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Meet the mountain rescuer who spent 30 years on the Pyrenees

Pascal Sancho's career in the police CRS unit was the most dangerous job in the force and he has now written a book about it

16 March 2021
'It is the rescue side I miss most, more than working as a guide. It is like a drug. It is an adrenalin you can’t find anywhere else' - Pascal Sancho
By Jane Hanks

What prompted you to write this book?

First I wanted to pay my respects to the first ever mountain rescue teams who paved the way for our profession.

I also wanted to encourage the young to continue the story.

, Pascal Sancho with his book Bravo Papa!, which details his career in mountain rescue

We always have problems recruiting which means we are always understaffed because it is a difficult job which demands certain qualities and commitment, and it is risky and dangerous.

How is mountain rescue organised?

In France the mountain rescue teams are either part of the PGHM branch of the Gendarmes or the CRS branch of the Police. We usually work alternate weeks.

In 1958, after the Vincendon and Henry tragedy [in which rescuers crashed and had to be saved as well as the two climbers they were helping and the operation was judged a fiasco] the government decided to make mountain rescue a public service. It is paid for by the State and it is free to the public.

Training lasts 10 years in all, with a first basic course lasting 2,000 hours. It is very competitive and only 10% of candidates make it through.

There are a lot of practical courses but also theory, because you have to learn physiology to understand the medical state of the person you are helping, as well as meteorology in the mountains and how to assess the depth and structure of snow and so on.

So it is very tough?

It is like all jobs. You have to be passionate and love what you do. We do not deserve more credit than a surgeon or a person who works to achieve the best in what they want to do.

What qualities do you need?

The first quality we look for in young candidates is a high level of physical fitness. Without that they will not get through the training sessions.

After that you have to be able to adapt to the unique landscape of the high mountains.

It is comparable to someone who saves people out at sea, who cannot do it if they are frightened of water.

We have to be able to cope with conditions in the mountains.

Perhaps not many people are attracted because they do not know about the job? It is less well known than a fireman for example?

It is not very well known, another reason why I wrote this book, but everyone within the police knows you can specialise in mountain rescue.

However, they think it will be too difficult. It is the most demanding job in the police.

There is a real risk of death for you and your colleagues. In December, five people died when a mountain rescue helicopter crashed in the Savoie.

In my book I talk about two helicopter accidents during my career when rescuers died and in 2016 four of our gendarme colleagues died in a helicopter crash.

Since 1958, 60 police have died in the mountains, with around the same number for gendarmes.

The mountains are dangerous because we cannot master all the factors and have to adapt continuously to the conditions.

We might start out in good weather, but then fog comes down, and we have to continue, but change tactics to cope with the poor visibility. It might snow all of a sudden.

You cannot easily give up when you are on a rescue mission, so we also go a bit beyond the limits, a bit faster and so it can lead to accidents.

Are most of the accidents in helicopters?

It can also be due to a rock fall or an avalanche while we are out on a mission. There are many possible reasons, but when there is a helicopter it is usually very serious, and there are often several people involved.

You do all that to save people...

Yes. I am also a mountain guide, and then you can turn back if conditions are bad. When you are on a rescue mission that is not an option. It is not a game. 

We have to take risks, and that is a constant part of our job.

Can you tell me about one mission that has marked you?

Often in our job we are faced with the worst situations, which can involve death, and though we are not insensitive we have to harden ourselves as a form of self-protection. But when there are children involved, it is different because we are parents ourselves and so those cases mark us more than others.

In one situation we were called to rescue a group of teenagers canyoning with a young monitor. I remember this one particularly because one of the children reminded me of my son.

The situation was very difficult because the water was rising fast, so we had to make a decision. Whether to wait for a helicopter to come the next day or to lead the group out of the canyon. The canyon was very high and narrow so a helicopter might not have been able to help. So we chose to evacuate the children. Happily, despite the difficulties it went well.

How do you feel when you have finished a successful mission and saved someone?

It depends on the outcome. We are disappointed or sad if there is somebody seriously injured or dead.

Each of us have to come to terms with that in our own way, but we are lucky to work in a team so we can talk it over.

If we succeed we feel we have been useful and that produces feelings of elation that are difficult to experience anywhere else.

