1966 - The DRUS Rescue

1966 - The DRUS Rescue

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2 German Climbers blocked on the West face of the DRUS (3754 m), 700 meters above the ground

The DRUS Rescue – August 1966

Gary Hemming

13th of August 1966:

Two Germans, Heinz Ramisch and Hermann Schridell started the ascent of the West face of the Drus. 
Caught in a storm, they stopped on the small ledge below and to the right of the pendulum (now named the "Germans' ledge"), 700 meters above the ground. They had not left a rope up the pendulum and could not climb the overhanging crack after the ledge covered in ice.
They will spend ten days on the wall. 
Plunged into an adventure largely above their capabilities, they will be the cause of one of the largest mountain rescue operation ever done in the Alps. Neither hurt or exhausted nor sick… but simply unable to make a further step on this wall 
  • too huge, 
  • too steep, 
  • too difficult for them.


Beyond the controversies that this rescue will arouse which did receive much media coverage, this rescue is a great moment in the history of mountain rescue: all actors, whatever their country of origin, qualifications, capabilities, will involve themselves personally at the risk of their life - which one of them will lose, alas. To rescue those two castaways was the motivation of all of them and all did their utmost to succeed.
This unselfishness and total commitment transformed their accomplishement into a true feat.  

Some history on the West Face route

itinéraire face ouest des Drus
The West face route - Sketch Guido Magnone

In August 1946, Georges Livanos with Charles Magol make an attempt stopped due to rock falls in the initial gully. Gaston Rebuffat with Jean Save de Baurecueil make an attempt the same year and then in 1947 with james Couttet up to the ledges after the gully. Georges Livanos tries again in 1949, meeting on their way up Jean Couzy and Marcel Schatz. They all stop below a vertical crack and abseil down. He tries a last time in 1950 with René Ferlet. This is what many years after Georges Livanos will write:

"Confirming the line of ascent on the centre of the face, this reconnaissance left us with many doubts on its feasibility. Aided climbing was then in its infancy on granite which was believed to be, wrongly, more difficult to peg than limestone…”

and after having observed the route with binoculars:

"A long time before me, Gabriele Boccalate had said that binoculars are only good to make difficulties look much greater than they are! Ours made the traverse high up on the face disproportionate. On this blank wall, only pendulums can make progression possible. And if on the other side, one cannot go further? We should have taken one more rope (several maybe) to leave behind, to allow a potential retreat. Yes, I know, Cassin did take off the abseil on the Jorasses, but had Toni Kurz not also taken off his on the Eiger? We were beaten, at quite a distance, by this traverse which will defeat, for the same reason, Bérardini, Dagory and Magnone, forcing them to retreat."

It will finally be climbed in 1952 by a group of the elite climbers from Paris (Guido magnone, Lucien Bérardini, Marcel lainé and Adrien Dagory) in a succesion of two attempts  and much artificial aids, solving what was then considered ' the last great problem in the Alps' and repeated many times since. 

On the first attempt they had reached the top of the 90 m corner before retreating down. On the second they went up by the North face Allain route and traversed right to the top of the 90 m corner using small expansion bolts - golos home made by Marcel Lainé - and continued by the West face after having down the famous pendulum to what is now commonly called the "Germans Ledge".

In 1966, the West face of the Drus classic route was still considered a very serious enterprise, at par with the famous Bonatti pillar (the Drus South-West pillar climbed first and solo in 1955 by Walter Bonatti), but less than the 'American Direct' opened by Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins in 1962 which joins the classic West face route below the 90 m dihedral.

1000 meters high, then quoted ED (now ED-), its main difficulties are concentrated high up, particularly with its famous 90 m dihedral. Then climbed mostly aided, it is now climbed free (2 long pitches of 6C). 

90 m dihedral
The Drus West face close up


The upper parts of the North and West faces, 
showing to the left the 'niche' (the snow patch), 
the 90 meters dihedral and 
the blank wall of the pendulum                                                        Sketch of the 90 m dihedral area                                                                                                                         Guido Magnone   

To progress further, the first ascentionists faced with a completely blank wall, did a 35 m pendulum to the right (45° angle) reaching a small but good ledge and left one rope behind in case they had to retreat. From there, there are roughly nine more pitches of lesser difficulty (5+ and one 6a) before coming onto easier ground gaining the North-West ridge and then the summit.

All subsequent parties did use that rope and the two Germans were less than 300 meters from the summit. René Desmaison had done its first solo ascent in 1963. The North face was also a first climb done in 1935 by two climbers from Paris, Pierre Alain and Raymond Leininger. The 'voie normale' used to descend, although easy is quite long, making the whole climb, a serious enterprise even today.

