SHIPWRECKED on MONT-BLANC - The Vincendon and Henry Tragedy

SHIPWRECKED on MONT-BLANC - The Vincendon and Henry Tragedy

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This tragedy occurred on the Eve of Christmas 1956. The agony of two young climbers followed by the whole of France has marked generations of French climbers and the whole French climbing community, professionals and amateurs alike. For the 60th anniversary of the event, the new edition of the successful book written by Yves Ballu 20 years before - Naufrage au Mont-Blanc - (Glénat 1997 and Guerin Editions Paulsen 2017) - which provided the base data for this article with quotes the author obtained from the protagonists most marked with YB - had a foreword of one of the very few survivors of the drama, my friend Claude Dufourmantelle, who tried more than most to save the life of his friends. 

I realized that this “News item” as Claude defines it had not had much coverage, if any, in the Anglo-Saxon world while it had as large an impact on the general French public than the Matterhorn Whymper’s caravan disaster on the 14th July 1865. So here is the story of this exceptional "news item" which was the cornerstone of the creation of the French national mountain rescue unit - the renowned PGHM - and it starts with what was obvious to me, Claude’s foreword which qualifies and reflects so well this event with the hindsight of 60 years passed. 



Written by Claude Dufourmantelle for the new edition of Yves Ballu’s Naufrage au Mont-Blanc - Guerin 2017


Claude Dufourmantelle
Le Duf around that time

May 1956, Algeria, Palestro’s ambush[1]. Guy Mollet [then Prime minister] engages France definitively in a peace keeping of a sort which will soon become a fully-fledged war; Khrouchtchev crushes Hungary with an absent-minded Eisenhower looking on, too busy defending Aramco’s interests in Saudi Arabia, even at the expense of the Franco-British entangled in their Suez affair; Morocco becomes independent, pan Arabism and a political Islam establish themselves in the geopolitical world with the objective 'to dictate on us the oil prices'. Kids and teenagers born during the war are now youngsters; for them, war and its wounds wander away and Americans, forerunners, enriched by those conflicts, spread over a convalescent Europe the image of James Dean and his rage to live. Those young men, those kids take mountaineering as a revival. This generation’s totem to do better that its elders - used up by the war -  works its way by inventing new practises in alpinism with a rock’n’roll “à la Elvis” way.

60 years have gone by, already.

1956, a pivotal year, more than many others but which in “our dear and old country”[1bis] was marked by an exceptional news item, as in the end, this resounding drama was no more than a news item, what most called “the Vincendon and Henry affair”. During the 1956 Christmas holidays, young men – city-boys - work out a plan to climb one of the Italian side Mont-Blanc routes. The enterprise is serious. Winter climbing is not then a well admitted practise for the majority of climbers and is even taboo for mountain guides. It was a transgression, a disruption some would say today. The enterprise turned foul: two young men lost their life after ten days of ordeal and agony, castaways on the mountain and castaways in full view of everyone.

This drama took a considerable extent; one must call to mind recent events to find the level of emotion that our country experienced then during several weeks. As a counterpoint of “Vincendon and Henry”, re-emerged the painful memory of the rescue attempt of the Malabar Princess, only 6 years old then.

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Le Duf was refused to join the aspirant-guide course in 1957 due to his action in the rescue but was accepted the following year

The drama’s proximity made it unbearable; the two young men, kids still, were there, a few hours on skis away from Chamonix, the temple of alpinism, and the whole of France was looking on their martyrdom while the “mountain men” were preparing their Christmas meal. The rescue, the hot potato, finally palmed over to the military forces, became a drama added to the drama as the second stage of a rocket gone crazy. Paris Match  and RTF[2] as sound boxes. It is also the appearance of the helicopter in mountain rescue. Miracle resource to move in fast and efficiently, but also a lame excuse for not “going” and wait for the weather window which will allow the lifesaving flight but alas differed. Miraculous helicopter so, but the usage of which will only become routine after the tough usage that the armed forces will experience for the maintenance of law and order during the following years[2bis]

Forty years later, our friend Yves Ballu undertook to relate this tragedy: he did it with the passion of an investigative journalist and the seriousness of an academic historian. He collected all testimonies, triangulated all the information, minutely established the chronologies and, by doing all of this, put all the characters "in their place", for what they had said, for what they had done and, unfortunately, more often than not, for what they had not done. The reward for this work was the success of this book. It is also the work of a sociologist, as the reader will see in it a painting of a specific period of mountaineering, of a specific environment, where the media began to impose its code and pace.

Beyond the news item, the antique promethean tragedy of agony and death of the two heroes; some will say a terrible ordeal. After all, it is the same thing.

I was 23, one of those young men, one of those kids more intent maybe to dream of adventures than to suffer the sternness of the tuition of the École Centrale[2 ter]. And I was not hearing the taboo that forbade to use crampons or skis elsewhere than on ski runs. Already the previous year I had attempted that route, alas - or luckily - covered by deep snow and without much hope. The success in December 1956 in which luck and the talent of my friend François-Xavier Caseneuve (whom I often call Xavier) had played their role, was for Jean Vincendon who wanted to imitate us one of those signs that gods send to those they want to take to their doom.

Fate played us a rotten trick and a merciless machinery had been activated.

Life has moved past. I became a mountain guide, I worked, I had kids and with old age I became one of those men whose behavior was not understandable during the affair, the indifference or passivity of whom then hurt me. I slipped myself under the skin of each of the key players involved and I understood over time that each one, with his impediments and his weaknesses, had done “as he could” in his own world. This drama had subsume and devoured us all, and in this tragedy, there are no good and bad ones but only men and fate’s traps.Twenty more years have passed [since Yves Ballu book was first published] and I have the privilege to be one of the last witnesses and players of this affair. Transitional privilege which I feel deeply.

Privilege to have lived a national drama and an antic tragedy in a modest and powerless acting role. Privilege to have lived the end of a period in mountaineering history and to have discreetly participated in it. Privilege to still be there to say as the poet “how beautiful mountains are”….

[1] In an ambush a commando of the ALN [Armée de Libération Nationale] kills the 21 men of a French army platoon, several being murdered after their capture. [1bis]According to General de Gaulle’s familiar expression. [2] Paris-Match: leading French weekly magazine - RTF: Radio Télévision Française, national radio and unique TV channel then. [2bis] Reference to the Algerian war in which Dufourmantelle and many of his young climbing friends participated. [2ter] Ecole centrale: one of the most prestigious engineers school with the Ecole polytechnique.



1.1. Jean Vincendon

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Vincendon - Bertagne
Vincendon with Jean Dugit
Vincendon with Jean Dugit

In 1956, Jean Vincendon is 23 years old. Born and educated in Paris, he started climbing on the Fontainebleau sandstone boulders. 

Fairly light weight and 5 feet 6, he has not yet done any big alpine routes but the Arête Sud de la Noire de Peuterey in 1955 nor any serious ice climbs, but the previous year he was admitted (11 out of 14) at the Aspirant-guide course (ENSA Chamonix); his teachers were Armand Charlet, André Contamine and Louis Lachenal who impressed him most. 

Like his heroes, he dreams to go on a Himalayan expedition and to climb major alpine routes which would open him the doors of the GHM, the French best climbers exclusive club. He meets his future climbing partner, François Henry on the Freyr rocks in the Ardennes (the main Belgium climbing cliff).


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Belgian from Brussels, at 21 François Henry is two years younger.

Strongly built, 6 feet 3 inches, he started climbing at Freyr (Ardennes) 4 years before. 

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François Henry 20 years old

He is the one who will carry the heavier rucksack. His father, Louis Henry, a chemist, and his mother, Jeanne, were active members of the Zero resistance network. 

Arrested by the Gestapo they were sent to Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mathausen. They will survive miraculously, but Jeanne weakened dies in 1950. 

François and Jean start climbing together at Freyr.



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Like their "heroes", Lionel Terray and Louis Lachenal, they want to climb major routes such as the Croz or the Walker spurs on the Grandes Jorasses and why not the Eiger North face. But Jean has to work the month of July as a UNCM [3] instructor in the Pyrenees (Cauterets) and early in August a leg in cast after a fall puts an end to their summer climbing ambitions. They set themselves another goal, the Brenva in winter. At the time it is the easiest of the big routes on the Italian side of Mont-Blanc but still a serious ice route for seasoned ice climbers and even more so in winter. Winter ascents are so uncommon then that the Chamonix guides bureau is closed down. 

In 1956 winter ascents are not accepted as a standard practice, only for “the strong ones who can only count on themselves »[3 bis] This opinion is largely shared by the Chamonix mountain guides. This will only change with a new generation of guides in the 1960s.

Vincendon got the Brenva Spur idea while in Chamonix listening to Dufourmantelle describing his 1955 winter attempt to climb the route with his partners, François-Xavier Caseneuve (nicknamed the Yeti) and André Brun, all three students at the école Centrale in Paris. They gave up at the start of the spur due to heavy snowfalls. They decided to make another attempt in December 1956. Several weeks after their first attempt (25th February 1955), two well-known Paris alpinists, Jean Couzy and André Vialatte, made the first winter ascent, light and fast. They took the Aiguille du Midi brand new cable-car (opened in the summer 1955), skied down the first part of the Vallée Blanche and went up to the Bivouac-refuge of La Fourche (3682 m). Starting from there at 4:45 am, they reached the Mur de la Côte at 7:30 pm and avoiding the Mont-Blanc summit, descended directly from there by the Corridor, stopping on the Grand-Plateau to await for the moon and then reached the Grands Mulets at midnight. A 24 hours Chamonix-Chamonix around trip and the next day Vialatte took a train back to Paris! Speed-climbing is not so novel!

Vincendon would have liked to join the Duf/Yeti team, as both, although 23 years old, were already seasoned alpinists (Claude Dufourmantelle started climbing at the age of 15) with a several quite serious ice routes under their belts. Furthermore, both students at the École Centrale, they had climbed together for several years and were technically at par. They made a very strong climbing party. Terray will testify during the event in an interview to Europe I that Monsieur Dufourmantelle is a very good alpinist.

[3] UNCM Unionnationale des centres de montagne replacingin 1944 Jeunesse et montagne becoming the UCPA in 1965. [3 bis] As written by Claude Deck in the first article about the drama published in La Montagne et Alpinisme, the CAF and FFM magazine, 26 years after the event. Lucien Devies, CAF and FFM president had prevented anything to be written in the magazine up to then in order to avoid damaging controversies with the Chamonix mountain guides and the parties involved be made public.


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The brand new Aiguille du Midi cable-car cabins


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Guide Vallot Routes

On December 17th, at the end of the morning, they take the Aiguille du Midi Cable-car thanks to the man then in charge (the Cable-car is closed), ski down the first part of the Vallée Blanche, and climb the steep 150 m couloir up to the Bivouac-refuge of La Fourche.

They sleep at the bivouac-refuge and start at 7 am. [3bis] 

They reach the top of the Brenva route at 6 pm (using their headlamps for the last hour - at this time of the season, night falls at 5 pm) and there, like Jean Couzy and Vialatte they ignore the Mont-Blanc summit, go to the Brenva Col, then head straight down to Chamonix by the Corridor and the Grand Plateau. They had chosen the date to benefit from the full moon and so avoid a bivouac. They reach the Grands Mulets refuge around midnight where they sleep all day before resuming their descent to Chamonix. As planned they made a fast round trip ascent, fast style: around 18 hours non-stop from La Fourche to the Grands-Mulets and were equipped accordingly, light. Everything had gone according to plan, but for their last day when crossing the glacier to reach the Junction, Le Duf fell 20 m down in a crevasse losing his ice-ax and a crampon. The Yeti helped him out to safety after much effort, using cord loops.

Back in Chamonix, they meet Vincendon and Henry on the 21th of December at Le Choucas[3ter], tell them the details of their ascent and advise them in case of bad weather to go down on the Brenva route or if at the top of the spur to go up to the Mont-Blanc summit and Vallot as the snow going down directly to the Grands Mulets is deep and in that case to be careful with the crevasses and insist: 

Do not go to the summit unless everything is fine, otherwise go down.

Another friend, Bob Xueref told them: whatever, go to the summit for security. If we have to come and fetch you, it will be by the Aiguille du Gouter.”[YB]

[3bis] Details of their ascent in La Montagne et Alpinisme chronicle -1957 [3ter] The Choucas (Jackdaw) was  for the french climbers the equivalent to the Bar Nash for the British ones.  



DAY 1-3 Saturday-Monday (22nd-24th)

Vincendon and Henry meet Walter Bonatti and Silvano Gheser. 

They leave Chamonix on the 22nd with huge rucksacks. Unlike Le Duf and the Yeti (and the Couzy-Vialatte party) they decided to take a “Himalayan type” equipment. They even have a tent! They take also the Aiguille du Midi cable car with skis to go from the Aiguille du Midi to the foot of the La Fourche couloir; but they are not good enough skiers and their loads are heavy, so they leave the skis at the bottom of the first slope.

Meanwhile Walter Bonatti has planned to make the first winter ascent of The Pear, a much more difficult ascent than the Brenva Spur to the left of the Brenva Spur starting also from the refuge-bivouac of La Fourche. His rope mate is Silvano Gheser, a lieutenant and ski-climbing instructor of the Alpini[4].

On the 18th they make a reconnaissance to La Fourche refuge-bivouac and find ideal conditions. Coming down they see two dots high on the Brenva: Le Duf and le Yeti, going fairly fast.

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Torino refuge rebuilt 1952

Four days later, Bonatti is ski touring in the same area and meets Vincendon and Henry on their way to La Fourche and the Brenva Spur. He does not tell them that in two days he will attempt The Pear as he believes that by then they will be in Chamonix. At the Torino refuge at 4:30pm, Bonatti sees two dots on the Géant glacier coming towards Torino, probably Vincendon and Henry who decided to give up.

On the 24th, with his partner Silvano Gheser they take the Torino cable car and are told about two French who have slept the previous night at the Torino refuge. 

Approaching the slope going up to the Col de La Fourche, they see the two French coming down. They gave up because of a veil of clouds in the morning which worried them. Bonatti sees not a cloud around. When he tells the two French that is name is Bonatti and that he is going to make the first winter ascent of The Pear, they change their mind and follow him up to the refuge-bivouac of La Fourche. 

Several days later, the Nuova Stampa will publish an interview of Bonatti in which he stated: That day, conditions were ideal, better than in summer… And for me there is no better way to celebrate Christmas than to spend it up there, between sky, ice and rock. It is my passion. Some celebrate Christmas with a turkey, cakes and sparkling wine, others with a Christmas Eve dinner at the casino… As far we are concerned, we like the freezing wind at 4000 meters high and the stars which seem so near. Splendid joys but difficult to understand and explain…"


Unnamed ImageLa Fourche
Seeing that, Henry who was second on the French-Belgian rope and so did not have to cut steps, offers his which Bonatti accepts: 
La Fourche balconyLa Fourche


La Poire needs perfect equipment, he [Henry] said to minimize his generosity."[5] 

He also notes the excellence of their equipment, “better than ours, particularly their long down sleeping bags capable of sustaining low temperatures[5]…” In return Bonatti offers them to climb with him to The Pear. But he knows that in the end Vincendon and Henry will not accept as their training and acclimatization is far too insufficient for such a climb. Soon, Vincendon, knowing that The Pear is too difficult a climb for him and Henry, decides to stick with the Brenva.

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[4] Italian Army mountain troops. [YB] Quotes from Yves Ballu's book [5] Bonatti My Mountains - Christmas on Mont-Blanc


5.1. TUESDAY - DAY 4 (25th)

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Woken up at 2:30 am, they leave the refuge-bivouac at 4 am. The first steps in the cold are painful.

At the col Moore, the two parties separate, the Italians traverse left to the foot of The Pear while the French start on the Brenva Spur. But soon Bonatti finds that they started too late: the sun rose when they reach a steep couloir with unstable snow below The Pear itself. The route is now prone to avalanches[6]

At 8:30 am they turn down and decide to join Vincendon and Henry on the Brenva Spur not exposed to avalanches. They make a long diagonal traverse up to the spur and once there Bonatti is astonished to find that the Franco-Belgian party is below them. Heavily laden, they have been slow, but they do not seem in a difficult situation. Theyfollow the tracks left by Dufourmantelle and Caseneuve. Between 2 pm and 3 pm the Italians stop to eat, but Vincendon and Henry still do not catch up with them. They are too slow. Bonatti starts again; he knows that the last part of the route is steeper and may require step cutting. At 3:30 pm they are 100 m below the last seracs near the steep part ending the spur. In normal conditions, one would need one to two more hours to reach the Mont-Blanc summit and another half hour or so to reach the Vallot refuge below the Bosses ridge. But it is winter, the last slope of the spur is steep,  as they progress up the wind gets fiercer and night comes down fast. Half an hour more and they would be above the last difficulty just below the top of the spur but night is on them and the weather suddenly changes. A massive storm falls on them. The wind is blowing at 70 km/h or more. 

