I’ve seen mountain rescues that end in tears. Danger is a hazard of being in the mountains – everyone who spends time in the Alps understands this. But often they end with a laugh and a joke. This is one of those tales.
In our guidebook it’s billed as one of the loveliest walks in the Chamonix valley – and given that there is quite some competition, it’s not an idle boast. The views of the Mont Blanc range from the Aiguillette des Possettes are incredible (I’ll show you as soon as I can get rid of the scratches that the lab put on my negatives) and though it’s a stiff climb up you can take the easy route via cable car on the way up and walk back down.
We decided to earn the views and sweated our way up through the trees and onto the wide grassy ridge path that winds its way through a series of false summits to the top. We’d started late and though it’s only two and a half hours to the top we knew at the outset that we’d be having lunch on one of the lower plateaus instead of by the summit cairn.
The rule in hill and mountain hiking is that the first place you can find to stop for lunch is always 20 to 30 minutes after the moment when you know you need a break, but we were happy enough when we eventually found a dry spot on a wide bluff cushioned by bilberry and heather shoots. The path wound up the hill behind us to another of those false summits and we hardly noticed the group of a dozen or so French hikers who had stopped on the path as we unwrapped our Reblochon and broke off chunks of crusty baguette.
The chatter at our backs continued and we didn’t think anything of it even though those walkers had been blocking the path for a good 10 minutes. We’d lived in a town in France where people would stop on the traffic island and get out of their car to greet a friend crossing the road, so this was nothing special. Not until we overheard a complaint from a couple passing by that an old man had come out without his mobile phone and got into trouble. We looked up and saw the man sitting in the middle of the path, calling the emergency services on a borrowed phone.
‘Non, non, pas de douleur,’ he laughed. No pain. Only I just can’t move my knee.
While he spoke to the mountain rescue team one of the group of hikers that surrounded him set off down the hill, prodding at the swampy grass and shrugging his shoulders, trying to figure out where the helicopter could land. After a while Jean-Paul found what he judged would be the perfect spot, waving and grinning from ear to ear at his friends who clustered around the old man, before he rummaged in his rucksack and retrieved two carrier bags, one green and one red, which he set down to mark the landing pad.
One of the group ran down to warn us that they had called the mountain rescue. “You need to make sure everything is secure.” She glanced at my boots that I’d taken off to give my feet a rest. ‘L’helicopter vient d’arriver,’ she announced with a proud smile. The helicopter is coming.
We wrapped up the cheese but our boots would probably survive the updraft, we reasoned. Anyway, the helicopter probably wouldn’t land anywhere near us, if at all. The ladies and gentlemen of the walking group that stood on the path scanned the skies. “The helicopter is coming,” they told each other, but the skies remained empty.
“What shall we do when it arrives?” one of them asked.
“How will they know where to land?”
They consulted their guidebooks.
“Fait un ygrec,” someone said. Make a y. But the questions was, where? Should it be Jean-Paul, waiting by the makeshift landing pad or the hikers, standing guard over the injured man. But before they could decide there was a buzzing high in the air – the helicopter was approaching.
“Jean-Paul fait un ygrec. Tout le monde fait un ygrec.” And the group of 10 all raised arms and trekking poles in the air in the shape of a y. Jean-Paul, alone on the hillside below, shrugged and made a waving, beckoning sort of y.
We decided not to join in – that would only confuse matters even more.
In the end the temporary landing pad wasn’t needed. Jean-Paul stood dejected in the swamp while the helicopter circled and dropped off two off their crew without even touching one foot on the mountainside. Jean-Paul sloped off and retrieved his plastic bags and we gathered up our cheese and bread and prepared to move on.
The rescue crew were amazing.
By the time we’d walked up the few feet to where the man was, the doctor had taken a look at his knee and decided to whisk him off to the local hospital. The doctor had something reassuring in the tone of voice and the jokey but kindly way he dealt with the old chap so that when they told him they’d immobilize his leg and winch him up to the helicopter, he smiled as it if was perfectly normal.
I suspect he was just relieved that he’d get down off the mountain with no fuss.
One by one his friends set off down the hill, promising to meet up with him at the hospital. One took his walking poles and stopped us to ask Ron to collapse them so she could carry them down for him.
‘Poor fellow, he’s got a bad knee,’ she told us, and she pointed at my knee support. ‘You have a bad knee too,’ she said. ‘Maybe they could give you a lift to the hospital.’
I began to worry that she would rush to make a ‘y’ and call the helicopter back. ‘No need, I told her. It’s nothing like that.’
But to be honest, it could have been. Every day people get stuck in the mountains and it could just as easily have been me. It’s reassuring to know that whether you’ve fallen hundreds of metres into a crevasse or simply got stuck on the side of a hill they’re just a phone call away. And if it is just a dodgy knee, they’ll treat you with respect and kindness and most important, they’ll get you down to safety.