Every year thousands of climbers - professional, amateurs and even first-timers - come from all over the world to the Chamonix Valley to tackle the challenge of making it to the summit of Mont Blanc.
At almost 16,000 feet, it is one of Western Europe's highest mountains, one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe and one of best climbing areas in the world.
For this hair-raising six-part series, Channel 5 cameras had exclusive access to the French Mountain Rescue Team who rescue climbers and skiers from the Mont Blanc region.
Presenter Ruth England, 31, travelled to the Alps to film the series, and was staggered at how such a beautiful place could be so dangerous: "I've worked for the National Geographic Channel, filmed with crocodiles in South Africa and stood in swamps full of alligators in Florida, but nothing compares to how scared I was standing on the Alps. It was the most terrifying thing I've ever done!"
"If you are faced with a crocodile you feel that you can do something to try and defend yourself, but out on the Alps, if you fall 15,000ft, there's no hope. You can't do anything. I
had to film one of the links standing on an arête with a 15,000ft drop either side. There was nothing to hang on to, no cliff, no wall. It was basically a ledge. I was wearing crampons that go down into the ice. Your instinct is to crouch down, but if you do that you fall. The only safety net for me was a member of the rescue team. If I fell, he would have had to jump the other side of the arête. Even though the film crew and rescue team were with me, it was absolutely terrifying - I was physically shaking. And the worst part was that we had to do two takes!"
The French Mountain Rescue Team, founded in 1958, is the busiest and most respected in the world. Last year they made 1,500 rescues - an average of ten a day. The terrain is extreme,
and virtually every rescue involves helicopter winching - often from sheer cliffs and ice faces. By helicopter, they can get anywhere in the Mount Blanc range within 15 minutes.
Ruth says: "Throughout the summer, climbers get into trouble, and without the helicopters, some would die. The pilots and rescue team know every cliff, every glacier, and they know the risks that face them."
t's not just the helicopters which make the team amongst the world's finest. State-of-the-art technology and training is crucial. The team are on 24-hour standby in all weather conditions, often where there is no visibility and temperatures are well below zero, which can put the rescuers in danger.
Captain Blaise Agresti, who heads up the team, says: "With 70km of wind, it is difficult for pilots to drive safely. We choose to do this job because we want to rescue people. But sometimes it is very difficult for us, and I worry about my team."
Series Producer Ben Duncan says: "The mountain rescue operation is in a league of its own. The team consists of about 50 people, all full-time, and very experienced mountaineers and skiers."
"I made a programme for Pioneer Productions for the Discovery Channel called Rescue International four years ago. The Mountain Rescue team was so interesting that we
decided to focus a whole series on it. We were out there for five weeks, and we saw our fair share of rescues."
Ben, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, has thankfully never needed the services of the rescue team: "Touch wood I've not been in that position. But making the programme has, to a certain extent, made me feel less invincible."
Anyone can be at risk, and it's part of the challenge of being a skier or climber. Chamonix is popular amongst the British, who come for the scenery and the thrills. Climber Theresa Andrews, a school teacher from Wales, says: "I like the thrill of being scared, of being challenged. I really like to push myself personally, and, yes, it's knackering and it's hard, but I love it."
"It's the fear factor about falling off. Well, not just that - it's being up here. Obviously we feel confident in the abilities we've learnt, otherwise we wouldn't do it. You've got to accept there's a danger, and everyone going into it accepts that."
But most people believe that it can never happen to them. From sprained ankles to climbers who have heart attacks whilst climbing the team must be prepared for anything: "It's easy to
slip into one of the many glacier crevasses. If you are, you're in serious trouble. It's freezing cold and it seems to go on for miles," Ruth concludes. "This is the kind of danger that climbers
face every time they go out on to the mountainside, which is the astonishing thing. It scared the living daylights out of me."
"If you fall 15,000 feet, there's no hope"
Running Time: 30 minutes (approx)
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