The Martyrs of Mont-Blanc

As is so often the case, it would take a tragedy, played out in the full glare of the media spotlight, for French mountain rescue services to be put on a proper footing. Fifty years ago this week, as French families started their Christmas celebrations, a team of four climbers were fighting for their lives high on the summit of Mont-Blanc. Amongst them legendary Walter Bonatti. The event would bring France face to face with the new media age, each agonising minute played in front of journalists, radio and TV.

sikorsky S58

Jean Vincendon, a trainee guide and Francois Henry had set out before Christmas to make an attempt on the Brenva route. Their friends, Claude Dufourmantelle, now a respected guide and Xavier Caseneuve had completed the route in near perfect conditions a few days earlier. This was only the second winter ascent. Winter climbing was a marginal activity at the time and the Societe Chamoniarde de Secours en Montagne (SCSM) who coordinated rescues told them that they would be on their own if they ran into trouble.

Tragedy is etched in the memories of the Chamoniards. Many recalled the terrible story of a party of eleven who perished on Mont Blanc in September 1870 during a storm. A diary in the frozen hands of an American, Joss Bean told the horrible fate of the group lost on the frozen expanse of the summit. More recently, in 1950 an Indian airliner had crashed on the summit of Mont-Blanc. The rescue party of Chamonix guides was struck by tragedy when their leader, René Payot was killed by an avalanche leaving his wife and 14 year old son.

Vincendon and Henry were on the point of abandoning their project due to doubts about the weather when they ran into Bonatti and Silvano Gheser and decided team up for the climb. Hit by a storm close to the summit they spent a terrible night exposed to Arctic temperatures (it was -20C in Chamonix, 3000 meters below) and howling winds. Their friends alerted the SCSM but were told “no, we are not going to risk the lives of guides to save your imprudent friends, go yourselves if you want”. High on the Brenva Bonatti organized the retreat in almost zero visibility, first to the col de Brenva then over the summit of Mont-Blanc. Five hundred meters of climbing in deep snow, he judged the direct route to Chamonix via the Grand and Petit Plateau too dangerous. Vincendon and Henry were too tired to continue. Reluctantly Bonatti left the pair, he and Gheser only just escaped with their lives after reaching the Vallot refuge. Gheser had to stop Bonatti returning into the night to try and save the other climbers who had now decided to bivouac in a crevasse 200 meters below the summit of Mont-Blanc.

The next day, the 27th, Marcel Simond, using a telescope from the Planpraz cable car station, spotted the pair in a terrible state above the Rochers Rouges. At the end of the day they had descended to 4200 meters. The following day they started out at 8am but were blocked by a zone of seracs at the edge of the Grand Plateau. A helicopter overflew them and threw some provisions with a note to climb back up. Surely they would soon be safe and warm in Chamonix? They prepared for another night on the mountain. On the 29th the helicopter was trapped by fog at the airbase at le Fayet. The press, radio and television began to take an interest. First in the “imprudent youths” who had attempted a climb “beyond their limits”. Then in the “inaction of the rescue services who were martyring two young men”. Tensions were running high. Le Monde noted “around the village pump of Chamonix there are heated arguments that largely fall on deaf ears, mountain folk against townies, civilians against the military, Chamonix versus St Gervais”.

Finally on New Year’s eve two pilots, Blanc and Santini, set off in the giant piston engined Sikorski S58 with the idea of landing the guides Honore Bonnet and Charles Germain close to the stricken climbers. The rotors of the S58 had trouble gaining any lift in the thin mountain air. As the aircraft approached the bivouac the pilot’s were blinded by snow thrown up by the turbulence. At the same time a gust of wind caused them to lose control, the Sikorski crashed into the ground. There were now six men to rescue and the pilots were not properly dressed for the conditions.

It seems that having their own guides and pilots on the mountain finally motivated the authorities. At 15h30 a second Sikorski took off to land four guides at the col du Dome. At 16h30 the guides Chappaz and Minster reached the wreckage of the S58. The decision was made to rescue the pilots first, guiding them to the Vallot refuge and to make Vincendon and Henry as comfortable as possible in the remains of the S58. On the 2nd of January the temperature was -36C at the Vallot. Were the two men still alive? On the 3rd an Alouette 2 recovered the pilots from the Vallot and made a fly past, there were no signs of life. The rescue was abandoned on the insistence of the men’s families.

In late March a team of guides reached the wreckage, Jean Vincendon was exactly where they had left him on New Year’s eve but Francois Henry had managed to climb out of the lower door of the Sikorski. Was he still alive on the 3rd? Had he heard the passing Alouette and made a last desperate bid for help?

Did it all come down to a question of money? At the time mountain guides normally worked the summer season and had other jobs during the winter. A rescue would take them away from this work and could cost them their lives, leaving widows and orphans but there were precedents. In 1938 the guide Raymond Lambert took two clients, Erica Stagni and Marcel Gallay on the first winter traverse of the Aiguilles du Diable. They were hit by bad weather and spent six days at the bottom of a crevasse. Finally Lambert climbed down and gave the alert with indications of where to find his clients. He was in a bad way. A rescue party set out but was not fast enough for Ms. Stagni’s mother, a Swiss heiress. She called the guides office and told them she would pay what they asked to bring her daughter down alive. A new team of three guides was dispatched, they passed the first group. Snatching Ms. Stagni from the crevasses they left the poor Gallay alone with some provisions to wait for the second party. Why hadn’t the parents of Vincendon and Henry done the same? Probably because they believed in the official rescue plan.

Following the incident there were recriminations. The rescue mission was too slow, too disorganized. In 1958 mountain rescue was put onto a formal basis under the command of the Prefet and the Interior Ministry to be provided as a public service paid for by the State. As part of the departmental emergency and disaster planning (plan ORSEC - organisation des secours) the Prefet can mobilize the necessary human and technical resources. The Alouette helicopter, perfectly adapted to use at altitude, became the mainstay of mountain rescue. First for transporting guides and equipment and then from the early 1970s for direct winched rescues from rock faces. It is still in widespread use today although is being replaced by the EC145.

The organisation of the mountain rescue services follows the 1958 structure with specialists from the police CRS (Compagnie républicaine de sécurité) and military PGHM/PGM (Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne) aided by the Securite Civile and Fire Services. Some, such as specialist Marcel Peres, have criticised the alternating command of CRS and PGHM as too complicated and expensive and there have been moves to pass on costs to rescued parties where they have been shown to have not used proper judgement.

Further Information

Vincedon and Henry
Malabar Princess

Posted by davidof on Tuesday, 26 December, 2006 at 03:40 PM

No year in the article - I gather it was ‘57?

Posted by Nick on  Wednesday, 27 December, 2006  at 01:43 AM

Christmas 1956 through to New Year 1957

Posted by davidof on  Thursday, 28 December, 2006  at 12:13 AM

Bonatti’s biography “On My Mountains” 1964 I remember there is detail of this tradgedy.  He is no stranger to controversy as he detailed events of the Italian K2 expedition in 1954 where the summitteers claimed to have topped out without oxygen and Bonatti was used as a porter to keep him back.  He had photographs proving they used oxygen.

To this day he is still regarded as (for his time) the worlds greatest Aplinist with many of his routes completed solo.

Posted by Davy Gunn on  Saturday, 30 December, 2006  at 11:10 AM

Chamonix have finally honoured Jean Vincendon and François Henry unveiling a memorial in Chamonix churchyard to the two climbers yesterday.

Posted by davidof on  Thursday, 04 January, 2007  at 07:52 PM

Okay, so that we do not observe the new year ...

Posted by  on  Thursday, 30 October, 2008  at 05:01 PM
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