Many modern and bold routes had been made on the West face, but huge rock avalanches have distroyed them, particularly the one of 2005 (265000 m3 of rock falls) which destroyed completely the Bonatti pillar. This occured after a 30000 m3 rock fall in 1997. The last rock avalanches to date occured in September (12000 m3) and October 2011 (60000 m3). See them filmed by TVMountain (links).

The West face classic route seems to have not been damaged by the latest rock fall, but just. Climbing in the area damaged by those avalanches is risky. Despite the huge risk factor, some new route were made: Léna,10-16 February 1998, by Valery Babanov and Youri Kochelenko in 7 days; in 2001, winter solo 1rst ascent of the Lafaille route by Jean-Christophe Lafaille. Left to the American direct, in an area undamaged by the rock avalanches. 900 m, A5, M7 et V. In 2007, 'voie des papas' by Martial Dumas and Jean-Yves Fredericks, on the left flank of the "ex" Bonatti pillar opened over 8 days. From the 5th till the 9th March 2012, Jérôme Sullivan and Pedro Galan Diaz started on this route then opened a new line (free French 7a) up to what is left of the last part of the Bonatti pillar.

Start of the Rescue - The first rescue party

Wednesday the17th, at 12h30 the rescue is activated at last. Heinz Ramisch and Hermann Schridell have been blocked then for 4 nights on the Pendulum ledge. The ‘École Militaire de Haute Montagne’ (EMHM - Military School for High Mountaineering) which for this period of time was in charge of mountain rescue, decide to send rescue parties on the easiest route to the summit, the ‘voie normale’, via the Charpoua hut, up to the summit of the ‘Petit Dru’ where they will bivouac, and then abseil down the North Face to reach the two Germans at the traverse done during the first unsuccesful attempt of the Magnone team equipped with golos.

At 15h30 a team, led by Daniel Meot [still strong today at 85 Daniel gave me the details of his participation in the rescue recently], of three experienced aspirant-guides, Fontaine, Coudray and Gaby Mollard, reinforced by 4 PSHM (Peloton Spécialisé de Haute Montagne de Chamonix) gendarmes is ready to go up the voie normale on the South side. Its aim is to reach the Petit Dru summit, get down the North face, traverse on the West face to get to the two Germans. Equipped with light radios, three ropes of 120 m etc... they carry rucksaks of 25/30 kilos. They also await a cable winch which is supposed to be dropped by an helicopter on the summit; but the weather conditions have worsened and they await near the helicopters until night. Decision is taken to start the next morning on foot if necessary. 

Friday the 18th at 5 O'clock, the team is at the helicopter airport in Les Bois, mais the weather is still too bad so at 7 O'clock they take the rack train to Montenvers. In the afternoon, a bright spell allows the helicopter to take off and they pick up the team  and a few minutes after drop the 8 of them at the Charpoua hut. Time is 10 am and they believe that they could reach the Quartz ledge [narrow ledge running horizontally across all the South face of the Petit Drus at around 3650 m, 100 m below the Peiti Dru summit] before night. Unfortunately there is far too much snow and ice baring heir way particularly above 3000 m. Despite their training, their progression is slow and at 7.30 pm hit by a hail storm they stop to  bivouac. There are about 100 m or so below the Quartz ledge and they lost half of their "team" (the PSHM two rope partie) who was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the difficulties. Unfortunately they have a significant part of the equipment that will be sorely lacking later.

One German climber, Wolfgang Eggle, joined Daniel's team in the morning, so they are now 5 on their ledge. It snows during the night and in the morning of the 19th, the mountain conditions are extremely difficult: they will need five hours to reach the Quartz ledge and then the Drus cristal cave on the SO spur.

Weather conditions are such that only one rope party will join hem the next day at noon. Scores of EMHM soldiers were also sent to the Charpoua refuge with the aim to help eventually to equip the normal route which the EMHM command had planned to use to get down the two Germans. Without experience, they will be of very little use. 

During the following night, a new snow storm falls on the mountain, but as Méot stated, it is only their second bivouac and their morale is high. They await their ropes impatiently and feel happy when two are brought up to them with some food by an EMHM rope party (Robert Flematti and lt Alfred Bozon). They had reached the Petit Dru shoulder (20 m below the Quartz ledge) the previous day and bivouacked on the site, starts bringing up the equipment missing to the lead team. Weather conditions are such that only one rope party will join hem the next day at noon.

It is past noon but by evening they have managed to equip 120 m of abseils in the North Face, and they come back up to bivouac. They are bitter as if they had had the missing equipment the previous day they believe they could have reached the two Germans in the morning (not aware the dificulty of the traverse onto the West face on the Marcel Lainé "small golos", by now, 14 years after the first ascent, fully rusted and with one third or more missing).

They also await a cable winch which is supposed to be dropped by an helicopter on the summit; but the weather conditions have worsened and the attempt fails.  

