Mountain holidays are a real treat, but they can also be exhausting.
Whether you are hiking, skiing, mountaineering or just enjoying the views, you are likely to be exposed to extreme weather conditions and rough terrain that can lead to injury or illness.
So, it’s important that you know where and how to seek medical treatment in the mountains. In this article, we will explore the healthcare options available in the mountains and how to access them.
The health risks in the mountains
If you’re not accustomed to high altitude, there are several problems you could face in the high peaks of the Alps. The air is less dense, which can cause problems such as headaches, nausea and other symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS).
However, you can reduce these risks by taking time to acclimatise gradually to the altitude, by drinking plenty of liquids and resting regularly.
It’s also important to carry a first aid kit which is tailored to the activity you are doing, whether that’s hiking or winter sports. Specific equipment for winter sports such as helmets is also recommended to avoid injuries.
Finally, it is important to be able to communicate quickly if you need to quickly alert the emergency services in the event of an accident, so make sure you have mobile phones, radios or distress beacons.
Where to find healthcare in the mountains
In the Alps, you’ll find altitude medical centres which are specially equipped to deal with accidents in the mountains. These centres can often be found in ski resorts or in big cities. There are also high-altitude medical centres, but access is more difficult and they are often reserved for professionals.
In the event of an emergency requiring rapid intervention, rescue services may choose to mobilise a helicopter, equipped for high-altitude rescues. And it’s important to know the emergency call procedures in case you need to call on these services.
Finally, for more complex care or emergencies requiring hospitalisation, there are mountain hospitals in the Alps. Access to mountain hospitals can be difficult in winter due to weather conditions and snowy roads, so suitable means of transport such as mountain ambulances and rescue helicopters enable patients to get treatment quickly.
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Mountain rescue transport options
Mountain hospitals are usually located as close as possible to ski resorts and tourist areas. As access to them can be difficult in bad weather, especially in the winter, it is important to know how to get to them quickly if you require urgent treatment.
The most common means of transport to these hospitals are mountain ambulances and rescue helicopters, which are manned by medical personnel trained to deal with emergencies at altitude. Ambulances and other means of transport for mountain care are equipped to travel on snow-covered roads and mountain paths, but their speed can be limited by weather conditions and terrain.
Rescue helicopters have special equipment for high-altitude rescues and can land in difficult-to-access areas, peaks or crevasses, to recover accident victims. Generally, they are used when an emergency needs rapid intervention, such as serious trauma.
It’s also important to take out insurance to cover medical and rescue costs and to always follow mountain safety instructions. Finally, make sure you have the right equipment to avoid accidents and illnesses related to altitude and winter sports.
Emergency contact numbers
There are specific numbers to call in the event of a mountain emergency in France. These will enable you to contact the emergency services in the event of an accident or illness at altitude.
Here are the main mountain emergency numbers:
The PGHM: The Peloton de gendarmerie de haute montagne. This is a specialised unit of the national gendarmerie which provides mountain rescue services. Contact them by dialling 17 from a landline or 112 from a mobile phone.
The CRS: The Republican Security Companies also provide mountain rescue in certain areas, such as the Alps. Contact them by dialling 17 from a landline, and 112 from a mobile phone.
The SAMU: The SAMU (service for urgent medical aid) is mobilised in case of an emergency in the mountains. You can call them by dialling 15 from a landline or mobile phone.
Emergency beacons: Some mountain activities, such as mountaineering and off-piste skiing, may require the use of emergency beacons. These send a distress signal to the emergency services, which can then locate the signal and respond quickly. You can find out about the use of emergency beacons from mountain professionals.
The GENDLOC application for mountain rescue services
The police now use the Gendloc app – a new tool developed by the Grenoble High Mountain Gendarmerie Platoon (PGHM Le Versoud).
The idea is simple:
- Make sure you always have your phone charged with the GPS and internet functions activated.
- Call 112, and explain your situation to the operator who will immediately send you an SMS message with an HTML link.
- Click on this HTML link and authorise the sharing of your position.
- Your exact position is immediately displayed on the computer map and allows the appropriate service to find and help you.
To learn more about the GENDLOC application, click here.
How to call mountain rescue
Calling procedures may vary according to where you are in the mountains and your activity. Wherever you are, be ready to give clear and concise information during your conversation:
- Indicate as precisely as you can the location of the accident, the mountain range, and even better, the name of the nearest village (the GPS coordinates if possible), the route you are on and at what stage.
- The number of injured people, their age and their condition (conscious/unconscious, bleeding, pain).
- Current or expected weather conditions (wind, clouds or fog coming in).
- How you can be recognised: the colour of your clothes, bags, helmets, etc.
- Conditions on the route (rock falls, ropes above).
Give the number of your mobile phone, leave it on and free throughout the rescue (in case the rescue team tries to call you back) right until they reach you.
If you are injured, you will be put in touch with a SAMU doctor who will assess your injuries. You may think that the questions are taking a little time, or that you are repeating yourself, but by this time the emergency services are already on their way, and these questions save time later on (you’ll be taken to the most appropriate hospital, according to your injury/illness).
Click here for more information.
Useful contacts for medical help in the mountains
380 Route de L’hôpital
04 50 47 30 30
509 Route des Pélerins
04 50 53 84 00
Cluses medical centre
35 Boulevard de Chevran
04 57 54 22 64
Grenoble University Hospital
Av. des Maquis du Grésivaudan
38700 La Tronche
04 76 76 75 75
Savoie Metropolitan hospitals
505 faubourg Maché
04 79 96 50 50
49 avenue du Grand Port,
04 79 88 61 61
24 Avenue Adrien Daurelle
04 92 25 25 25
Alpe d’Huez Medical centre
487 route du Signal
38750 Alpe d’Huez
04 76 80 37 30
Val d’Isère medical centre
04 79 06 06 11
Tignes medical centre
Immeuble La Combe Folle
Rue de la Poste
04 79 06 50 07
La Plagne medical centre
Immeuble les Lodges Plagne Centre
73210 La Plagne
04 79 09 04 66
Deux Alpes medical centre
21 avenue de la Muzelle
38860 Les Deux Alpes
04 13 33 30 12
The PGHM: contact the Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne by dialling 17 from a landline or 112 from a mobile phone.
The CRS: The Republican Security Companies can be contacted by dialling 17 from a landline or 112 from a mobile phone.
The SAMU: Contact the emergency medical service (SAMU) by dialling 15 from a landline or mobile phone.
When you go to the mountains, it is important to be well-prepared to avoid accidents and injuries. Learn the specific risks of the area and make sure you have the right equipment.
If, despite all your precautions, an injury or illness occurs, it is essential to know where and how to seek medical treatment in the mountains. Health professionals are available in ski resorts and mountain huts to provide first aid and emergency evacuation.
And remember that prevention is the best weapon against accidents, so stay alert and be prepared for any situation.