Monday 5th February 2018, took place the 60th anniversary of the Chamonix PGHM, the specialist High Mountain Search & Rescue unit of the French Police.
1958 - 2018: The 60th anniversary of the Chamonix PGHM
According to France Bleu, the first specialized rescue unit was created in 1958, almost two years after the Vincendon and Henry case, two young climbers who died from hypothermia in Mont Blanc.
A tribute ceremony to the climbers Vincendon and Henry
Monday afternoon 5th February 2018, in front of the Anselme barracks, was unveiled a bronze sculpture, a return on the history and creation of this elite unit.
The Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne from Chamonix was created following a tragic accident. On 22 December 1956, two young climbers, François Henry and Jean Vincendon decide to climb the Mont Blanc by way of the Brenva Spur.
The weather deteriorated rapidly and the two men became stranded high on the mountain, above 4000m. On the 28th December a Sikorsky S-55 helicopter is dispatched to search for the climbers but without success. The following day, the helicopter crew find the climbers but cannot land to rescue them. Food and other supplies are dropped. Now that the exactly position of the climbers is known, an extensive rescue plan is put into effect.
The following day sees the helicopter attempt to rescue the climbers, but the wind is too strong. On the 31 December a team leaves Chamonix on the cable car to Plan d'Aiguille and from there climbing on foot by way of the Grands Mulets. The team is led by the celebrated High Mountain Guide, Lionel Terray but no other member of the Chamonix Guides Association will join his small rescue team.
While Terray's team is climbing and with increasing pressure driven by the media, the Sikorsky S-55 helicopter is dispatched, to leave a rescue team on the Dome de Gouter. A third team is dispatched in the Sikorsky S-55. This is a high risk attempt to get close to the climbers. The Sikorsky S-55 crashes in deep snow. The two pilots and the two rescuers are not critically injured but the aircraft is a wreck.
The two hypothermic young climbers are moved inside the wreck of the helicopter. The team from the Gouter takes the crash victims back up the the Vallot hut. Meanwhile, Terray's team is advised that the two climbers will be rescued the following day and he should return to Chamonix. But the next day, the weather is so bad that no rescue attempt is made. On the 3 January 1957, two Alloutte II helicopters land at the Vallot hut and take everyone off the mountain, except Henry and Vincendon. On the flight back to Chamonix, one Allouette over-flis the wreck of the Sikorsky. There is no sign of life. The two young climbers are presumed dead. The following day, the rescue is formally terminated.
The dead bodies of François Henry and Jean Vincendon are not recovered until 20 March 1957. The recovery team found one climber exactly where he had been left by the rescuers. However, the other climber had opened the main door and attempted to leave the aircraft.
This tragedy received extensive media coverage and lead the authorities to re-act. A specialized rescue unit was established, with a remit to search and rescue victims in the mountains. In Chamonix, the Groupe Spécialisé de Haute Montagne (GSHM) was established on 1st November 1958. Members of this unit possessed specialist skills to perform search and rescue (SAR) operations and to investigate accidents in the mountain region.
"This tragedy has not been in vain. It gave birth to something new. An architecture of mountain rescue", said the prefect Pierre Lambert.
The team spirit plays an important role for the PGHM
According to Le Dauphine, over the years, the military strengthen their knowledge about the mountain and rescue of the person to become the elite group they form today. The remit of the PGHM is to provide security for people in the high mountain environment.
"We continue to develop the team spirit cultivated by the elders," said Commander Bozon.