Text & Pictures: Laurent Cuvelier© sbap 2014

Happy Birthday PDG, the Making off,…



The origin of the Patrouille des Glaciers (PDG - an alpine skiing race organised every two years by the Swiss Army) goes back to April 1943 when the officers Tissières and Bonvin decided to test their brigades men on the already famous "Haute Route" connecting Zermatt to Verbier. The aim of this brigade was to protect the south-west slope of the Alpes and so indeed a mountaineous area. The Haute Route was usually done within 4 days in one.

During this race the best team will carry out the course in 12 hours and 7 minutes for a distance of 63 km and 7.600 meters of elevation difference. With a growing passion, the wings of the patrouille were broken when 3 servicemen died in a crevice of the Mont Miné glacier in 1949. Following this incident, the general staff forbad the race until 1983, when Commandant Mabillard (chief of military instruction and passionate stamina proponent) gave his approval to reform the PDG. After 34 years on stand-by, the PDG sees its succes increasing every time again.

The passion within the military and civil particpants was such that de race was split in two (2006). A departure from Zermatt (53 km long and 8.000 meters of elevation difference) and another departure from Arolla (short distance of 26 km and 4.220 meters of elevation difference).


The PDG 2014


This year, celebrating its 30th anniversary, the race is divided in two departures on two different days for a total of 5.400 mountain climbers - 820 military patrols, 140 guide patrols and 840 civilian patrols. The PDG has also a great succes within the female alpine skiing community.

The landing ground is located in the lower left quadrant

Logistical support


The international aura of the PDG offers the Swiss Army and the whole country a real showcase of its technical know-how.

This alpine race allows the Army as well as the Air Force to demonstrate their efficiency in an "hostile" environment in an almost real situation and in real time. Going from the logistical chain to dispatch the needed materials at altitude to ensuring constantly the safety of the race. Some servicemen will stay more than 7 days at 2.700 meters of altitude to ensure this.

In fact, the military logistical chain will be spread over a period of 6 weeks for real race duration of only one week.

The PDG will be under the leadership of the Commandement de la Patrouille des Glaciers, Lt. Col Max Contesse and Lt. Col. Avi. Patrick Voutaz (commander of the Service de Transports Aériens - Aerial Transport Services). Technical supervision is done by Jean-Michel Bournissen, High Mountain guide at Arolla and technical director of the PDG. More than 1.500 servicemen, not to forget all the high mountain guides of the neighbouring valleys, will be put up for this race.

Aerial means come mainly from the Payerne airbase and transmission means from Alpenach.
The airfleet is made-up of upraded Super Pumas from the 5th Squadron and Eurocopter EC-635 from the 1st Squadron, both part of the 5th Aerial Transport Squadron. It is important to note that the helicopter pilots are qualified on EC-635, Super Puma and Cougar but also on Pilatus PC-6 and 7. They can go from one machine to another without any problems. For the record, in 2012 the 5th Transport Squadron flew 264 hours, transported some 300 tons of material and 1.200 people.


This year’s PDG will see four Super-Puma, six EC-635 and two EC-635 for medevac.

Technical support will see 35 mechanics and load-master from Payerne under the command of Officier Spécialiste (specialised officer) Thierry Pochon. They will operate from the mountain heliport of Satarma and Sion military airbase where they will perform the usual 25 and 50 hours maintenance. Operations in need of a bigger set up will be carried out from the homebases. 

The role of the aerial transport will be to dispatch the needed materials for the race at altitude such as:

- Marking poles to secure the race course

- Generators and tents

- Timing and ranking material

- Servicemen

 The role of the servicemen will consist of:

- preparing the terrain for the altitude camp sites
- provide the patrols the necessary safety in real time through the aid and avalanche posts during the race

The presented photographs were taken between April 08 and 11, 2014. The first preparation week was based upon the spotting of the itinerary, the securisation of this using marking poles, the inspection of the transmission and counting means, checking the live transmission of the race thanks to Swisscom and transport of personnel. Not to forget the work done by the high mountain guides consisting of preparing the itinerary, spotting potential dangers and keeping the course opened awaiting the start of the race. 

The following weeks will be used to winch up the necessary material to set up and rig the altitude camp sites. After the race all units will have to build down the whole course as not to let any trace into the surrounding nature.

Some considerations on mountain flying:
Flying up a valley is always done on the right side, descent into the valley as well, what implies a simple but effective right of way and safety rule. Weight of the transported loads is based upon the embarked fuel quantity and altitude of the drop off point.

Landing ground Preparing the base
Mobile tower
The base and Le Pigne d’Arolla (3790m) Satarma Airport ( 1808m)
Capt. X. Pérusset in finale
Short final
Refuelling Ready to take-off
Jean-Michel Bournissen on the skate
The poles of safety marking
The second EC-635, T638
Snowed flying away

Nice spot on the parking lot

First day out Back to Sion airport

Super-Puma T-317 take-off

Capt. Müllhaupt
Les Aiguilles Rouges on the background (3644m)
Be carefull on the tower

U-turn and heading

Load-Master in relation with Sgt.Maj. J. Baertswyl , Capt. R. Müllhaupt, Specialist.Officer.T. Pochon
Rotor Control
La grande Dent de Veisivi (3418m)
Pre-flight, Lt.Col. P. Voutaz
See you
Lt.Col. Voutaz take-off
Waiting for the first flight 9.00 AM… take-off
Capt. R. Müllhaupt , Lt.Col. M. Contesse head of the PDG
Black safety harness Basile Bournissen on the Left, Capt. Pérusset
The beginning of aerial shoots
The tanker The landing ground
Pramousse village

Le Mont-Collon

Le Pigne d’Arolla
« Old » Alouette III’s  patch Le Bas-Glacier d’Arolla on the right
Snowslide at the bottom of the picture Bertol pass (3268m) and cabane Bertol shelter (3311m)
La Dent Blanche (4357m)
Alpinists in the lower left tracks, The Cervin (4477m) Stokjigletscher’s seracs
Tête Blanche (3724m)
EC-635, B.Bournissen, Dent-Blanche Helipad’s Cabane des Vignettes shelter landing (3157m)
Last flight of the day
Capt Pérusset, SP. Officer. T. Pochon
Good flight …
and always safe landing

I would like to thank Lt. Col. Patrick Voutaz (specialized in mountain flying) for his availability and his support for my accreditation request to the military authorities. A particular acknowledgment to Capt Xavier Pérusset (specialised in mountain flying), the guide Basile and Jean-Michel Bournissen for their availability and the pictures taken in flight. To specialized officer Thierry Pochon and Serg. Maj. Baertswyl for giving me all the necessary technical information to make this article possible. And of course not to forget the other crews, mechanics and load-masters.

Thanks to all for your professionalism and hope to see you again in 2016.


The technical information on the two helicopters can be found
 on the site of the Swiss Air Force:



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