Alain Frébault – The Pilot of the Grandes Jorasses

Alain Frébault was present for the retirement of the Alouette III. He is remembered for one of le Versoud’s finest moments when he and a team of rescue workers from Chamonix plucked Rene Desmaison from the face of les Grandes Jorasses in Chamonix.


"My commander at the base in Versoud said that I has been asked by the prefecture to go to Chamonix to help with operations but he didn’t think I would be of a great deal of use seeing as they already had the Genderamerie helicopter and one from the local Securite Civile. He told me ‘go to Chamonix but en-route see if you can spot the climbers who are in trouble’.

When I reached Mont Blanc I saw the Puma from Aerospatiale with M. Coffignot, the test pilot flying. He told me he was returning to Chamonix, he had attempted to land on the Jorasses but had been buffeted by strong winds and was unable to touch down.

I didn’t know the mountains so I asked the CRS at the frontier post at the col du Geant to guide me to the Grandes Jorasses. Arriving above the summit I tried to land but a strong updraft on the vertical face pushed my helicopter into the air. I tried a second time, noting the position of the climbers but the same thing happened, the second I passed the ridge the helicopter was pushed into the air like a ball on a water spout.

During these attempts I’d spotted a small, snow covered col a hundred meters below the summit on the Courmayeur side. I made an approach hugging the cliff face on the Italian side ready to break off in the case of sudden air currents. The approach was without difficulty and I landed on the col. I said to my mechanic ‘what more do they want?’. It was only later that I learned we had landed on the col des Hirondelles. I radioed to Chamonix and they asked me to come to the base and pick up three rescuers and check if it was still possible to land as the conditions can change rapidly in the mountains. They’d asked me not to land immediately but I preferred to drop the team at the first rotation and descend to Chamonix to pick up a second team. By the time I got back the first group were already on the summit and were installing the gear they needed to reach the stricken climbers some 80 meters below.”

Serge Goussault and Rene Desmaison had already spent 342 hours on the face in appalling conditions. Goussault was long since dead and Desmaison was in a near coma.

Controversy rages to this day as to whether Desmaison had been punished for his part in a rescue operation with Garry Hemming some 5 years previously. Many in the valley had accused Desmaison of being publicity hungry when he and Hemming went to the aid of two German climbers against the orders of the rescue services who were mounting their own operation. Hemming, the beatnick of the summits as he was dubbed by the French press, was killed by a bullet wound in Grand Teton in 1969, an apparent suicide.

Out of hospital Desmaison paid hommage to Frébault “I will never forget the 25th of February 1971 when Alain Frebault, Civilian Rescue Pilot from le Versoud, landed his helicopter in a gap in the Grandes Jorasses ridge”. When Desmaison realised that he and Goussault were just 80 meters from safety and only the last 40 meters were difficult he was struck by the “absurdity” of his friend’s death.

Frébault dismissed his hero status commenting that the pilots in Chamonix were new to mountain rescue. Although he didn’t know the Mont Blanc range he had many rescues in the Ecrins to his name. The local pilots didn’t realize what a ground crew were capable of. Instead they tried to land the rescue teams as close to the stricken climbers as possible, exposing themselves to the full force of the air streams at 4000 meters altitude.

Posted by davidof on Thursday, 07 May, 2009 at 06:13 PM


these couple of heli-related stories are fascinating tales of triumph and tragedy in one of my favourite parts of the world.

hopefully next season i’ll be back there after a bit of a hiatus. i all too fondly remember some fabulous powder-laden runs down Le Pas de Chèvre and La Pendant a few seasons back.

Some of the best skiing I’ve ever had!

Have a fun (and safe) summer!

Posted by  on  Friday, 08 May, 2009  at 09:25 AM
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