The second Rescue party formed by Gary Hemming goes into action

Gary Hemming and five friends form a rescue party

Lothar Mauch (recent)


The 90 m dihedral 1rst ascent 1952
The 90 m dihedral - 1rst ascent 1952 -

On Thursday the 18th, Gary Hemming, who had been climbing with Lothar Mauch up the Peuterey integral ridge and who had to come down due the bad weather, learn in a Courmayeur bistro that the two Germans have been stuck for 4 days on the West face; evaluating the chances of the EMHM to rescue the two Germans as very poor from the South side with the drastic weather conditions, and with his intricate knowledge of the West face (he had done the first ascent of the "American Direct" route 4 years before, aside having climbed the key west face routes) decides to go back to Chamonix where he formed a rescue team of volunteers with Gilles Bodin, François Guillot, Lothar Mauch, Mick Burke and Gerhard Bauer, all top climbers at the time. With the agreement and welcome back-up of colonel Gonnet, commanding the EMHM, and the equipment he provided them with, at 9 pm they take a specially chartered rack train by the EMHM to the Montenvers where they will sleep.

On Friday 19th at 2 am they start for the foot of the West face of the Drus with the intention, to climb directly to the Germans by the West face route. They stop to bivouac above and on the left of the Dru west face approach couloir.

In the evening, René Desmaison and Vincent Mercié, sent by Paris-Match and the French national television (ORTF) arrive at the foot of the approach couloir. Due to the usual stone falls in the couloir at that time of the day, they bivouac on its side. At 9 am on the 20th they join Gary's rescue team at their bivouac.

Christian Brincourt for ORTF and Gérard Géry for Paris-Match will cover the rescue with reports broadcasted live. Louis Jannin’s hotel de Paris will be transformed in a Press room and up to two helicopters will be put at the journalists’s disposal. The media cover was at its maximum, reported in prime time several times a day during the entire rescue, and soon was followed by an audience of more than 10 million, increasing each day with the incoming of the other European countries media!

The Pendulum and the ledge
photo Magnone 1rst ascent 1952 showing the pendulum and the ledge where the Germans remained for 8 days. The photo below shows the traverse onto the North face equipped with 'golos' by Lainé.


Gary's rescue team get up the West face route

The climbers on the West face, 8 in all, separate themselves into two groups :

1. François Guillot leading roped with Gary Hemming, followed by Desmaison and Mercié. With light equipment they will climb rapidly.

2. The other four will follow with the more heavy equipment much more slowly. S


On Saturday the 20th, due to the difficulties of the climb in very bad weather conditions, they reach late in the night at around 11.30 pm the foot of the 90 meters corner - the bloc coincé - too late to reach the two Germans: 90 meters and the pendulum separate them from the two Germans. They bivouac there. 

The third rescue party

Colonel Gonnet calls for more help!

On Saturday the 20th, colonel Gonnet requires assistance to the two other rescue bodies, the ENSA and the ‘Compagnie des guides de Chamonix’ through the Mountain Rescue presidency (Jean Franco and the then mayor, Maurice Herzog). In the morning, they organise a meeting requesting that another rescue party from the ENSA be sent with some Chamonix guides.The ENSA allocates two guides, Yves Pollet-Villard and Yvon Masino, The Compagnie des guides de Chamonix, Gérard Devouassoux and Christian Mollier. In the afternoon, a helicopter drops them at the Rognon, their intent is to reach the Germans by climbing the North face and traversing to the West face below the Lambert crack.This party will bivouac the same night below the Lambert crack.

On Sunday the 21th, François Guillot who continued to lead all the way and Gary Hemming reach the Germans. At the same time, the ENSA and the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix's four guides arrive at the junction between the North face and the West face which one could get onto by an overhanging and tricky traverse on etriers, while the EMHM still struggles to reach them.

During their 2nd and successful attempt in 1952, Guido Magnone and his team went up to their previous high point reached 12 days before, climbing the North face and then putting a serie of expansion bolts onto an overhanging smooth slab of some 20 m to gain the top of the Pendulum. This traverse was equipped with tiny expansion bolts,15mm long, home-made by Marcel Lainé, who banged them half deep only i.e. 7.5mm – By 1966 they were fully rusty and a number had since been broken when used by several parties who escaped from the West face in bad weather. A very risky undertaking with two alpinists unable to climb on their own.

There, the four guides will witness, without been able to give him help in time, the death of the German, Wolfgang Eggle, a friend of the two German climbers stuck on the West face. He had gone spontaneously with the EMHM rescue parties and was coming down from the summit of the Petit Dru. His abseil rope was stuck by some rocks and he was hanging in an overhang, trying desperately to free himself. When Gérard Devouassoux reached him, it was too late, he had died from exhaustion and a heart attack.

