It was an unexpected find for the young French alpinist as he approached the summit of Mont Blanc. Poking out of the ice and snow on the shoulder of western Europe’s highest mountain was a metal box containing precious gems — including emeralds, rubies and sapphires — worth hundreds of thousands of euros that had lain hidden for about 50 years.
The precious stones, about 100 in total, were neatly packed into sachets, some marked with “Made in India.”
It soon became clear that the historic haul, which has since been valued by jewelers at up 246,000 euros (US$332,600), had belonged to someone on one of two Air India flights that crashed in 1950 and 1966, killing a total of more than 100 people.
The climber carried the treasure down the mountain and straight to local police. The prefect’s office is now contacting Indian authorities to see if it is possible to trace the owner or their relatives.
“You can say the climber who made this find is someone very honest,” local gendarme chief Sylvain Merly said.
“He saw very well that what he had in his hands was something very valuable, realizing straight away that it was precious stones that had been very carefully wrapped,” Merly said.
“He was a mountaineer, he knew the history of the two plane crashes here and realized that this find was likely linked to those crashes,” Merly said.
“Maybe he didn’t want to keep something that had belonged to someone who died. So he handed it in,” the gendarme said.
Merly said the find was made on the Bossons glacier, which had often spewed to the surface “all sorts of remnants” from the Air India crashes. These have included newspapers from the flights, letters, shoes, cables and fragments of the planes, or even human remains.
Last year, two climbers on the glacier discovered a well-preserved bag of Indian diplomatic mail neatly marked “Ministry of External Affairs” that had been on the Boeing 707 flight from Mumbai to New York that crashed near the summit of Mont Blanc on a January morning in 1966 .
That crash killed all 11 crew and 106 passengers, including the pioneer of India’s nuclear program, Homi Jehangir Bhaba.
HEADED FOR GENEVA
The plane hit the mountain just below the summit after its experienced pilot had radioed confirming everything was okay, and was expected to land at Geneva airport in Switzerland to refuel.
The cause of the crash was never fully established. The mail bag, found 46 years later by a mountain rescue worker and a fellow climber, was handed back to the Indian government.
In 1950, another Air India flight, a four-motor propeller plane, crashed near the same spot killing 48 passengers and crew as it was expected to land at Geneva.
The prefect’s office of Savoie will now contact the Indian authorities to try to return the jewels to the family of the original owner. It is thought that the jewels are more likely to have come from the 1966 crash.
The local French paper, the Dauphine Libere reported that if an owner is not found, under French law, the jewels could be given back to the climber, who has not been named.
Mont Blanc, hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful mountains, also has a deadly history of dangerous storms and fatal avalanches.
Arnaud Christmann, one of the men who found the diplomatic mail last year, warned it could spark a “gold rush.”
He said he was worried inexperienced climbers might be tempted to try to seek their fortune on the glacier, which is easy to access, but dangerous.