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An Alpine Tale Of Plane Wreckage, Hidden Gems And Small-Town Fears

A young climber discovered a treasure believed to be from a 1966 Indian plane crash and turned it in to authorities. Now nearby alpine towns fear wreckage seekers may come in droves.

A mountain of treasures
A mountain of treasures
Christian Lecomte

BOURG-SAINT-MAURICE — “This kid is a Borain, a native from here. We’re proud of him because he’s been honest,” says Denis, from Le Tonneau brasserie in the French alpine town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Denis, 60, used to work at a printing company in the nearby town of Alberville, but that was before he founded the local newspaper Dauphiné Libéré. It has the region — indeed, the world — abuzz with its coverage of treasure (emeralds, sapphires and rubies) found by a young alpinist on the Bossons Glacier. The climber then handed the treasure, which was found in a metal box, over to the police on Sept. 9. Inside the box were small bags, a few of which bore the words “Made in India.”

The small town of 7,800 inhabitants, known for its Les Arcs ski resort (at 3,200 meters in altitude), is proud that one of its own has achieved a sort of fame in this way. French national television, CNN and even Japanese channels are trying to interview him, but the hero is discreet and elusive. “He wishes to remain anonymous, and we all hail his attitude,” says Mayor Jacqueline Poletti. Does Denis know him? “I have my own idea on that, like everyone else,” he says mysteriously.

The 1966 crash

According to the Alberville prosecutor, these gemstones — rumors say they are worth between 80,000 and 245,000 euros — may have come from the deadly May 1966 crash of an Indian plane, the Kangchenjunga, on Mont Blanc that killed 117 people. Another Indian plane, the Malabar Princess, crashed under similar conditions in 1950, killing 58 people. The treasure’s late discovery can be attributed to the slow and inexorable melting of the glaciers. There have been more and more recoveries on Mont Blanc — including macabre findings of human limbs, chests and bones.

An ambulance driver from the nearby town Séez remembers having transported, in 2001, the body of a Japanese skier who had been mummified in the ice. “He’d been stuck there for 25 years,” he recalls. Pieces of the two Air India planes have been recovered — part of the landing gear in 1986 and a cockpit in 1992. In 2008, wreckage hunter Daniel Roche winched an engine that belonged to the Malabar Princess up into a helicopter. An Indian diplomatic bag was even found there in 2012.

A jeweler’s order

A new theory gives credence to the idea that the treasure found on the glacier may have come from the 1966 plane crash. Françoise Rey, a teacher and author of Crash in the Mont Blanc and The Ghosts of the Malabar Princess, told the Alberville police that the gemstones could be part of a postal packet of emeralds that the British insurance company Lloyd’s has been searching for. The packet may have been an order for a London jeweler of that time.

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The Bossons Glacier — Photo: Daniel*D / GNU Free Documentation License

Alberville police have taken the information from Rey very seriously, even though the stones the Bourg-Saint-Maurice alpinist discovered were kept in a simple box and seemed to be carved too crudely for a jeweler. There have always been rumors that a real treasure was buried in the depths of the Bossons Glacier. Apparently a briefcase carrying valuables was on board the Kangchenjunga.

As for the Malabar Princess, it is said to have carried gold bars and an Indian princess’s jewels. But “wreckage hunters have always existed, and people often say nonsense about treasures,” Mayor Poletti says.

A flood of wreckage raiders?

The mayor doesn’t fear a rush of raiders in the region “because the Mont Blanc is far away from us,” but she pities her counterparts in towns that are closer to the mountain. Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of nearby Saint-Gervais, is a qualified alpinist fighting to regulate the number of inexperienced mountain climbers that set off to the summit of Mont Blanc without proper preparation and consideration for the site, which is often littered with trash. With the support of other town counselors, the state is now deploying police officers and carrying out closer surveillance. Peillex fears that the well-publicized story of the young Borain who discovered the treasure may draw unscrupulous people to the region.

“I’ll tell you one positive aspect of this story,” the mayor adds. “In 1950, five mountain guides from Saint-Gervais went up there to try and save the Malabar Princess victims. One of them even died. People said that these guides stole the jewels. It’s a very old and lasting story. Today, it has been proven that the glacier still holds the treasure.”

Michel Jacquet, the son of Louis Jacquet, who was one of the rescuers, feels for his 92-year-old mother. “She has always suffered from this rumor, which was revived with the 2004 movie Malabar Princess that suggests that the locals raided the wreckage,” he says. “It shows how little they know about the alpinists of that time. They had the mountain spirit. They went up there to save people, not to get rich.”

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As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

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Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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