It seems that we’re in for a treat in France. Jo Simpson’s Touching the Void premieres next week. Less well known to international audiences is the French film Malabar Princess which is scheduled for release in March. Staring the excellent Jacques Villeret (The Dinner Game) and Michèlle Laroque (My Life in Pink) it indirectly touches on the crash of the Malabar Princess on Mont Blanc 50 years earlier.
Eight year old Tom is sent to Chamonix to spend a year with his grandfather. His mother disappeared on a glacier 5 years earlier. Little by little Tom uncovers family secrets just as the glaciers yield pieces of stricken airliner.
But what of the Malabar Princess? The airliner, a Lockheed Constellation was en-route from Bombay to London via Geneva on the 10th of November. Travelling over the French Alps at around 5000 meters altitude it seems it touched an air-pocket. A phenomenon known to pilots familiar with the region. The control tower lost contact with the plane somewhere over the mountains.
After three hours without contact the plane was reported missing, a general alert was put out. But this was still six years before the scandal of Vincendon and Henry would lead to the overall of the French rescue services. Mountain rescue was largely the responsibility of guides who lacked experience with the harsh winter conditions.
Over 48 hours later, a Swiss Air plane spotted the wreckage of the Malabar Princess 100 meters below the Aiguille du Goûter, one of the peaks of Mont Blanc. Only a wing and motor were visible, of any survivors there was no trace. Maybe they’d made it to the nearby Vallot refuge.
On Monday morning the guides of Chamonix and St Gervais were organised to attempt a rescue. With skis and climbing skins the Chamoniards set out for the Grand Mulets, lead by the popular guide and head of the Ecole de Haute Montagne, René Payot. At 17h00 a message came over the radio “Payot is dead”. He’d been carried by an avalanche into a crevasse close to where his brother had died in 1939. The rescue operations were called off. The guides of St Gervais did reach the fuselage but returned with only a mail bag, of the 48 passengers and crew all were dead.
The shock amongst the guides and residents of Chamonix of the death of René Payot, a father of four, was profound and would discourage other winter rescue attempts. Periodically the glacier de Bossons turns up pieces of the plane as they are carried down the mighty ice flows. A reminder of the tragic events over half a century ago.