Mont Blanc is the jewel of the Graian Alps, straddling, the French winter sports mecca of Chamonix to the north, and Italy’s Aosta Valley and to the south. It is the highest mountain in Western Europe and, although comfortably dwarfed by the Asian behemoths of the Himalayas, the sheer number of fatalities it sees makes it the world’s deadliest.
A total of 8000 alpinists are estimated to have lost their lives on the mountain in the 231 years since Frenchmen Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard completed its first ascent in 1786. Inherent in the mountain’s lore is a legacy that is not to be disrespected.
On 31 January 2015, Alex Buisse, a French photojournalist then aged 29, could not help but find himself urgently aware of this history. Delivered to the fresh, white, silent wake of an avalanche, the elite rescue service with which Buisse was embedded had just 15 minutes to extract a skier who had become trapped beneath the snow. After this time, his chances of survival would drop as sharply as the temperature. It was Buisse’s second morning with the team.
Despite a heavy snowfall overnight and a high risk of disturbance, many holidaymakers from Chamonix had decided to ski the early-morning powder of the Pré du Rocher, a popular run forming part of the Mont Blanc Massif. When the avalanche came, it was a miracle no one else was trapped. Instead, seemingly unaware of what had happened, skiers continued to use the ridge above the narrow pass from where Buisse and the team were desperately trying to retrieve the trapped man.
Unable to winch the skier to safety due to a helicopter fault, and with the snow bank below them still settling, Buisse and the operators were caught in one of the worst avalanche traps that he, at least, had ever experienced. But with a life at stake and a plummeting chance of survival, the team had little choice
but to offer up a prayer as they dug deeper into the snow.
Fit for the task
An established photographer whose subjects include base jumpers, mountain bikers and climbers, Buisse is no stranger to extreme conditions. As the nature
of his trade demands, he is also a keen alpinist and has settled at the foot of Mont Blanc in Chamonix – renowned as one of the oldest ski resorts in France and the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924 – to be closer to his beloved Alps. But should you be or become lost, trapped or injured in the mountains, it is Chamonix’s elite Mountain Rescue Service that will come to your aid.
Joining the team on active duty for a week was a project Buisse had been keen to undertake for a long time. “I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to see them rescuing people on a regular basis,” he says, “and I’ve always been fascinated by their work.”
“I’m used to being in dangerous situations, but it’s unique what this team has to go through,” Buisse continues. “One minute you can be at the heli-base just shooting the shit, then a call comes in and within minutes you find yourself in an extreme mountain environment. And you need to adjust very, very quickly.”
In France, the Mountain Rescue Service is part of the military and falls under the remit of the Ministry of the Armed Forces. As such, its officers undergo a minimum of six gruelling years of training to prepare them for such snap deployments.
Fred Souchon, 40, has been working with the service for 13 years. “Training is a long process,” he says. “First, you need to qualify as a gendarme [a role roughly similar to that of a police officer in the French system]. This alone entails an exam and a year of study. Then you need to pass an exam covering skiing, first aid, orienteering and fitness. It is not easy.”
Once the course is completed, recruits are given the option of joining one of 17 teams operating across the French Alps, Pyrenees and French islands in the Indian Ocean and Pacific. For the next four to five years they will learn on the job, doing all they can to prepare for every eventuality.
Beauty and brutality
For many, applying to join the unit is not only about what they get to do, but where they get to do it. In a past life, Souchon led hiking groups through the region. One day, without warning, a helicopter landed beside his group and a serviceman leapt out on his way to an incident. “It was a revelation,” says Souchon. “I was fascinated. I realised this is what I wanted to do with my life: to go and rescue people in the mountains.”
For François Nicard, 31, a rescuer and dog handler, a family history informed his vocation: “Before becoming a mountain rescuer, I was a gendarme for five years,” he explains. “My father, like me, was an avalanche dog handler and a mountain rescuer, so my passion was born at a very young age.”
Passion alone does not save lives, however. Once selection is completed, the ongoing learning process is as relentless as it is thorough. In addition to classroom lessons at the CNISAG (Centre National d’Instruction de Ski et d’Alpinisme de la Gendarmerie), daily training takes place in the various mountain ranges where the team will be called to perform their heroics.