"In those circumstances, it would have been normal to lose our life" will say Bonatti.[YB]

[6] An avalanche fell over 1000 m filling the Brenva bowl just after they reached the Brenva Spur. A wise decision from Walter who wrote in Mountains of my Life that "A little altimeter/barometer would have been enough to warn us the previous night... But in those days no one made much use of them (I used one constantly from then on precisely because of this experience). Nor were there any reliable weather forecasts. At that time everyone trusted his own empirical observation and relied on vague premonitory signs." 


Bonatti looks for a shelter and finds a hole that he enlarges with his ice-axe. Gheser's feet are freezing, he took cotton socks, a gross mistake. Bonatti gives him his elephant foot sleeping bag. About 100 m below Vincendon and Henry spend the night in a snow hole.

Fourteen hours of storm without being able to sleep. In the morning they are covered by 40 cm of fresh snow. The storm is still raging, they are blinded by a deep mist and the snow continues to fall. Vincendon and Henry do not feel well but do not want to go down as Caseneuve and Dufourmantelle advised them to do. As Bonatti will state later, they were then too high, near the top of the spur, and the snow fall had been such that going down would have been far too dangerous due to the risk of avalanches. In the morning, Bonatti goes down to fetch them using his two ropes tied together for the first 80 m. They join Gheser awaiting in his hole. Henry has his left foot frozen, but with Bonatti’s presence, their spirit is still high.


Bonatti understands that without his help, they will not get through so he puts them on his rope, Gheser, then Henry and Vincendon. Blinded by the storm he finds a way through the snow maze. He misses out the easy exit on the right leading to the Brenva Col and takes the middle exit (out of the 3 possibles exits - see the Vallot Guidebook photo of the Brenva Spur route - Volume 3). This straight line to overcome the final séracs has technical difficulties that the Dufourmantelle and Caseneuve party did not encounter. Suddenly, near to 3 pm, the sky clears up: they see the summit. They are some 150 m above the Brenva Col (4303 m), at the top of the ridge of the Mur de la Côte, 350 m below the summit, between the Lower and Upper Red Rocks[7].

Bonatti’s instinct and experience have saved them. But they are not yet out of danger. Bonatti starts straight for the Grands Mulets by the Old lower passage (Passage Balmat), but after going down 100 m with snow up to his waist he finds that the snow fallen on the ice undercover is unstable and dangerous. They come back up to the top of the Balmat passage (4 450 m). A solution could be to cross diagonally to the Vallot refuge roughly located at the same altitude, but the snow there is also deep and as avalanche prone. The last solution, the easiest and safest, is to go up to the Mont-Blanc summit and descend the Bosses ridge to the Vallot refuge at 4300 m.

There, the freezing Northern wind has blown away the excess snow, so the slope is firm on the feet and easy. But going up with a violent wind means a tiresome effort, particularly after the ordeal of their 14 hours bivouac in the storm. Bonatti is worried, night will be soon on them (time is now near to 4pm so they have 1 hour to 1h30 of daylight left) and he knows that a second night out in the open might means death so he wants to reach Vallot before sunset and Gheser shows signs of weakening. Bonatti does not want to slow down, he knows (and he is probably the only one to see the situation so clearly) that with a 70km/h wind and a minus 30°C temperature the result is a minus 70°C. Stopping is deadly. As there was no difficulty, we only had to walk, and as visibility was now good, the two parties take back their independence in order to "go as fast as possible"[5], and start up the Mont-Blanc last slope, first side by side.

[5] Bonatti La Rivista Mensile CAI 1957 and To My Mountains - Christmas on Mont-Blanc 1961.  [7] Bonatti’s estimates in To My Mountains - Christmas on Mont-Blanc.


After half an hour or so Vincendon and Henry slow down. 100 m below the summit, above the Petits Mulets, Bonatti sees them lagging two to three ropes lengths behind (some 60 to 90 m [8]) and shouting in the fierce wind he encourages them to go faster, to which they respond "No problem", but Vincendon is tired, he doesn’t feel his feet, they may be frozen. He knows though that he must follow Bonatti’s tracks. 

They must go on. Bonatti concentrates on the task and keeps on, thinking that the slope being easy and with their tracks, Vincendon and Henry will soon join him and Gheser. He reaches the summit as night is coming down in the insistent polar and furious wind. Without stopping, with Gheser, they go down the arête des Bosses and it's pitch-dark when they reach Vallot. 


The sheet metal made refuge is in an appalling state, everything is frozen inside, impossible to light a fire - the temperature that night inside the refuge was -18°C, no food no medicine, nothing but frozen blankets. 

Published in Epoca: The V& H route shown is the Corridor while they followed the "Old Passage" between the Upper and Lower Red  Rocks. An example of errors published in the Press .

Bonatti will write later :

"I realized the seriousness of Gheser feet frostbites... there was no moment to lose, with a half-lire of methylated alcohol - the fuel for our boiler we hadn't used - I started to violently massage his frozen limbs..." [9]

They set up a candle on a window sill to guide Vincendon and Henry when they would arrive, but they do not.

"We were more and more worried about Vincendon and Henry who still had not appeared. Every so often I looked through the door... but nothing could be seen... I wondered with anguish if, too exhausted, they could have decided to bivouac somewhere high up which would have been a tragic mistake... [9] Ghesr stated in his 1957 testimonial in La Settimana Incom Illustrata : " Bonatti wanted to go back to find them, but I managed to convince him that it would be suicidal."

All night long, Bonatti will ask himself the question:   Why haven’t they arrived?”

In the morning the storm still raging, they await up to 10 O'clock for Vincendon and Henry. Bonatti stated later: 

"And now we could do nothing to help them... I could not imagine that so high up Vincendon and Henry, only a little distance behind us, were going to take, without us knowing, the most absurd of decisions : turn back down (but this is what they did!) and then go for the couloir of the Old Passage which we had avoided as being extremely dangerous. Why would Vincendon and Henry do such a folly? I don't know. No one will ever know [9]... With this tragic mistake, the poor boys sealed their own fate...” [10] 

Bonatti decides against going down to Chamonix, although a much shorter way, but to go down to Gonella via the Bionassay ridge believing the snow there to be less avalanche prone. He must save Gheser whose feet are so swollen that he cannot put his boots on. With the Vallot blankets and bits of a sleeping bag Bonatti makes some makeshift shoes fixing on them Gheser’s crampons with lanyards, belts and wire. They finally leave Vallot at 10 am, descending via the Bionassay ridge, in a maze of séracs, crevasses and mounds of snow. Bonatti knows that he must lose altitude and that friends coming up from Courmayeur should be at Gonella awaiting them. 

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Mont-Blanc South-West face, route to Gonella - Sommets du Mont-Blanc, p.124
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Route followed by Bonatti to Gonella - Sommets du Mont-Blanc, Glénat p. 124

A snow bridge breaks and Bonatti falls 20 m in the crevasse below before being stopped by the block of snow formed between his legs. Gheser blocks the main rope and Bonatti using the rope climbs up where the crevasse narrows; he continues with his crampons, but the end is overhanging. He asks Gheser to make loops on one of the rope's ends, lower it to him and fix it securely. Using one loop he swings his body several times until he reaches the crevasse’s opening and with the help of Gheser gets out of the crevasse. The manœuvre has taken two hours and a half, time is 5 pm and Gonella is still 700 m below. They must bivouac again.

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Translation of the Newspaper French text: Diagram of the abysmal crevasse Bonatti fell into. He was saved thanks to the rope linking him with Gheser. After coming around, the Italian alpinist (in the middle) did the splits and put his feet where the crevasse narrowed. Then he let himself down on a snow bridge 10 m below (bottom). Bonatti hauled himself up to the opening thanks to loops he made on the rope used as aiders. When he reached the snow crust which blocked the way out (up) he balanced his body on another rope loop put under his armpits and with an extraordinary pull-up, came to the surface.

This rope with aiders hand made in the abyss allowed Bonatti to escape death.

They take shelter against a sérac. The cold is intense. Bonatti gives Gheser his thicker mittens and the hood of his anorak. He had already given Gheser his elephant foot down exchanging it with Gheser's rubber linen bivvy sack. He could do no more and as in his terrible bivouac at 8 100 m on K2 he kept on beating his boots with his ice axe until feeling the pain which meant that his blood was flowing again. At 5 am, the moon shows up with a perfect weather, then a bright sun. They know they will survive.

It will take them a full day, advancing slowly, sometimes on all four, to reach Gonella where they find good blankets and wood to make a fire, but no food. Meanwhile Bonatti's Italian friends have organised a rescue party from Courmayeur and reach them two days after, on the 30th. 

Bonati and Gheser are saved, the indestructible Bonatti is unscathed, but Gheser will lose all his toes. 

[8] Walter Bonatti Una Vita Cosi a cura di Angelo Ponta (2014 - RCS Libri Milano) published 3 years after Bonatti's death. [9] From  Walter's account and his posthumous book, Walter Bonatti Una Vita Cosi (2014), from what Henry told the EHM guides and André Blanc, the S58 pilot, from the Vincendon and Henry physical state they noted after their 4th bivouac with Vincendon looking defeated while Henry was smiling and talkative, we can guess that it is Vincendon who exhausted and most probably hit by altitude sickness, just could not go further some 30/50m below the Petits Mulets - roughly 130/150m below the summit of Mont-Blanc - Henry deciding to stay with him. [10] Walter Bonatti Montagnes d'une vie Arthaud 1997


Ten days after, a journalist published an interview of Gheser in hospital, hands and feet covered with bandages. Still in a confused state Gheser tells a story full of errors, different to Bonatti's. For Bonatti the story was so vague and erroneous that he decided to ignore it in order not to give it any credit. Bonatti corrected a number of factual errors written as he stated [11] by irresponsible journalists looking after a scoop and with no expertise in mountaineering in his first article published in the Italian Alpine Club monthly review and his book "To My Mountains". It all came flooding back 40 years later when Ballu wrote his book quoting the same texts published in the press at the time of the event and a handwritten letter he obtained from Gheser replicating partially his "hospital's interview" and adding new errors. His memory of the event 40 years after as far as Bonatti was concerned was even more confused as it had been then, erroneous on many aspects and on almost all the toponymy where the events took place. It could not be taken as evidence of truth as far as Bonatti's actions at the time were concerned. In 1999, Bonatti stated in an article published in la Rivista, which I read in Angelo Ponta's book Walter Bonatti Una Vita cosi published in 2014, three years after his death, "... Gheser' absurdities were so many and such that even an inexperienced alpinist would never have accepted to vet them." 

The two main controversial points were: 

a) statements that Bonatti's ice-axe shaft which he had exchanged with Henry's was broken while it only had a slight longitudinal crack and was still usable hence he never had any intention to go back to Courmayeur contrarily to what Gheser stated. 40 years after the event, in a handwritten letter to Ballu, Gheser mentioned that "Henry climbed the Brenva with an ice axe in two pieces."  How absurd! Unfortunately Bonatti had used the wrong term of "broken" (rotto) in an article published in the CAI magazine shortly after the events which he only rectified many years after in later versions of his book "My Mountains" using the more proper term "cracked" (incrinato). 

b) that they separated from Vincendon and Henry when the French-Belgium party decided to stop to take a rest and eat at a place not far from the summit implying for Bonatti that he did deliberately abandon them. Bonatti denied this to have occurred. He explained that they took back their autonomy as two ropes parties when coming back to the Upper Red Rocks after their attempt to go down to the Grand Mulets via the "Old Lower passage". The last slope going up to the summit of Mont-Blanc was obvious and easy enough even to be climbed unroped, so it was secure enough and faster to continue as two rope parties. Gheser 1957 testimonial and his letter to Ballu written in 1997 are contradictory in the timing quoted and so confused and full of toponymical and chronological errors that one could think that the two parties separated not far from the summit, below the “Petits Mulets”, and because Vincendon and Henry decided to stop. For Bonatti it implied that he abandoned them. Gheser is mistaking the “Old Lower passage” with “the Corridor” and the Mur de la Côte with the Brenva Col. In fact, all the toponymy in Gheser's testimonials are erroneous: they would have reached the Brenva Col and started down the Corridor, while this never occurred; and this at 14h30 in his first testimonial and at 16h in his letter to Ballu 40 years after. They got out of the Brenva spur way to the left, 150 m above the Brenva Col, and Bonatti attempted to go down the "Old Lower passage" between the Upper and Lower Red Rocks and not the Corridor. Those basic but major errors for an alpinist who has climbed Mont-Blanc from this side (the three Mont-Blanc route being the most obvious one) indicate that Gheser did not know where he was. He did not know the area and was blindly following Bonatti, worrying about his frozen feet. But it does not mean that all his testimonial is erroneous as an angry Bonatti implied. 

As far as stopping to eat which Gheser stated Vincendon and Henry wanted to do, Bonatti explained this to be complete nonsense as it was impossible to do so in the polar wind they were then facing with nowhere to shelter, so for him it only occurred in Gheser's confused mind. Silvano did not speak a word of French and just could not understand what Vincendon & Henry were saying. Bonatti always wrote (and not 40 years after) that they regained their rope party autonomy from a common consent, the weather having cleared, between the Higher and Lower Red Rocks at an altitude of around 4 450 m and not below the Petits Mulets i.e. 200 m or so higher. However Gheser did not invent the fact that V&H and himself did take off their rucksacks for a rest and proposed to have something to eat as Bonatti also mention in his first testimonial (Sport & Vie) but that occurred after having come back up from their attempt to go down the Old Lower passage and according to Bonatti's more detailed relation in his book, they did not stop to eat. They were then at the level of the Upper Red Rocks on flat ground and when reading Gheser's 1997 second testimonial carefully, where he indicates the timing of 4 pm and correcting his toponymical errors, one can deduct that this is where he situated their "separation" corroborating then this part of Walter's story. From there Gheser was too concentrated on following Walter to check what Vincendon & Henry did. 

This is the point which most infuriated Bonatti. It is unfortunate that Ballu did not situate this part of the action nor indicated any timing. He does write that they got out of the spur at 4 500 m, but once the decision is taken to go Vallot by the summit after their attempt to go down to the Grands Mulets, he describes at length their action up until the moment when, after having slowed down, Vincendon & Henry stopped and separated from Bonatti & Gheser. That made Bonatti believe that it implied that they were much higher, below the Petits Mulets, where he last saw them. For him that meant that being so near the summit still on the same rope one could then say that he abandoned the two boys. Ballu told me during our exchanges that in no way did he want to imply such a thing and he also agreed that this separation occurred some 300 m below the summit and it is true that he never used himself directly the word "abandon", but if Ballu has not have himself accused Bonatti of having abandonned Vincendon and Henry, he did suggest it through an imaginary character commenting the event, stating : "...They should not have been left behind. In any case they should have remained on the same rope up to the refuge... If Vincendon and Henry had been his friends, Bonatti wold not have left them...!"

Ballu also told me that although he had difficult exchanges with Bonatti he did not want to bring in his book anything which could be controversial. He estimated a number of Bonatti’s responses unsatisfactory as not explaining a number of what he considered to be contradictions between his initial and following testimonials (which Bonatti stated to be just "more detailed explanations") and decided not to use them in his book and rely on Gheser's statement for the reason of their separation with Vincendon & Henry. So when writing first this article I did not know anything which had gone on between them. Unfortunately, even if Ballu believed to have avoided a controversy, Bonatti was furious when he read the book and threatened Ballu and his publisher to go to court. As Ballu did not accuse clearly Bonatti of any misbehaviour or in order not to give him more publicity, someone must have persuaded Bonatti not to start an action. But as Bonatti writes in the Chapter published by Angelo Ponta in Walter Bonatti Una Vita Cosi (as from Ballu published in 1999 in La Rivista), his main complaint remained: 

"All this story, false, dreamed, told by Ballu, would not be as serious if, he had placed it where we were, at the Old passage where we reformed our two parties to pursue our route to the summit. Ballu placed it more at around 4700 m, at the Petits Mulets, and just before losing sight of the two boys below us."

Ballu agreeing that it occurred where Bonatti claims, it is then a pity that they could not clear that point before the book was published. 

From Gheser's somehow confused memory but confirming the "place of the separation", from what Bonatti did state and wrote after the event and considering Bonatti's exceptional character,  there is no reason to doubt his detailed description given in his book, To My Mountains, as far as the place and reason of their separation are concerned. There were some other points, minor but which made Ballu doubt Bonatti's version, particularly one: in the letter Bonatti wrote to Ballu (feb 1998) responding to Ballu's last questions just before the publication of his book which he sent me and published on his blog: Bonatti maintained that he never invited V&H to go with him to climb La Poire. A stupid lie (or as Ballu told me "reconstructed in good faith from his memory of what occurred") which is contradicted soon after by himself in La Rivista's article. He explains that it was not serious, he was just being nice. Certainly true as attempting the first winter ascent of the most difficult ice climb of this side of Mont Blanc with unknown youngsters with no known experience would have been pure lunacy. 