A bit later, Yves Pollet-Villard asked René Desmaison - who was on the pendulum fixed abseil taking photos of the Germans then with François Guillot and Gary Hemming - to have the Germans come down the North face route with his team. After a radio contact with Jean Franco, Head of the ENSA and believing wrongly that René Desmaison was the leader of the West face rescue party, he transmits to René, Jean Franco’s order which is that the Germans must be taken in charge by his group! After some discussion with François Guillot, Gary Hemming decide to get down using the American direct route as originally planned. This is the route he opened in 1962 with Royal Robbins and which Mick Burke not only made the second ascent of in 1965 but had to take down his wounded partner all the way from the 'jammed block' in 15 abseils - in fact the idea to go down that route was his -, so they both knew very well what they were doing, unlike the Chamonix guides who had never climbed this route (the 3rd ascent will be done the following summer by François Guillot). They believed, in contradiction to Franco’s party, and rightly so considering the physical state of the two Germans (one was particularly sick), that it was by far the best solution and the safest.

So, as planned, they take the American Direct descent route, bivouacking first at the "jammed block".

On Monday the 22nd, at around 2 am a terrible hail storm hits them at the same time than Daniel Meot's team on the South side of the mountain. Desmaison will testify in Paris-Match (3rd September 1966): "... a blast of the end of the world breaks in my head. A second electric shock runs through me from head to toe. Slowly fear is invading us... Several seconds... For the third time the thunder hits me with an incredible violence. Lying in the snow, I can't find my breath. I ache all over. .. I throw the pegs in the snow. At the same time a fourth stroke throws me down. I gasp for my breath, I moan...". Lothar Mauch will also testify recently (TV Mountain 2018 interview - see link below) that none of them had ever lived through such a violent storm.

In the morning, the storm is still on but has significantly relented. Mick Burke and Gary Hemming equip all abseils. Lothar Mauch testified in his 2018 interview in TV Mountain that Mick did remember very well all the abseil anchors spots and led the way down very efficiently. At 5pm they are down but the other members of the team who had the task to take care of the two Germans who too weak to abseil on their own had to be lowered on the ropes like heavy potatoes bags will reach the foot at only 11.30 pm, 5 and a half hours after.  


Descent in teh American Direct
Descent in the American Direct. Guillot, Hemming, one of the German and Bodin. Photo Vincent Mercié published in Paris-Match.
François Guillot and Gary Hemming
Cover of Paris-Match with François Guillot, Gary Hemming and the 2 Germans on the ledge below the pendulum

The rescue ends succesfully on the 23rd

The EMHM team ordeal

The ordeal had not yet ended for Daniel Meot and his team mates. In fact the worst was to come! On the 21th they learned by radio transmission that Gary Hemming's team had started to go down with the two Germans and all teams are ordered to return to their respectives bases. For the ENSA and the Chamonix guides it meant going down to the foot of the North face which they will reach quickly the same day before night and for the EMHM teams scattered on the North face to climb up to the Petit Dru summit and descend to the Crystal ledge to bivouac before descending the South face the following day. As Meot testified:

"Nano Coudray and Joel Fontaine, after more than two hours of desperate efforts to retrieve Egle's body, climb up the fixed ropes and joined us before night. We help them from above for their last 150 m and the eight of us settled in for our fourth bivouac. The sudden loss of Egle was a moral blow for us, but we managed to react. Our last rations are swallowed and Gaby, as always, attempts to make a grog.

Wind and hail assail us, clouds and humidity everywhere, but our weariness is stronger, clamped together under our little overhang, we quickly fall asleep. In the middle of the night, all of a sudden, everything bursts, the Drus stagger and burn, an electric current runs along my spine. I must have shouted, my neighbour moans... one cries, Gaby was lifted up and fell back behind a two metres high boulder.

We are struck by lightning! We call each other astonished to be able to hear ourselves. There is a strong smell of burning, blue feathers flutter around on all the stones. Then it becomes denser, buzzes increase and crack... This time Coudray and I have been hit full on our heads, it's dreadful. I hear his teeth chattering, me also, it's nervousness, some cannot say a word.

God damn... the "hardware"! No-one thought about it, so we panic : as maniacs we throw everything in the void, crampons, ice axes, radio transmitters, cameras, too bad for latter! No sooner done that we are hit a third time. The blow was even greater than the previous one : my fists are clunched hard on my eyes but the light blinds me. It is like the electric chair, I shake from head to foot. Maybe I am dead ? No, for I hear moans, groans, teeths chattering. If I get out alive, mountaineering will be finished for me! I will never take the risk again to find myself in such a jam! Again it buzzes louder, the "bees", we did not hear them so clearly ? This time it is the end. I pray... crack... blinded, the electric chair, I do not know anymore where I am. Some time later, or much later, as in a dream, I still have the feeling of a hawsome light, but the noise comes a fraction of a second later.

