I was skiing above Chamonix yesterday with Gareth on Aiguille du Blaitiere, making our way down the glacier des Nantillons in the warm sun, having spent the morning ascending over 1000m through a steep couloir and wide open snow fields. It was my first time in this area of the massif, and it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to be for a while. It draws you in with its majestic steep peaks, jagged ridge lines, and huge hanging glaciers. And it’s all visible from the valley.
It was a good day. We were aiming for couloir Spencer high on the Blaitiere but decided to turn around just below the col des Nantillons as it was getting warm and late. Sadly towards the end of our descent Gareth fell and broke his leg in the exit gully of the glacier des Nantillons (near the bottom of the red line in the photo).
After alerting the PGHM (pelotons de gendarmerie de haute montagne) and securing Gareth with my ice axe to the slope, they were soon flying above us and assessing their rescue options. They lowered one person, then flew away, then shortly after they returned with a second, a doctor this time, followed by a third with a stretcher. The wind was powerful from the rotor and the noise was deafening. It was all a bit of a blur. As the helicopter hovered above us, lowering down the rescuers, the wind almost ripped us off the mountain. One of my skis flew out of the snow and hurtled down the slope.
Once all 3 had been dropped off, the helicopter pulled away and all was relatively quiet again. It was surreal. This is really happening. We are being rescued. Poor Gareth has broken his f**king leg. He’s in a lot of pain.
With a serac above us and the temperature rising we knew we were still in a spot of bother. Where Gareth had fallen was directly exposed to avalanches and the day was warming quickly.
Soon after the PGHM had began to attach Gareth to the stretcher with his leg wrapped in a foam cast, we heard a thundering sound from above. Looking up we could see a big white cloud of snow. It was an avalanche and it was heading straight for us.
We had about 4 seconds to get out to the high banks of the gully and out of the way. The PGHM and I managed to jump to the side of the gully to safety but Gareth was taken by the slide and launched further down the slope, half attached to the stretcher and probably a bit dazed from the morphine injection a few minutes earlier. Thankfully his leg had already been wrapped in the foam cast and he wasn’t buried when the avalanche came to a stop. We could get down to him quickly and within a few minutes he was flying over Chamonix and down to Sallanches where they operated on his tibia and fibula that night.
*update* Gareth has recovered really well and we climbed together on the Magician d’oz, Voie Piola 6b in Barberine on the 29th August. He’s a strong man!