The Alouette III is equipped with a 40 meter hydraulic winch but despite the introduction in of the helicopter in 1962 winched rescues didn’t become the norm until the late 1960s. Winches were first fitted to the III from 1965 but crews were dubious at first believing winched rescues close to sheer cliff faces would leave them exposed to rock fall and collisions.
Alouette III winch
It took some time for crews to evolve the techniques necessary for stationary flying and winched rescue. The usual procedure was to drop a spotter at the foot of the cliff. Equipped with binoculars he would radio the pilot if he spotted rockfall above the helicopter. The pilot would then have a split second to break off operations, often with a rescue worker swinging 20-30 meters below the aircraft suspended by a thin steel wire.
A significant milestone in winched rescue occurred in the summer of 1967.
On the 27th of July half a dozen climbers were hit by rock fall on the north face of the Mont Maudit at 4200 meters. It was 10h00. Two Alouette IIIs lifted off from Chamonix but the face was too steep for them to land. Winched rescue had never been attempted in such thin air. The Civilian Rescue helicopter dropped two rescue workers on the col de la Brenva then overflew the victims to assess the weather conditions. The pilot decided to try to hover over the victims and attempt a winched rescue.
At 11h00 a member of the PGHM was lowered to the climbers and was able to give first aid. The helicopters took it in turns winch a victim to safety. It was an aerial ballet between ambulances waiting at the place du Marche in Chamonix and the accident scene. By 12h30 the operation was over. Without helicopters and the skill of the rescue teams a ground based rescue would have to be attempted taking many hours to reach the scene and descend the injured climbers by sledge. Without doubt costing the lives of some or all of the victims.
August 1967: touch down on the north face of Le Plan
July 1970: 17 winched rescues on the north face of the Droites
1970: winched rescue from the pointe du Vallon des Etages
August 1971: Touch down on a single wheel on the Eperon Walker in the Granes Jorasses
August 1972: Winched rescue on the Pilier de Bonati.
-- Source: JJ Mollaret, Captain of the PGHM in Chamonix, from his book “Au dela des Cimes”