It is unfortunate that Ballu did not understand how key the point of separation would be for Bonatti. Ballu told me that he has climbed the Brenva, so it also unfortunate that he did not question Gheser on his toponymical errors before using his testimonial. [11] Many of my friends long time back objected to Ballu's book stating that he made dead men talk. As far as I was concerned I found that it made the story more vivid, but when I discovered that Bonatti felt so outraged by Ballu's text [11] as for him it implied that he had abandoned the two boys, I could not but agree with those friends as far as this single point of the story is concerned! Finally from what Ballu told me, it was not his intention at all and his admiration of Bonatti remains unchanged. However I note that he did not state it to the press, particularly when interviewed by a journalist from Vertical for his book who had well read Bonatti's "suggested abandon" and asking him if he did not fear Bonatti's reaction, to which Ballu responded that he did not say that Bonatti abandonned them, but that he changed his version several times which suggested feeling guilty! Not astonishing that Bonatti treated him of being sneaky and malevolent.

Walter has often been criticized and even slandered but up to then it had been by the Italian press. An Italian MP even asked Gheser to be punished for having as a military officer risked the life of rescuers for the sake of a private undertaking! 

One thing is sure: without the second to none alpinist talents of Bonatti and his incredible physical abilities, Silvano Gheser would not have survived. 

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Walter back at Courmayeur unscathed!
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Bonatti-Gheser rescue party
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[11] Walter Bonatti Una Vita Cosi a cura di Angelo Ponte (2014 - RCS Libri Milano) "In this article (La Settimana Incom Illustrada - January 1957)..., were published under Gheser's name such and so many stupidities that even the most inexperienced alpinist would never have accepted to vet. It is for this reason, and also to be indulgent toward an unhappy comrade suffering on his hospital bed that I immediately decided not to give any credit to his confused and silly statements so inappropriate that it was obvious to anyone."


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In red, the route taken by both parties. In yellow, the route taken by Bonatti and Gheser to Vallot. In blue the descent route of V&H. B2 the place of V&H estimated 2nd bivouacX = the place where the "separation" occurred.



Vincendon was more and more tired. 

After their last exchange of words with Bonatti pressing them to follow him when they stopped two or three rope lengths below the Petits Mulets which Bonatti and Gheser had reached (the Petits Mulets are the last rocks, 110 m below the summit of Mont-Blanc) - they were probably roughly 150m below the summit .

Vincendon probably exhausted or hit by a severe altitude sickness did not find the strength to follow Bonatti and Gheser’ tracks. 

Contrarily to Bonatti and Gheser, Vincendon and Henry had no training at all in altitude.

With night falling they bivouacked for the second time probably near the Small Red Rocks[12]




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In red the route followed by V&H with their estimated high point and their descent route by the Old passage. B2 is V&H estimated place of their 2nd bivouac - B3 the estimated place of their 3rd bivouac after their 60 m fall

The next day - Thursday 27 - did they try again to reach the summit? No one will ever know. Whatever, at one stage, they started down. Secured by Henry, Vincendon was falling continuously. They were going down the slopes between the Upper and Lower Red Rocks (the "Old Lower passage" or "passage Balmat") with the aim to reach the Grand Plateau and the Grands Mulets refuge. 

Vincendon made a 60 m fall somewhere in the steep couloir pulling along Henry with him. 

They lost their glacier sun-glasses, rucksacks, gloves and François his crampons and his over boots. They bivouacked again at the bottom of the Upper Red Rocks at around 4200 m, climbing down 400 m only in a full day[12bis] which shows how exhausted they must have been or at least Vincendon who was seen falling from the Brevent all the time by the the Chamonix guide Joseph Maffioli in charge of the ski patrollers.




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Vincendon & Henry bivouacs sites up until their death inside the crashed S58

The following morning, Friday the 28th, Henry managed to get Vincendon down to the Grand Plateau but probably partially blind due to the loss of their glacier sun-glasses, they lost their way and instead of going left onto the route leading to the Grands Mulets, they went straight down and stopped on the brim of the 300 m high icefall overhanging the Combe Maudite at around 3900 m. 




[12] From the testimonial of Warrant-officer Blanc who spoke with François Henry after the crash of his helicopter, 3 days later. [12bis] According to the observers from Planpraz and the Brévent, Simond, Pellin and Maffioli.


Thursday and Friday - DAY 6 and 7 (27th-28th) 

8.1. The rescue system in 1956

Up to the end of the war, no national organised rescue system did exist. It was done by volunteers. 

Lucien Devies the president of the FFM[13] will institute the first national system basing himself on the well-established Austrian mountain rescue organisation, coordinating some 20 different rescue organisations by 1948. He was very active in the creation in Chamonix, capital city of mountaineering, of the then rescue system. In the Mont-Blanc range covered by Chamonix the number of rescues was such that the solution devised was a sharing system coordinated through the SCSM (Société Chamoniarde de Secours en Montagne); its president was Doctor Dartigue, a well appreciated GP. The SCSM itself was reporting to the FFM special rescue committee. But the SCSM role was only to delegate the rescues to one of the three organisations in Chamonix with men and equipment. The Chamonix guides Company, the ENSA (Ecole Nationale de Ski et d'Alpinisme) and the EHM[14] (école de Haute Montagne - French Army).

Dartigue only coordinates the rescue teams of those three Chamonix organisations:

  1. The powerful Chamonix guides Company jealous of its privileges. Only those born in the valley could join (with marked exceptions though: Gaston Rébuffat from Marseille and Lionel Terray from Grenoble but they had conquered Annapurna, the 1rst 8000m!)

  2. the ENSA (École nationale de ski et alpinisme) with its guides and teachers in charge of training the future ski instructors and mountain guides is a fairly new public body attached to the Sports department of the French Education ministry (the first national mountain guide diploma was created in 1948). However in winter there is no mountain guides course, only skiing instructors ones, so most of the mountain guides instructors are not available but a few who are covering both courses: mountain guiding in summer and skiing in winter.

  3. the EHM (Ecole de haute montagne) with its guides and instructors in charge of training French mountain troops.

Those independent organisations have their specific rules and command lines. Dartigue can’t order anyone to go on a rescue. Apart from the EHM, it is up to each guide to decide and there is normally no rescue party organised in winter. Not referring to the SCSM, the St-Gervais guides company is much smaller and do handle far less mountain rescues, their spirit is far more easy going and they have participated in the 1950 Malabar Princess rescue aside the Chamonix guides. Louis Piraly is in charge and will be most reactive and helpful.

Besides those units, two important human components in the valley will be involved in the drama: alpinists from outside the valley, amateurs coming from cities, mostly from Paris and Geneva, such as Claude Dufourmantelle, Marcel Bron and their friends. However, as Claude Deck notes in his 1983 La Montagne et Alpinisme article: "in 1956, the brotherly pre-war emulation between amateurs and professionals had given way to somewhat bitter competition and rivalries." A leading French newspaper, France Observateur will publish just after the drama (10th January) an article going much further than Claude Deck, quoting an earlier statement from the Chamonix guides company's president: 

“…'The Chamonix guides company refuses to risk the life of Chamonix fathers to save two reckless individuals who are not from here'… IN CHAMONIX THE OPINION IS THAT VINCENDON AND HENRY WOULD HAVE BEEN TAKEN DOWN 48 HOURS AFTER THE ALERT IF THEY HAD HAD THE LUCK TO HAVE BEEN BORN IN THE VALLEY.”

Finally, a public opinion largely shared in Chamonix will also play a role: winter ascents did not exist, it was madness and suicidal, mad guys should only count on themselves."

[13] Fédération Française de la Montagne, created in 1945 by the sports minister with the delegation to organise mountain rescues in France. Its president Lucien Devies was also in charge of its rescue committee. [14] Originally the EHM (Ecole de Haute Montagne), its name will be changed to the more appropriate EMHM (Ecole Militaire de Haute Montagne).


On the 26th, while both parties are trying to get to the summit of Mont-Blanc, Le Duf, not knowing that Vincendon and Henry waited two days before starting their ascent thinks that something has happened and contacts doctor Dartigue who tells him that there is no rescue organised in winter and suggests to try Joseph Burnet at the Chamonix guides Company, not being able to tell him if the guides from Chamonix or from St-Gervais are competent for a rescue on this side of Mont-Blanc. Two rescue parties could be sent up, one from St-Gervais and the Gouter refuge, the other from Chamonix and the Grands Mulets. 

This is what had been done for the crash of the Malabar Princess 6 years before [15]. Dufourmantelle contacts Burnet who refuses, telling him Go yourself if you want”[16]adding that the heavy snow falls of the previous night makes a rescue much too dangerous. With his fellow guides, they consider that sending men in such conditions is sending them to their death. In those years, mountain guides have very little experience of winter climbing, fearing avalanches such as the one which took the life of René Payot during the 1950 Malabar Princess’s rescue, but as Le Duf points out, 60 years after, it was the peak of the skiing season with all the key expected income for the Chamonix guides. Burnet having refused help, Dartigue gives a telephone call to Piraly, president of the St-Gervais guides, Dufourmantelle speaks with him but Piraly tells him that he has no guides available to organise a rescue. Pierre Dartigue in charge of the Chamonix rescue is like a general without soldiers, unable to send men in a rescue![YB] As far as Rébuffat is concerned, when approached by Remy de Vivie and Dufourmantelle, he told them that he has no spare equipment to lent them and that he is not interested to participate in a private rescue. 

Jean Franco, leader of the highly successful 1955 Makalu first ascent is not yet the ENSA director (he will be the following year) but the manager of the UNCM, the future UCPA and a skiing and mountain guide instructor himself. When asked by Claude Dufourmantelle, he declined to participate in a rescue, but as a gesture he gave him his own ice axe to replace the one Claude lost when he fell in a crevasse at the Junction.

The EHM rescuers could be more willing, being military men they are guides and have no clients and no insurance problem… and can count on the French army organisation and its vast resources, but also with all its independence… Anyway Piraly and Burnet are adamant: good weather or not, avalanche risks are too high and one must first locate the missing climbers. An Auster 5 pilot is available at Le Fayet tiny airstrip but he cannot take off until the runway is cleared from the snow. So no flight is possible that day.

Dufourmantelle whose partner, Caseneuve, has gone back to Paris cannot do anything on his own. He does not understand why no one in the Chamonix guides Company wants to help. He therefore tries to find friends to form a rescue party. He also gives a call to Vincendon’s parents to warn them that their son may be in trouble. Philippe Gaussot the Dauphiné Libéré's correspondent based in Chamonix writes his first article published the 27th and titled:

« WITHOUT NEWS FROM THREE PARTIES WHO ATTEMPTED THE BRENVA SPUR. Among those, Bonatti, the Italian guide, Jean Vincendon from Paris and François Henry from Brussels… They are 24 hours late and the heavy snow fall recorded last night justifies the mountaineering community’s anxiety… Alert has been given by Claude Dufourmantelle…”

In the afternoon, le Duf finds two friends, François Aubert and Noel Blotti, who also wanted to do a winter ascent and are therefore equipped for it. They plan to go up to Tête Rousse from Les Houches the next day.

[YB] As per Yves Ballu's book. [15] Air India Flight 245 (a lockheed L-749 Constellation) Malabar Princess with 40 passengers and 8 crew on the route Bombay-Istanbul-Geneva-London crashed into Mont Blanc on the morning of 3 November 1950, killing all on board (at the Rochers de la Tournette 4,677 m - near the summit of of Mont Blanc, on its South-West face Italian side; see above drawing "Route followed by Bonatti to Gonella"). Note that the route to Mont-Blanc by the Tournette spur from Quintino Sella is one of the least climbed of the easy routes to Mont-Blanc - AD - and so very worthwhile for those who want to avoid the crowds of the Gouter or three Mont Blanc routes. [16] As per Claude Deck La Montagne et Alpinisme’s article.

8.3. Why not use a helicopter? 

While Le Duf and his friends are progressing extremely slowly in deep snow towards the Nid d’Aigle, Dartigue has an idea that he had in his mind for some time: the use of a helicopter.[YB] On the initiative of Lucien Devies tests were done two years before with a Bell 47 which reached the altitude of 4500 m and made 11 runs. The pilot had even made two rescues, one on the Mer de Glace and another on the Argentière glacier, the first ones ever with a helicopter.

There were still some stringent technical limits, no horizontal flight a few meters from the ground and no stationary hovering. Those first tests were renewed successfully during the 2 following summers and with the approval from known alpinists and guides of whom Roger-Frison Roche, Maurice Herzog, Gaston Rébuffat, Louis Lachenal who accompanied flights. Armand Charlet estimated that with a helicopter one could do as much work in half an hour than three rescue parties over two days.[YB] So, Dartigue asks the Haute-Savoie prefect for two reconnaissance helicopters, preferably Alouettes as he knows by repute those brand new turbine engine helicopters. He knows well about the tests and demonstrations made by the Sud-aviation test pilots particularly Jean Boulet who is alrfeady famous with many world records. 

A year before Jean Boulet has flown with what will become the Alouette II at an altitude of 8209 m and in the summer 1956, while testing the Alouette in the mountains he rescued an alpinist by picking him up at the Vallot refuge. The Alouette with its turbine engine, a cockpit near the ground, two long skates ensuring stability on snow, a weight of 900 kilos is far better adapted to mountain flights than the heavy wheeled and piston engine Sikorsky helicopters (2,2 tons for the S55 and 3,5 tons for the S58 when empty). More, their flight ceiling is higher and they can make stationary and hovering flights. 

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Petetin and his S55
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Petetin loading his "happy elephant"

Responding to Dartigue's demand, the Army decision is to send a Sikorsky S55 from Le Bourget Military Air base. The pilot is Sergeant Jacques Petetin, 25 years old, air school instructor. He climbed Mont-Blanc when he was 14 years old and knows well mountaineering and the area. His co-pilot is Lieutenant Dupret. But he is well aware that “Happy elephant - the nickname he gave to his Sikorsky - has an altitude ceiling of 3000 m, at 4000 m its 850 horse power engine loses up to 40% of its power. He also knows how to cheat in over-revving the engine which he did once to land a glaciologist on the Col du Dôme. 

They also have their first unit of the new Sikorsky 58 with a 1600 horsepower engine, nicknamed Mammoth, but its maneuverability is none better. Its pilot Warrant-officer André Blanc, born in Algeria has never put a foot on a mountain. Those heavy Helicopters have done a good job in the Indochina war but they are in no way adapted to flying in the mountains and there are only a handful of pilots in Europe who have any mountain flying experience with helicopters.

At 1:15 pm, Petetin lands his S55 on Le Fayet tiny airstrip and takes on board Piraly, the St-Gervais guides’ company president. They take off but unfortunately the Grand Plateau is covered in clouds. Fifty minutes later they are back having seen nothing, but they know nearly for certain that Vincendon and Henry are not at Tête-Rousse, Le Gouter or Vallot. They have seen Dufourmantelle and his two companions near the Nid d’Aigle stopped by the heavy snow.


At the same time, news come that two alpinists have been seen from Planpraz and the Brévent with a spy-glass, above and to the right of the Rochers Rouges, near the “forbidden passage”.[17] In fact only one clearly, the second maybe being hidden. Petetin refills partially his “Happy elephant’s” tank and takes off again but even guided from the Brévent where the observer continues to see clearly the alpinists, the clouds below prevent him and Piraly to see anything and they turn back. They fly back to their base in Le Bourget with a 150 m visibility with snow falling. Petetin flies just above the lorries’ lights on the main road to find his way. “A sodding day” for everyone including the parents of Vincendon who have arrived in Chamonix and are pestered by a flock of journalists arriving from Paris, Lyon, Grenoble… [YB]

Joseph Maffioli, guide and head of the Brévent ski patrolmen has observed clearly Vincendon and Henry moving first on the 27th: instead of going to the Grand Plateau, as Dufourmantelle and Cazeneuve had done and where they could have reached easily the Grands Mulets, after a third bivouac near the bottom of the Upper Rochers Rouges, on the 28th they lost their way and instead of traversing the Grand Plateau following the route to the Grands Mulets, they went straight down to the extreme limit of the 300 m high ice-fall overhanging the Combe Maudite. They stopped on an unsteady cornice. They seemed too tired to climb back to the Grand Plateau. Trapped, they stay still. The news reaches Chamonix that Bonatti and Gheser have arrived safely to Gonella. Everyone is now certain that the Mont-Blanc castaways are Jean Vincendon and François Henry. 

On the 28th at noon, Piraly accompanying the Auster 5’s pilot and using binoculars sees Vincendon and Henry tracks and then guiding the pilot, the two climbers. On their return they have a meeting with Petetin who has flown to the Fayet airport with his “Happy elephant”. They know now that the two alpinists have not moved since the previous day and that they don’t seem to be able to climb back to the Grand Plateau. 

The weather is now perfect and Petetin proposes a rescue with his “Happy elephant”: landing near the two climbers, take them on board and back to Le Fayet. Piraly takes a 20 m rope and with Petetin they take off. However after passing a few yards from the two castaways, Petetin realizes that he cannot land, the snow on the glacier is much too deep, there are crevasses and furthermore the slope is not flat enough; once on the snow his helicopter would sink in and topple over. He could stop much higher on the Dôme du Gouter but who would take the two castaways up? Piraly alone cannot do it. Get down with a rope ladder? Impossible, The S55 at this altitude cannot make a stationary hover; like a bicycle, it cannot hold without moving. Petetin went so near that he saw clearly the smiling faces of Vincendon and Henry. Later he will say: 

How sad to know, feel, listen in my head and my heart, those two boys of the same age than I dying, there, and unable to do more…" [YB]

At 3:30 pm he takes off again and drops backpacks with blankets, food, drugs and five identical messages attached to smoke grenades:

GO UP IMMEDIATELY 200 M TO THE GRAND PLATEAU. It is the only place where the helicopter will be able to land and take you.

