Tragedy in the Alps: Three safe after 10 days in an igloo

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THANKS TO a mobile phone, guts and survival know-how, three mountaineers were rescued yesterday after spending 10 days in a makeshift igloo at a height of 9,000ft in the French Alps.

The three Frenchmen, aged between 37 and 40, were located by a helicopter after a final call from a mobile phone with a fading battery enabled France Telecom to identify their approximate position high in the Vanoise massif on the French-Italian border. They were taken to hospital, suffering from dehydration and mild hypothermia but were described as being in remarkably good physical and mental condition.

Apart from their original decision to scale the massif in the worst winter conditions in the Alps for decades, rescuers said the trio, all experienced mountaineers, did everything right. As soon as they were trapped by blizzards 10 days ago, they dug an igloo into the ice and snow beneath a wall of rock. For four days, they waited for a break in the weather before giving the alarm by mobile telephone on Saturday.

Searches by helicopter, and by gendarme mountain rescue squads on foot and on skis, failed to trace the igloo. On Sunday, the men - Christophe Palichleb from Paris and two brothers, Olivier and Phillippe Bourgues from Perpignan - called again to say they had run out of food but remained in good spirits.

For three days, as the rescue teams battled through mists and blizzards, nothing more was heard. It was assumed that the battery of their mobile was flat. Finally, on Wednesday, with concern for the men mounting, they called again. At first it was feared that the call might be a hoax. But France Telecom verified the number and located, to within a few kilometres, the point of origin of the call.

A break in the weather yesterday allowed a French army Puma helicopter to circle the area. It was seen by one of the three men, who had emerged from the igloo intending to try to ski down the mountain to fetch help.

"We found them in a sector we haven't been able to enter for days," said the helicopter pilot, Jerome Graille. "I landed with no problems on the glacier... There was a moment of intense joy. No one spoke much. There was so much emotion and tension." Bernard Airenti, head of the civil protection service in the Savoie area, said: "They're doing fine, mostly because they managed to keep up their morale."