Article by Cheryl Carr for Hiiker

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Mountain rescue isn’t probably the first thing that springs to mind when planning your TMB and if it does, most people tend to assume that it is something that will happen to other people and not themselves, but it does occur and frequently.  The services in the massif however, are a credit to the area and many a life has been saved due to their prompt response.

1 trail, 3 rescue services

The assistance provided around the massif is controlled by the respective country in which you find yourself in, but a rescue will often involve a helicopter due to the inaccessibility of the high mountain areas.  Dogs are also deployed, especially if it is due to an avalanche as there are working dogs trained to find avalanche victims.    

The Mont Blanc Massif can be prone to avalanches

The question of when to call the emergency services is a difficult one.  What one person may consider to be an emergency situation someone else may not.  Advice given is; ‘A situation is defined as an emergency whenever human life (yours or someone else’s) is endangered and there is nothing you can do to resolve the matter’.  The more information you can relay about the exact location the better, for instance, if you can give the precise GPS location, the path number, name of the area.  Also describe the weather conditions and whether the area is safe or not.  These points all help the rescuers and can save precious time. The emergency number to call is 112 if in France or Italy and 114 if in Switzerland and the calls can be made free of charge and without credit on mobile phones or without SIM cards.  If you ever find yourself in the position of having to call for help, advice given is ‘do not panic – stay calm and survey the situation. Do not take useless risks if the people in trouble are difficult to reach’. The conventional signal for a helicopter rescue is to stand motionless with your arms forming a Y and the visual-acoustic signal is 1 signal every 10 seconds for 1 minute.

Steep passes can be a danger for hikers

The men and women who form the rescue services  are highly trained in the field of mountaineering; they are expert skiers, climbers and are very knowledgable with respect to the mountains. Some are volunteers with expert knowledge but most are employees and they are often referred to as the ‘angels of Mont Blanc’. 

In Italy, in the Valle d’Aoste, rescue services are organized by the Valdostane Alpine Assistance Service. The call centre operates 24 hours a day; there is an emergency technical intervention service and telephone response service.  Within the connecting side valleys there are a further thirteen assistance service stations whose locations enable a quick intervention if the air dispatch team is not an option.  This may because operational conditions are difficult due to the altitude, which is often above 3,000 metres, or because of bad weather conditions.  The cost of helicopter rescue  is charged to the Azienda USL of the Aosta Valley or to the respective health services of the rescued persons, or in the case of foreigners, to their country when international agreements exist or to their insurance.  If a rescue is deemed inappropriate the cost will be charged to the user in accordance with the regional decree (number 2172/2013).

In Switzerland if you need to call mountain rescue then the Rescue Organisation for the Canton of Valais (OCVS), based in Sierre is the rescue service.  Privately owned, it is in charge of 13 sub-regions (including the Verbier area).  Mountain rescue services are expensive; it is essential that individuals have appropriate insurance to pay for their services if ever required.

Helicopters are a vital but expensive way to get to people fast

In France, the rescue services are run by the PGHM (Pelotons de gendarmerie de haute montagne) and the PGHM in Chamonix is the busiest and perhaps the most highly skilled mountain rescue team in the world.  There is also a team of rescue volunteers on hand, consisting of mountain guides, ski patrols and mountain rescuers who are often called upon by the PGHM to help out on large avalanche operations or in the search for missing persons.  The higher mountain area rescue costs are covered by the national government while the ski areas are assumed to be the responsibility of the commune, but recently there have been calls to make it all a paying service due to the high costs involved; it costs, on average around 8,700 euros per rescue and there are on average four or five rescues on a normal day, up to eighteen on a busy one! According to the PGHM, skiers and snowboarders account for 30 percent of the rescues, climbers 2 percent and perhaps surprisingly, hikers the rest.  However, rescue (not treatment or airlift due to injury) is free across the Mont Blanc massif for the time being at least. It takes on average, 17 +/- 7 minutes for rescuers to get to the scene and in 70% of cases a physician is included in the rescue team.  Most of the physicians are assistants in the emergency departments of local hospitals and are also active mountaineers, an essential quality that allows integration into the team without putting either the rescuers or the victims at further risk.

One must never be blasé when in the mountains.  They are notorious for rapidly changing weather; getting caught in a storm can be deadly.  Avalanches are a year round threat, as is falling in crevices, down steep gullies, falling rocks, the list goes on.  Many of the rescues have happy endings but not always; in July 2007, thirty people lost their lives in the Alps around Chamonix; that is practically one person for every day of the month.  Admittedly it was one of the worst months for deaths on record, but the statistics speak for themselves.  On average there are around 100 deaths each year in the Mont Blanc massif and they are not just limited to holiday makers and the general public.  Many experienced mountain guides have lost their lives in the mountains, just this year for example, Emmanuel Cauchy, aka Doctor Vertical, due to the  mountain rescue work he had done, died in an avalanche in the massif.  He was both a physician and a mountain guide and his death reminds us that even people with expert knowledge can fall prey to the perils of the mountains.  They are beautiful but dangerous places and we must appreciate the people who risk their lives to rescue others on what seems to be a daily basis.