Piraly takes a photo with one the two castaways standing and the second in a coiled position which will be published by the newspapers

17] The « forbidden passage » is the « old passage” or “passage Balmat”, forbidden by the Chamonix guides company après the 13th October 1866 Arkwright accident. The guides then were going up the Corridor and the Mur de la Côte, and also the Bosses ridge route which progressively will be more and more used. 

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On their snow balcony, highly exposed, Vincendon and Henry cannot go down, exhausted they cannot go up. Above, the rucksacks dropped by Piraly.

Vincendon and Henry have not been able to open the rucksacks, their hands are frozen hard but they got one of the messages and at 4 pm they start moving up, but extremely slowly. At 5:20 pm they have climbed 50 metres. It is too late for the S55 to take off again. Piraly who has been the most active of the guides - and the only one up to then - calls the press to explain his plan. Tomorrow he will attempt to persuade Vincendon and Henry to go further up where he could get out of the helicopter with a rope ladder, clip them on a rope to and them get in the helicopter. If landing on the Grand Plateau is impossible then he would be dropped on the Dôme du Gouter with several other guides to prepare a landing ground for the helicopter. If the weather is fine, Saturday night, for the first time in seven days, they could sleep in a bed. 

But Piraly with no guide available asks his Chamonix counterpart, Joseph Burnet, who refuses categorically to ask any of his guides to take what he considers to be too high a risk, but he suggests to contact Lionel Terray who is not in Chamonix. Piraly needs at least six guides so with no volunteers his rescue plan by the Col du Dôme is at a standstill.

Meanwhile Claude Dufourmantelle and his friends François Aubert and Noel Blotti due to the deep snow have come down from their attempt to reach the Dôme du Gouter. Blotti has twisted an ankle and will not be available any longer. Claude now wants to go up to the Grands Mulets. He finds some more friends, of whom besides François Aubert, Remy de Vivie, Marcel Bize and the Swiss, Marcel Bron, Roger Habersaat, Claudi Asper and Mario Grossi, all experienced alpinists from the Androsace (famous alpinists club of Geneva) but they only have their skiing equipment. He asks Dartigue the SCSM president to lend him some equipment. Joseph Burnet refusing, Dartigue calls the FFM in Paris, but it will arrive far too late! 


Gilbert Chappaz is one of the EHM ski and guide instructors and also a member of the Chamonix guides Company. Hearing about the Piraly rescue operation he goes to Le Fayet to meet Piraly and volunteers, but he must get the approval of the major in charge of the EHM, Yves Le Gall.

At 44, Le Gall recently back from the Indochina war has taken charge of the EHM. A military man, he has no experience in mountaineering. Dartigue is all too glad to give all the rescue authority and responsibilities to Yves Le Gall.[YB] The decision is taken, Le Gall will be in charge of all operations. The helicopter operation proposed by Piraly is accepted, but at the same time Le Gall excludes any on foot rescue party, against all current practices. However Petetin knows from experience that the Sikorsky cannot make a stationary flight which is necessary to get the castaways from a rope ladder into the helicopter, and the Alouettes can, as Dartigue also had suggested.

Unfortunately the Army and Air Force authorities decided otherwise in sending the Sikorsky helicopters based nearby (Le Bourget).


DAY 8 - Saturday (29th)

Major Le Gall now in charge.

Le Gall changes Piraly’s plan with the agreement of Nollet, the Colonel in charge of the Air Force in Le Bourget air base and Colonel Lacroix in charge of the helicopter section. He will allocate twelve EHM guides organised in two rescue parties to be landed on the Dôme du Gouter, seven hours to reach the castaways and bring them up to the Col du Dôme, so he needs a second helicopter. Nollet and Lacroix allocate the Sikorsky S58 with his helicopter section commander, Major Santini. Santini hesitates as his S58 has never been tested in the mountains and on snow, but his commanding officers insist and he takes off with a mechanic and a pilot, Warrant officer André Blanc, landing at Le Fayet à 4 pm. As Le Gall's operation will require 7 hours in total, he will only give the green light with a complete day of good weather and acceptable flying conditions. He does not want to act by steps, even if he is told that Vallot could be used as a base by the rescuers. He is using the same tactics as in the Indochina war to retrieve wounded from the field.

He also excludes any other rescuers than the EHM guides, particularly civilians; he only wants military men. In the morning, the airstrip is covered in clouds, the helicopters cannot take off. Early afternoon the weather clears up.

Piraly is ready to take off with Petetin and his “Happy Elephant”, but to his surprise, a large amount of equipment is loaded on board and he is told that Le Gall is taking his place, his mountaineering and rescue experience brushed away. They take off. Soon after they see Vincendon and Henry, still progressing towards the Grand Plateau. They see the hole in which they have bivouacked the previous night and the rucksacks dropped the day before are not on the slope so they believe that they have taken them. They drop food, clothes and stoves 6 yards from Vincendon, a second load is dropped 12 yards from Henry. They see them seize the loads and wave their arms to them.


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Before taking off - the Auster 5 on the left
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The S58 flying to the Grand Plateau from the Auster 5


Chances to save Vincendon and Henry seem high that night. The journalist Philippe Gaussot writes in Le Dauphiné:

All this should allow them to hold another 24 hours and even without being over optimistic, 3 or 4 days.”

Santini who just landed with his S58 is confident that tomorrow he will get them safely if the weather conditions are fine. Dufourmantelle asks Le Gall if he could be dropped with two or three of his friends who would jump out of the helicopter near Vincendon and Henry with the intention to get them down to the Grands Mulets. Le Gall refuses. As a military commander he could not have “amateurs” and be responsible for their safety.



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Terray & his first rescue party

Lionel Terray, one of the two or three “non-locals” members of the Chamonix guides company, is highly respected as a guide and also for his drive on the Annapurna first ascent and his many successful mountain rescues. 

On his way back to Chamonix by car after having given a conference in Val d’Isère, he picks up a hitch-hiker, Bob Xueref, a climbing friend of Jean Vincendon coming from Lyon where he had learned the news. 

They meet Dufourmantelle who gives them the latest news. Terray is indignant, the Chamonix guides have refused to organize a rescue. He meets Vincendon’s parents and then several EHM monitors. Their conversation turn foul. Terray does asks them why they have not organised a on foot rescue party and he is told that they do not need him. 

Le Gall will not change his plan for Terray who proposed to be dropped with Dufourmantelle on the Col du Dôme excluding firmly their participation. He describes his plan which Terray disapproves telling him that he will then organise an on foot rescue operation on his own. Later Terray will be asked to explain the use of the oxygen systems which the EHM rescuers will take with them.

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Terray's party going up to The Grands Mulets

At 7:30 am, Terray shows how to use the oxygen systems to the EHM rescuers, using Gilbert Chappaz as the guinea-pig.

At 9 am, Santini, André Blanc and a EHM monitor take off with the S 58 for a reconnaissance flight as planned, their first time in altitude and in the mountains. At altitude, the weather conditions are not good and the wind is strong. During a hovering test, the S58 stalls. Above 1800 m visibility is nil, says Santini. The weather worsens and the whole day will be lost. Furious, Terray believes that too much time has been lost with the helicopters which are inefficient in poor weather conditions while a traditional on foot rescue is always possible. He organises a first party with Claude Dufourmantelle, Remy de Vivie, François Aubert and his friend, an ENSA teacher, Hubert Josserand - the only guide from the ENSA who will volunteer. 

One must also note that if Louis Lachenal, Terray’s best friend and climbing partner is not mentioned in the drama it is because one year before he fell to his death in a crevasse in the Vallée Blanche. Terray asks Bob Xueref to stay behind in order to get the necessary equipment for the second team, the Swiss Marcel Bron and his friends from the Androsace who only had their skiing equipment; they will catch them up the following day at the Grands Mulets, following his party’s tracks.

The first rescue party starts, taking the new Aiguille du Midi cable-car to the Plan de l’Aiguille - The cable-car company refused them to use the service platform of the Aiguille des Glaciers which could have saved them 3 to 4 hours and that will prevent them to sleep at The Grands Mulets that day. With the disapproval of the Chamonix guides, the refusal of the SCSM to cover their insurance (which Lucien Devies, president of the FFM will act upon immediately when alerted, ordering Dartigue to cover it), he wonders if they all want to prevent him to save the two castaways! They will all sleep in the remains of the top station of the Glaciers old cable-car. 


 DAY 10 - Monday (31th)

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 Routes followed by the various parties


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Published in Paris-Match - January 12th 1957 - Note another mistake of the Press with the erroneous location of the Malabar Princess crash which was on the S-West side (Italian) of Mont Blanc not on Mont Maudit.






11.1. The S58 crash.

The second rescue party, finally equipped by the EHM (including a heavy transmitting set), starts on Terray’s team tracks. They also lose half a day to traverse from the new to the old cable-car, its managers refusing again to start up the service platform of the old one.

At Le Fayet small airstrip, Le Gall' EHM teams are ready, but the two Sikorsky need more preparation time. At 9 am, Santini and Blanc take off with their S58 taking a guide with them, Honoré Bonnet (future coach of the highly successful French skiing team winning more than 32 Olympic medals over a period of 10 years). Normally this is a weather conditions reconnaissance, but eventually something could be attempted. The wind is much too strong and half-an hour later they are back to Le Fayet. Night falls at 5 pm, the operation needs 7 hours, if Le Gall cannot give the go ahead at 10, another day will be lost. At noon, the weather is fine, but the EHM guides will not be in situ before another hour and they won’t end their operation before 7 pm, too late for the helicopters to fly. Terray’s team is getting off the Junction, at best they will sleep at the Grands Mulets, but will not be in time to reach the Grand Plateau.

Vincendon and Henry are doomed!

Then, from the Brévent comes the news: one of the two castaways is moving. One is still alive.

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Photo taken by Bonnet just after the crash.

As will state Petetin years later, Santini the Corsican, veteran of the Indochina war, irritated and pissed off by the pressure of his commanding officers and the Air minister who are on the airstrip, knowing that their chances to succeed are low still decides to have a go. He will attempt a direct rescue i.e. on the Grand Plateau. Petetin will add: this affair was really not his cup of tea!” Petetin advises him to get equipped for it. But the Corsican replies that he does not intent to stay up there! With Blanc as pilot and himself as the co-pilot they will attempt to stabilize the helicopter while the guides will get Vincendon and Henry into the helicopter. Finally Petetin persuades Santini and Blanc to put on mountain boots, a fur flying suit and to take a pair of gloves. This time on top of Bonnet, a second guide gets in, Charles Germain. 

Petetin with Le Gall on board, takes off first with his S55 to mark the landing zone for Santini. They see that the two castaways have not moved for the last two days, that they did not put up their tent, but they are alive and wave their hands to them. He also sees that the snow is powdery and deep and the wind from the South downwashes his “happy elephant”. The manoeuvre will be very difficult. He transmits by radio the information to Santini who tells him to stand by. At 00:45 pm, the S58 takes off. At the Grand Plateau they see the two castaways. Blanc starts its landing approach and attempts to stabilize his “Mammoth” to no avail: a storm of powdery snow created by the rotor blades invades the helicopter. It blinds the pilot and the added weight tilts the helicopter, the rotor blades hit the snow. “Mammoth” crashes and lay on one side, its tail broken. They all get out, no one is seriously wounded, Germain though is badly bruised, Bonnet fell on him! Now it is six men that are shipwrecked above the Combe Maudite!

11.2.  Petetin drops 4 guides on the Dôme du Gouter.

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The EHM rescuers at last with Vincendon and Henry
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Henry & Vincendon with their EHM rescuers

Nollet, the Le Bourget military air base commander asks Petetin (flying with Lieutenant Dupret) to take off and to get the men out in three or four successive flights. Petetin refuses, he knows that the only place he can land safely is the Dôme du Gouter which he has done the previous year, a place where visibility is always better and winds more regular. 

Decision is taken to drop four guides on the Dôme du Gouter to save first the two pilots and then Vincendon and Henry. Petetin lands safely on the Dôme du Gouter dropping Gilbert Chappaz; another flight and he drops Jean Minster with some equipment. 

Two more flights and they are now four on the Dôme du Gouter. The guides decide that Chappaz and Minster will go to the Grand Plateau whilst the other two go to Vallot where they will all regroup. Petetin last flight was quite risky - he had to make three attempts before being able to take off from the Dôme du Gouter - and he announces that it is the last one for the day. As he stated I was not flying a helicopter, but a plane!” (his engine filter had frozen) [18]. But the mission is accomplished.

11.3. Bonnet’s attempt to reach Vallot.

Meanwhile Honoré Bonnet decides to get the two pilots who have no mountaineering experience up to Vallot and then come back to help out Vincendon and Henry who are heavily frostbitten: their hands and feet are blocks of wood. They do not realize how badly they are frostbitten. They have not been able to use any of the equipment and food dropped the previous days, but they are able to dialogue with Bonnet. Learning that Bonnet is a member of the GHM which they dream to join, they evoke climbs they could do together in the near future, the memory of which, years after, will make Bonnet cry! François Henry looks in a better condition than Jean who says that without François he would not be alive. 

They stay two hours together. Bonnet gives them an injection of Benzedrine. At 3 pm, the two guides leave with the two pilots, once again Vincendon and Henry are on their own. They haven’t done 30 m that André Blanc falls into a crevasse stopped at the surface by his arms. A snow bridge has broken under his 90 kilos. Shocked by having crashed his S58, feeling a deep sense of guilt, he gives way and slides down two meters into the crevasse. Bonnet blocks him on the rope, and on his belly comes up to the brim of the hole, telling Blanc that he will send him a loop and to put his foot onto it to get up and out. But Blanc does not understand, he has gone berserk, he sees himself dying and has no reaction. 

With Germain and the usage of a haul system, Bonnet finally manages to grasp the warrant officer and pulls him out. Blanc is unable to move further, a real drip. Bonnet drags him to the crashed helicopter and puts him besides Vincendon and Henry who encourages him and tries to warm his hands with his own, hard as rocks, a sight which made Bonnet cry. 

Later when in hospital, Blanc will tell François’s father what his son told him: after they reformed their rope parties, Vincendon was more and more tired. Henry tried to make him follow Bonatti's tracks but night came and they bivouacked for the second time. The following day, they turned down trying to reach the Grands Mulets. Vincendon was falling ceaselessly and slipped down a couloir dragging him along in a 60 m fall. They lost  their gloves, their glacier goggles, their rucksacks and François, his crampons and over boots. After their fall, they bivouacked again at the bottom of the Upper Red Rocks. The following day, they lost their way, missing the Grand Plateau and ending above the icefall of the Combe Maudite. Then on Saturday or Sunday François managed to drag Vincendon back onto the Grand Plateau. He also told him that François did not cease to take care of him trying to warm him up with his hands hard as wood.[YB - from François' Henry's father's testimonial]

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Jean Minster and Gilbert Chappaz arrive on the spot and evaluate the situation: The two castaways are in a desperate state. Theirs legs are frozen high up, they are unable to use their hands, frozen up to their elbows, and they still do not seem to realize the dreadful state they are in. They look happy, dreaming, apologizing for the trouble they are causing and telling the EHM guides that they will help them in future rescues.

Bruised badly during the crash, Germain is not in a good shape, and Blanc is shocked, arms and hands paralyzed. Minster gives him some Coramine and Piridiline. The four EHM guides consider three options:

  1. stay put and wait for reinforcements;
  2. make two teams, one taking the pilots to Vallot and the second staying with Vincendon and Henry;
  3. get the pilots to Vallot and leave Vincendon and Henry and come back the following day with reinforcements.



The first option is judged useless (they would just freeze all together), the second could have been adopted but with a threatening weather, the state of the pilots, particularly Blanc, the third is chosen. They leave a lamp lit in the helicopter; his heart aching, Chappaz tells the two castaways: "We will come back". Once again the two castaways are alone. 

As Le Duf will say when interviewed more than 50 years later in Denis Ducroz's film (see link): 

"Those boys during 10 days bivouacked without drinking, without eating, without gloves, without their glacier sunglasses and they were still found alive, able to speak, to apologize for the trouble they were causing. It is... They have been abandoned... they went through hell, a true way of the cross… and it overwhelmed the whole of France and it is still as overwhelming.”

Bonnet and Germain leave first with Santini, Minster and Chappaz follow with Blanc. Night is on them, snow starts falling and a North-West wind has risen. Blanc is suffering and toiling painfully the two guides after 8 hours of effort manage to reach Vallot at 1:30 am, Blanc has to be carried with the help of the two other EHM guides at Vallot in a weather which did not cease to deteriorate. The first party, Germain-Bonnet-Santini, has not reached Vallot. Forced by the storm with no visibility, a compass going berserk, afraid to lose themselves, they stopped at 11:30 pm and bivouacked in the bergschrund below Vallot protecting Santini from the cold as much as they could.