Thank God, it must have hit the Grand Dru. Again the hail, then nothing more. I open my eyes, it snows! So it has ended. We call each other, we laugh, all of us are blown clear but alive and intact...

With the morning light we found below us all the gear we had thrown away. 15 minutes after our rucksacs are done, we flee litterally and go down. It will take us 7 hours, but what a joy when on the Mer de Glace we see an helicopter arriving to get us. A 6 pm we are with our kins and we learn that the two Germans are nearing the foot of the mountain. They will be in Chamonix the following day at around 9 am, the rescue has ended."

Note: the same storm hit the Gary Hemming rescue team bivouacking on the bloc coincé and they also had the fear of their life as Lothar Mauch and Desmaison testified, but Meot's situation was even more exposed to lightning, being nearer the summit.

Gary named by the Press: 'The beatnick of the Alps'

The rescue will end on the 23rd, after a last bivouac in the worst storm of the whole rescue. The rescuers will then be overwhelmed and pestered by a swarm of journalists. They will then discover that the whole event was covered live by most European national papers and TV channels, making the headlines everywhere. 

Gary, and all his companions, François GuillotLothar MauchMick BurkeGilles Bodin and Gerhard Bauer, found this media overflow intolerable.

None of them liked to be seen as heroes. They believed that they had done what they should have done.  As Gary stated to express their bellyful: 

"Everyone can be a hero one day and a mother fucker the next"!

Hemming at the DZ
Gary arrived at the DZ (les Bois) with the 2 Germans rescued
Unnamed Image

 One the rescued Germans comes down at the DZ in Les Praz



The Desmaison controversies

The rescuers and the rescued
Photo Paris-Match of Gary Hemming's team and the the rescued Germans 1rst row : Gil Bodin (with a fag), François Guillot (white pull-over), the one who equipped all the route. 2nd row : Lothar Mauch, Mick Burke (with glasses), Gary Hemming (in red). 3rd row : left Gerhard Bauer, the two blond : the Germans rescued, René Desmaison and standing Vincent Mercié.

A first controversy occured with René Desmaison when the journalist from Paris-Match, Gérard Géry who perfectly understood what had been achieved and by whom required exclusivity from his newspaper and so asked Gary for his own photos. Gary agreed but only if his 5 strong team team would share part of the money given by Paris-Match to Desmaison and Mercié in order to at least cover their costs (lost pegs and ropes).

Each of them will receive from Paris-Match 2500 francs (some 3200 € of today) to their great satisfaction particularly since they did not ask anything (it paid François Guillotf his university small studio rent for the winter and quite a few new pegs and karabiners for the others) but to the fury of René as it was diminishing the amount paid to him, although much greater as he was there to make a photo reporting first of all. From that day René was to keep a petty hatred of Gérard Géry.

The second and more major controversy was aroused by René Desmaison’s attitude, gone to join Gary Hemming rescue party with a substantial contract from both PARIS-MATCH and the ORTF to cover the rescue with photos. It will be triggered when five weeks after the end of the rescue, the ‘Compagnie des guides de Chamonix’ decided to expel René from their ‘Compagnie’. Their decision was motivated by the three following reasons:

1.Gone on Friday the 19th of August without having given any notice and without asking for an authorization.

2.Gone with an advertising and lucrative aim (contract with the Television and a magazine), which is in contradiction with our ethic.

3.He refused to collaborate with the Chamonix guides who climbed up the North face and wanted to take the survivors down that face, according to the orders of the man in charge, Jean Franco.

In truth, this Drus affair was just a follow up of several previous clashes between René and the ‘Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix’, and it served as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. But the Chamonix guides from the ‘Compagnie’ were wrong on the last point: René did not lead the rescue party and had no say in the decision taken by Gary Hemming and François Guillot not to descend from the North face but to take the far more direct line of the American Direct route. Also their opinion was erroneous on the best route to take: they did not know the American Direct, the way down the North face included a number of traverses, much loose rocks, which with a total of 14 men meant taking far more risks of rock falls hitting one or several of them than on the American Direct route. Finally, the traverse on the Lainé's 'golos' fully rusted started with a 3 m old rotten hemp rope to be climbed on the blank vertical wall.

The following year, Yannick Seigneur with a customer escaped using that traverse with much difficulty. This would have taken quite some time particularly with one of Germans who was sick and quite weak. François Guillot and Gary Hemming's decision was the right one. Whatever, this decision was highly inappropriate for the image of the ‘Compagnie’. But for René, it was holy bread! Thanks to it, he gained national fame by the indignation which it aroused: even the Sea Rescue French national organization sent a protest, stating that as far as they were concerned if René had been one of them, they would have given him a medal! René's exclusion made the headlines of all the French and European press and TV which forgetting that René had joined Gary Hemming's party as a photo reporter with a very substantial contract presented him as the rescuing hero of the Drus badly abused by the overjealous Chamonix local guides!