Sometimes the people you save have made a mistake and perhaps it is their fault. What do you feel about that?

It is wrong to think accidents happen because people are thoughtless.

Usually it is because they want to experience a hike. Perhaps they are on holiday and it is their only chance to do so, and then they get trapped because they don’t know the mountains.

They may not have known that if a storm is approaching they should turn back immediately before it is too late.

Also many of our accidents are the everyday type like a twisted ankle or someone getting lost, but become serious because they happen in a hostile environment. Often they are on the lower slopes and not in the high mountains.

Should the public be more wary when they go into the mountains?

Yes, they should take advice. There are always guides and information centres they can go to.

Also you have to remember that when you go into the mountains alone, there is often no telephone signal so if something goes wrong it can quickly get serious.

How often do you go on rescue missions?

In my department we went out on average 300 times a year, with around the same number for the gendarmes.

More and more people are visiting the mountains, says Pascal Sancho

Some days can be busy, followed by days when we don’t go out at all. I think my record is 13 call-outs in one day.

But there is activity all year round as more and more people are visiting the mountains. There were even rescue missions during confinement.

You took part in the mission after the Germanwings crash when the co-pilot who had been treated for suicidal tendencies deliberately flew an Airbus 320 into the mountains in the French Alps, killing all 144 passengers and six crew members. In your book you say it was on another scale...

It was a war scene. It must have been what soldiers during the First World War witnessed, with bodies everywhere. We had to recover the body parts to give back to their families.

It was a mission which affects you. We needed some days to recover afterwards. Each team only went in for two or three days and was then replaced by another because it was so hard.

The whole mission, though, showed the expertise of French rescue services.

Is France a leader in mountain rescue techniques?

It would be arrogant to say we are the best. Each country does its best with the means at its disposal. But it is true to say that France has a special place in the world of the mountain.

Chamonix is internationally known for mountaineering, France is the second destination for skiing after Austria, so it is true that rescue services in France set an example for many other countries.

Since it became a public service we have developed a savoir-faire which places us as an exemplary organisation. That is not to say that Italy and Switzerland do not do a good job too, but it is true that it is our example which is often followed.

We hear a great deal about the degradation of the mountain landscape due to climate change. Have you witnessed that?

Yes, massively. Particularly in the glaciers. When I passed my mountain guide diploma in 1989 I had to go to Glacier des Bossons underneath Mont Blanc and I had to walk five minutes before I got to it and had to put on my crampons.

Now the same glacier is inaccessible from that same valley. It has shrunk by more than a kilometre in 30 years. The Mer de Glace is 250 metres lower. In the Pyrenees there are practically no more glaciers, just some which are really tiny.

Races that took place in the snow, all year round can no longer take place after July, even in Chamonix, so there are problems as high as Mont Blanc.

Rock falls are common. The permafrost which used to hold the rock together has melted so that sometimes whole mountainsides fall away.

At Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc massif, 800 metres have fallen, one whole side.

It is very worrying. Those who say the planet is not warming up do not go out very often.

I have been near to the North Pole, Chile and Serbia and the real cold has gone. You can be at 1,500 metres altitude in a light winter jacket. We, who work in the mountains, are the first to witness the effects of global warming.

What is the attraction of the mountain to you?

The attraction is magnetic, it is something which is beautiful and seductive. When you are climbing or hiking there is the friendship, because you are often in pairs and depend on each other’s skills.

It is a great deal of different things. When I was young I wanted to challenge myself in the mountains.

Now I have done that and it is enough to walk and to be in a landscape which is incredible, with its own special colours and smells. It is difficult to explain. Each one finds their own beauty. I have always loved the mountains so their attraction seems obvious to me.

You retired four years ago. What do you miss most?

It is the rescue side I miss most, more than working as a guide. It is like a drug. It is an adrenalin you can’t find anywhere else.

And I miss my colleagues. Every week when we were on duty five or six of us lived together in a chalet for the week, ready to go out 24/7 and it was like having a second family.

I miss the friendship and the jokes. We have moments which are difficult, but the rest of the time we are happy and relaxed and we enjoy being together.

Bravo Papa! By Pascal Sancho is published by Mareuil €20

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