11.4. Le Duf and Terray’s party nearing the Grands Mulets

Auster V

Soon after the S58 crash, Terray and Dufourmantelle who are approaching the Grands Mulets see the Auster 5’s pilot flying slowly several times over then and shouting through his opened window: The helicopter fell down, but they understand “they fell down” i.e. the two castaways!They turn back and meet the second party which had bivouacked 200 m below. They learn from Marcel Bron who had a radio link with Le Gall that it was the S58 which "fell down". 

Dufourmantelle had enough, with exams to pass at the Ecole Centrale he leaves for Chamonix while Terray and the other volunteers go back up to the Grands Mulets where they will all sleep the night of the 31th. He is convinced that Vincendon and Henry are dead.


[18] As per Secours Extrême - J.R. Belliard - R.Romet - Flammarion 1986


DAY 11 & 12- (1rst & 2nd January) 


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Aiguille des Glaciers service platform
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Terray in the service platform

The weather is now awful. 

During 6 days - from the 26th till the 31th - the weather had been fine enough, just misty and cloudy but without any snow fall. Any rescue party leaving before the 28th would have reached and saved the two castaways. 

This explains why Terray was so furious against the Chamonix guides and the EHM military commander, Major Le Gall, who all refused to organise an on foot rescue, which was the unique way rescues were then organised. The last two days while they were on their way to the Grands Mulets they were following the clear Le Duf-Le Yeti tracks made during their descent 10 days before.

Now the heavy and continuous snowfall during the day makes the above slopes far too avalanche prone. 

Terray decides to go down and this time Le Gall will obtain for his two parties that they use the Glacier cable-car platform! Their descent is very difficult in this heavy snow.  When in Chamonix, Terray will be very critical with the whole rescue organisation.

The Dauphiné Libéré publishes the reactions of the Chamonix guides, accusing Terray to have organized a rescue with “amateurs”, stating that the dangers were too great and that he was after personal publicity. 

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Le Duf with Geneviève his future wife

This pushed Terray to react even more strongly. He will state to the journalists that too much time had been lost, they could have reached the two castaways two days before without any problem.

I accuse those who stated that the route to get to the Mont-Blanc castaways was inaccessible to have stood still in the valley, their arms crossed, without trying to know if their opinion was proved valid.”

I find normal that many guides manifested no enthusiasm to risk their lives, but what I do not admit, is that many prevented the volunteers to act.”

As Le Duf will state years after, An on foot rescue party should have been decided immediately from the start as in all instances it would have reached them. That Le Gall decided not to was probably to limit the risks, but in difficult conditions there is no rescue possible without the commitment of the rescuers and a risk that they accept…”

Adding that "as the Chamonix guides had decided from the start not to go, telling him that as it was the best of the skiing season most guides were busy giving skiing lessons so had no time available and that once that decision taken, they persevered stubbornly with their attitude not to go", and about Lionel Terray

Apart from having been one of the greatest French guide, he has also been one of the greatest French amateur climber, he was an ideal link between the two worlds, because he was an expedition man and he did not have to give skiing lessons, he never was a basic guide and so his position was more comfortable than his Chamonix guides comrades who were just doing their job, and Lionel had no kid, one often forget to mention it… He liked this type of climbing so he belonged at the same time to our world  and to theirs.”

Lionel Terray had been already highly criticized by the Chamonix guides company representatives when in September 1955 he participated in a rescue of Philippe Cornuau and Maurice Davaille doing the first ascent of the Droites North face (the most difficult ice climb done then). The rescue was triggered by the Sennelier brothers, two of the best Fontainebleau climbers then doing their aspirant-guides course. Threatened to be expelled from their course if they left it to go on the rescue, they flatly replied they did not give a damn and seeked the participation of Fontainebleau friends such as Lucien Bérardini. The EHM did participate in the party led by Terray of whom Gilles Chappaz, Honoré Bonnet (who will do their best in trying to rescue Vincendon & Henry) and Charles Bozon. On second thoughts, The ENSA manager, who had initially refused, authorized his instructors to participate as a second party which reached the Couvercle refuge. After 6 bivouacs, Cornuau and Davaille found their "rescuers" on the summit. They were in need of no help but were glad to be offered something to eat before getting down.  Finally as the Sennelier brothers were the best of their training group and with the back up of a number of climbers, of whom Lionel Terray, they were given their diploma, ranking N°1 and N°2.[19] 

As an example of the then difficult relationship between the professional guides and the adventurous amateurs, at the end of the summer 1957 (September 11), 9 months after the Vincendon & Henry drama, Maurice Davaille was climbing The Major route in the wake of 6 aspirant-guides and their two instructors, the last route of their training course (Claude Dufourmantelle had climbed it with Claude Jaccoux a few days before and they had told their friends in the aspirant-guides course that the conditions were perfect, pushing the ENSA instructors to climb it instead of the easier Brenva spur planned by Armand Charlet). Near the top, at 6 am, a devastating storm fell on them. Having climbed the last rock difficulty, the "impassable corner", Guy Martin-Ravel, the last of the aspirant-guides, recalls that he saw Davaille with some blood spread over his face and his partner asking if there were pegs in the corner. Martin-Ravel wanted to throw him a rope but his two instructors told him " No way, let him fend himself. Leave him the pegs, we must get out as fast as we can..." and they pulled his rope tight; with no harness it choked him and prevented his resistance. Regrouping in a furious wind below the col Major, Guy Martin wrote "one of our instructors exclaimed triumphantly: Davaille, he is done... Bonatti also [Bonatti was climbing La Poire] but we are going to get away, give or take an hour...". They reached Chamonix in the evening. Davaille and his partner, probably blown down the Italian side by the furious wind, will never be seen again, but a few days after, Davaille's ice axe will be found on the Col Major. Guy Martin-Ravel will keep up to his last day the memory of Maurice Davaille's "weary eyes in the thick mist and biting snow flakes looking at me awaiting for a helping hand. To no avail." [19 bis] Those days in Chamonix, the Spirit of mountaineering was not a shared value between the amateurs and the guides, by far!

As for Terray, despite the support of Armand Charlet, the Chamonix guides company representatives demand excuses or his resignation. 

[19] 2012 Interview of Philippe Cornuau by Claude Gardien on TV Mountain [19 bis] Les étoiles de la voie Major (The stars of the Major) text from Fragile, Editions Guerin, 2000 and as a short story in Bernard Amy Souvenirs d'un voyage au Mont Analogue (editions-Tensing 2017)

12.2. Armand Charlet, the exception among the Chamonix guides

One must note that Bonatti and Gheser were not exceedindly fast, their timing was roughly at par with Claude Dufourmantelle and Caseneuve. Armand Charlet, the greatest guide of the 1920-1940 period had climbed the Brenva spur from the col Moore to the top of Mont-Blanc in 3h30' - though in summer and in a period when there were no great guides apart from him. 

One day while going down icy slopes on the Argentière glacier,  Lucien Devies recalls:
Armand, irritated: " Why do you look at me?"
Lucien: "Because of all the guides I have met, you are the first one who really knows how to use crampons."
Douglas Busk, Armand Charlet's best client, friend and biographer, recalls: 
"Except from Armand, I don't think I ever met during the two wars period a guide with a map or a compass, this concern was left to the client."
The Alpine Club Journal had published in 1884 an article from a member, C.D. Cunningham, describing Chamonix as having lost its original status of the climbing centre of the Alps, with most ascents of "first and second class" done by British Alpine Club members with Foreign guides, mostly from Zermatt and worse for the Chamonix guides, from Courmayeur. "The average Chamonix guide has little if no intercourse with what we might call, for want of a better name, 'real mountaineers'. I except of course such well known names as the the two Payot,  the Cupelins and F.J. Devousassoud and a few others." 
The Chamonix guides' exam Cunningham witnessed as being a comedy; a candidate asked:
Q. "Is Switzerland a Kingdom or a Republic?"
A. "A Kingdom"
Q. "where does the sun rises?" 
A. "to the North" 
Q. "Suppose you come to a crevasse  which you could not jump, what would you do?"
A. "Make a bridge"
Q. "But if you having nothing to make a bridge?"
A. "Turn back."
etc. etc."accepted"

And this situation will not significantly evolve until the ENSA will take over in 1948 delivering the first national guides diploma, after an attempt of improvement of the guides training by Armand Charlet and Roger Frison Roche in 1936. This shows the discredit the Chamonix guides had fallen into during the two World Wars period and somehow explain their attitude during the Vincendon and Henry tragedy. (stories taken from Relief - Chamonix Mont-Blanc - revue des Guides de Chamonix, 1995 3ème trimestre, Armand Charlet by Gilles Modica).

The French amateurs, members of the GHM, accepted on a list of climbs with an obligation to produce a climbing list every year and without any guide, had then surpassed all Chamonix guides, with the exception of Armand Charlet. In the period between the two wars and up to the end of the 1950's, the Chamonix guides do not explore anymore, the lure of gain had overcome the spirit of adventure which now lies solely with the amateurs, young ambitious climbers from the cities looking for first ascents, winter climbing, Himalayan expeditions and of whom a number will become successful mountain guides. Claude Dufourmantelle was one of them and Vincendon could have become one if he had survived.

Changes will only occur progressively, first with the creation in 1948 of a national guide diploma given by the newly created ENSA (Ecole Nationale de Ski et Alpinisme - the EHM instructors who were involved in the Vincendon & Henry rescue were all guides graduated from the ENSA, Honoré Bonnet being also a member of the GHM), then in the sixties and seventies with new generations of guides more adventurous and willing to make difficult climbs in winter as well as in summer and first ascents. Lucien Devies and Armand Charlet joint actions were key in the success of the ENSA and the positive impact it had over time on the renewal of Chamonix guides company.


At Vallot, the EHM guides have organised themselves and take care of Blanc who is in a particularly bad state. The weather is unstable during two days. No helicopter operation is possible. 

At last, Sergeant Petetin telling colonel Nollet, his commanding officer, that his S55 will not be able to get them off, decision is taken to use the Alouettes (The French Air Force has a dozen of brand new ones, delivered in October last, based in the Pyrenees - Mont-de-Marsan). And better, the Sud-Aviation CEO accepts to lend his two test pilots, Jean Boulet and Gérard Henry, the only pilots with mountain and altitude flying experience with those new helicopters. 

Meanwhile Petetin will make one attempt to land his S55 near Vallot to no avail. Coming back up alone without Dupret to save weight, Santini who had observed his first attempt asked by radio colonel Nollet to stop Petetin trying a second time : "He is going to break his neck!"[20]

At the end of the afternoon, two Alouettes land at Chamonix under a clear sky unlike in Le Fayet. The weather prevent them to fly again. 

Priority is given to the rescuers at Vallot.

[20] As per Secours Extrême - J.R. Belliard - R.Romet - Flammarion 1986


Rescuing the rescuers DAY 13 - (3rd January) 

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Before the two Alouettes take off, the Auster 5 pilot has flown over the S58 crashed and sees it nearly fully covered in snow and no sign of life. 

The first Alouette takes off at 9 am and lands on the Vallot spot prepared by the EHM guides. Santini gets in and the pilot lands him near the Chamonix hospital, followed quickly by the second Alouette with Blanc on board, carried to the hospital. 

In a succession of flights, the two Alouettes will evacuate successfully everyone from Vallot. 

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André Blanc put on board
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Bringing Blanc to safet
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Boulet lands on the Col du Dôme







In 1h30 the whole Vallot evacuation operation is accomplished.The press will be unanimous to celebrate the feat of the Alouettes.

But what about the two castaways? 

Vincendon and Henry' parents do not understand why the third part of Le Gall’s plan - dropping a caravan of 30 men on the Dôme du Gouter to rescue Vincendon and Henry - does not start. Why so many? Why not send just 4? Chappaz asks Le Gall permission to go back to get them with his fellow EHM rescuers or at least to see if they are still alive even if they know that chances are now probably nil. The military will not risk another failure. Le Gall and his commanding officers will not authorize their EHM guides to go back down to Vincendon and Henry. They have reported that Vincendon and Henry physical condition was desperate. But, after 13 days, with no protection, exposed to the wind and the icy cold (-30°C at night), most of their body frozen stiff, they are still alive.

Le Gall explains that situation to Henry’s father who has always been on Le Gall’s authority’s side and he accepts that the two boys cannot be saved any longer. Vincendon’s parents, stunned will learn about the decision the following morning. Jean Boulet proposes a last attempt: the snow being too deep to land, he would keep his Alouette hovering above the ground while a unique rescuer would go down using a rope ladder, evaluate the state of the two castaways and eventually clip them on the rope. Le Gall decides to get in[21]. For him it is a last inspection flight to “see and decide”. 

Boulet takes off at 10h50, followed closely by the second Alouette - pilot Gérard Henry - Boulet hovers over the Crashed S58, a whirlwind of powdery snow envelops the crashed S58. They look closely but no one shows up, they see no sign of life. Persuaded that Vincendon and Henry are dead or living their last moments, they fly away.[22].

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A last flight will occur with the famous Swiss mountain pilot Herman Geiger with his 8000 landings in the mountains. At the initiative of François Henry’s friends and the agreement of the helicopters' French commander, he flies several times over the wreck covered by 50 cm of fresh snow, sees that nobody did attempt to wipe off the snow from the S58 windows and no sign of life. 

Geiger will propose a landing on the Grand Plateau with a guide. Piraly volunteers. But it is too late, no one believes any more that they are still alive.




Terray will have some strong words against Le Gall:

He went without any special equipment… and without leaving his seat he declared without any proof… that the two boys were dead.” 

All rescue operations are stopped without being certain that Vincendon and Henry are dead!

[21] Winching up into a helicopter will only occur in 1971. [22] As per Secours Extrême - J.R. Belliard - R.Romet - Flammarion 1986


The fever gone, the backlash of the drama which has been watched every day by the Chamonix inhabitants, the many skiers and the French public at large through the daily news published by the press and the radio daily coverage will not cease immediately. Lucien Devies the FFM president attempts an action to pacify the situation in proposing a joint action involving all parties to get Vincendon & Henry’ bodies down, but it fails due to the local quarrels.

The bodies of Jean Vincendon and François Henry will be brought back to Chamonix by an Alouette the following March, but not without a strong reaction of Vincendon’s parents contacted by the FFM: 

Remy de Vivie, friend of my son, tells me that the French Alpine Club has taken the initiative to organise a party to get down my son and François Henry’ bodies. This party of alpinists from Paris would include several Chamonix guides. During the agony of the two boys, they refused their help - it was their right - now they must stay with their feet in their slippers.”[YB]

The Chamonix guides highly criticized for having refused to participate in the rescue form a jury in order to claim justice for Terray’s criticisms. The Army feels also to have been defamed. Armand Charlet, quite absent up to now in the drama will defend Terray and explains that being 60, he is not fit anymore for such rescues, if not he would have gone with Terray. It is still a pity that such a figure respected by all mountaineers did not attempt to persuade his fellow Chamonix guides to participate in the rescue. During the winter 1938 he had led the parties (from Chamonix and Geneva) which saved the famous Swiss guide, Raymond Lambert, his young pal Marcel Gallay (an aspirant-guide as Vincendon) and his client Erika Stagni. Some will say that the Chamonix guides joined the rescue because the very rich Erika’s mother promised them double pay taking charge on top of their insurance and all costs due to potential physical damages, which did occur (4 guides had toes amputated - see my article on Summitpost: A Tragic Adventure On Mont-Blanc

Terray will rapidly accept to take back his resignation from the Chamonix guides Company, in exchange his exclusion is cancelled. As for the representatives of the Chamonix guides company they continued in their stubborn attitude in stating to the press that

Those who by vanity attempt climbs beyond their capabilities… dismiss easily the risks taken by their rescuers. We assert that Vincendon and Henry have voluntarily put themselves in that exceptional situation… One cannot expose with certainty the life of 10 to 15 rescuers, even to rescue two men.”