“Depending on the seasons, we alternate between rock climbing, skiing, ice climbing, canyoneering and cardio in the form of trail or cross-country skiing,” says Souchon. “We also often train on rescue simulations, including crevasse falls, paragliding pilots stuck in chairlift cables and, of course, avalanches.”
Many rescuers take their work home, too. “I practise a lot of backcountry skiing in winter and trail running in summer,” says Nicard. “But the most important part is frequent alpine climbing with other rescuers, always making sure that our objectives are physically challenging.”
In summer, the group’s remit is mostly limited to accidents involving hikers, mountain bikers and paragliders, while in winter the focus is on lost or injured skiers. Whomever they’re assisting, the 40 fulltime staff plus occasional volunteers remain on call 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. “There’ll always be two extra men who are ready to drop everything and supplement those at the base at short notice,” says Buisse. “Sometimes there’s an avalanche that takes 20 people and you need as much manpower as you can get. The point of the Rescue Service is that we’re never off duty.”
While risk is an inherent part of the job, the team’s day-to-day operations are as varied as the 350-400 parties that attempt the Mont Blanc summit each year. In 2014, a Polish climber demanded to be airlifted from the mountain because he didn’t want to walk down. The rescue service refused. After a 48-hour stand-off, during which he attempted to charter a private helicopter, he was eventually forced to retrace his steps with the help of a guide. Chamonix’s mayor was understandably infuriated, condemning the “ad hoc alpinists” who treat the mountain like “an amusement park”.
While such behaviour is in the minority, Buisse explains that, more often that not, it is a lack of experience that lands people in trouble. “A lot of people call for rescue not because they’re injured, but because they haven’t managed to get up the mountain by the time night falls. We were called out to a father and son who weren’t injured, but had become stuck in a storm because they weren’t skilled enough climbers to tackle the climb they were on. Instead of taking the usual three or four hours, they’d been up there for 12 hours and they still hadn’t finished.”
In this particular instance, the weather was so bad that helicopters were unable to fly, forcing the rescuers to re-open the cable car in the middle of the night and install an electric winch to lift father and son to safety. Occasionally, when all other options are unavailable, rescuers will have to hike the trails themselves before returning the casualties to safety. Not only does this require immense reserves of fitness and mental resilience, but an unselfish dedication to braving the risks of the mountain.
“For them to go into a full-on storm at night only happens when the survival of the victims depends on it,” Buisse explains. “Otherwise, they’ll tell them ‘You’re going to have a really shit night, but you’ll live, and we’ll come and pick you up in the morning.’ There’s always
the risk of an avalanche or a fall, but these guys are extremely experienced climbers and skiers and they know the environment well. They’re hardcore.”
“We try to avoid dangerous situations,” says Souchon, “but unlike climbers, we don’t get to pick where we go! The victims choose for us, and sometimes it can be very dangerous. It’s an exhilarating job, but hazards can often lurkin unexpected places.”
Fortunately, Buisse’s first mountain rescue mission following the sudden avalanche did not end in tragedy. Thanks to the work of the team, the skier was recovered and evacuated inside of 15 minutes and suffered no ill effects. He, and they, were lucky. But this isn’t always the case.
“Challenging rescues can be very tough, psychologically,” says Nicard. “You have to remain absolutely focused and think about the necessity of bringing the victim back in the best shape possible.” Inevitably, it does not always go their way. “The hardest part of this job is being confronted with human tragedies,” he continues, “especially the times when you go to rescue somebody who is still alive and they die during the intervention.” For Souchon, the challenge is closer to home. “The hardest part for me is to see friends and colleagues die,” he says. “Our community is a small family and everybody knows everybody.”
More than 50 rescuers have died on the job in the last 60 years, making the ultimate sacrifice for those who become trapped, lost, and injured in the pursuit of sport. However, the vast majority of rescuers will get home unharmed. This, for Souchon at least, is what makes the constant peril worthwhile. “The most challenging but also the most beautiful part of this job is the human side. Sometimes, when I catch the spark in the eye of somebody we’ve just saved, I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to do anything else in the world.”