The Isere section of the PGHM (Peloton de gendarmerie de haute montagne) celebrated its 50th anniversary this weekend with a remembrance service in the morning and a practical demonstration of the technical capabilities of this elite military mountain division in the afternoon.
The “PG” is not a lone actor in the Isere. Rescue missions are flown by pilots from the Sécurité civile in the state of the art Eurocopter EC145. With a cruise speed of 246 km/h and a climb rate of 8.1 m/s the EC145 has transformed mountain rescue. It can often arrive at the scene of an accident 15 minutes after the alert is given. The general procedure is to drop a rescue workers, possibly with a dog and his handler for avalanche incidents along with a doctor. The aim being to stabilize the victim as quickly as possible before transporting him to hospital.
The PGHM has had to adapt to changes in recreational activities as traditional climbing and alpinism has given way to the development of mountain biking and off piste skiing in the 1990s and more recently to BASE jumping, Via Feratta and Para-gliding. Ski touring has also shown a considerable renaissance. The Isere PGHM counts 11 mountain guides and 7 ski instructors amongst its ranks.
However when the weather is bad traditional means have to be used: 4x4s, snow mobiles and climbing on foot or skis. The PGHM are one of two units that also have specialists in caving. With the immense Gouffre Berger on their patch this is understandable. Many members of the PG are qualified to guide level and this has tended to preclude women recruits (there are only 18 female guides working in France in total) but it is not all brawn and heavy lifting. The PG also has its crime investigation unit. Mountain accidents are treated as a potential crime scene and are investigated as such.
Pilot from 1980 to 1996, Jean-Pierre Roca reminded Pistehors that every rescue mission also presents risks for the crew. He remembered his colleague, Pierre Nicollet. Roca was flying the venerable Alouette III, Nicollet had been winched to recover a stricken climber on the South west face of the Barre des Ecrins. Unable to see the rescue worker he was completely under the directions of the winch man. When the time came to recover the climber an unsecured ice axe caught on the face breaking the winch cable, both victim and rescuer fell to their deaths.