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The two castaways ' agony watched from Brevent
Never will any representative of the Chamonix guides company express any regret.
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Henry & Vincendon  meeting their rescuers  from the crashed S58

For the high command of the French Army, enough has been done, they evaluate the rescue to the equivalent of 3 million euros of today's currency and state that for two imprudent young men the loss of an S58 will impact the training of their pilots, essential for the Algerian “peace keeping” operation. An opinion shared by many, but not by The FFM and Lucien Devies whose committee will declare that 

rescuing our fellow human beings in distress is a human duty, even if risks have to be taken” 

and among known personalities questioned by the press for their view, Georges Carpentier, the French boxing world champion stated:

Everything had to be attempted, even beyond reason, even if it was a folly. Two men have risked their life for something difficult and noble. Taking risks to save them was paying tribute to their courage and guts.”[YB]

The SCSM and the military commands ask Lucien Devies as president of the FFM[23] to take position in the controversy. Very quickly after the end of the rescue operations (10th of January 1957), Lucien Devies announces that the FFM will recommend measures based on the drama’s analysis, first major rescue failure since the end of the war, particularly in the region where the largest number of personnel and equipment exist” 

The FFM analysis of the rescue, taking into account all the misfortunes encountered showed important weaknesses in the plan of actions:

  • Solidarity which was at the base of the organisation was ignored. The most prestigious guides company refused to participate in the rescue.
  • The unacceptable was pointed out clearly with the strong words of Lionel Terray: I find normal that many guides manifested no enthusiasm to risk their lives, but what I do not admit, is that many prevented the volunteers to act.”
  • The method used by the institution in charge of executing the rescue had gone astray of all methods and techniques duly validated. Helicopters had not yet proven that they could be used in mountain rescue and a number of those helicopters did not have the capabilities for it and the pilots had no experience nor the equipment adequate for this type of operation [this was not true of the S55 pilot, Petetin and the Alouettes’ pilots, Jean Boulet and Gérard Henry]
  • The SCSM showed itself to be deaf and blind - and was kept out of things by the unit in charge of the execution, which itself was left totally free in its wanderings.
  • Delays and serious confusions appeared in the decisions.
  • The absence of on foot rescue parties - solely due to the stubbornness of some - was highly criticized, it most certainly caused the death of the two boys.
  • Finally a federal committee which was never informed and was totally deprived of its capabilities.

Several months later the main lines of the new national organisation of mountain rescue are defined by Lucien Devies and his FFM committee.

In August 1958, a new regulation is decreed: the rescue system becomes a national service reporting to the interior ministry and most significantly new rescue units will be formed by the CRS, the Gendarmerie and the Army. In 1961, a special unit of the Gendarmerie nationale, the GSHM is created which will become the highly efficient PGHM mountain rescue unit. They will train highly efficient rescuers and progressively will take over all mountain rescues from the volunteers associations. The usage of helicopters will change dramatically mountain rescue, but it is not before much later, in 1972, when the PGHM will take over all mountain rescues that the controversies with the Chamonix guides involvement in critical rescues will cease (see my Summitpost article on the 1966 Drus rescue: The 1966 Drus Rescue..

Lucien Devies will do much to stop the controversies which followed the drama. As an example he refused to publish any article on the drama in La Montagne et Alpinisme, the French Alpine Club magazine which he presided. It is only in 1983, 3 years after Devies's death that my friend Claude Deck was allowed to publish the first detailed article 15 years before Yves Ballu's book. Claude had worked for many years with Lucien Devies who had asked him to take his place in writing La Montagne et Alpinisme’s alpine chronicle which he did for 40 years, up to last year. 

[23] Fédération Française de la Montagne prime authority for organising mountain rescue.



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Gilbert Chappaz & Jean Henry

The guides who will feel the guiltiest not to have saved Vincendon and Henry are those who had done most, particularly Gilbert Chappaz and Jean Minster. 

In June 2007, 50 years after the event, Yves Ballu organised a meeting at the Chamonix cemetery between them and Jean Henry, the older brother and a climbing companion of François Henry[24]

Gilbert Chappaz in private will tell Jean Henry: 

If you knew all the miseries we suffered… I went last and I told him [François Henry] I will come back to get you. ” 

Just after the end of the rescue operation, Chappaz had said to a journalist: 

In leaving them there, I had the feeling of committing a crime.”

During 50 years Gilbert Chappaz was haunted by the fact that he did not fulfil his promise and that François Henry died despising him. 

Jean Henry told him gently that he didn’t have to excuse himself, 

“…by going there you showed them that they had not been abandoned…” 

As stated one of Chappaz’s sons:

 it was as if suddenly my father had taken off a rucksack filled with a huge rock. All at once he stood straighter.” 

Gilbert Chappaz died five months after, relieved and in peace.

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Vincendon  and Henry commememorative plaque besides the one of my friend Denise Escande who had met Vincendon on the Fontainebleau boulders. 

[24] Yves Ballu Blog Vincendon and Henry - Epilogue written by Jean Henry in January 2017

In October 2017, 5 years before his death, Le Duf gave me his last text on this adventure, and as he said “in Shakespeare’s language”:

An afterword, which sounds very much like a foreword. Indeed a last word - Claude Dufourmantelle

It may have been like this, it must have been like this, it should have been like this. Nowadays, these triangles – some say trilemme - are fashionable. It means that a recollection, a recall, a souvenir is constantly reconstructed in your silly mind by futile attempts at remembering what you actually did, what actually happened and comparing the outcome to what could have happened if or to what you should have done to… to what? To change the past? To explain the past? To draw conclusion from the past or simply to exonerate you from the past.

I am tempted to let the past rest which is what it does best.

Le Duf, 2017
Le Duf, 2017

Some people seem to be past-bound. They built a special relationship with things that deflected the course of their lives. Hence the very French “Faire son deuil” which, to me appears like a Cillitbang spray applied on a wound.Something bad which happened must be kept in full view and made a good usage of to enhance how miserable your life has become and if you can ascribe a responsibility somewhere else, it is all benefit. Some others are different: they think that the best alleviation is to forget. I am very good at that. As a young man and for quite some time, climbing mountains was very important for me. I believe that a newcomer in a society, in our society has to display or should wish to display a certain warrior hue, an achievement of a sort which opens the doors of the adult world.

The generations that have lived through the Great Wars did not have to look far to find out the field of these necessary baptisms. It was provided free and the matter was ample. Their followers had to resort to sports, preferably the very virile ones and in my humble view Mountaineering comes first.Mountaineering, the French call it Alpinism, covers everything: adventure which you seasoned up to you taste. It requires skill and becomes some sort of a trade and for the gifted ones it can flash the narcissist feeling of just how elegant you are on the rock.

Those years. How lucky we were, Xavier and I, two students sitting at the same bench, with the same timetable, the same ample vacations, the same appetite for the same mountains, with no strings attached,no real money problem, full acceptance by the fathers and a very faithful and dependable 2CV Citroen. Years of alpine freedom, four months each year: we were unbelievably lucky and we knew our luck. We climbed mostly in Dauphiné,collecting second ascents that had been neglected by the afterwar Great Guides,who were too busy democratizing the Walker spur, and we added an exotic touch of Pyrenees. We felt like the Thoreaus of amicable and benevolent mountains. We were confident but respectful and quite aware of our limitations. For us mountaineering remained (and still remains) what I believe it should be: the adventure that you cut to your size and to the time you live in.

So we had been up a certain number of things but never on Mont Blanc. Our dignity implied both Italy and winter but, as I say, cut to the right size. Hence the Brenva spur. The 1955 Xmas climb with our friend André was a very pleasant trip up from Chamonix along the Brévent railway track up to the Torino hut across a multitude of crevasses with a very persistent and not so pleasant snowfall. Fun but no attempt and no summit gratification. Two conclusions were drawn from the experiment: first, never ski down roped up with André and second you need more time so as to catch the right weather window. Then came the full moon concept: climbing up the east side of the mountain and climbing down the west side gave the shrewd climber full time-wise autonomy and no problem of night or day choice; you could choose to do your stuff by day or by night…And flexibility is sister of velocity. We wanted it to be a fast one, a one shot thing.Light: a sleeping bag and an extra pied d’éléphant, a half a litre of alcohol and the compulsory Gédéon*[1],and some tit bits, for what could not last more than a dozen hours. Adequately Fate instructed that we took an extra 30 m rope,just in case: we had it and I am in a position to re-imagine those days and talk about them. Without these 30 m of nylon I would be scattered in the debris of the Bossons glacier past any forensic identification. The full moon ploy had another consequence: it gave the date of the ascent, December 17th and 18th.

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How did we manage to get a week out of school? Here again let the matter rest lest some forgery be disclosed. Vincendon who had more or less been led to think that he could come along with us was unable to make it. Xavier was adamant and did not want anybody dragging along, so that was fine. And fine with me: we knew what we were up to and we did not wish to run a test with any other team. The fact is that Vincendon was no friend of mine. I knew him and never had any close relationship with him. It was through casual encounters after casual Club Alpin Thursday night meeting that he knew of our intentions. Casually. When I had to begin asking and even begging for rescue I endorsed a temporary friendship which ever since has been taken for granted but which never really existed. But not to be a close friend to a fellow climber or to anybody is no good reason to let the chap freeze to death on the mountain.

And this I believe is the entire philosophy of theAffaire V et H”.

The story of our ascent is of little interest. It went smoothly and despite a rather deep snow trail in the lower half it went fast. One short day to reach the small hut of La Fourche. One full day to climb the spur, which says the chronicle we reached at sun set. My only recollection is of a couple of pitches on a rather steep ice wall which to our satisfaction was illustrated by an accommodating crack, almost a chimney. That piece of cake–practically no sérac-rapidly swallowed and crossing the 4.300 m barrier we were very happy to glide down the corridor, catching breath and dissipating the hard-won altitude. I remember clearly, of all things, at the top of the Grands Mulets ridge a tiny cove, pure ice, glistening under the enormous moon, calling for a well-earned bivouac. Xavier would have none of it and he was right. So we glided on. It is strange that such a fugitive instant should have stuck to me while so many important parts of the drama went unrecorded. We are strange machines.

How did I get out of the crevasse I fell in the following day: pure miracle? Just about the same scenario that Bonatti wrote a few days later. It is of little interest in the V and H story. But it had a major impact in the pursuance of my climber’s expertise. I became manic on the matter of adequate rope length and no slack – not even a little bit - on a snow covered glacier. And believe me, for a guide, this is not always easy to get from all the people you ferry across the normal routes up the normal mountains. Back to Chamonix, we had dinner with Jean Vincendon and François Henry. Henry, we had never met and I did not see him again.Nor Vincendon. Xavier left Chamonix and went back to his Xmas family gathering. Three days later I uncorked the Pandora amphora and set to motion what became really the “Affaire”.

Everything has been told, retold, analyzed, criticized, printed,photographed, filmed, radioed and televisionized. The one place where a trace cannot be found, a piece of evidence discovered is on the blank sheet of my memory. All I know is what I have read afterwards and the answers I gave reluctantly to the news men at times when, maybe, I still had some recollections. One last flash: I am leading the rescue party up the Grands Mulets route. The weather is fine, we are making good progress and Lionel is just behind me. A kick turn and between my two skis a deep blue deep hole. Hell without flame.  I don’t move and a tiny plane flies right over us. A shout: Ils sont tombés.” In my mind a shutter falls. I undo my kick turn and I am no longer on the mountain. I am back in Paris where the family waits for me.

I have done what I could. I could probably have done more. Most people did less. From that instant, the plane on its low altitude passage extended a veil of oblivion over me and these events. That’s the way I am built. The veil of forgiveness was extended later. Indulgence and pardon are not young men inclinations. But then, much later, I came to realize that Fate had been the main actor, if not the only actor in this tragedy.

June 2017

[1] The Gédéon: such was the name the Parisian climbers gave to the two conical pieces of the aluminum stove they used in these pre-gas canister eras. The explosive Primus gasoline stove was only for longer stays in safer places.



Claude Deck, Previous GHM president and La Montagne et Alpinisme MD - La Montagne et Alpinisme 3/1983

Claude Deck Lucien DEVIES – La montagne pour vocation - L’organisation du secours en montagne (l’Harmattan)

Yves Ballu Naufrage au Mont-Blanc l’affaire Vincendon et Henry, Guerin éditions Paulsen 2017

Walter Bonatti - Montagnes d'une vie, Arthaud 2012

Walter Bonatti Una Vita cosi a cura di Angelo Ponta RCS Libri, Milano 2014 (published 3 years after Bonatti's death)

Denis Ducroz - Naufragés au Mont-Blanc (2011 - sur TVMountain)

J.R. Belliard and R.Romet (ex helicopter pilot rescuer and president of the International helicopter pilots association). Secours extrême, Flammarion 1986.

Testimonials and contributors:

  • Claude Dufourmantelle
  • Claude Deck


INA Archives - Full recue report with interviews 30 years after

INA archives - video of the Rescue of the rescuers with the Alouettes

TV mountain film Denis Ducroz

TV Mountain 2012 Interview of Philipe Cornuau

A Tragic adventure on Mont-Blanc (Summitpost)

1966 - The Drus Rescue (Summitpost)

Denise Escande The Chibania - Summitpost


Other Images

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The Grands Mulets route and in blue the route followed by Vincendon & Henry
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From Sommets du Mont-Blanc, Glénat, p. 123
Mont Maudit and the Mont Blanc - Photo Gabriele Roth
Photo from Gabriele Roth (Mont Maudit and the Mont Blanc (from his album Mont Blanc group - wish I were here) - An unusual view showing well the upper slopes of the Brenva Spur, the Mur de la Côte  route up to Mont Blanc.


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Victor & Mick with their cook - Spantik base camp

The book Himalayas - The Tribulations of Mick & Vic which I publish with its two authors, Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders is now available as a paperback version on demand sold on, soon on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and will be followed by an E-Book version.

Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders, famed British alpinists learned to know each other while winterclimbing in Scotland, in all kind of weather, mostly bad: an ideal stepping stone for great Himalayan adventures. They shared three expeditions in Pakistan: The ascents of Bojohagur (7329m), Spantik (7027m) and Ultar (7388m) and one in India 29 years later: Sersank (6050m).

First published in French (Editions du Mont-Blanc), it won the Grand Prix of the International mountain book festival of Passy (France). The jury so acclaimed an « invigorating, exciting book, full of facetious and surprising anecdotes and also a story of men and friendship.”

“For me, this book is one of the best mountain and expedition tales. Refreshing, inspiring, it offers the reader a nice tour in the Himalayas and will make him understand what alpine style is. I am sure that the tribulations of those two partners never short of humour will enchant you…” Catherine DESTIVELLE

"Without heroism but with their typical humour, Fowler and Saunders enjoy stressing the nonsense of their ventures in order to reveal their key significance: a true breath of oxygen and answers to the why.” Manu Rivaud(

“…. The “Trials and Tribulations of Mick and Vic” condenses the stories, those gems of wit and banter, into the one book. It tells the tales from both sides and is perfect for savouring those moments of expedition life, and the, at times, maddening illogic of trips to faraway places in order to simply climb… Passages like; “Well Vic we seem to be surviving” from Mick lead to Vic replying “The basis of optimism is sheer terror”. Mick; “Eh?” Vic; “Oscar Wilde” are excellent as also: Mick after being snowbound in a minuscule bivvy tent for days; “I have no doubt it will snow again in five minutes, but if tomorrow is good, I shall be so pleased, I shall walk around the tent in small circles». If you have been there it really does sum it up nicely. Yes it all borders upon insanity and maybe they are a little touched, for instance I have climbed with both of them..." Andy PARKIN (June 2017 Chamonix)

See more about the book on Summitpost and Sersank first ascent video

Mick Fowler on Facebook

Victor Saunders on Facebook

Order on

Order on Amazon UK

Order on Amazon US

et pour les Français : On The Rock Again - Martin Boysen




Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-10 of 10

markhallam - Jul 3, 2017 1:20 am - Voted 10/10

Bravo Eric!

What a tragic and complicated tale, as always meticulously documented and now joining an impressive series of well informed and important pieces of history, which you have kindly shared on SummitPost. It is good to know that a system of effective and coordinated mountain rescue rose up out of the ashes of all the mismanagement and in-fighting of 1956.
By the way, to refresh my memory, I tried to follow the links to your articles entitled A Tragic Adventure on Mont Blanc and The 1966 Drus Rescue, but both came up as an error (404, whatever that means). I ended up accessing again them via your home page. Maybe worth re-entering them?
Best wishes to you, Esther and Mr Choups.


ericvola - Jul 3, 2017 2:12 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Bravo Eric!

Thanks Mark, corrections done. Choups and her mistress won yesterday for the second time in a row the Grau du Roi Wakesurfing World Cup event - amateurs qualification and Choups insisted to be on the podium. Best

Ballu - Oct 6, 2017 5:49 pm - Voted 2/10

"Naufrage au Mont Blanc" is not a novel. Sadly…

"Naufrage au Mont Blanc" is not a novel. Sadly…

In response to Eric Vola's article on the Vincendon and Henry’s tragedy « Shipwrecked on Mont-Blanc – The Vincendon and Henry Tragedy » published by the site, and particularly in its chapter "The Bonatti controversy", I thought it would be interesting to bring a few clarifications, essentially on 3 points:

- The « broken » ice axe: when confirming his words published in « La Settima Incom Illustrata » dated from February 1957, Silvano Gheser recounts “Bonnati, while digging the steps, breaks the handle of his ice axe […] We go back to the Fourche, it’s already dark. Given he’s told Vincendon and Henry that he wants to go back to Courmayeur to change his ice axe, they very generously offer him one of theirs”. In the Rivisita Mensile from March 1957, Bonatti recounts: "At the bivouac, Henry was very nice. Having noticed that I had broken ("rotto" in Italian) the handle of my ice axe, he proposed to swap it for his". What are the differences between these two original versions? None. The terminology "spezzato" is found in Bonatti's book "Le mie montagna" (1961), translated as "broken" in the French edition "A mes montagnes" (1962), and it is still the word "broken" which is used 25 years later in the 1987 reissue of the same work. Bonatti therefore accepts François Henry’s ice axe and repairs his with a cord as he will specify in a letter from 1998: "I was able to wrap it with a long string tight, which guaranteed at least 80% of its effectiveness". Thus, the ice axe split "in two pieces" as described by Gheser will be operational, "to 80%". And François Henry did not climb the Brenva with a piece of ice axe in each hand (absurd indeed!).