Despite this controversy, this rescue operation remains a very great moment of mountain rescue. All actors, whatever their country of origin and their responsibilities, involved themselves to the full. The price was a lost life – Alas – for one of them. Do the utmost to rescue two lost mountaineers was their motivation and this transformed their achievement in a true feat. The two survivors came back alive: this was their aim and it seems justified to highlight the strenuous efforts deployed on the three converging routes, when each of the rescuers with their individual capabilities, did their best with unreserved heart, taking considerable risks.

Gilles Bodin interview on TVMOUNTAIN

Interview of Gilles Bodin by David Autheman on TVMOUNTAIN the 11/08/2002

Gilles Bodin
Gilles Bodin (recent)

But the best is to listen to Gilles Bodin, a guide who created in 1975 (with his brother Patrice, Patrick Cordier and Jean Afanasssieff) the ‘Compagnie Indépendante des guides de Chamonix’ (now called the Association internationale des guides du Mont Blanc), and one of the rescuers, member of Gary Hemming’s group: The 1966 Drus rescue as told by Gilles Bodin. During the summer two Germans start climbing the West face of the Drus and are caught in bad weather. They were blocked just after the pendulum. Several rescue parties will be involved. The first to reach the Germans will be the team formed by Gary Hemming and Giles Bodin, a notorious Chamonix figure, was part of this team. It is one of the most impressive rescues ever done in the Alps.

Here’s Chamonix, After ten days of uncertainty and anguish, those are the last minutes of the drama. The national Gendarmerie and Civil Protection helicopters have just landed at the Rognon where the ten alpinists have bivouacked last night. The two helicopters that you see on your TV set must normally carry the Germans and the rescue party: Hemming, Guillot, Desmaison, Vincent Mercié and the English Mick Burke… all the same, some carry Mueller, the German who get into the Gendarmerie helicopter helped by his companions.'

David: tell us about this Drus rescue that everyone knows about.

Gilles: Everyone, everyone! Ask the youngsters and you will see that they are not so many who know; for them it belongs to the Middle Ages! True, it goes back a bit far, but to me it was yesterday. So, in fact, to take it in a chronological order, the day the German attacked, I saw them. I was with Jean Fréhel and two climbers from the Maurienne area. We were going to climb the Bonatti and faced with a threatening weather and a bad forecast from Geneva, we were going down when we crossed the Germans who just had reached the West face ledges and we told them the weather forecast we had. As they were concerned, on the contrary to us, they had seen the weather forecast from Lyon announcing a perfect weather for the week to come. I don’t blame them. Perhaps we would have done the same, though the weather was quite bad. We went down and two or three days later we learned that they were blocked up there, after the pendulum. And there, I meet Gary Hemming in town. Gary was truly a fantastic guy. He tells me: 'we must do something, no one goes to get them, we must go'. I tell him, sure but how? He replied: 'don’t worry, we will find the people'.

We went to see colonel Gonnet who was commanding the EMHM, because in those days, the mountain rescue in Chamonix was separated in three parts during the summer, one third of the time the Military School for High Mountaineering, one third the ENSA and the last third, the Chamonix guides. It was the time part of the EMHM and colonel Gonnet did with what he had at his disposal. He had sent people on the normal route of the Drus to abseil down the North face of the Drus and then the West face to get them off, but this was nearly impossible. So we told him, we are going to try; our plan is to get up by the West face and get them off. He gave us the green light, Army rations, which, between you and me, are absolutely disgusting. Luckily, they contained cigarettes packs.

We grouped together some friends, of whom François Guillot. Gary Hemming had brought Lothar Mauch who was coming from the Dolomites, where I believe they climbed together; Mick Burke, a very strong climber who had down the 2nd ascent of the American Direct, and then, at the Montenvers, a young German, Gerard Bauer, who told me, they are my compatriots, and despite that if you want I go with you. I told him: but who are you? He just had done the North face of the Matterhorn with two girls. I told him, good OK then, you come, no problem! And off, we went. We got a special train to the Montenvers. Mind you, we were big wigs! And under pouring rain, we walked up to the foot of the Drus.

From there, with Gary Hemming, we practically equipped the gully in order to get up it, because of the truly bad weather; it was snowing. And from the top of the West face ledges, François Guillot led it all. So, first bivouac on the West face ledges. We stayed there one day and one night so dreadful was the weather. And then on the second day, we heard shouting in the gully. It was Desmaison, climbing the gully with Vincent Mercié. We threw them a rope in order that they would get out of the gully because the weather conditions had further worsened.

