he owed his life to an extraordinary rescue mission. The other climber was able to abseil to the ground based rescue team. Romet had just made the first winched based rescue on a vertical face. Slowly but surely techniques would improve so that ground based rescues would become the exception, rather than the rule.