- The Poire: In "La Settima Incom Illustrata", Gheser recounts: "Bonatti proposes to Vincendon and Henry to join us for the ascent of La Poire. This offer was advantageous for everyone: we would have made a single rope party, thereby reducing tiredness and risks, and evenly distributing the loads ". In the Rivista Mensile Bonatti recounts: "The sympathy was reciprocal, so much that I had invited them to follow us on La Poire”. What is the difference between these two original versions? None. Afterwards, Bonatti will refute his words: "I absolutely did not propose to Vincendon and Henry to join us for La Poire. It was a madness to propose such an undertaking to two unknown young people "(letter from 16th February 1998). When I told him that this piece of information came from the Rivista Mensile, he first retorted: "Newspapers are bullshit!". And when I pointed out to him that this article was from him, he finally admitted having proposed La Poire to the "two Frenchmen": "I proposed at the time to the two Frenchmen to follow us on the programmed path of La Poire. But it was only a spontaneous gesture of sympathy and pure courtesy "(letter from 28th January 1999).

- The Split: In "La Settima Incom Illustrata," Gheser recounts: "Vincendon and Henry began to slow our pace down. Then they stopped and offered to halt to eat something in order to regain strength. Bonatti, on the other hand, advised to go quickly and explained to the Belgian and the Frenchman the danger of spending another night outside. Both maintained their decision, and we therefore separated. Bonatti and I resumed our progression towards the summit of Mont Blanc, whilst Vincendon and Henry stopped to eat, with the idea to follow our footsteps half an hour later, in order to join us at the Vallot refuge. From then onwards we have not seen our unfortunate companions." In a handwritten account published by the magazine "Sports et vie" in February 1957, Bonatti recounts: "Vincendon and Henry began to suffer and were slowing down our progress. Vincendon proposed to stop to eat something and regain strength. But time was of essence, and was more imperative in the winter season than in the summer because of the shortening of days. In order not to lose anything of the precious daylight, we jointly decided to form two rope parties [...] For me, it was only a brief goodbye ... This "goodbye” What an empty thing! Goodbye Vincendon! Goodbye Henry! ". What is the difference between these two original versions? None. In his book "A mes montagnes" (1987), Bonatti justifies himself: "Many people, badly informed, subsequently asked why I had "abandoned" Vincendon and Henry on the summit of Mont Blanc [...] , I had left behind the two young strangers with the absolute conviction that they would follow our footsteps and catch up with us from one moment to the next ". In 1987, Bonatti admits therefore to have "left behind the two young foreigners". Honoré Bonnet who was able to speak with the "shipwrecked" after the crash of the helicopter on 31st December is formal: "I confirm that Vincendon told me:" We separated from Bonatti ". And Warrant Officer Blanc who was transported into the wrecked helicopter following his fall in a crack, recounted François Henry’s words when lying next to him: "He explained to me that shortly after Bonatti's departure (with whom he had agreed to mark the tracks), Jean had become more and more tired, then had collapsed, exhausted and blind”. (testimony collected by Louis Henry, François’ father who came to see Blanc at the hospital and carefully noted this essential testimony in a letter to Jean, François' brother). Again, Bonatti's "departure" is at stake of course.

As you can see, it is quite clear that the original accounts from Bonatti and Gheser match perfectly, in particular on these three points. I thus decided to keep them.

Presenting Silvano Gheser as a confused person - worse, as a liar, even an ungrateful person is both unjust and unworthy. I met him on January 5, 1998, and he seemed to me both sane, honest and sincere. He kindly wrote to me his version of the events. It has not changed in 40 years. He had nothing to defend. What interest would he have had in lying? To look like the hero? One finds in his moving account of La Settima Incom Illustrata this terrible confession about a discussion he had with Bonatti at the Vallot refuge: "Bonatti wanted to retrace his steps to track down the Belgian and the French, but I managed to convince him that venturing at night on the glacier would have been suicide". Couldn’t we find any better tribute paid to Bonatti’s behaviour, and by a person better entitled than he was as his companion of rope? I do not think so. Those who think of defending Bonatti by dragging Gheser into the mud should reflect on this confession marked by exemplary honesty and courage. And those who present him as an ungrateful should read this other confession: "I look at Bonatti and I think that in addition to the fraternal friendship that binds us, I owe him deep gratitude for his behavior towards me during the past days".

Bonatti, on the other hand, modified certain elements of his testimony, to the extent of contradicting himself at times. Why? He may have been accused of having abandoned Vincendon and Henry. I’m using the conditional tense because I have found no trace, either in the testimonies I gathered from witnesses, friends, families, nor in the newspapers of the time, of such an indecent accusation, even of an ounce of reproach. But perhaps he was afraid of being held responsible for Vincendon and Henry’s tragic deaths, while he had done all that was humanly possible to save them. Following a terrible bivouac, he descended 100 meters on the spur of the Brenva to help them and he led everyone to the bottom of the final slope to Mont Blanc which no longer presented any obstacle (this is told in my book). Perhaps he felt his honor was being challenged - rightly or wrongly? And it is perhaps to avoid adding a controversy on top of a tragedy that he came to change or omit some specific details. Those who knew Walter Bonatti were aware that he had a sensitivity on the surface and that he would react with the impetuosity of a passionate man. Rather than raising its contradictions, which would have given my book a controversial aspect which I did not wish for, I simply informed my readers: "In the case where several successive accounts from the same author present variations, the oldest is considered the most authentic". I think this is an honest, scrupulous approach. It would have been much simpler for me to simply copy the last book of Bonatti without looking any further - he kindly offered it to me. This would have saved me from losing the friendship of the one whom I still consider as the greatest - and most endearing - mountaineer in history. But by doing so, I would not have acted as an honest and scrupulous historian. I conducted two years of inquiry, I interviewed over 80 witnesses (most of them have unfortunately now died, but were very much alive 20 years ago), consulted hundreds of documents, reports, (I even found the weather archive of the time), and I reported this in a meticulously compliant narrative, with the information that seemed to me to be the most authentic.

There remains a question: You write :"when I discovered that Bonatti was outraged by Ballu's text which was implying for him that he had abandoned the two boys". Can you quote one sentence, one word in "Naufrage au Mont Blanc" wich outrages Bonatti ? Where is it told that Bonatti has abandonned the two boys ? Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere ! Does "Naufrage au Mont Blanc" damage the reputation of Walter Bonatti, that of his honor? I do not believe so, quite the opposite: What reader ever closed it thinking that Bonatti behaved badly? None to my knowledge!

Note: Several interesting documents can be consulted on my blog, which includes the beautiful preface of my friend Claude Dufourmantelle was quoted incompletely in "Shipwrecked on Mont Blanc - The Vincendon and Henry tragedy". The following paragraph is missing: "Forty years later, the friend Yves Ballu undertook to relate this tragedy: he did it with the passion of an investigative journalist and the seriousness of an academic historian. He collected all testimonies, triangulated all the information, minutely established the chronologies and, by doing all of this, put all the characters "in their place", for what they had said, for what they had done and, unfortunately, more often than not, for what they had not done. The reward for this work was the success of this book. It is also the work of a sociologist, as the reader will see in it a painting of a specific period of mountaineering, of a specific environment, where the media began to impose its code and pace".
It also misses this recommendation: "... read or reread this book ...".
Probably a copy-paste mistake…
Another mistake in Eric Vola's article : the caption of the picture : "Henry smiling". How absurd ! Not only is Jean Vincendon seen from the front (Henry is left in profile), and the unfortunate does not smile. First of all, because the helicopter's crash about 20 meters away was not likely to rejoice him, but above all, with his poor frozen face, he would have been quite incapable to smile! This grin is not a smile, but the expression of pathetic distress.


ericvola - Oct 7, 2017 12:13 pm - Hasn't voted

Ballu' clarifications

We know that testimonials in extreme situations, verbal and written, are to be taken with much cautiousness, they be given a few hours, days after the event or even more so 40 years after. None of the sources used either by you or me as far as Walter Bonatti and Silvano Gheser contributions to the event are concerned have been corroborated with other testimonials as the individuals who could have done so were dead. Therefore there is no way one can expect to claim what the truth is. We can only approach it using our knowledge of what can occur in such situations and believe or not what the only two people involved stated, Gheser and Bonatti, and this was contradictory. You chose to believe Gheser’s version, I chose to believe Bonatti.’s This stated I will just make a few short observations on your points:

1. the Ice axe shaft cracked, not broken. "The Mountains of my life" translated by Robert Marshal and published in 1995 had the correction requested by Walter i.e. cracked and not broken. Recent French editions such as Arthaud’s have also the same correction (page 141 Arthaud "j'avais fendu le manche de mon piolet"). You write "absurd indeed" about the axe being in two pieces so we agree: Walter was one of the greatest climbers of his time but not a magician who could repair an Ice axe shaft broken in two pieces with a cord. Any alpinist can understand that. That is a first point going against Gheser's testimonial.

2. The Poire: "I proposed at the time to the two Frenchmen to follow us on the programmed path of La Poire. But it was only a spontaneous gesture of sympathy and pure courtesy "(letter [of Walter to you] from 28th January 1999). As you wrote yourself in your book "The euphoria of the previous day had gone" and Vincendon and Henry left for the Brenva spur. You should have quoted this in your book. It is up to the readers to prefer to believe Gheser's version or Walter's version, not to us. Any alpinist knows that La Poire being then the most difficult ice climb of the Mont-Blanc Italian side, it was not for youngsters such as Vincendon and Henry who had no experience at altitude, had done no serious ice climbs previously, nor any winter climbing. This is a second stone against Gheser's testimonial.

3. The split. I have no issue with this term. This is what happened but Walter said and wrote that the decision was taken jointly as you quote now from Walter: "In order not to lose anything of the precious daylight, we jointly decided to form two rope parties [...]". I added that Gheser's testimonial is full of toponymical errors. This again does not go in favour of Gheser's testimonial. Doubting that Walter decided jointly with V&H to reform two separate parties as the rest of the ascent was easy enough implies that he may have decided to abandon them as slowing him and Gheser dangerously. If we accept Walter's given reasons, then it is clear as least for him that he did not abandon them. I however agree with your thinking that maybe Bonatti did not want anyone to think that he abandoned them. In such extreme conditions who knows how any of us would have reacted.

One thing is sure, and our "common" friend Claude Dufourmantelle would agree with it, Vincendon & Henry should never have attempted this route. They were not ready for it. And Henry by staying with his pal decided of his own fate. I have a number of examples, including of friends of mine who refused to leave their partner and died because of it.

It is therefore much a matter of opinion and trying to imagine what occurred: Yours is based on Gheser's testimonial, mine on Walter's writings, particularly in his last book published post mortem "Walter Bonatti Una Vita cosi". It is to the readers to make up their own opinion. I don’t pretend to “know the truth”. I know we both do not.

Ps: I corrected my caption’s error of "Henry smiling" and added the "missing" paragraph of Claude's foreword.

Ballu - Oct 8, 2017 3:11 pm - Voted 2/10

Bonatti 1956 against Bonatti 1996

Sorry, but I did not choose Gheser against Bonatti, because the question was not to choose between Gheser and Bonatti, but TO CHOOSE BETWEEN BONATTI 1956 AND BONATTI 1996. As you, Eric, I don’t assume to hold the truth, I only made the choice of what seemed to be most authentic, and I made it clear for the readers :”In the case where several successive accounts from the same author present variations, the oldest is considered the most authentic". I agree with you, it is to the readers to make up their own opinion.
On the other hand, Vincendon (still alive) spoke to Honoré Bonnet and François Henry (still alive) to Warrant Officer Blanc. Quote these testimonials is not make dead men talk, it is precisely corroborate other testimonials.
Note 1 : I did not need to check with some alpinists knowing well the area the validity of Gheser's toponymy, because I personally climbed the Brenva spur.
Note 2 : Thank's for having added the "missing" paragraph of Le Duf's foreword.


ericvola - Oct 23, 2017 5:08 am - Hasn't voted

Bonatti 1956 against Bonatti 1996

Since his comment, I have exchanged with Ballu through mails and telephone calls. He also sent me a number of documents of which a letter Bonatti sent him responding to 15 questions in order to obtain modifications in his manuscript which made me understand why Walter was so mad after Ballu: coming back from a 3 months trip to Jordan, he realized that Ballu's book had been published a month or so before he had sent his letter and that of course it did not contain any of the modifications he had requested.

Ballu and I have agreed on a number of points, the most important one being that he does not believe that Bonatti did abandon V&H. It is quite unfortunate that Ballu did not clear this key point with Bonatti before publishing his book as it was what most enraged Walter.

I have therefore rewritten the Chapter 6 describing more accurately the Bonatti/Ballu controversy. We did not agree on all the points, although far less important as I explain in my new text. In view of no corroborated testimonials, it is a matter of opinion and to the readers in the end to make up their mind.

Ballu - Oct 26, 2017 4:02 am - Voted 2/10

Re: Bonatti 1956 against Bonatti 1996

Sorry Eric, "Naufrage au Mont Blanc" was published in June 1998, ie not a month before, but 4 months AFTER the letter of Bonatti.


ericvola - Oct 27, 2017 8:39 am - Hasn't voted

June 1998

End of 1997 was the erroneous date of publication you first gave me. So when Bonatti came back from Jordan he discovered that you had taken a number of his corrections (as you now told me) but discarded what he wrote in his book "To My Mountains" giving his reasons for the "separation" of the two parties: the key point on which Bonatti most reacted.

For you, Vincendon decided to stop to rest and eat so Bonatti had no other choice than to continue on his own, a decision that you agree must have been taken from a common consent meaning then that as Bonatti stated in his La Rivista’s article: “no one did leave anyone to his fate, no one was abandoned.” In your text you do not situate the time nor the place where this event occurred. However you agree that it occurred 300 m below the summit (taken from Bonatti’s To My Mountains) and not much nearer the summit as Bonatti deducted.

For me, Vincendon did propose to take a rest and eat something at the top of the Old passage where the 4 of them had grouped together: there Bonatti told them that the only way out was to take the route to Vallot by the summit which Vincendon agreed with; they also decided from a common consent to take back their autonomy as two parties. It is then that Vincendon proposed to take a rest and eat which Bonatti objected to strongly, forcing Gheser to follow him, which I believe V&H also did within a few minutes.

At least we agree that Bonatti did not abandon V&H.

