I have alluded before to more than a passing obsession with the weather so it is hardly surprising that Le Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Foudre which has it’s home in our village is on my radar, even without the involvement of my two brained husband. Even less surprising that I was down the drive like a greyhound from the slips (no heels for me) last Saturday to bag a good seat at the Salle de Fete for the bi-monthly conference organised by the the rather super directeur of the labo Raymond Piccoli, since this month it was (as previously advertised on this very blog) a talk by Capitaine Patrick Boué of the PGM (Peloton de Gendarmerie de Montagne) – mountain rescue to you and me.
This was a presentation in two parts – the first section was all about avalanche and we learned that there are three different types. Actually there are also three types of lightning – sheet and fork of course, but there is a third … I digress – you will have to either name it yourself in a comment or wait for me to reveal all in a later post. Anyway, back on piste (notice the ski-slant to this post, if you will) – I wouldn’t dream of even attempting to translate what we were shown about weather patterns and the different types of avalanche despite my long held regret that I did not pursue a career as a TV weather girl, but suffice to say they are all, of course, perilous and the most dangerous to skiers is the one where, put in my simpletons terms, giant blocks of snow slide en masse down the mountainside. Not to mention Corniche – that’s where the snow sits in a wave on the peak of a mountain – mountaineers can literally fall through the snow if they get it wrong and of course the snow sitting in a Mr Whippy crest can give way and explode down the slope at any time. I was transfixed.
The second installment gave us an overview of the work of the PGM, the equipment they use to effect a rescue – sonar detectors, poles and dogs amongst other things and the equipment you can wear to protect yourself – my favourite being a sac à dos (backpack) with airbags lurking within to be inflated if you are caught in a snow slide in the same way as your car airbags inflate in the event of a collision. You can, and clearly should wear one when out skiing or racqueting in the snow as you should the Avalung simple breathing aid which means that when trapped under the snow you can breath through a tube, the spent air being blown out of a pipe on your back which prevents formation of an ice mask around your face which would clearly be fatal pretty quickly. Its a bit like an exhaust pipe for people if you will.
There are helictopters and the film we watched at the end is as gripping as anything you will get by paying to go watch an action movie in the cinema. Witnessing the landings on the mountain, watching the painstaking search with poles for victims, seeing the dogs digging those caught out, their noses so honed that they can detect life under feet of snow. I did volunteer The Bean but Patrick seemed uncertain that le Chef des Chiens des Avalanches would take her seriously.
When an avalanche occurs and people are caught a large team is mustered including Pompiers and SAMU (Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente) as well as les Gendarmes. It brought it home to me that it really is essential to pay attention to the messages of those who know. To be picked for the PGM (there are 9 in Cantal all based in Murat which is a lovely little town in the high Monts du Cantal) you are required to do 1400 hours of training and to have a background of life in the mountains – probably having worked as a guide or an instructor … these are mountain men. Patrick carries himself in a way that makes it utterly unmistakable that he has spent his life on skis – that casual balance and the way he moves gives the game away in the same way that those who have spent a life in the saddle are unmistakeably horsemen or a dancer can never disguise their trained grace and I can never be anything other than Bambi on ice …..
I am keen to point out that my fascination with Gendarmes is entirely serious and that my request for an interview to talk in further depth about the work of the PGM has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Patrick, like all of them is frankly rather gorgeous – in uniform these super-fit heros are quite enough to make any girl smile. So suffer I must and will and later in the year I will bring you a series of posts on the Gendarmerie, the PGM and the role of both in our lives here in France. For those of you who don’t know though – the Gendarmerie Nationale is a branch of the French Armed Forces and charged with public safety in France.
After the talk we mingled whilst scoffing cake and Two Brains and I spoke with a charming couple from Ydes (about 10km from here). They, of course, asked us why Cantal and we replied that the people are the over-riding factor – so lovely they are here. They are a couple who have lived all over France and he commented that, in fact, wherever you go you can find good people, it is simply a question of attitude that allows one to be treated to that good. We have travelled 1100 km to a new home to find a couple in a room full of strangers who have precisely the same attitude as we do. It’s a wonderfu life.
A teeny PS: April 26th, Salle de Fete, Champs sur Tarentaine there are treats in store … I’ll be in Russia but if you happen to be around the corner, do pop in!
With thanks to Raymond Piccoli for the wonderful photos in this post and to Two Brains for the helicopter footage