Then, early in the morning, from that place, it was François Guillot who took us up as rucksacks right up. He was a fantastic climber. Well, then we got the Germans down. Ah, yes, a slightly amusing event: Franco who was the director of ENSA had sent four guides on the North face. They climbed very fast until the junction with the West face, and, there, I will always remember the leader, Pollet-Villard who told us: ‘Franco gives you the order to give us the Germans.’ We discussed among ourselves and considering the physical state of the Germans – they had been more than a week on their ledge, one sick – we thought that with all the traverses on the North face, accidents were bound to occur.

We therefore decided to get straight down by the American Direct route, since it goes down absolutely straight, we could let down everyone without any problem. And so, we did.

David: Climbing up in the bad weather, how was it ?

Gilles: you should better speak with François Guillot who did all the leading. He must have had a hard time, but he is truly an exceptional climber and still today thirty or thirty five years after. Without François Guillot, we may have succeeded, but we would have taken twice as much time.

David: and then, organizing the way down, how did it go?

Gilles: Well, we realized one thing slightly amusing, well amusing no : we knew a little bit but Desmaison did come, sent by PARIS-MATCH and RTL. We then told him: now it's time for you to earn your dole. He stayed behind and belayed everyone on the way down. So, you can imagine the number of abseils, rope maneuvers and the rest. The only stone which came down during our descent fell onto my shoulder! David: And there, it was fully equipped with fixed ropes? Gilles: No, no, no way. We made abseils after abseils. *

David: And the Germans how were they?

Gilles: They were standing, but just. I remember that when we got them from their ledge, climbed up along the Great dihedral, abseiled down the Great dihedral, we spent the last night on the jammed block, and all night I made soups, tea, soups, tea, for everyone, because we needed it and it was the only flat space we had. We had to bivouac, after many bivouacs. I remember Desmaison, which is amusing, shouting ‘Mother’ because he was lying down across a gully with as a pillow, our pack of karabiners and pegs. He must have taken in to the full on his head. I would not have liked to be in his shoes.

David: Because, then, during all the rescue, the weather was bad ?

Gilles: All the time, bad, day and night ! We were soaked through from the start. And this is why that thanks to the Army’s rations we could smoke. The funny thing is that at the beginning only Mick Burke and I did smoke. And at the end, everyone was smoking to get some warmth during the night. So, it did not last so long. But, well, it is only a small episode.

external links and Bibliography

Gilles Bodin interview ORTF BROADCAST Live Coverage explained Wikipedia description of the Drus summipost Drus description TVMOUNTAIN Photos of the Sept. 2011 rock fall TVMOUNTAIN Photos of the Oct. 2011 rock fall Bibliography: Guido Magnone, 1953 'La Face W des Drus', Amiot-Dumont, foreword Maurice Herzog. Georges Livanos, Au-delà de la Verticale, Arthaud, Paris, Grenoble 1958; Guerin 1997.

https://www.tvmountain.com/index.php (look on TV Mountain for "sauvetage of the Drus" in the search field). Lothar Mauch was climbing with Garry Hemming on the Italian side of Mont Blanc when they heard about the two Germans stuck on the West of the Drus and decided to go back to Chamonix to help.

Rock Falls of the Drus

Upper part of the West Face of Les Drus (October 2006)

Drus Rock Falls
Rock Falls of the Dru up to 2005

White line: 2005 rockfalls scar; white square: location of the laserscanner; white point: temperature sensor implanted in the NW face of les Flammes de Pierre;white arrows: fractures plans N30°E-75°NW; black arrows: fractures plans N120°E-80° NW; A, B and C: see text.

Rock fall 11th September 2011

Eboulement des Drus 11 sept 2011 (a)
On the 11th of September 2011, I was at Les Mottets facing the West face of the Drus, after having climbed the Caline route and saw a first rock avalanche followed by a second one some minutes later. It seemed quite big to me, the cloud of dust remained hidding the bottom of the face for more than one hour, though it was estimated at 13000 m3, 4 times less than the following one in October and 5% of the huge 2005 one which totally destroyed the Bonatti pillar

Other photos

Paris Match photo by Desmaison

90 m dihedral Drus West face
The 90 m dihedral - photo Bernard Vaucher 1970


Riri in the 90 m dihedral
Climber in he 90 m dihedral - photo Bernard Vaucher 1970





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Viewing: 1-5 of 5

hansw - Apr 15, 2012 12:48 pm - Voted 10/10

Very good!

Indeed an important piece of mountaineering history. Thanks for posting.



macintosh - Apr 16, 2012 1:19 pm - Voted 10/10

Excellent travail !