Ballu - Nov 20, 2017 3:48 am - Voted 2/10

Jean Henry responds to Vola's controversy

Eric Vola’s article recently published on describes what is generally called the “Vincendon and Henry Affair” (“l’Affaire Vincendon et Henry”). Under the title “Shipwrecked on Mont Blanc: the Vincendon and Henry Tragedy” (referred to as “Shipwreck” in the following), Vola provides a condensed version of the book “Naufrage au Mont Blanc – L’Affaire Vincendon et Henry” (referred to as “Naufrage” in the following) of Yves Ballu published by Glénat twenty years ago and recently reedited by Guérin with illustrations and other additions. The base of Vola’s article is Ballu’s book, to which, of course, he added his own contributions. At times, reading “Shipwrecked” did surprised me. My intent here is not to initiate a new polemic, enough of them have been generated by the ”Affaire”, but to comment on some aspects of Vola’s article.
Reading the original version of Vola’s article, the photo with the caption “Henry smiling” did shock me. After several bivouacs laying on the snow, their limbs deeply frozen, the two alpinists see the rescue helicopter crash a few meters away and … they smile? Incidentally, the alpinist facing the camera is Vincendon whose smile appears more like a rictus while my brother is on the left of the photo in profile. I am relieved that Vola eliminated this tasteless caption from ulterior versions of his article but also disappointed that he did not bother to identify the two young men correctly.
Shortly after the tragic events, (February – March 1957), Bonatti and Gheser, independently, published articles describing the climb with the Vincendon-Henry rope. The two articles are essentially identical, report the same facts. Copies of these documents as well as others collected and used by Ballu while preparing “Naufrage” are available on Yves Ballu’s blog ( Later on, and particularly when Ballu was preparing the first edition of “Naufrage”, he noticed differences between the original articles of Bonatti and his subsequent articles and books. On the other hand, forty years later, Gheser did not change his recollection of the events. In his introduction, Ballu warns readers that “when the recollection of a witness changes, the first version of the events will be considered as the most authentic”, thus the adoption of the original versions of Gheser and Bonatti. Given the similarity of these versions it is the logical choice. The common version of the climb is, in fact, very simple: after a very hard bivouac, Bonatti reaches the Franco-Belgian rope and leads the alpinists about one hundred meters higher where Gheser is waiting. They form a foursome rope that Bonatti leads to the top of the Brenva Spur under difficult conditions, the common rope explores the feasibility to go down directly to Chamonix through the “passage Balmat” (“Balmat’s way” or “ancient way”) which turns out to be too risky and, by common agreement, they separate into two individual ropes and plan to rejoin at the Vallot refuge. This is what “Naufrage” relates.
In the chapter “The Bonatti controversy” of “Shipwreck”, Vola discusses some aspects of the differences between the original articles of Bonatti and his subsequent publications.
An example of these differences is the case of Bonatti’s ice-ax broken during a recon towards “la Poire”. In his later articles, Bonatti states that the ice-ax was not broken but only cracked or split and that he fixed it with thin string. A question of semantics which certainly does not qualify as a “controversy” or a reason to criticize “Naufrage”. If the ice-ax had been declared “damaged” no question would have been raised. Further, nothing indicates that the ice-ax in question did not provide the services it was supposed to provide or that it would have handicapped the progression of the ropes. After mention of the repair, the ice-ax does not appear anymore in “Naufrage”. As far as I am concerned, there is no controversy here.
Another controversy brought up by Vola is that the two ropes would have regained their independence, i.e. would have separated, when the young alpinists, having a difficult time maintaining the pace of Bonatti, did propose to take a break to rest and eat close to the summit of Mont Blanc, which could suggest that Bonatti had abandoned them. “Naufrage” locates precisely the separation to have taken place 350 meters from the summit. But then, why would a separation at a higher altitude be considered as an abandonment while a separation at a lower altitude would be a separation and not an abandonment? This does not seem clear to me, but in the mind of Bonatti and Vola the controversy about a possible abandonment seems to depend on the location of the separation. In fact, Bonatti faced a terrible choice: a separation of the two ropes after the attempt to go down the “Balmat way”, about 350 meters below the summit, to let the two ropes progress at their own pace, the second rope benefitting from the tracks of the leading rope, or progress as a common rope until they were closer, say about fifty meters below the summit, then separate to let each rope reach the Vallot refuge over fairly smooth terrain. Bonatti choose the first option. Initially things went as planned: although being slower, the Franco-Belgian rope kept progressing and responded calmly to Bonatti’s verbal encouragements. So, Bonatti kept on as his rope mate Gheser started having difficulties walking and he wanted to reach the Vallot refuge before dark. Little did he know that the second rope was close to collapsing and had to stop and bivouac; he would have had little and probably no chance to find them in the dark. The second option, bringing everybody closer to Vallot before separating would have made it easier for Bonatti to go back and, may be, bring them to Vallot. However, given the slow pace of the common rope and the degree of exhaustion of the young climbers, it is very doubtful that they could have reached Vallot before dark which would have entailed another terrible bivouac for all four alpinists. I believe that Bonatti made the right choice, but in no case the other choice, that of a separation at higher altitude could not be considered as abandonment. One could even think the opposite. Personally, I have no doubts: Bonatti did not abandon Vincendon and my brother. Members of my family, friends and acquaintances with whom I spoke before and after the publication of “Naufrage” have never mentioned an abandonment. An abandonment or suspicion thereof is not mentioned anywhere in “Naufrage”.
In his two original articles (February and March 1957), Bonatti states that after having abandoned the idea of going directly to Chamonix through the ancient passage (passage Balmat), he explained to the other members of the rope that the only viable solution was to reach the Vallot refuge, and that they all agreed to separate themselves in two ropes, so that the Franco-Belgian rope, being slower, could benefit from the track made by Bonatti. In his original article (February 1957) and his letter to Ballu (1997) Gheser confirms this. The testimony of warrant officer Blanc who reports the description of the events by my brother confirms this sequence of events. On the basis of these concurring testimonies confirming a separation at relatively low altitude, the idea of an abandonment is rejected. Basing himself on the fact that the toponymy of Gheser is erroneous, Vola suggests that Gheser’s description of the events could lead to the assumption that the separation took place at a higher altitude and that Bonatti would have abandoned the Franco-Belgian rope. In his reports of the events, Ghezer calls the “ancient way” (or “passage Balmat”) the “Corridor”, which is erroneous. As can be seen from the illustrations in “Shipwreck”, the “Corridor” is parallel to the ancient way but at lower altitude, which reinforces the idea that the separation was not an abandonment. In his article in “Sport et Vie” (February 1957), Bonatti says: “First I had the intention of taking the “Corridor” … “. He refers here to his attempt to go down directly to Chamonix using the “passage Balmat” (“ancient way”). In Rivista, March 1957, Bonatti says: “… we are exactly on the col above the “Mur de la Cote” between the two Red Rocks …” and also “… the ‘”couloir” between the two Red Rocks (itinerary 176 of the Vallot Guide – parallel to the “Corridor” per se) …” and in a letter to Ballu “… realizing that the “Grand Couloir of the lower “old way” was highly dangerous …”. It seems that Bonatti’s toponymy is quite variable but not considered erroneous. Gheser, certainly less familiar with the French side of Mont Blanc most probably simply adopted the terminology of Bonatti. Further, Gheser mentions the “Brenva col”, which is erroneous, but the combination of the col and the “Corridor” in its proximity corresponds exactly to the description of their location as given by Bonatti. A few lines after his criticism of Gheser’s toponymy, Vola adds “… a careful reading of the Gheser’s text confirms that the separation took place at the location mentioned by Bonatti”. In a short section of his article, Vola accepts the location of the separation mentioned by Gheser, then raises some doubts about it and then accepts it again. All this is confusing, not convincing at all and, in fact, pointless as the original reports of Bonatti and Gheser establish the location of the separation, and, mostly its reason (slow pace of the Vincendon-Henry rope and suggestion of a break to recover). Further, “Shipwreck” has been revised four times to my knowledge (I may have missed some revisions) since its original publication (June 2017). Most of the revisions are rewrites of “The Bonatti Controversy” chapter attempting to explain, justify or legitimize Bonatti’s changing recollection of the events which gives the impression of a text in preparation modified as the author gathers new data or is advised about errors.
In the same chapter of “Shipwreck”, Vola blames Ballu for having “made the dead talk”. In reality, Ballu does not make the dead talk, he assigns their own words to protagonists of the events in the form of conversations, discussions or declarations. These, in turn were obtained from testimonies that Ballu collected and from a variety of documents of the time that he gathered during his research (I have provided a number of such documents myself). This approach, often used in publications about historical events, makes the text more vivid and more attractive, as Vola recognizes. But, as Vola and some of his friends say, it turns “Naufrage” into a novel. According to the Oxford dictionary a novel is a “relatively long fictional prose narrative with a more or less complex plot or pattern of events, about human beings … “. “Naufrage” is definitely not a fictional narrative. Obviously everyone is entitled to his opinions, but I have a difficult time understanding how the description of the long agony of two young men, of the suffering and frostbites of a pilot who will remain handicapped for the rest of his life, of the efforts and risks the rescue team went through, some members of which will be haunted for years by their memories, all carefully documented in “Naufrage”, could compare to the description of an inquiry by Inspecteur Maigret or of an adventure of James Bond. Moreover, to appreciate what the expression “make the dead talk” (“faire parler les morts”) alludes to, one should read “Naufrage” in French, which most readers of “Shipwreck” have not done. Why then insert this reference to the format of a text in French in an article in English and in a chapter dealing with the Bonatti controversy? “Naufrage” gives a chronological, carefully documented description of the events, which, together, add up to an important stage in the history of alpinism in the French Alps and of Chamonix in particular. Personally, I consider “Naufrage” as a historical document, but, as always, to each his own.
My comments regarding the Bonatti Controversy may appear as an “Anti-Controversy” or as the initiation of a new debate, which is not the case. I have tried to show that new interpretations based on rather secondary aspects of the events (Gheser’s toponymy, exact location of the separation, allusion to an abandonment, damaged ice-ax, rest and snack stop, …) are rather inconsistent and do not improve our understanding of the events. It is time to resign ourselves to admit that the facts as we know them now are the only ones we will ever know and that certain questions that we may ask ourselves will never be answered. It should also be noted that Vola’s original article did not include “The Bonatti Controversy” chapter; for the sake of his readers Vola should have kept it that way. There was never an “abandonment controversy” (not even in the Italian media!). This so-called controversy was, in fact and unfortunately, initiated by Bonatti’s changing testimony.
In the years following the tragedy, Bonatti modified his original description of the events. He blames Gheser whom he refutes systematically and Ballu for not having adopted his modified version of the facts. The tone of Bonatti’s criticism toward Gheser and Ballu suggests a vindictive, verbally aggressive and, at times, nasty person. I have never met Bonatti, but basing myself on some of his publications I read, his photo reports, comments and hearsay, I imagined a supremely gifted alpinist, proud of his achievements, self-confident, and affable. This last trait is well illustrated by the friendly relationship that developed between the two ropes at the Fourche refuge the evening before the climb. Why did Bonatti react in such a virulent way? How to explain this change in personality? We will never know for sure, but I would like to propose a possible explanation which could reconcile these opposed aspects of his personality. After he extracted the Franco-Belgian rope from its bivouac and joined it to his own rope, undoubtedly saving the lives of the two young men, he assumed full responsibility of the three alpinists. In a letter to Ballu, Bonatti explains: “In addition, I would add that all, tacitly (and since the first morning in the storm as members of the same rope), trusted me and considered me as the strongest and most experienced one”. This seems obvious to me. When he proposes to separate into two ropes to progress faster and to regroup at the Vallot refuge, everybody agrees because they all trust him. This trust places a serious responsibility on his shoulders which, perhaps, will weigh heavily on him later. Upon reaching the refuge, as a responsible leader would, he first cared for Gheser’s frostbites which looked quite serious, then considers going out in the dark of the night to look for “his” second rope. Gheser dissuades him to do so. Bonatti did not know that the second rope was exhausted and had resigned themselves to a second bivouac and that he would never see them again. For Bonatti who had assumed the responsibility of the two ropes, this was a failure. As a conscientious guide, he probably searched his memory to restore the sequence of events to determine how he could have avoided that failure. This call to his memory is probably what led him to modify his original reports of the events. In an essay “An Afterword…” recently added to “Shipwreck” and also posted in French and in English on Yves Ballu’s blog (these versions include an introduction by the author missing in “Shipwrech”’s version), Claude Duformantelle discusses the role of one’s memory as one tries to reconstruct situations in which one participated . He says, among others, “ This means that a memory, a recollection, a reminiscence, is constantly reconstructed by one’s poor mind in its futile attempts to figure out what one has really done, what really happened and to imagine what could have happened if … or what one should have done if … if what? To change the past? To explain the past? To understand the past or simply to exempt oneself from the past.” Given the criticism that had been heaped on him (notably after the Italian expedition to K2), it is quite possible that Bonatti’s memory led him towards a version of the events that should have avoided new criticism, even if that meant changing his testimony if necessary. All this is only a hypothesis which we will never be able to confirm and it does not change in any way my admiration, respect and gratitude towards Bonatti.
In the apologue to the recent version of “Naufrage”, I had suggested that the book should be compulsory reading for candidates to mountaineering professions. Recently, I was glad to learn that the book is included in the library of the “Peloton de Gendarmerie de Secours en Haute Montagne” (the elite rescue group operating in the French Alps) and is being read: even after sixty years, the human interactions described in “Naufrage” remain actual.
Jean Henry


ericvola - Nov 21, 2017 5:05 am - Hasn't voted

Jean Henri's response

Dear Jean Henry,

First, I apologize for my mistake with the photo you mention which I first corrected when Yves Ballu told me about it taking off the word “smiling” and now by naming the two boys in the right order as you pointed out.

As far as the “Vola's controversy” is concerned, you must accept that it is not “my” controversy but the controversy that Ballu created in refusing to accept a number of Bonatti’s explanations in response to questions he sent him and in so writing a text in his book concerning his participation to the drama that infuriated Walter to the point that he wanted to take Yves and his publisher to court. I have sent to Yves the translation I made of the Chapter Bonatti wrote about this “Christmas on Mont Blanc” contesting most violently Ballu’s story and which was published in his posthumous book “Walter Bonatti una Vita Cosi” (and as Ballu told me in La Rivista in 1999). If you have not read it, you should: ask Yves or me to send it to you.

However I would agree that this paragraph about the Ballu-Bonatti controversy could be taken out of my article, particularly since Ballu and you fully agree with the fact that Bonatti did not in any way abandon the two boys, which was the suggestion he most violently reacted against.

As Ballu told me that he did not want to include in his book any details of the controversy he had with Bonatti, I did not want also to include the many details and analysis which Ballu and I exchanged about the Bonatti and Gheser testimonials and the contradictory analysis we both made of them. We had a number of verbal exchanges - note that from the start I asked our common friend Claude Dufourmantelle to warn Yves that I was writing this article and would welcome his checking my text for errors - and some 30 mails most on Yves’s sources, some very detailed, confronting our own analysis which as you found differ.

It is during those exchanges that I read more carefully Yves’s text, noting the differences with Bonatti’s versions which then lead me to Bonatti’s posthumous book Walter Bonatti Una Vita cosi. Note that what Ballu (and yourself) take as Bonatti’s contradictions particularly between Bonatti published texts (specifically the two written just after the events) over time, I accepted Bonatti’s explanations as being mainly more detailed texts given over time, i.e. complementary texts far more than contradictory. Similarly Gheser’s two testimonials 40 years apart are not as I read them like what Ballu and you state to be: totally identical. Even the toponymical errors he makes are different! I have exchanged at length with Yves on those testimonials and our analysis and resulting opinions finally differ.

You state that Ballu “locates precisely the separation to have taken place 350 meters from the summit.” But that is no so. Ballu (page 137) mentions the altitude of 4500 m when they get out of the Brenva spur (the sole altitude quoted for the whole episode) and the time of 3 pm. This timing is taken from Bonatti in To My Mountains and from Bonatti’s CAI article while the timing indicated in the Sport et Vie article is 2:30 pm and this article does not mention their attempt to go down the Passage Balmat: I guess this is what provoked Ballu’s mistaking the exact altitude and timing of the “separation”. At the following page after having mentioned the attempt to go down to the Grands Mulets by the passage Balmat, the decision to go to Vallot via the summit and also after V&H had slowed down, Ballu mentions that the summit is 300 m higher, but not where they were. Then Ballu writes that V&H wanted to stop to rest and eat and that Bonatti decided to “separate” because they stopped. Also Ballu indicates that in “two hours and a half, night will fall”. But this cannot be : Top of Brenva Spur 3 pm + 1 hour for going down to the start of the Passage Balmat and 100m down it + getting back up to the Balmat passage start again = 4 pm (this timing is mentioned by Gheser in his 2nd testimonial while it is totally mixed up in his 1rst testimonial). They have 1 hour to 1 hour and a half of daylight left not 2 hours and a half. In fact for me this whole scenario is erroneous and clashes with what Bonatti told and wrote. It is at the top of the Balmat Passage - 4 450 m - at 4 pm when they all regrouped that Bonatti convinced them that their only solution left was to go to Vallot by the Mont Blanc summit. On that we all agree, including Ballu.

It is then that they also decided all in agreement to take back their autonomy, not higher as from Bonatti's reading Ballu’s text suggests, and not because V&H stopped. This occurred later as per Bonatti some 200 m higher below the Petits Mulets. That is what infuriated Bonatti as he read Ballu's text stating that it is when they stopped that they unropped while that occurred 200 m below.

You also state that: "It seems that Bonatti’s toponymy is quite variable but not considered erroneous.” Because he wrote in ‘Sport et Vie’ (February 1957): “First I had the intention of taking the Corridor”. My view is that you make the same type of mistaking assumption than Ballu in considering just the text written and not the explanations given by Bonatti: his initial intention was to end up his ascent at the Brenva Col and to go down to Chamonix via the Corridor and the Grands Mulets as the previous two parties did. It so happens that in the mist he took one the left exits and found himself some 150 m higher than the Brenva Col. And as he explains in Walter Bonatti Una Vita cosi, he did not give/write all the details each time. I agree that in this article Bonatti could have been more explicit as he did when he wrote his own text for the CAI review, days after, but I cannot believe he made a mistake, his knowledge of the area was already too great at the time.

Considering the sources used by Ballu and Bonatti's explanations in response to what Ballu estimated as contradictions, I personally did not find any proven fact justifying to disbelieve Bonatti’s main assertions. Again as you also state, no one will ever know for sure, so as I stated from the start it is a matter of opinion. I don’t hold the truth about Bonatti’s deeds but nor Ballu nor anyone else.

In fact, I agree that this controversy would be better treated, eventually if at all, in a separate article and in French as the testimonials concerned are in French, Italian and not English - although I doubt that it would interest many people as you also mention. Whatever, as this article is mainly about the drama that Jean Vincendon and your brother suffered, the mountain context, mountaineers mentalities of the time and the impact it had on the French mountain rescue system, I could suppress the “Controversy” paragraph and then modify the section of the events concerned with what I believe happened, i.e. as per Bonatti’s texts published which on several key points for Bonatti differ from Ballu’s text.

If you want a more detailed response or to discuss further, do as Ballu and correspond with me by email and/or phone. You can ask Yves Ballu my email and Tel N°. And let me know if my above proposal suits you.


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