A British father plunged to his death in the Alps while desperately searching for his 12-year-old son who had been killed in a fall minutes earlier.Police believe Peter Saunders, who had been hiking with his son Charlie in the snow on Mont Blanc, was on the phone to emergency services asking for help when he lost his footing. The 48-year-old managed to tell rescuers his son had fallen out of sight down a couloir – a deep gully – but communication was cut off before he could give the location. An attempt to speak to him again is understood to have left rescuers able to hear only his footsteps and laboured breathing as he trudged through the snow in a frantic state on Saturday.
The helicopter rescue of Peter and Charlie Saunders who died whilst walking in Chamonix on Saturday afternoon. The pictures show one of the victims being winched with a rescuer aboard the rescue helicopter with the Glacier des Bossons as a backdrop.The bodies of the father and son were found after a photo taken of them earlier in the day was used to locate them
Earlier this month no fewer than 10 people – including mountaineers and off-piste skiers – died in the Mont Blanc area
Tragedy: They plunged down a mountain at Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. They kept calling back but went straight to answerphone – and it is believed that by then he had plunged into the same gully as Charlie.Interpol were later able to contact Mr Saunders’s wife Sandra in Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, and, using a photograph her husband and son had sent her from the mountain earlier in the day, pinpoint their whereabouts.Their bodies were found at 7.40am yesterday, more than 16 hours after Mr Saunders’s call, during the fourth aerial search. Charlie had fallen about 980ft. His father was discovered about 150ft above him. They were at an altitude of 5,000ft on the 15,781ft mountain. Police said the pair were wearing normal walking boots on a route rarely dared in winter where crampons and proper climbing gear are essential. Captain Patrice Ribes of the mountain police said yesterday in the French ski resort of Chamonix: ‘We think the man fell while he was on the phone to the police. We think he called immediately after his son had fallen and that he fell very shortly after. It all happened very quickly.’A Foreign Office spokesman said it was providing consular assistance to the family ‘at this difficult time’. A statement from the family issued by the Foreign Office last night said: ‘Peter and Charlie Saunders were involved in a tragic accident whilst walking in the French Alps.
‘They had flown to the French Alps for a short weekend of adventure in the Chamonix valley. They were to have a half-day walking followed by a full day skiing. Their bodies were recovered by the local mountain rescue this morning.‘Charlie was always full of life, had a really happy temperament and loved spending time with his father. Peter was fantastic at making things happen, resourceful, with a positive approach to life. They will both be sorely missed by friends and family alike. ’The pair had arrived in the Chamonix valley on Saturday morning and were booked into the two-star hotel Les Melezes in the nearby town of Les Houches.
According to police the area they had chosen to hike, called La Jonction, at Les Bossons is a popular summer route rather than suitable for winter or early spring. There are steep escarpments and the path is often covered with snow and ice at this time of the year.Captain Ribes said: ‘It is a dangerous, deep, snowy hike. It is not a route that is chosen much at this time of the year, especially without snowshoes. In the winter you cannot see the path, it is hidden by snow.‘The accident is being investigated and it will determine the circumstances of the accident, as well as the level of preparation of the hiker and his experience. The father and son should have had proper mountain equipment – crampons and climbing gear.’
It was just before 3pm on Saturday when the emergency centre in Annecy received the frantic call from Mr Saunders. The father and son are thought to have reached a high altitude by taking the chair lift from Bossons village to the approaches of the Bossons Glacier, at 1400m.From there, they are thought to have set off on the well-known La Jonction (Junction) hike, which is hugely popular with tourists, especially in the summer months. La Jonction is a rocky spur from which hikers can look out towards the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers. It was is on the route taken by the Frenchmen who first ascended Mont Blanc in 1786.The slopes around Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe, are notoriously dangerous, with scores of mountaineers, skiers and hikers dying on them every year.
Not only is the fabled ‘White Mountain’ 15,780 feet high, but the climbs around it are some of the most technically difficult in the world.Despite this, it is often mistakenly claimed that people can enjoy an easy stroll up the slopes.Hundreds set off on paths every day without ice axes or crampons, let alone other basic equipment like extra food supplies and tents. Many of the 20,000-plus people who attempt to reach the summit each year are inexperienced or completely novice climbers. Earlier this month no fewer than 10 people – including mountaineers and off-piste skiers – died in the Mont Blanc area.
Francis Bianchi, the sub-prefect of Bonneville, said: ‘The man spoke in English and said he was in Les Bossons in the commune of Les Houches and that his son had fallen. He did not say anything else.‘The call was immediately transferred to the mountain police in Chamonix. They repeatedly asked him questions. They could hear him and he was panicked.‘He did not reply to their questions. And then it cut off. It was dramatic. They kept trying to call him back but it went straight through to the answerphone. Meanwhile police had already alerted the helicopter rescue, but the area is vast. Three sweeps were carried out, including with infrared cameras after dark. On Saturday evening Mrs Saunders was contacted and her help was used to direct a fourth helicopter search yesterday morning, despite high winds. It was then the bodies were spotted.Mr Bianchi said: ‘They were found 50metres apart. They had fallen down the very steep Couloir des Pyramides over rocks and on to the glacier below. Eric Fournier, the mayor of Chamonix, said it was vital to take full precautions when venturing on to the mountain. His assistant Jean Louis Verdier, a keen mountaineer, said of the route taken by Mr Saunders and his son: ‘I have turned back in springtime before. It is icy. It is not a winter hike.’
On average around 100 people a year die in similar tragedies in the Mont Blanc area. Last July, three Britons were among nine mountaineers swept to their deaths by an avalanche on Mont Maudit in the Mont Blanc range.