You would think that a map and compass would be standard kit when heading into the mountains, especially with the low cloud that has enveloped the summits over the last week bringing with it almost zero visibility at times. Two major rescue operations this weekend and a number of other anecdotes suggest that many backcountry travelers are auditioning for a part in Lost.

poor visibility
Where did I leave the map and compass?

Early this morning two missing ski tourers, a father and son from Marseilles were found by rescue services. They had set out on Saturday morning from the ski resort of Chamrousse in the direction of Lac Achard. Normally a well signposted trip with clear trails they became lost in the dense cloud enveloping the mountainside. During the afternoon they attempted to climb up to the ski resorts but were further disoriented. The mother alerted the rescue services when the pair failed to return. A small team found the missing skiers at 2000 meters between the lac Robert and the Refuge de la Pra shortly after midnight. They had built a small snow cave and were preparing for the night.

On Friday two snowboarders got lost in poor visibility in the same area. The boarders, aged 16 and 17 and from the region, left the ski slopes of Chamrousse. A search of the resort by piste workers found no trace of the missing boys. They were joined by the CRS des Alpes and specialist members of the fire service (GRIMP) around 20h30. With half a meter of fresh snow accompanied by strong winds the avalanche risk was Considerable and the families must have feared the worst. In the wind temperatures were -20C.

Shortly after midnight searchers on the ground found snowboard tracks leading into a steep couloir above the Romanche valley. A decision was made to scramble the helicopter attached to the Securite Civile. Once again the Aloutte III based at l’Alpe d’Huez flew into action. This helicopter had plucked a British snowboarder from a dangerous cliff face close to les Deux Alpes on the 2nd of March, 2007 during a dramatic nighttime rescue mission.

The helicopter spotted the two youths using its powerful searchlight. They were trapped in a dangerous position above cliff bands. With the cliff face just meters away the crew were able to winch the two young men aboard. The youngest was suffering from mild frostbite and hypothermia.

rescue helicopter
Alouette III rescue helicopter below les Deux Alpes

Last Saturday (17th March, 2007). Two snowboarders from nearby Bourg d’Oisans spent an uncomfortable night at 2400 meters altitude on slopes below les Deux Alps. They had planned to descend the a couloir to St Christophe en Oisans in the valley below. However the south facing slopes lacked snow cover for the enterprise. The men had taken the precaution of discussing their plans with the piste patrol at les Deux Alpes who, worried about the risks, had asked them to make contact once they reached St Christophe. Neither man was carrying a mobile. In the early evening the Sécurité Civile helicopter from l’Alpe d’Huez carrying members of the PGHM over flew the zone but could find no trace of the missing boarders in the poor visibility. The search began the next day at dawn and found the men blocked by cliffs below the summit of la Toura.

Posted by davidof on Sunday, 25 March, 2007 at 06:00 PM

It was an exceptional rescue that was undertaken by the men of the Isère High Mountain Gendarmerie (PGHM) this week

(28th February, 2007)

30 year old Thomas Murphy, an English snowboarder, owes them his life. It all began on Wednesday at the end of the afternoon when the boarder, on holiday with friends in the ski resort of les Deux Alpes got disoriented in the ski domain.

“I got lost in bad weather while skiing down the glacier of les Deux Alpes. The visibility was zero and I was first of all hit by an avalanche”. Murphy told reporters adding that he was lucky not to have been buried. “Seeing as I couldn’t climb back up I jumped the first cliffs which were about 30 meters”. He was stuck for two hours before deciding to jump a second cliff of 20 meters where he ended up trapped on a ledge of about 30cm, below him 300 meters of thin air. Shocked and on the verge of hypothermia Murphy remained semi conscious for around three hours in this precarious spot, the well known Muretouse ice fall at 1500 meters altitude above the lac du Chambon.

He finally recovered his composure and taking out his mobile realized that he had managed to get a faint signal which he didn’t have higher up. Not knowing the French rescue services number (112) he called one of his friends. They had already notified the Gendarmerie at les Deux Alpes but now they had an idea where to find their missing friend..

It was now around midnight. The PGHM realized they had to act quickly fearing that Thomas wouldn’t last the night. They sent a car up the RN91 and were attracted by the light of Murphy’s mobile phone screen. The PGHM contacted the Securite Civile based at l’Alpe d’Huez. It was a clear night and weather conditions were good. However the helicopter based at l’Alpe d’Huez is an aging Alouette III; unlike the modern EC145 it has neither night vision nor an infra-red camera but it is equipped with a powerful searchlight. It was still Thomas’ best hope for a speedy rescue The pilot and mechanic decided to make the attempt, flying by instruments they were guided to the scene by the flashing blue lights of the Gendarme’s car.

Thomas continued to flash the light of his mobile phone into the clear night air. Remi Fiorillo the pilot said that he could see his phone from over a kilometer. Thomas recalls “When I saw them come, I was afraid that they would make me fall from my small platform with turbulence from the copter”. Without the normal visual clues of daytime Fiorillo positioned his aircraft above the Englishman, rotor blades just meters from the cliff face. A delicate operation. Flight engineer, Emmanuel Larat winched Gendarme and high mountain guide Herve Labarde down to the stricken man. He managed to get a harness onto the young snowboarder but it was not possible to winch them into the helicopter. Instead they were suspended from the cable and flown down to the police car.

Thomas Murphy is almost unscathed but won’t forget this alpine adventure soon. “I had started to call my girl friend, my brother, my sister, my mother and my father to say to them that I loved them, because I really thought I was going to die. The people who saved my life are heros, supermen. angels”

Posted by davidof on  Sunday, 25 March, 2007  at 10:16 PM

Very sobering stuff.  Scary how easy it was for the English snowboarder to find himeself lost in what should have been a routine run back to the resort.

Posted by Adam on  Monday, 26 March, 2007  at 03:14 PM

I have just saved the French Rescue service number in my phone memory!

Posted by  on  Monday, 26 March, 2007  at 08:47 PM

Hey its Tom Murphy, the 30yr old boarder who nearly died if it wasnt for the skill and bravery of the guys above. Hopefully Herve should be joining me in London so I can repay the favour of saving my life. All I can say is that “ all the simple things in life should not be taken for granted. Its only when you really believe that you are going to die that, all you want is to do is to see,hear,taste smell all these very simple things just one more time, and that appreciating all the great things that might have seemed boring and mundane at some point “

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 24 July, 2007  at 12:20 AM

Hey Davidof

Do you have all the details of what happened when I was involved in the avalanche/13hr rescue?

If so could you please email me on

Many Thanks

Tom Murphy Boarder Les Deux Alpes Feb-March 07

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 24 July, 2007  at 12:30 AM
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