Comme d'habitude, Eric, comme d'habitude ! J'ai hâte de te retrouver et faire la causette !!!


ericvola - Apr 16, 2012 2:08 pm - Hasn't voted

Excellent travail

J'ai eu un slovène qui m'a dit qu'il ne s'agissait pas de deux allemands mais de deux slovènes et en plus qu'il connaissait, mais il confondait avec un sauvetage le même mois, mais une année plus tôt au pilier Bonatti. Les deux slovènes (yougoslaves à l'époque !) étaient bloqués au-dessus des dalles vertes (à la hauteur de l'arête des Flammes de pierre. Comme en 1966, c'était le tour de l'EMHM et comme en 1966, ils ont envoyés un 'paquet' de mecs (une quarantaine) qui ont équipé la voie normale de cordes fixes, établit un camp près des flammes de pierre, mais sans résultat au bout de 5 jours et 7 pour les deux slovènes. Le patron de l'EMHM a demandé de l'aide à la Compagnie des guides de Chamonix qui a envoyé deux cordées (Marcel Burnet et Edmond Maresca, Gérard Devouassoux et Christian Mollier - que l'on retrouvera l'année suivante avec Pollet-Villard). Déposés en hélicoptère près de la Charpoua ils arrivent à l'arête des Flammes de pierre à la nuit. Ils empruntent la traversée Mottet-Weber qui amène aux dalles vertes, très près des deux slovènes. A 23h30, ils remettent les deux slovènes aux militaires et se retrouvent à la Charpoua à 01h30, après que Christian Mollier ait failli se ramasser grave (ils allaient un peu trop vite !). En tout 7 heures pour ce sauvetage. Une vraie prouesse. Si les slovènes avaient eu connaissance de cette traversée Mottet-Weber, ils s'en serait sorti par eux-mêmes, mais ce n'était pas le cas. C'est (enfin c'était vu la disparition totale de la voie) la seule échappée possible du pilier. Une autre histoire, un autre petit épisode, comme le dirait mon ami Gilles Bodin, mais pas mal tout de même.
Quoi qu'ont été les polémiques de Desmaison avec la compagnie, ces guides étaient des 'tous bons' !


Same in English: a climber from Slovenia told me that it was two Slovenian climbers and not two Germans and he knew them (Tine Mihelic et Boris Gruden). He was confusing with another rescue which occurred the same month but the previous year (1965) on the Bonatti pillar. The two Sloveanian climbers (Yopugoslavians then) were blocked by a storm above the green slabs (at the level of the Flammes de Pierre ridge). As in 1966 the EMHM was in charge of the rescue, they sent a 'load' of guys (around 40) and equipped with fixed ropes the 'Normal route' and established a 'camp' below the Flammes de Pierre ridge, with no result after 5 days and 7 for the Slovenian climbers. The EHMH commanding officer in charge asked help to the Compagnie des guides de Chamonix who sent two parties: Marcel Burnet and Edmond Maresca, Gérard Devouassoux and Christian Mollier, - the later two will be in the 3rd rescue party in 1966 with Pollet-Villard - Dropped by helicopter near the Charpoua refuge, they reached the Flammes de Pierre ridge at the beginning of the night. They took the Mottet-Weber traverse which leads to below the green slabs, near the two Slovenian climbers. At 23H30 they left the two Slovenians to the Army rescuers and reached the Charpoua at 01H30, after a near deadly fall of Christian Mollier (they were going down a bit too fast!). In all, 7 hours for their rescue. A true feat! If the Slovenians had known about the Mottet-Weber traverse, they would have got out of the route by themselves, but they did not. Another 'small episode' as my friend, Gilles Bodin would say, but not so bad. Whatever the controversies with Desmaison, those guides were among the best.


markhallam - Apr 27, 2012 3:47 pm - Voted 10/10

Bravo Eric!

Another important piece of history from you - a story like this shouldn't be allowed to disappear - great that you have brought it back on SP.
best wishes, Mark


ericvola - Apr 27, 2012 6:50 pm - Hasn't voted

Bravo Eric

Thank you Mark.

I believed that I owed that to my friend Gilles Bodin. So many errors have been told or written about this recue that I wanted to reestablish the proper facts before memories fade away. The Press like so often made headlines with the two figures they selected as more "bankable" for making their front pages, forgetting the others. Some journalists understood well the role of the individual rescuers and their respective motivation such as Gérard Géry who forced René to share some of the Paris-Match money with Gary Hemming, Gilles, Lothar, François, Mick and Gerhrad, but they were a minority and their articles did not make necessarily the front lines.

The finest alpinists are always those who climb with the best ethics, with what the English name: "the spirit of mountaineering" which the Alpine Club launched in 2006 with the Piolets d'or and not necessarily those who search fame (and money) at all costs!

This is the Alpine Club statement for this initiative (not a prize) to acknowledge and thanks persons who:

‘In the true Spirit of Mountaineering have shown unselfish devotion to help a fellow climber endangered in mountains, and in doing this have sacrificed their own objective or put their personal safety at risk'.

This is what Gary Hemming and his team did.

Viewing: 1-5 of 5



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