Rescue from Les Droites

The storm tossed helicopter, pitching and rolling on a sea of turbulence, is forced to pull out one more time. Swinging crazily at the end of the winch line, the blue-uniformed rescuer, whose outstretched hand we could for a moment almost touch, is jerked suddenly upwards, dangerously close to the rocks that flank the narrow breche and then away to the open sky above the glacier. Then the curtain of clouds, which parted so recently, closes again around man and helicopter, objects of our salvation, and they are gone.
ImageThe show is over. We are alone on the mountain once more, left to suffer yet another night on this hopeless ledge of ice, scooped in desperation from the snowy crest of a knife edge ridge, and Jamie Fisher and I begin to despair. It’s Friday afternoon now. We’ve been stuck here since Tuesday, on the mountain since Sunday, and now it looks like we might never get down from this godforsaken spot.
We arrived in Chamonix on Saturday to find the resort enjoying a rare spell of settled winter weather – the sky was blue, the Chamonix Aiguilles sparkled in the sun, and the forecast was for more of the same. We had planned a week of skiing and snowboarding with the large group of friends who we were with, but it was too good a chance to miss and Jamie and I quickly decided to put skis and snowboards aside, and to go for a speedy ascent of the North Face of Les Droites. There would be time for fun on the pistes later in the week.
So we hurriedly prepared our kit and on Sunday afternoon we took the last `frique up to the Grands Montets station and bivvied there till early the next morning, before crossing the Argentiere Glacier to the foot of the vast, sheer face that rises for over a thousand metres to the serrated summit ridge of Les Droites.
ImageIt was another beautiful day, the climbing was great, and we made good progress up the face. Jamie and I are both very experienced climbers and the route was well within our capabilities. We have been close friends for many years and climb well together as a team – strong and efficient. We hoped to complete the route and be back down in the valley by Wednesday evening. But the winter days are short and we had to move fast to keep to our schedule. By nightfall we were about halfway up the face. We managed to dig out a couple of small ledges to sleep on and passed the night in relative comfort, considering the situation.
Tuesday morning once again dawned fine and we set to work at first light. Things were going well and we were at least three quarters of the way up the face when out of nowhere snow began to fall. Before long, clouds were rolling over the ridge above us and the snowfall had grown into a blizzard. We didn’t panic however and kept on climbing, despite the snow which swept over us in waves of suffocating spindrift and piled onto our shoulders and rucksacks. But it was slow and dangerous climbing in those conditions and it was well after dark when we finally reached the Breche des Droites, the narrow notch in the summit ridge from where the descent down the other side begins.
ImageIt was too late now, and the weather too ferocious to continue, so we dug in as best we could and spent the rest of the night shivering in our bags and praying for better weather. But in the morning the weather was if anything worse and we didn’t debate long before deciding to continue to wait.
And now, three days later, we’re still here, still waiting. The storm has raged and raged and there has never been a chance of making a descent. The food is long gone, water only a memory. We are fatigued with cold and stiffened with inactivity. Rescue has become our only hope. But that hope too has now been dashed. The Siberian wind rifles through our exposed stance and we huddle together and wait. Saturday morning and we’ve survived the night. But the new day brings us little in the way of hope. The sky is blue this morning but the north wind is stronger than ever and great plumes of spindrift stream from the mountain peaks like vapour trails. There will be no helicopters flying today.
We wait. We talk, share our thoughts, share our warmth. But the energy is failing now. We can’t hold out much longer. The hours drag by and finally daylight leaves us once again to the savage night.
Sometime in the night the battle for survival is lost. Comprehension evaporates into the darkness and confusion reigns. Jamie is shouting at me but I can’t understand him. My fingers are frozen like pieces of meat. One of the bivvy bags disappears into the night. Finally Jamie stops shouting. He is lying face down in the snow now. I sit beside him, face into the wind, and wait for the end to come.
But death doesn’t come and I wait and wait, staring straight ahead into the cold darkness. And the next thing I see is not death, but sunlight, touching the summits of the mountains all around, lighting them up like candles, and a small flame of life is rekindled deep within me. Then when the helicopter comes, swoops overhead with thundering blades, I manage to stir enough to raise an arm, wave my hand, rigid and lifeless as stone.
I watch with curious dispassion as a man is set down on the ridge above. He sets up a rope, struggling in the strong wind and abseils down into the breche to join Jamie and me on the ledge which we have shared for so long.ImageFor Jamie Fisher, tragically, the rescue came only hours too late. For me it arrived at the very last moment, snatched me from the jaws of death. When Julio reached the breche, forced hot tea between my hot lips and helped me into the rescue harness, I revived sufficiently to be aware of what was happening. I could see that the helicopter was unable to hover over the breche and wondered for a moment how I was to be attached to the winch line. Seconds later the aircraft made a pass straight overhead, trailing the winch line beneath it. Julio deftly caught the hook as it swung past, and clipped it instantaneously into my harness. A moment later, before I had time to prepare myself for what was about to happen, I was jerked bodily into space and was soon spinning high in the air, the pristine white glacier far below. The last thing I saw as I was bourne swiftly away was Julio in his blue uniform crouching over the slumped form of Jamie – my best friend, dead.
Many considered the operation on Les Droites to have been a failure. One of the climbers was dead, the other as good as dead, losing his hands and feet, a fate unthinkable to a mountaineer. But the rescue was far from being a failure. To the PGHM I owe my life and that is the most precious thing that any of us have, far more important than hands and feet, which I have learned to live without. And I know that if Jamie Fisher had survived and I hadn’t, he would have grasped the second chance with just the same enthusiasm. So with every day that passes I am thankful for the success of my rescue from Les Droites.

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